Sustainable Music


Saturday, May 16, 2015

Going to Graduate School in Ethnomusicology?

[Updated Sept. 2017]    
   Daniel Drezner, a Tufts professor of political science, has been writing opinion pieces in the Washington Post and elsewhere offering advice to students who seek college and university teaching careers. Professors traditionally have sustained higher education (and themselves) by reproducing their kind through professional training in graduate school, leading to the PhD degree. More broadly, music education (formal and informal) sustains music cultures from one generation to the next. Today, as I’ve remarked here before, higher education (and the professoriate), as it has existed in the US for more than a hundred years, is in jeopardy. What else should undergraduate students who’d like to become ethnomusicology professors know about the future of that profession and their chances of being a part of it? I’ll get to that in a moment, but first let’s see what Drezner has to say. Like ethnomusicology, political science (despite having the word science in its name) falls outside of the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math)  getting the most support in educational institutions these days. The non-STEM subjects aren’t as popular as they once were, not because students don't like them, but because the public believes they’re not cost-effective career preparation. In other words, students graduating with high loan debt (as so many do today) are thought best served by specializing in STEM subjects because they're more likely to get a well-paying job. It's easy to make fun of the non-STEM major who winds up repeating "Would you like that for here, or to go?"--but back in the day the argument ran that a liberal arts major was best prepared as a citizen and human being for leadership or for professional school afterward. Today that argument is no longer as effective as it once was, though it's no less true.
    In 2012 Drezner wrote a column advising would-be graduate students in political science how to tailor their preparation, applications, and behavior toward getting into the school of their choice. Evidently at that time, he must have thought a PhD was a wise choice. But his most recent columns suggest that no one should enter graduate school in political science unless (a) they’re accepted to the top graduate programs (he does not name them), because otherwise they’ll never get hired as a professor after they graduate; and (b) their primary motivation is to learn, and they won’t be too disappointed if they can never find a full-time job as a political science professor anyway. The job market for political science PhDs hasn’t suddenly soured in the last three years. It was just as sour three, ten, twenty years ago. But Drezner now seems to be discouraging those he once encouraged. At least he’s not giving them false hope. He should know: in 2006 he was fired after having been denied tenure at the University of Chicago. But he landed on his feet and accepted a tenured position at Tufts, where he is now a full professor in the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy as well as a non-resident fellow of the Brookings Institution and a contributing editor for the Washington Post.
    Thirty years earlier I was certain that I would be denied tenure. Although my PhD was in American studies and my specialization was in ethnomusicology, I had the MA in English and elected to join an English department. My first fulltime teaching job began in 1971 in a tenure-track position at Tufts, Drezner’s current university. I was teaching American literature and folklore and, after a couple of years, on released time from English I also was teaching an ethnomusicology course in the music department. Although my dissertation was published by a respectable university press, I thought my interests were peripheral to the mission of both departments. Then to my great good fortune I won a year's fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities for a second book project. This was a rare honor, and it came during the year of my tenure review. I realized that even if Tufts denied me, that honor would help me obtain a good academic position elsewhere. But in 1977 Tufts decided to award me tenure in a joint appointment as associate professor of English and associate professor of music. Now half my teaching load would be in each department, while I could pursue my research interests in both fields.
    In 1979 after my NEH fellowship leave I returned to Tufts and was made Director of Graduate Studies in English. Up for debate soon afterwards, not at my initiative, was whether as a faculty we should continue our Ph.D. program in English literature. The job market for English professors had become difficult, tenure even more so. Our PhD graduates were not getting the multiple offers or good jobs they had been getting five years earlier; in fact, some were getting none at all, and the future looked bad as the economy took a turn for the worse. Colleges and universities, expanding in the 1960s and hiring more and more faculty, had reversed course. Was it ethically responsible for us to continue the degree? Some said no; but others argued it would be unethical to stop it because that would cheapen the degree for those who already held it. No one doubted that we had a good program; but it was not at the same level as Harvard’s and Yale’s—we didn’t have the resources, and Tufts didn’t have the reputation. We met several times to discuss the question and after a few months we voted. If I recall right, there was one more vote in favor of keeping the program than for eliminating it. Predictably, those in favor took it as a vote to continue, while those opposed took it as a vote of no-confidence and argued that we should therefore drop the program. But majority ruled, the program continued, and over the years fewer and fewer graduates received academic jobs in English. At about that time, I started telling prospective applicants not to apply unless they understood that their job prospects would be uncertain. It was a disclaimer similar to Drezner’s advice today. And now Drezner repeats it, from the same university platform, but the difference is that it’s 35 years later; and also, of course, that he’s directing it into the public sphere. And on this platform I do the same.
