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Do you need a doctorate in composition?

Do you need a doctorate in composition?

Do you need a doctorate in composition? No, you don’t. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have value.

In the nearly twenty years that I have been teaching composition at universities and conservatories, the most common question I am asked by students not already in doctoral programs is which ones they should apply to. The assumption of these young composers is that the next logical or expected step in the progression of their musical development is to seek an advanced degree in a field where the degree itself is becoming both more ubiquitous and less powerful.

When I ask young composers why they want to earn a doctorate, the almost inevitable response is, “Because I want to teach.” That is indeed an admirable reason to do so. Additional issues such as performance and networking opportunities and some abstract sense of the recognition and approval that a doctorate will bestow are also often mentioned. While there is some merit to these expectations, I believe they are mostly misguided.

For decades, the availability of full-time, tenure-track composition jobs has been dwindling, with the decrease greatly exacerbated by the onset of the 2008 financial crisis. During this time, administrators in higher education facing smaller budgets due to reduced state funding, shrinking endowments, and less generous alumni donors sought to make up the difference. They did so by employing larger pools of part-time adjunct faculty who could be paid far less than their full-time counterparts with few or no benefits and no job security. As the financial markets later soared to record levels of growth, the number of full-time professorships did not follow. Consequently, the majority of my colleagues who teach composition or related music courses do so in the precarious conditions described above. These teachers are extremely qualified and dedicated; their students are lucky to work with them. But for anyone trying to eek out a living on the wages earned as an adjunct or short-term contract instructor (particularly in an expensive metropolitan area where new music activity is concentrated) struggles significantly. These exploitative teaching positions are often spread out over multiple campuses requiring travel and the time spent counseling students, correcting homework and papers, and dealing with university bureaucracy steals precious time needed to compose. Anyone considering a doctorate for the reason that they want to teach should be aware of these realities and that the competition for the few stable jobs that are offered is extremely fierce.


Image: Vlad Kutepov

A more immediate financial consideration for young composers seeking a doctorate is the cost of the degree and the means needed to live during the years that it takes to complete the classwork, exams, and dissertation. While many universities and conservatories offer composer fellowships that waive tuition and offer a modest stipend, usually in exchange for teaching, these are limited, often to just a couple a year. Of course, these cannot accommodate the hundreds of qualified students who apply for composition doctorates every year and many students are faced with the possibility of large debts after completing their studies. No student should be put in this position and I strongly advise against paying for these degrees. While it is not uncommon for young professionals to leave graduate school with substantial debt, the fields outside the humanities more consistently offer starting salaries beyond living wages in addition to health and retirement benefits. Because there are very few such opportunities available to recent composition graduates, it makes no sense to accrue a large debt that may take decades to repay.

There are also some young composers who feel that they have not received sufficient preparation in order to enter the field. They believe that an advanced degree will provide the training and knowledge that they lack. A graduate program in composition would serve these students well but not at the expense of crushing debt that would be shouldered if the student needed to pay for tuition. In these cases, I recommend that students seek out individuals for private lessons. Because there are so many highly-qualified musicians that do not have full-time academic jobs, many are willing to teach privately. The cost of these lessons is a fraction of graduate tuition and offers much more flexibility with regard to teachers and scheduling.

What does substantially help composers, perhaps more than anything, is making personal connections with members of the musical community.

In my experience, no ensemble, soloist, or presenter has ever reconsidered a commission or programming opportunity for a composer due to a lack of academic credentials. It seems true that certain prizes and fellowships give some limited weight to one’s academic background, but it is always subsidiary to the music under consideration.

What does substantially help composers, perhaps more than anything, is making personal connections with members of the musical community. By interacting and collaborating with fellow musicians, pooled talents and resources sum to much more than individual parts. I always encourage young composers to attend as many concerts as possible and politely and humbly engage the performers and audience members during and after the show. Chance and sought out connections can yield deep, meaningful, and even lifetime relationships that can have profound creative and intellectual impact.

I understand that for many the access to such communities may be limited due to geographical or financial constraints. Additionally, it can be socially and professionally daunting for some to join circles to which they do not already belong. In these circumstances the communities may be created from within, as has often been the case in the past. Some examples include the artists that formed Der Blaue Reiter, the Scratch Orchestra, and the San Francisco Tape Music Center.

