The PhD in Ethnomusicology or Musicology as a career path


Deciding on a doctorate in Musicology or Ethnomusicology

Disclaimer: the following represents one senior professor’s perspectives and ideas, which are inevitably based in my own individual and subjective observation and experience. Your experience will be different from mine. But here are things that I say to candidates and my own supervisees—perhaps they will be useful.

Studying music, and specifically music history and music culture, is one of the great intellectual pleasures I know. To understand what sounds other people in other times and places have believed to be beautiful, powerful, and personal is endlessly fascinating, enriching, and enlivening: it forges connections, enhances insight, and helps give meaning to human consciousness. The opportunity to engage in these practices—sharing what sounds and practices we find powerful and engaging—with like-minded mentors and colleagues is likewise a fantastic experience of community. There are a lot of ways to do this, but one particularly intensive way is to study or teach musicology or ethnomusicology (or both!) in a university setting.

Most typically, these are disciplines which most college music students discover during their undergraduate days: this is why there comparatively few programs offering an undergraduate degree in musicology or ethnomusicology—because it would be a rare high school that would put these disciplines on your radar before high school graduation.

Instead, along about the end of the sophomore or beginning of the junior—seldom before then, not infrequently afterward—you the undergraduate run across a professor whose job appears to be reading, writing, speaking, and thinking about the particular details of musical moments, and their meaning to the people participating, is attractive to you. You realize that you particularly like the idea of a life, and maybe a graduate degree, that emphasizes these same activities.

This is an appropriate and positive motivation: if learning, reading, writing, speaking, and thinking about musical behavior in specific contexts—across distances of time, geography, and experience—is attractive to you as a life-long activity, then you absolutely should consider the possibility of graduate work in ethnomusicology or musicology.

For such persons, these are endlessly rewarding, engaging, and energizing realms of activity. They don’t pay terribly well, the job market is very challenging, and professors are not particularly respected in certain segments of our public culture—but a life revolving around studying music, the mind, and the fascinating diversity of human contexts and behaviors is a very rich one.

On the other hand, there is that pesky necessity to make a living. One way to do that is with an academic teaching job—but that market is contracting.

To “flip” the question: it’s important to remember that you can have an entire life revolving around music, the mind, and human behavior without ever taking a graduate music degree: you can play, sing, dance, teach, engage, share, study, practice, learn, write, and perform without ever earning a music degree at all. Neither scholarship, insight, nor virtuosity exists only within music university programs.

So perhaps the question should be, rather, “why would you seek a graduate degree—especially a doctorate—in musicology or ethnomusicology?” What unique doors does such a degree open to you?

The classic answer to this—the one that professors of ethno-/musicology typically provide undergrad students inquiring about graduate work—is “so that you can teach in a university setting.” And that is a good and truthful answer: at this point in the 21st century, in order to have decent odds of winning a university gig teaching ethno-/musicology, you are pretty much required to hold a “terminal degree” (apt name!) in the discipline[s].

This is not because “only PhD’s” have anything of value to offer—especially in the worlds of music, we recognize the value of life experience, career, physical and technical virtuosity, and so forth, in addition to formal advanced degrees. Rather, the PhD is a standard expectation because the job-search/-hiring process is so competitive, because there are so many on-paper-qualified candidates for each tenure-track post, that search committees charged with finding the “best” candidate tend to employ certain rather crude rules of thumb to winnow down the stack of applications.

And one of the very first divisions is between the stack marked (A) “PhD in hand” versus (B) “ABD (“All But Dissertation” completed) or “PhD anticipated on X [future] date.” There may be fantastic, brilliant, qualified folks in the (B) stack, but the unique and valuable nature of their potential to contribute may never be known simply because the search committee, pressed for time, may consign their applications, virtually unread, to the (B) stack.

Of course there are fantastic advantages to a tenure-track university gig.[1] You can read, write, think, speak, and teach about music that you love and believe in. Sure, there are challenges: committee-work, paperwork, and long hours for example: not just the classroom time and the office hours, but all that grading, and the additional pressure to produce your own scholarship on nights, weekends, and holidays.

There’s the frustration of dealing with large and slow-moving bureaucracy—even the challenge of working with students some of whom aren’t quite mature or responsible yet. But, if (and this is important) you love to teach, then being a tenure-track professor of ethno-/musicology is a fantastically rewarding life.

But it’s a difficult gig to get. There are far more qualified candidates than there are posts—simply because there are many more people who love studying ethno-/musicology in graduate school than there are jobs for professors of ethno-/musicology.

