Sustainable Music


Monday, September 10, 2018

Going to Graduate School in Ethnomusicology -- 2018 update

       Since 2015 when I first wrote this entry for anyone contemplating graduate school in ethnomusicology, I’ve heard from dozens of people with questions about their particular situations, and I’ve tried to answer as best I could. But what I wrote was meant as a general statement for prospective students—pros and cons, along with some advice. In the three years that have passed, I have not changed my mind, but I have learned a few things about my audience. So let me write a few things that I overlooked or didn’t emphasize enough in my earlier entries first, and then condense and update some of the things I wrote three years ago.
     Several people emailed me saying that they wanted to combine a life of musical performance with a life also spent thinking about it. I had written that this is difficult to do because there is not enough time in graduate school to maintain professional musical performance ability, let alone a career, while learning what is required in order to become a scholar, learn the theories and methods of ethnomusicology and related fields, and complete the dissertation (which requires research and a book-length piece of writing). Unless one already is a gifted, world-class performer I would say that this is impossible, but for the musician of truly outstanding talent it is possible, particularly if one's dissertation research centers on one’s native musical tradition. But only a tiny percentage of ethnomusicologists are this gifted, talented, and accomplished. 
     Several people wrote asking whether I thought that the academic job market for PhDs would continue to worsen, or if I thought that the market would go in cycles, poor now but better at some future date. The sage Yogi Berra is supposed to have told his ballclub that predictions are difficult, especially about the future. His team had finished in last place and some thought the team had nowhere to go but up; but in fact they could—and did—remain in the cellar. Anyone entering a PhD program now would want to know what the job prospects will be 6-10 years from now when they start looking for a position. I don’t think that the job market will change for the better until and unless some of the reasons why it’s been increasingly poor change; and I don’t foresee that happening anytime within the next ten years. The graduate schools still produce many more ethnomusicologists with PhDs every year than there are decent academic jobs for them. Only if they cut back the size of their programs, or if fewer people make it all the way through to the PhD, or both, will the supply become more in line with the demand—if the demand for ethnomusicology professors stays roughly the same. But will it? 
     Probably not. On one hand, for the past forty-five years the number of colleges and universities with ethnomusicologists on their faculties has increased. The typical top and second-tier college now has one ethnomusicologist, while similar universities have at least one—more if they offer graduate degrees involving ethnomusicology. It’s not unusual to find them at third-tier colleges and universities either. But on the other hand, the typical academic job available for ethnomusicologists, as for other professors, now is a part-time or adjunct job, with low pay, no benefits, and no job security. Forty-five years ago, even twenty-five, the typical academic job was a full-time, tenure-track position, with better pay, full healthcare and retirement benefits, and the promise of lifetime job security if one earned tenure. What now? I don’t think that the number of institutions hiring ethnomusicologists will grow at the same pace as in the past 45 years, while I do think that the percentage of part-time and adjunct positions will continue to increase, simply because hiring adjuncts and part-timers, or full-time lecturers (also with lower salaries and without job security) enables a college to distribute its resources more flexibly elsewhere, whether in facilities, athletics, student support systems, or in shrinking the number of faculty teaching unpopular majors and expanding in those areas where there is more student demand. It also puts more money into the pot for student scholarships, and helps the institution offset reductions in financial appropriations from state government and gifts from private donors in an uncertain economy. 
    As I wrote earlier, the chief motivation for graduate school in ethnomusicology (as in the other arts, humanities, and social sciences) today ought to be a love of learning and a desire to spend several years learning and mastering a body of knowledge. But what then? The graduates, if they don’t get jobs as professors, can, with luck, become public ethnomusicologists—that is, put their knowledge and skills to work for the public good, employed by NGOs, or client organizations (private corporations) involved with music. Or they may become what is known as an “independent scholar,” doing their research and writing in their spare time for the love of it while employed in some tangentially related, or completely unrelated job—like the classic case of the actor who drives a cab (or these days, an Uber)—and hoping that they may some day be able to find a position that encourages their scholarship.
     Overall, a bleak picture. But if one is absolutely determined to go to graduate school in ethnomusicology, what then should one do? Apply only to the graduate programs most suitable for your particular interests, with the professors whose work you most admire. Once in the program, work diligently towards an understanding of ethnomusicology, its history, its theories, methods, techniques. Support the work of your professors and fellow graduate students and they will support yours. Take your time to find an original problem to work on for the PhD, one that you will love working on (because you are going to be with it for a long time) and one that has both narrow appeal to specialists yet will also interest most every ethnomusicologist and a portion of the general public as well. Read as much as you can in related fields such as anthropology, folklore, history, sociology, philosophy, literary theory, and so on that bear on the original problem you’re working on. Talk with scholars in these fields. Borrow ideas (but always credit the source) for inspiration, but do original work. Be generous in acknowledging the work of others; learn the art of critique through suggesting how this or that argument could be better, rather than by tearing it apart or, worse, attacking the person along with the argument. But don’t make a habit of giving props to others at all times, or your praise will become meaningless or even suspect. Be reasonable. Try not to be cynical, even though at times it will be hard not to be. There is more that can be said; indeed, books have been written on navigating one’s way through graduate school, including establishing and maintaining relationships with dissertation advisers, and so on; but that’s enough for here, and now.
     Finally, the annual rankings of the national universities have been updated once again on the US News and World Report website. Those with PhD programs in ethnomusicology are the only ones relevant to this discussion. Find out all you can about the graduate ethnomusicology programs in advance. Read the Society for Ethnomusicology’s guide to programs in ethnomusicology, available on their website—even though some entries are outdated. Look for those with PhD programs. Read each ethnomusicology PhD program’s self-descriptions on their university’s websites. (Some of them name the degree as one in ethnomusicology, some say music, some say musicology, some in various combinations.) When you find a program that seems interesting, look at the kind of research that students and professors in the program are doing. Read some of the professors' writing and see if it excites you. Narrow the list down to the four graduate programs that interest you the most. Visit the programs if you can afford to do so; consider it a good investment. Speak with the professors and graduate students to learn what it is like to be there. Some lower-ranked universities have programs and professors that are more suitable for particular students on account of their special strengths and emphases within the field of ethnomusicology, because these strengths and emphases match up well with what the student wants to study. Among the top twenty ranked universities, nine have PhD programs in ethnomusicology. Some excellent programs also exist at lower-tier universities: for example, Virginia and Michigan (tied at 27), NYU and the University of California at Santa Barbara (tied at 30), Illinois (46), Washington (59), Florida State and Pittsburgh (tied at 70), SUNY at Stony Brook (80), and Indiana (89). 


