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Why I’m Not Getting a Doctorate

Why I’m Not Getting a Doctorate

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Photo by Gerry Dincher, via Flickr

I envy those who feel compelled to teach collegiate composition and music theory, who pursue a doctorate with this end goal in mind. Academia offers a stable career option for a composer: a salary, benefits, and possible tenure in a field that’s notorious for instability and little financial reward.

In the field of music, though, so many composers default to pursuing a doctoral degree and a teaching career without 1) considering the musical and general strengths that could augment their composing career outside of academia, or 2) asking themselves whether they excel at teaching or even enjoy it. I’ve witnessed numerous colleagues continuing on to a doctoral degree simply because it’s the next logical step, something to delay having to find a job.

I adored my time at the University of Southern California, where I received my master’s degree. My two years there felt too short in many ways, not because of the classes I’d taken, but rather because of the wonderful professors, abundant performance opportunities, and colleagues who quickly became lifelong friends. I was tempted to continue on to a doctoral degree at USC, but to do so would’ve been ultimately motivated by fear. While there is beauty in pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake, my getting a doctorate would have been staying in school only to delay the inevitable, the “real world” that seems so terrifying as a student.

This “real world” is just as full of performance opportunities and outstanding mentors/colleagues as a university, though; it just takes a little more work to discover them. I made a pact with myself when I graduated with my master’s degree that I’d give myself three years to pursue whatever it would take to turn composing into a full-time career, and to evaluate the many forms in which that career could take shape.

If the arch of my career started to flatline or decline over the course of those three years, I decided, I’d consider going back to school. If my career continued to ascend at the same rate it had previously—which is to say, each year I had more performances than the previous year, or performances with higher-profile groups; or I made a little more money composing; or I simply felt more confident in my ability to ultimately make a living as a composer—I wouldn’t go back to school. If I could make it through those three years, I reasoned, I could make it through ten, or twenty, or whatever it took until my income matched my aspirations.

It’s been four years since I made the decision not to get a doctorate. I knew I’d have to find other sources beyond composing to support myself initially; I worked part-time as a nanny after graduating with my master’s degree, and more recently I’ve been teaching piano and composition to a small roster of around 15 students.

I do find it slightly ironic that after choosing not to apply for a doctorate—insisting I don’t want to teach for a living—I’m now teaching private piano and composition lessons. But the students I teach now, who range from ages 5 to 15, are passionate about piano and/or composition, and they are—most days—an absolute joy to work with. I run my own teaching studio; I control when and to whom I teach, and I’m on the path to making a living solely from composing by 2017.

I teach Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday afternoons/evenings, with one flexible student on Sunday mornings. This leaves mornings and Thursdays, Fridays, and weekends for composing and the business of composing. I continue to do what I’ve been doing since high school: applying to every composing opportunity I can find that excites me and offers the chance to advance my career.

I’m lucky that I love to write music for chorus, one of the few fields where a majority of ensembles actively program new music. Choosing a few years of making $25,000-30,000 a year in favor of ultimately supporting myself through composition has been well worth the trade-off to me: I am the one in control of how I spend my time. Filing taxes is never a fun activity, but this year I was happy to find that close to half of my income in 2014 was from composing. This percentage has been growing steadily every year.

I’ve made the decision to pursue composition as a full-time career, to align myself with this choice daily and pursue it whole-heartedly; so far, it’s working.

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5 thoughts on “Why I’m Not Getting a Doctorate

  1. Keane Southard

    I applaud you having the courage to take the less-traveled path. I am in a very similar position to you, being your same age and also having finished my master’s degree in composition four years ago now. However, in my case I do love teaching and would love to eventually end up with a tenure-track teaching position at a college or university I enjoy. I just didn’t want to be someone who finished his doctorate at age 27 and had no chance of getting a TT job. I love being in school, but I wanted to see if I could grow my career as a composer a bit on my own (which, just like you, I have been able to do), bolster my resume, improve my portfolio, and travel first. Now I am currently teaching at a college and love it (luckily not as an adjunct, but not as a TT either) and I am looking forward to applying for doctoral programs in the next year or two. I definitely think that more recent music graduates, especially composers, should think about at least taking a few years away from academia and either return for the right reasons or decide, like yourself, that it is not right for them.

