Graduate School: A Backward Glance

As I write this post, it’s been almost exactly six years since my first contribution to NewMusicBox’s ongoing conversation went live: My assignment, if you’ll remember, was to offer a grad student’s perspective on contemporary music. Very soon, however, I won’t be a grad student anymore, and I won’t be able to comment meaningfully on a landscape of opportunities, anxieties, and epiphanies that must be quite different even now than it was six years ago. My last post on NewMusicBox will appear on April 25, the day I defend my doctoral dissertation.

In the handful of posts remaining to me, I’d like to examine some of the issues that my rounds in the ring as a NewMusicBoxer have clarified for me. For starters, let’s talk about the condition that got me into this gig in the first place. I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on graduate school, and I’d like to share my conclusions with you now:

Do not go to graduate school.

That’s putting it a bit bluntly. I’ll try again:

Do not go to graduate school in music right after college unless someone else is paying for it and you really can’t see yourself doing anything else.

Let’s say you’re a composer finishing up your four (to six) years of undergrad, possibly with the extra burden of student debt. You’re looking for a way to refine your craft and get ahead in the field of new music. Your professors, with the absolute noblest of intentions, might advise you to consider a master’s degree. You apply to a few programs, and they get back to you with offers of fellowships and assistantships that seem no less remunerative and stable than the entry-level jobs you might be filling your days with as a recent college graduate. Why not accept one of these offers? Let me hit you with a few reasons.

First, the opportunity cost is very high. By the time you leave grad school—particularly if you continue through a doctorate—you won’t be competitive for the very entry-level jobs outside of music that you could have gotten into when you were leaving undergrad. There’ll be a whole raft of people who spent their twenties acquiring work experience (and, in all likelihood, getting paid more than you) who will elbow you aside if you decide to jump ship once your advanced degrees are complete.

Second, even if you do everything right, what happens when the time comes to look for a job in music? The “default” path seems to have been to find a university teaching position, but you don’t need me to tell you that’s easier said than done. Furthermore, regardless of your professional qualifications, not everybody is inclined to be a teacher—the prospect of spending years explaining key signatures to freshpeople may terrify you. (But what about jobs in arts administration, you ask? They have dedicated degrees in that now; I imagine you need one to snag one of those gigs. Tough noogies.)

Finally, the deprofessionalization of cultural production is now sufficiently advanced that we’ll all be out of our jobs in 25 years, probably. If you have the discipline to train in music, you could probably hack it in the more lucrative STEM fields as well; that’s what I recommend. You’ll be able to do more concrete good for family and country. Music is a much better hobby than a job, and we all know plenty of amateur musicians who derive (and even provide) as much satisfaction from music as pros.

I know it sounds like I’m arguing myself out of a job here, but as an instructor, I feel a duty not to mislead the students who have entrusted themselves to me and whose long-term livelihoods are the stakes of this discussion. However, let me attach a more hopeful postscript: Music schools around the country seem to be getting a little hipper to the notion that turning out highly specialized graduates doesn’t serve them well. If more grad programs in music adopt a philosophy that accommodates nontraditional means of making music and prepares its students for nontraditional careers, giving them a broad set of competences and tactics to eke out a place for themselves in this bewildering cultural marketplace, maybe grad school won’t be such a risky proposition: I hope that turns out to be the case, and I hope I can help in some modest way to bring these urgently needed changes about. After all these years of graduate school, it’s the least I can do.

11 thoughts on “Graduate School: A Backward Glance

  1. Kyle Gann

    “Do not go to graduate school in music right after college unless someone else is paying for it and you really can’t see yourself doing anything else.”

    Colin, speaking from the other end of a career, the above advice (elaborated somewhat) is pretty much what I perennially tell my composition majors. I think you’re absolutely right, point by point.

    Although the other thing I tell them is, if they want to go to grad school, do it in Europe where it’s cheaper and more fun.

  2. Mark Phillips

    If you decide to ignore Colin’s advice, you should at least read this
    … or this
    (same article; two sites).

