“If you’re dedicated to becoming a professional, you have to prepare to compete in the marketplace.”
The Musician’s Way, p. 300
If you aim for a career in music, your educational choices will profoundly affect your future.
Here are 10 guidelines to help musicians make informed decisions about graduate school.
10 Reasons to Pursue a Graduate Degree in Music
1. You’ve learned that working in any profession other than music would leave you dissatisfied.
Your commitment to music fills you with motivation practice, work professionally and grow your music career. Conversely, if you feel ambivalent about whether you want to work full-time as a musician, invest in self-discovery before considering graduate school.
2. You’ve developed a consistent work ethic.
You practice, study, and perform or compose regularly, maintain positive relationships with fellow musicians, and steadily read about developments in the music industry. If that doesn’t describe you, reevaluate why you’re interested in professional music training and whether you hold realistic career expectations.
3. You have sufficient professional experience to have forged a clear vision for your future.
By working during and after your undergraduate years, you’ve learned about aspects of the music industry and acquired the wherewithal to work part-time while earning a graduate degree (e.g., by teaching, gigging, etc.). In contrast, if you’re completing your undergraduate studies but have little experience in the real world, you might want to hold off going to graduate school and work for two or more years, learning about yourself and the music scene.
4. Your total student debt upon completing your graduate education won’t exceed $30,000.
Music degrees bring abundant intrinsic value but, for almost every musician, limited economic value, so it’s unwise for music students to take on the high levels of debt that engineering and computer science graduates can afford. The basic formula to determine maximum education debt is to align it with one’s expected first-year, post-graduation annual earnings. Given that those who finish graduate degrees in performance and composition commonly earn about $30,000 their first year out of school, that’s the maximum debt figure not to exceed (better to limit education debt to $20,000 or less). See: How to Avoid Excessive Student Debt.
5. You’ve been offered a sizable scholarship/assistantship or you have ample financial resources.
If you’d have to over-borrow to enroll, don’t. Work instead, build professional know-how, take some private lessons, and reapply to grad school later on, when your improved knowledge and skills can win you more funding.
6. You’ve researched the employment outlook in your field and have a plan to compete successfully.
Too many music students sign up for graduate programs believing that having an advanced degree promptly leads to a full-time faculty position, a job with an orchestra or opera company, a staff composer role, military band employment, and so forth. Not so. Especially given that few such jobs open each year and the competition for them is extreme. Added to that, when it comes to winning higher education faculty jobs, graduate curricula don’t equip students with comprehensive qualifications, as explained in my post Applying for Faculty Positions. [Update 2021: for an analysis of the gaps between doctoral curricula and the qualifications that aspiring faculty need, see my two-part article in College Music Symposium titled “Preparing DMA Candidates to Win Tenure-Track Jobs.” Part I. Part II.]
7. The graduate programs you’re considering offer artistic and career preparation geared to today’s world.
Research a school’s curriculum, faculty, and alumni, and then opt for programs that include up-to-date career preparation courses and produce high percentages of successful alumni. Be careful about choosing programs based solely on the reputations of individual studio teachers because today’s aspiring musicians typically need far more know-how than studio teachers alone can provide. Also aim to take a lesson from a prospective studio teacher so that you can gauge your fit. Lastly, don’t be seduced by stories about a few successful alumni – such tales can paint an inaccurate picture of a school’s outcomes. Instead, seek data showing how all graduates fare.
8. You’re interested in working in more than one arm of the music industry – performance, composition, teaching, church music, recording, administration and so forth.
Young professionals typically take up portfolio careers and may specialize later on, once they’re established. It’s sensible, therefore, for students to acquire broad-based skills.
9. You’re comfortable with technology or are motivated to gain facility with technology as used by 21st-century musicians.
Musicians need fluency with technology and Web culture in order to establish their artistic identities, create online content, and build communities of followers. Plus, tech skills expand musicians’ career prospects.
10. You intend to earn a Masters or Doctoral degree and not a certificate unless you can easily pay the costs of earning a certificate or you win a full scholarship for an elite program.
Plenty of employers require job applicants to hold master or doctoral degrees, but no position announcement lists a graduate music certificate as a condition of employment. Economically speaking, it seldom makes sense to incur student debt or spend one’s savings for the sake of earning a certificate.
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Bear in mind that these general guidelines may apply differently in distinct situations.
If you’re thinking about graduate school, consult an independent career counselor or mentor who can offer objective advice.
See The Musician’s Way for strategies to gain inclusive artistic and professional skills.
© 2015 Gerald Klickstein
Photo © A. Pekour, licensed from Shutterstock.com