It’s at this point that the distinction between graduate degrees—between a Master’s in Ethno-/Musicology, on one hand, and a PhD, on the other—becomes very, very important. A Master’s degree, in most programs, is a relatively modest investment of time, effort, and cost: two years, or possibly 5 long semesters, or (in very extreme cases) three years; required and elective coursework, a modest Master’s thesis of perhaps 100-120 pages; a research language; an exit exam.

These are goals and a scope which is sustainable and achievable within, say 24-30 months of your life. And, for that brand-new Master’s candidate who just “discovered” ethno-/musicology in the sophomore or junior year of undergrad, the Master’s program is an opportunity to try out the discipline’s topics, requirements, life-style, obligations, ways of thinking and writing, and thereby sussing-out if they’re right for you—if it’s a way you might like to spend your career.

Most important among all of these familiarizations is teaching: the experience of being in the class and leading the intellectual process for a roomful of undergraduates. It is very, very important that you seek that experience every way you can get it: by serving as a Student, Graduate, or Teaching Assistant; by paying attention and working hard in whatever Pedagogy seminars are available; by consciously and critically observing your own professors’ teaching methods and thinking about which might be valuable additions to your own repertoire; by seeking out opportunities to observe other professors, even outside your discipline, in their own teaching situations.

The job of a college professor is to teach. Yes, there are “research,” “creative activity,” and (ugh!) “service” duties you must meet—but teaching is the bread-and-butter. It’s why you have the job. It’s why you must seek every opportunity to grow toward mastery in the art form. And—very importantly—it’s why you must ask yourself whether a lifetime (it can seem) in the classroom feels as if it would be a good life: a life well spent. If you love to teach, if you love taking the thinking, reading, writing, listening, and speaking you do about music and sharing it with others, then a university ethno-/musicology post can be a wonderful life.

But it’s a hard gig to get, and the competition is fierce. If you don’t like those odds, and especially if you are less-than-certain that you would love to spend your life teaching, then you should definitely think twice before committing to a PhD program. A doctorate in ethno-/musicology is essential in order to be a tenure-track professor in a university setting. But that is not the only way to have a life engaging in reading, writing, thinking, speaking, learning, and teaching about music; it’s one way. And if you think you might not want to take on an additional three or more years of effort and financial debt, if you think you might not be drawn to the long hours and fairly heavy responsibilities of classroom teaching and bureaucratic busy work, you might not want the pressure of “publish or perish,” then a university tenure-track gig is not right for you. There is no dishonor in recognizing such things—to the contrary, it is wise and mature to assess what you want out of your life in music, and how badly you want it.

If you conclude that perhaps the life/life-style of a university music professor, or the cost and effort it takes to get there, then you really don’t “need” to earn a PhD in music academics. Of course you can do that anyway even so—being a student of music, especially at the high levels of discourse and engagement in Master’s and doctoral program, is a wonderful and rewarding way to spend your time. And a Master’s program is an excellent investment (24 months, 30 credit hours) in finding out if the life is right for you.

A Master’s program is also an excellent foundation for a host of other career/degree paths. Many Master’s musicology students continue in PhD programs in the discipline. But others continue in PhD programs in parallel or related fields: Arts Administration, for example, or library science or museum specializations. Others proceed to certificate or professional-training programs.

Still other folks use the Master’s degree experience as a jump-start to a related career in the arts. There are Master’s musicology degree holders in public radio and television, journalism, arts advocacy, concert production, artist management, community arts entrepreneurship, and so on. Still other Master’s degree holders continue as educators, but in public schools or community colleges. All of these and related fields are available to you as a Master’s degree holder.

Effectively speaking: you should pursue a PhD in Ethno-/Musicology if you want a tenure-track university teaching gig. There are fewer and fewer gigs that fit this bill, but if it’s right for you, and you’re OK with the jobs-versus-candidates ratio, the job placement rate, and the cost (in time and dollars)-versus-benefits ratio, you should absolutely consider continuing to the doctorate. Those are the very best reasons.

In sum: the Master’s degree is (can be) when you find out if the job expectations & the life-style of the university ethno-/musicology professor might be right for you. If you find out they are, go for that PhD program. If you find out—or even just suspect—that they are not, then remember and feel empowered by the awareness that there are other, parallel career paths that are of great value and allow great personal satisfaction and validation.

Do what is right for you.

Good luck!






[1] Lots of folks wind up working “outside the tenure track” as adjuncts, visiting professors, leave replacements, and so forth, and their contributions are essential. But they don’t tend to make much money, they tend to have to work very hard indeed (4 or 5 classes per semester, sometimes on multiple campuses), and they don’t tend to have much job security. It’s an honorable job but it’s a very, very hard one.