    Reply
  2. Michael Nicholas

    Congratulations, Dale! You seem to have found a way that works for you. I absolutely agree that too many of our colleagues fall into the “next logical step” trap which, as you accurately point out, is controlled by fear.

    I actually did intend to teach, but during my PhD studies I realized that the academic world was far too limiting for me: I have much more to offer to a much broader audience.

    I hope things continue to work out for you and that you are able to make a living solely from composing much earlier than 2017! It’s definitely possible!

    P.S. I’ll be sharing this blog post with my audience, as I think that you are an inspiring example of what is possible when you can overcome your fears. Keep it up!

    Reply
  3. Greg Simon

    Excellent read, Dale. I hear what you’re saying.

    You really hit on something when you suggest that the time before the doctorate is the time for a gut-check about what one’s true motivations are for going back to school again. I couldn’t agree more, and I would only add that whether or not you feel the prospects exist for “making it” as a full-time composer outside of the Master’s degree is largely irrelevant. Most full-time composers are making it, as you do, with a combination of composing and non-composing professional pursuits.

    I’ll go one step further and say that if your professional activities and artistic activities aren’t related it doesn’t reflect on the quality of your artistry at all. A day job is never a sign of failure (even if it complicates the task of composing a bit), and I daresay you’re more likely to be an interesting, engaged artist if you have a few non-musical experiences to speak from. So yes, fear of the real world is not the right reason to re-up with the academy, even if a full-time composition career is untenable at the moment. The time to go back to school for the terminal degree is when — and only when — that is the choice that will make you the best possible artist and citizen of the community. For some it may never be that best choice, and that’s more than okay.

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  4. Doug Geers

    As a composer who is an academic with a doctorate, I’d recommend that no one enter a doctoral program in composition with the sole intent of getting a job. Frankly, it would most likely be a waste of time, since full-time professorship positions are not plentiful now. In fact, I recommend that all my PhD students have a “Plan B,” since it is certain that not everyone will land a university teaching job upon graduation.

    The idea of working as a composer outside of academia before deciding to enter a doctoral program is a good idea too, since it gives time for a composer to develop his/her voice. Having a strong portfolio of compositions is the most important thing for any composer, including those uninterested in grad school, those applying for doctoral programs, and those with doctorates who are on the academic job market.

    From my point of view, the reason that some composers may want to choose doctoral studies ought to be so that they may continue to learn and enhance their skills as composers. Obviously learning can take place outside of academic programs, but I personally found it meaningful to extend my studies for several more years in which my entire life revolved around learning about music and composing. And, just as important, I was part of a cohort of other composers in the same situation, learning more from them than in the classroom, even though the professors were generally top notch, because we were all obsessed and spent countless hours together. In the ‘real world,’ even for professors, it is hard to recapture the intense focus possible in a doctoral program.

    That said, I’d offer a few caveats: First, I think that it is questionable to pay for doctoral studies. Try to find a program that will offer you a scholarship and/or TA position. Don’t do it if it will put you under a mountain of debt for decades to come. Secondly, find a program whose curriculum matches your interests. For instance, at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center, where I teach, our Ph.D. and D.M.A. programs are quite “academic,” whereas other programs focus more on music-making and less on high-level theory and musicology coursework and a ‘significant’ dissertation paper. And, of course, be sure that the faculty where you enroll care about teaching and mentoring.

    In closing: A doctorate doesn’t make someone a better composer. That is certain. And today anyone who is curious can find fantastic educational resources on the internet. However for the right people, further intense study may enrich their compositional toolbox. If anyone tells you that one way is the “right” way, you should be skeptical of his/her opinion.

    Reply

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