    I guess that the job market in political science in 1980 wasn't significantly better than it was in English. I suppose it’s the same today, if not worse on account of the proliferation of adjuncts. When I moved to Brown in 1986 to direct their PhD program in ethnomusicology, though, my responsibilities were both greater and different. For the next 27 years I supervised dozens of doctoral dissertations, advised dozens of Ph.D. students, and in addition to teaching large undergraduate lecture courses and some smaller ones, I regularly taught one graduate seminar each semester, rotating topics that included the history of ethnomusicological thought, music and cultural policy, ethnographic film, fieldwork theory and methods, and others. Now I was wholly in a music department and I was concerned about the future of music studies and the prospects for PhD graduates in ethnomusicology. Like English and political science, music was experiencing contraction rather than growth in one college and university after another, but I was in a subfield (ethnomusicology) that was expanding, however gradually, in a zero-sum game. In short, the fortunes of certain subfields can improve even while the field as a whole is in decline. In the 1980s and 1990s humanistic anthropology was in the ascendance, but today the pendulum is moving back toward scientific anthropology. Ethnomusicology has been able to profit from cultural trends that some other fields have not: pluralism and diversity, for one, and the rising popularity of world music for another. Today, with many years of hindsight, I understand that although there were better and worse periods for jobs in ethnomusicology during the past 40 years, overall the number of ethnomusicology professorships greatly increased during that period, while other positions in music decreased. Last year saw more ethnomusicology job openings than usual; this year may be worse. Still, the supply today well exceeds the demand for college and university professors of ethnomusicology. Additionally, the proportion of tenure-track job openings has declined, while universities now hire a higher percentage of part-time and adjunct professors.
    How would I advise today’s student looking to obtain a doctoral degree in ethnomusicology? I still believe that anyone wishing to enter graduate school must first consider the pleasures of mastering a body of knowledge, technique, and application, as an end in itself. How much of a reward would that mastery be, apart from a good academic job (or any academic job at all)? Would it be a joy to spend most of your time learning and satisfying your intellectual curiosities, or a lot of work doing enormous amounts of reading, writing long papers, and toiling on projects large and small, some for the benefit of the musical communities where you've been doing your fieldwork? Does making a contribution to the storehouse of knowledge and theories about people making music all over the world excite you? Does applied ethnomusicology appeal to your sense of social responsibility? Tenure-track faculty positions open up each year even now, but I estimate there are five times as many qualified ethnomusicologists looking as there are positions for them. And many more apply who are not qualified. Outside of colleges and universities, positions for ethnomusicologists do exist: in museums, in other non-profit organizations, NGOs, arts councils, and the like; but most of these should require only the MA, not the PhD. It’s possible, also, to take that mastery and work in the music industry, or as an author and journalist. Graduate work in ethnomusicology may be combined with a degree in library science in order to prepare for a career as a music archivist. One may become an entrepreneur in the world music field, making films and producing recordings, though of course an ethnomusicology degree is not a prerequisite. I’m not aware of any MA programs in ethnomusicology tailored for these public and private sector jobs outside of academia, but I wouldn’t be surprised if in five or ten years a few enterprising universities established them.
    Drezner writes that to have any chance at an academic career in political science today, it’s necessary to go to a top-tier university for graduate work. About twenty US universities meet this criterion, he says. These would for the most part correspond to the top twenty in the US News and World Report's annual overall rankings of research universities. Brown is ranked 14th there; Tufts is 29th. But while most of those top twenty US universities have PhD programs in political science, only nine of them have a doctoral program with a specialization in ethnomusicology. Some excellent ethnomusicology PhD programs exist at lower-tier research universities: for example, at UCLA (ranked 21st), Michigan (ranked 28th), NYU (ranked 30th), California--Santa Barbara (ranked 37th), Illinois (ranked 52nd), Washington (ranked 56th), Texas (also 56th), Pittsburgh (ranked 68th), Florida State (ranked 81st), and Indiana (ranked 90th).
     Instead of choosing a graduate program in ethnomusicology on the basis of the university’s reputation, then, it’s best for applicants to read widely in ethnomusicology to find the professors they want to work with. Then apply not necessarily to the universities with the best overall reputations, but where those professors teach, planning to study with them. In my view, an ethnomusicologist with a Ph.D. from Florida State does not have a significant disadvantage on the academic job market compared with a student from, say, Columbia (one of the top-tier universities). Still, those I named plus those in the top 20 US universities overall make nearly 20 doctoral programs in ethnomusicology, and taken together they're graduating more PhDs each year than there are academic jobs, while the previous years' graduates who remain un- or under-employed also are still looking. It's harder for them to find a tenure-track academic job than to find a publisher for their dissertation. The reverse was true in the 20th century.
     To conclude, one bit of miscellaneous advice: sometimes, musicians having a hard time making ends meet think a graduate degree in ethnomusicology will provide a day job for their musical career. I believe they should think again, because graduate work is so time-consuming it doesn’t leave enough time to sustain a musical career, let alone to keep performance skills at a high enough level even to have one.


