Should I Be A Musicologist?

August 25, 2009 at 9:34 am 10 comments

Recently the head honchos at Dial “M” for Musicology tackled the timeless issue of whether or not one should pursue an academic career in music.  Phil Ford began with his “Come-to-Jesus Talk”  and Johnathan Bellman followed up with “Yes But No But.”  Phil’s post, which replicates a conversation he has with students many times each school year, centers around a list of five bad reasons to go to graduate school.  By and large I agree with the list.  Conceptions of academic life from the point of view of an undergraduate idealize the world in which we live.  You can’t get into the field of musicology because you like the idea of being in school or want to be called “Dr. So-and so.”

The decision to go into graduate school is not one that should be taken likely (this is, ultimately, Phil’s point).  However, the rhetorical stance of his “Come-to-Jesus Talk” leaves little room for considering “good” reasons for going into musicology.

Regarding bad reason #3 (a feeling that it might be nice to teach), Phil writes:

If there’s one phrase I never want to hear again, it’s “I just want to teach at a small liberal arts college.” This is usually accompanied by something to the effect that research is OK, I guess, but teaching is what I really want to do. This is ass-backwards; it’s like buying a piano because you want the bench. If research is just what you do in order to get certified to teach, get an Ed. degree, teach kids, and forget musicology!

I think Johnathan’s response eloquently retorts Phil’s sentiments.  To this, I simply add that, contrary to many, teaching is a good (even great) reason to go into musicology.  This was my reason.  I’ve taught high school music, I loved it.  I also love history.  There is barely room for music in secondary education in America, let alone music history.  Ergo, if I want to teach music history it will be at the college level and I need a PhD in musicology.  Graduate school has given me skills as a researcher which directly influence my teaching and vice versa.  I’m not looking for an easy route by wishing to teach at a liberal arts school, where I’ll wear many academic hats.  As Johnathan notes: “A professor is thus someone whose vocation consists of service to students and the disciplines alike.”  The balance between research and teaching lies in the individual regardless of where you are lucky enough to find yourself employed.

Reminiscent of the Grail Knight in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Phil warns us that if you choose poorly (that is, go into graduate school for the wrong reasons) you will become bitter and unhappy.*  I don’t disagree with his warning, but I wonder if such overt council ultimately affects the diversity of our field.  Here I’m talking about diversity in approaches to the field of music more so than conceptions of race or ethnicity (though the two are importantly linked).

Another great reason to go into musicology: Your point of view is absent or under-represented in the field.

The take away message that I get from Phil’s post (as well as other related warnings) is that unless I’m ready to step into an increasingly restrictive academic box, there is no place for me in musicology.  If I had encountered the “Come-to-Jesus Talk” when I was an undergraduate (not that Goggle would have been around to help me find it), I can assuredly say I wouldn’t be here now.

So what advice was I given / would I give?  Try it out.  Go get a master’s.  Don’t commit away the better part of a decade before you know what’s what.  Give yourself two years to figure out what the field is all about.  See how your point of view integrates the field, then make the decision to go for a PhD or or not.

Just don’t abandon all hope at the outset.  There is enough opportunity for that when you get to the dissertation!

* Phil gives us a classic Matt Groening “Life in Hell” comic.  I offer:

Entry filed under: musicology, professional development, Thinking Out Loud. Tags: , , .

JAMS as Symbol Lessons Learned from Teaching Twice


  • 1. Phil Ford  |  August 26, 2009 at 4:38 am

    “So what advice was I given / would I give? Try it out. Go get a master’s. Don’t commit away the better part of a decade before you know what’s what. Give yourself two years to figure out what the field is all about. See how your point of view integrates the field, then make the decision to go for a PhD or or not.” Excellent advice!

    I’ve known a lot of people who work at liberal arts schools and a lot of people who teach at research institutions. However we might make this distinction in talking about the institutions themselves (and it’s slippery), the professors themselves are all pretty much cut from the same cloth: serious about teaching, serious about their research. The notion that (a) one would aspire to do one and not the other, and (b) do so in the belief that some mythical “liberal arts school” would let you . . . strikes me as naive and ultimately self-destructive.

    I like the Grail Knight reference.