  1. Lots of good advice here. Things I tell my students: investigate the average time to degree, the average years of funding, and the tuition and fees structure. Otherwise you can't meaningfully compare. Ask to be put in touch with (or use website to diy) a current grad student or two,and with someone who's a few years out. Check the job wiki - how do graduates of this program seem to be faring (best we have as societies don't seem to track).If it's an option, go to a SEM meeting, and attend student events and quiz students and faculty on programs while there.

    1. Thanks for the additional suggestions. These mostly have to do with bottom-line concerns. Certainly these are important. But imho these should be secondary to deciding which professor(s) you want to work with, based on their published research and its match with your interests. And their personalities and how well they work with students. Obviously, you need to do some reading to research this yourself--the blurbs about the professors' work on their university departments' web pages are a good place to start, but also read some of their publications too. If you're going to invest 5-10 years of your life in grad school, you want to know as much as possible about where you'll be and who you'll be with. Going to an SEM conference to find out who is working on what is an excellent idea, and while there see if you can find someone whose dissertation adviser is a professor you want to work with--and ask what is good and what is not so good about working with that person. How easy is it to get an appointment to see the professor? Is the professor a good teacher? Does the professor spend a lot of time in the classroom and afterwards with their students? Or is the professor more interested in going to conferences, and holing up somewhere to do their research and writing? Are you someone who needs structure? Some professors provide a lot of structure; others don't. Are you someone who doesn't like to be given structure, but would rather make it for yourself? Then choose a professor who is looser and more laid back. And so on. Interviewing students and professors about their programs at SEM conferences (in my experience) isn't nearly as valuable as visiting the school and talking with them there. At a conference they're usually in a recruiting mode, and you want to find out the hells as well as the benefits of the program. The job wiki has been unreliable on occasion in the past, so don't believe everything you read. As for funding, it's important to compare the number of years, the amount of funding, what's expected in return (how much teaching, how much grading, how much of doing grunt-work for professors), whether there's a grad student union, and so on. But if possible a decision about where to apply should be made chiefly on the basis of the "fit" between your interests and the strengths of the graduate program. I have several colleagues who chose on the basis of the amount of funding, or the prestige of the university, or both; but they found that the programs and professors were not to their liking, they gamed their way through, and were unhappy most of the time. Much better to be relaxed, happy, and free to exercise your intellectual curiosity without having to worry about playing games with professors and with other students. Of course, I also know some who were unhappy with the professors they chose to work with; again, finding the right "fit" is most important.