  1. Dear Professor Todd,

    Thanks for your informative post! My girlfriend is to start her Phd study at a university in Boston in September. Since I am a graduate student in sociology, I understand how tough the academic job market in non STEM fields is. While I don't want to discourage my girlfriend and just want to be supportive, I also want to know the chance of landing tenure positions in ethnomusicology in the next few years. It seems to me that many ethnomusicology graduates from top schools are 'trapped' in the 'adjunct stream'. However, none of my girlfriend's MA supervisors talked about the future or prospect of the discipline. Neither has her new institution discussed the placement rate of their graduate with her. I also do not know how well-regarded her program is. So it would be great if you could give your opinions about the future of the discipline. Thank you!Sorry for posting a personal question here!


    1. I've tried to address your questions in a general way in my blog. I've also questioned the long-term sustainability of colleges and universities in their present form, and I've tried to combat the short-sightedness of the business mentality that is turning them into corporations. I can't offer specific advice, but I do believe that graduate students ought to be able to discuss prospects and placements with faculty (and students) in their programs, before making a decision on whether to enter them, and also along the way to the degree. At the same time, she should be pleased to have been accepted into a graduate program in ethnomusicology; it's not very easy to get in to any programs. At Brown, for instance, we had about 25 applicants for every position in the entering class. The best reason to go to graduate school, I believe, is the excitement of learning as an end in itself. Worry about job prospects defeats that excitement. If my friend were in the same situation as yours, I would suggest that she start the program and see how she liked it, and while there assess the prospects and future of the discipline and the place of that school's graduates in it, with faculty and students. I do think the discipline has a future; but exactly what institutional form it will take, as colleges and universities change in the next fifty years, I don't know.

  2. Dear Professor,

    Thank you for your highly insightful post. I'm trying to gather as much advice as possible in order to know what I'm up against if I were to enroll into a doctoral program in Ethnomusicology. I'm an incoming senior looking to complete a B.A. in Music and Computer Science along with a certificate in Ethnomusicology. Having considered my options for immediate life after college, I've more or less convinced myself that I ought to work in the tech industry for a few years in order to earn some savings, further understand my own aspirations and interests on my free time, familiarize myself with current scholarship and academic opportunities, and properly prepare my application for grad school if I choose to go down that route. Could you give me some insight into whether or not I will lose a competitive edge if I were to apply for grad school after having worked in the corporate world for, say, up to 2 years? In other words, should I reconsider my decision to work right out of college and instead apply to graduate schools this Fall? Getting a job in tech right after college is much easier than later on and the experience that I gain from being in the work force will certainly bolster my resume later in life if I want to re-enter the tech industry for whatever reason. All in all, my primary motivation for wanting to enroll into a doctoral program is my love for learning - not some ill-founded prospect for job security (which I've already got through my tech experience.) However, I'd ultimately much rather teach music and musicology at the collegiate level than pursue any other full-time employment opportunity if possible.