  • 2. Zoë Lang  |  September 3, 2009 at 8:22 am

    Hi Ryan,

    Thanks for that thoughtful post about a very important topic! One phenomenon I’ve noticed lately from some friends of mine who are going up for tenure (not musicologists) is that they have reached the ‘what do I do now?’ phase of their careers. After all, when you go to graduate school, the path is relatively clear: finish your program and graduate. When you have a tenure-track job, the path is somewhat clear: accomplish what must be done to get tenure. However, after that, what is left? I guess you could plow along diligently to get full professor, but that isn’t mandated (and anyway isn’t as clearly outlined a lot of the time). So I can see why a crisis could ensue.

    As I’ve discovered (only three years in), teaching can be good and helpful, but not always, depending on what exactly you are teaching. In fact, the year-after-year same survey course might start to get kind of boring. So what do you do post-tenure? Maybe you are at an institution where the teaching stays fresh every semester, but not everyone has that choice (perhaps that is why the small liberal-arts setting is an advantage over the large ‘must get everyone through the survey’ environment). Some people turn to service and I have met several who, after tenure, started wondering ‘what is next’ and sought upper administration jobs for variety.

    But another path, at this point, can be research. After all, your research can change at different points in your career, and once you have the ‘freedom’ of tenure you can venture out in the more experimental, underrepresented (in other words, more of a fight to publish) realms. In that way, I would not undervalue research. It can help make sense out of the post-tenure crisis, because unlike grad school and the tenure process, it’s a path that you design.

  • 3. KG  |  September 4, 2009 at 6:58 am

    Thanks Ryan! It’s nice to see another perspective on this out there.
    I got the MA before moving on to a separate PhD program and it was one of the better decisions I made for myself. The only problem is that there just aren’t very many terminal MA programs in music scholarship. It’s one of the downsides to choosing such a small field.

  • 4. colin A.Kellam  |  September 6, 2009 at 5:32 pm

    May I use your image of the “Duke Ellington” medallion-which comes up on “Google” images for the new page,I’m creating on “Duke Ellington” for my site ?
    Unlike most folks I always ask first !
    If you have the time & inclination,tell me what you think of my site ?

    Your prompt response would be appreciated.

  • 5. Mark Samples  |  September 11, 2009 at 11:30 am

    Ryan, I found your blog through my friend Zach Wallmark, and I look forward to reading more. I was one of those who got into musicology for “bad reason #3”. I had no delusions, however, about weaseling out of the research side of it. I went back for the master’s, and quickly found out what the daily grind of a musicologist is like. Happily, I found that research became as large a passion for me as teaching. I agree that this is a practical function of the master’s. It’s a dry run, and also a way to find out if this gig is really for you.

  • 6. Jake  |  October 4, 2009 at 8:50 pm

    Of course, the “go and get a master’s and try it out” path may not be practical for everyone. There are few schools where you can “try it out” for two years without committing a serious financial coup-de-etat on yourself. Luckily, you and I both went to one of them, Ryan. And for me, although I thought I knew that I wanted to get a Ph.D. even before my master’s program, the 2 years at UW did give me even more conviction that this is what I wanted to do.

  • 7. Sara Grace  |  October 17, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    So um, I’m a undergraduate Music History major. I’m glad I found this post. I actually want to research more than I would like to teach. I’ve been searching for somewhere to get advice from and I guess I found it!

  • 8. Dan  |  December 16, 2009 at 5:30 am

    Oh … goodness.

    That video basically destroys the optimistic vibe I think you’re trying to convey here.

  • 9. PhDon’t? » Pat Heelen  |  January 20, 2012 at 10:38 am

    […] has been making the rounds recently, I thought Id weigh in briefly during my half hour here in the Denver airport, which […]

  • 10. Joe  |  May 18, 2013 at 3:14 am

    Although It’s maybe not directly relevant I would like to add that PhDs, although a reality, are the Achilles heal of the academic world. To teach a subject, and be good at it, has nothing to do with PhDs, but unfortunately you can’t (easily) teach in a university without nowadays. It’s a sad state of affairs and I believe stunts academic progress in the teaching, research and learning areas.

    I have a broad range of experience in learning from art college back in the 70s, via music conservatories and finally university – which is how I landed here, I’m an MA in musicology.


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