There are positive attributes of academic programs, to be sure. Especially when coming from a place where interactions with like-minded musicians are limited, enrolling in a music program can provide incredible stimulation and camaraderie with peers and mentors. Opportunities to work with fellow students and guests in performances and presentations are extremely valuable, as is the teaching experience that comes with fellowships. The positive impact that access to a dedicated music library can have on a developing composer is undeniable. And hopefully the courses and private instruction will enlighten and expand one’s own musical outlook.

So while there is value in attending a graduate program in composition, it is not a panacea for career advancement and future job security. It is wise to consider what one wants and realistically what a composition doctorate can offer before assuming that it is the only path forward.

Jason Eckardt played guitar in jazz and metal bands until, upon first hearing the music of Webern, he immediately devoted himself to composition. Since then, his music has been influenced by his interests in perceptual complexity, the physical and psychological dimensions of performance, political activism, and the natural world. Eckardt teaches composition at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center and Brooklyn College and lives in the Catskill Mountains.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

11 thoughts on “Do you need a doctorate in composition?

  1. Dan Joseph

    Hi Jason,

    Thanks for writing this article, and you offer some sound advice! However, it reminds me of a comment a friend made to me many years ago when we were both graduate composition students – he in a PhD. program at an elite university, and me pursuing an MA elsewhere. I was debating whether to continue towards a terminal degree, and his comment, referring to the very program in which he was enrolled, was “there’s nothing for you here!” For the most part he was right, at least for me and my interests and temperament, but he ended up a tenured professor at a different elite university, so for him at least, there was indeed something there!

    In any event, it’s probably fair to say that whatever choices one makes in pursuit of a career in composition, it will go against better judgement!

    Best regards, Dan

  2. Michael Ching

    Good article Jason. Personally, I don’t regret for one day my decision to go into an opera training program instead of a music composition grad school. There have been doors shut in my face (certain kinds of grants and awards) but plenty of them opened (productions, singers) . And I don’t resent that–humankind is a cliqueish creature.

    There is also a huge, fascinating, and viable career route for creative musicians that doesn’t require grad school: pop music. Most folks don’t get composition degrees to write songs or play in bands.

  3. Owen Bloomfield

    I have felt that the choice to pursue a doctorate in composition is the fear of leaving an environment that supports new music. There is a peer pressure like you say. When you see your peers following that path you don’t wish to appear to be the only one giving up or showing you can’t do it.

  4. Jon

    Good article. To me, it boils down to this: you should get a composition PhD if you are excited and inspired by the actual act of working toward the PhD — taking the courses, working with the teachers, being a teaching assistant, doing research, writing a dissertation, etc. Don’t do it as a means to the end of attaining professional glory or a tenure track teaching job, since it is not particularly likely to lead to either anymore. And don’t do it is as a means of networking and finding a community, since there are plenty of other ways to become part of a (probably more) nourishing musical community. Do it for its own sake or don’t do it at all.

  5. Jason Eckardt

    As I wrote to you elsewhere, I completely agree. The consumer model of higher education spells the end of intellectual inquiry.

  6. Jason Eckardt

    Thanks, Dan. Of course everyone’s path is different and I’m happy to read that you found yours, as did your friend. I didn’t intend the article to be prescriptive but rather to state some realities that are often not discussed in higher education.

  7. Jason Eckardt

    Thank you, Michael. There are many ways one can go about making a musical life and certainly some are more likely to involve formal training than others. What’s important, and why I wrote this article, is to be clear-headed about the challenges that one will face when forging one’s path. Just like everything else in life there are trade offs but an informed decision is a better one.

  8. Jason Eckardt

    I think it’s possible to find a community within gruadate school. If one can go to a place where there are like-minded people and get subsidized housing and a modest stipend, this could be an attractive option for someone who feels geographically or artistically isolated. But of course, one can create communities or join them in all kinds of other ways as well.

  9. Will Wilkin

    Excellent article! As you wrote, academia has more and more been replacing tenured faculty with non-tenured “positions,” especially adjuncts. I have seen this in many fields beyond music, where virtually the only career use of a Ph.D. would be an academic job producing more such Ph.D.’s…so it becomes comparable to an investment pyramid, the inverted kind that soon topples. But of course you also write of the merits and rewards of pursuing a doctorate, which more than anything else seems to be deep study of a beloved subject in a community of shared interest and a setting of great libraries and other resources appropriate to the field of study. Personally I left academia decades ago yet educate myself continuously through reading and seeking new friends with interesting knowledge and experience. Funny how I continue going to various schools in diverse fields over the years since abandoning academic ambitions. BUT in the sciences and professional schools, a doctorate can indeed be key to career advancement, and not always by sheer credentialism but also as the path to applied deep learning.


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