    Thank you very much in advance for all your help,

  3. Tom: I don't think you'd necessarily lose a competitive edge if you worked for a couple of years in the corporate world. You might actually gain a competitive edge (maturity, life experience, and perhaps the job would advance your skills [e.g., in programming applications] that could help you in grad school). Also, you'd earn some money and might be able to save some to help you thru grad school or pay off college debt.

  4. I came upon your blog just now. Wonderful. Hopefully if you reply I will see this. My own focal point is an unusual instrument, the hurdy gurdy. Where does this instrument fit into the idea of sustainable music. Maybe I need to begin with reading about what sustainable music really is. I should also mention that I am in an art program rather than music-- though I am a professional jazz musician. My primary stress is in defining my audience and their role. All this about the hurdy gurdy seems so esoteric that it is hard to go deeper in on the topic. I am not aiming to teach anyone how to play it (no one owns one) so I need to see this more as a category rather than a particular instrument. Coming in the door jazz is more what I know about more than folklore. You begin to see how I am holding on with a couple of fingers here (metaphor) but I do not yet have a strong anchoring that evokes a sense of confidence. How I wonder does one present highly esoteric information with real confidence to a lay audience?

  5. Ethnomusicologists are interested in all music, sound, and musical instruments; so if you got an education in ethnomusicology you could research the hurdy-gurdy in a graduate program and gain confidence that your research was solidly grounded. Among ethnomusicologists you would find a scholarly audience as well as colleagues interested in exotic musical instruments. After you have researched the hurdy-gurdy and its history and present-day music culture, you could assess the health of its tradition and determine how best to sustain it. Often this is done by increasing interest in it, exhibiting it in various concerts and contexts, forming musical instrument interest groups, putting out recordings, and so on. I noted that there were several hurdy-gurdy performances on YouTube. As for presenting esoteric information to a lay audience, applied and public ethnomusicologists and public folklorists do so in museums, festivals, and other public venues. Independent researchers sometimes collaborate with trained folklorists and ethnomusicologists on these presentations. Some museums are devoted specifically to musical instruments. For instance, the Musical Instrument Museum, located in north Phoenix, AZ, has a collection of more than 15,000 instruments, and a website. Unlike most musical instrument museums, this one features a great variety of esoteric instruments from all over the world. You might get in touch with them, if you haven't already, and ask whether they can help you with your research.

  6. These are great ideas to think about. Well, I do suppose rather than sustain its tradition, maybe I am trying to expand it. I appreciate the time you've taken to answer me personally. I want to think more about folklore as a general topic. One thing I can say, a bit poetically, is that the more I give to the instrument, the more it rises to a challenge and gives back to me. I get the most back when I take time to record it. i'm in an art program, by the way. MFA candidate, so I can do some things that only an artist would try. Is research harder to manage if you find yourself doing something unique? Maybe it depends on the kind of research-- sort of looking forward in time, let's say, not the reverse.

  7. There are graduate programs in folklore, also. You may be interested in looking at those. The two largest and best-known programs in folklore are at Indiana University (MA and PhD) and at Western Kentucky University (MA only). There are others. Start by going to the American Folklore Society website. Ethnomusicologists are more welcoming to artists who would also be scholars than folklorists are. Besides, it is almost impossible to excel at the highest levels both as a scholar and musician while holding a position in ethnomusicology or folklore. I can think of only a very few people who have been able to do this, whereas there are perhaps a few thousand people employed as folklorists and ethnomusicologists today. And in graduate school, when you are being educated to become a scholar, it is impossible to find the time also to maintain one's skills as an artist at the highest level. On the other hand, it is possible to keep one's hand in it, especially in music where virtuosity is not important.