    “If more grad programs in music adopt a philosophy that
    accommodates nontraditional means of making music and prepares its
    students for nontraditional careers, giving them a broad set of
    competences and tactics to eke out a place for themselves in this
    bewildering cultural marketplace, maybe grad school won’t be such
    a risky proposition: I hope that turns out to be the case …”

    I hope so too!

  3. Ian David Moss

    “Do not go to graduate school in music right after college unless someone else is paying for it and you really can’t see yourself doing anything else.”

    If anything, I think this formulation is too circumspect. You could change “music” to “the humanities” and get rid of “right after college” entirely and it will still be sage advice. I would also emphasize that there is an “and” connecting the two exceptions, not an “or.”

    Kudos for telling it like it is, Colin! And congrats on (almost) being done.

  4. Steve Cartwright

    I am an amateur composer with a PhD in Optics (one of those STEM fields, I guess). When I was getting my degree, oh, 30 years ago my advisor told me there was no financial benefit to doing so. All those people with MS degrees would have 4 years of work experience and earning on me that I would never make up. Things apparently have not changed. Nonetheless, I’m glad I got the degree. In truth, I’ve done very little directly connected to my degree. It’s more like it gave me a springboard into other areas. It’s possible that the same thing holds true for a doctorate in Composition. (A friend of mine said that if you look closely at a PhD degree you’ll see that it says “Attendance Certificate” down in the corner.)

    Whether you go straight through on a degree or wait depends on your temperament. Once you’ve been an adult and lived in the real world it can be very difficult to go back into a college environment, especially full time. The frat parties alone can kill you.

  5. Philipp Blume

    Then again, if the fellowship is indeed there, i.e., if you can go through grad school and still be debt-free at the end of it, then what better way to gain focused work experience in composition? Provided, that is, your school gives you the resources and the free rein to explore what it is that interests you, and the environment in which you can be productive.

  6. alex mincek

    Some very good points, Colin.

    “…you really can’t see yourself doing anything else.”

    This kinda sums it up for me. Nothing else much matters, debt or no debt. However, unless an individual is very, very lucky, they should be prepared to earn a modest or even meager income (which for some, can still amount to an extremely rewarding lifestyle).

    And that is one of my problems with the article. It kind of assumes (at least the way I read it) like there is some sort of mutually agreed upon level of comfortable lifestyle that we all want/need.

    Consider the following: “Music is a much better hobby than a job…”

    Really or maybe? I mean, not necessarily, right? Some folks will find more satisfaction in music as a hobby, and others will find music as a profession more rewarding. This is exactly where things get tricky, though, isn’t it? And again, I would suggest it has a lot to do with financial comfort and stability, for which we all have different thresholds.

    My other problem with the article is that it offers fairly brutal advice about the value of grad school from an author who still in school himself.

    Colin, your experience in school is obviously totally valid, but shouldn’t you see what is musically possible beyond grad school before you confidently proclaim such far reaching pros and cons (which might take considerable time to manifest)?

  7. Colin Holter

    Thanks for the comments, everybody.

    And by the way, let’s be real: I highly doubt that anybody considering going to grad school is going to read my post and abandon the idea. From 30,000 feet, a labor market saturated with composition PhDs is probably suboptimal, but as some have pointed out, no individual student has a responsibility to make life decisions as an economic statistic rather than as a human being.

    Speaking for myself, grad school turned out to be one of the best things I’ve done: I’ve had the chance to live in several different places, I’ve gotten tremendous satisfaction from making music with awesome people, and (most importantly) it’s how I met my wife, without whom my day-to-day experience would be immeasurably cheaper. But I couldn’t have foreseen any of those things back in 2005, and I wouldn’t even recognize what they’d have been worth to me if I could have foreseen them.

  8. Cole T

    I did one semester of grad school and then left to pursue EMS (emergency medicine) and found a new love in that field. I went to a liberal arts college for undergraduate, though, and so grad school felt like I was limiting my identity to one narrow title: composer. When people ask what I “do,” I like that it depends on the time of day.

  9. Patrick Flanagan

    Amen. Leaving graduate school after the first year of my PhD was the best decision I ever made. Not only have I tasted life above the poverty line and found that I prefer it, I’ve been far more musically productive without the constraints of academia’s ideologies and production quotas. If I had walked into my adviser’s office four years ago and announced that I was going to take two years to build a robot band, would need tens of thousands of dollars for a van and equipment, and wouldn’t write a single piece for several years, we would have had a good laugh, and then gotten back to the serious business of writing the soundtrack to my own immiseration.

    The second best decision was learning how to code while I was in graduate school and focusing on the STEM side of music–signal processing, music information retrieval, psychoacoustics, and sound synthesis. Those skills are the reason my degree is hanging on the wall of apartment and not my childhood bedroom. If I could amend your injunction, I’d add “if you do go to graduate school, use the free credits to learn how to program and build social networks with IT people.” That’s not the stuff of daydreams, but unlike Steve Jobs hoary recommendation to the Stanford class of 2005 to follow their hearts, it will allow you to purchase an occasional Apple product or consume protein or better yet, make music without worrying about what a tenure committee will think of it.

  10. chris sahar

    I have mixed feelings about your advice. On the one hand, my experience applying to Masters composition programs has revealed how little it matters after a certain level of “proficiency” is reached what music you write. It seems more about joining some club – will you fit in? do you have enough money to survive during your grad studies? can you abide by our aesthetic to some degree ?

    It isn’t always all three but as someone in their 40′s applying to grad school I sense these AND age prejudice – I think – and some of it is realistic – they wonder, well this person cannot enter as many competitions due to age limits, and some schools will be wary hiring someone in their late 40′s.

    I think all of these non-musical factors arise in part from an uncomfortable fact about music composition – there are no set standards — except clear notation. Taken to the limit it is as if in literature you could write whatever and however you want, as long as it looks pretty. Granted the openess and pluralism is welcome to oppressive conformity … but at some schools it seems this environment has bred little stylistic army boot camps where you are indoctrinated into a specialized type musical etiquette to absorb and eternally adhere.

    However, as one who has worked outside the music world for 15 years, I can tell you the opportunities to try out new resources is limited – especially once you leave cultural centers such as New York and LA, Nashville and a few other places. Go move to Vineland, NJ work as an EMT/paramedic and then discover the legwork to find a wind group to play that quintet with aleatory micrtonal passages, or an openness to having one or two players playing offstage. You would be surprised how soon you may write in a far more “conservative” vein regarding deployment of techniques if you fail to do some serious research and legwork. For this reason, I do see some grad programs as a haven to explore and learn compositional procedures that would be far more difficult to do on your own and would require a greater amount of time.

    Maybe a little dream of mine will come true – take something such as the Boston Microtonal Society and turn it into a music school devoted top teaching the elements of music to compose as wellas the techniques for advanced composition but geared to working adults ranign in ability from beginners to advanced. It would NOT be attached to a conservatory or university, rather it would be like the community schools you see for piano, voice etc but devoted to composition and offering levels of studies not usually not found in community schools. The performers would be used from conservatories, unioversities .. and when possible professional groups. It’s a dream of mine and if any of you know how to realize it … let me know.

  11. Anna Seda

    I’m reading this article on the second to last day of grad school… I’m up to my ears in term papers and take home exams and googled “is grad school worth it”. Today I played a jury with my quartet that is going pro together annually during the months I am in the states and four weeks from now I’m moving to Peru to teach at a music school. I don’t think I’m more qualified to have these professional opportunities because I have a piece of paper saying I am a ‘master’ but I’ve had a cello in my hands nearly every day for the past 6 years with professionals and colleagues fine tuning and tweaking and critiquing me every step of the way. I took a big leap of faith that I would sacrifice anything it took to become a musician and pushed away the logistics of economics and “job availability”. The best performers knew that playing at the highest level and practicing well was the ticket out of a sullen depressing professional life in music and made a conscious decision to dedicate their blood and tears to getting to the top. I went the extra mile by taking challenging academic seminars and wrote extensively because frankly we also have to advocate and articulate ourselves as well as we play these days. This investment doesn’t pay back in dollars and cents and straight forward career handed to you on a silver platter, for that I agree that you should take caution and really know why you want to go to grad school. This day, the last 24 hours to finish my take home final and term paper due tomorrow, is possibly the worst day of the past two years. And yet I still feel grad school was worth it.


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