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Are you considering graduate study in musicology?

This page is designed to assist undergraduates currently considering a graduate degree in musicology. Use these suggestions, in conjunction with discussions with your mentor or advisor, to help decide whether graduate study in musicology is right for you.

1. Know why you want to do it.

Some will say, "pursue the subject you're passionate about; if that is studying music as a branch of learning in the humanities, so be it." Others may caution against this ideal in favor of other considerations, such as future job security and quality of life. Consider your life goals carefully at the start.

Graduate study in musicology often leads to the Ph.D. degree. The Ph.D. degree is a significant achievement and can be the foundation for a fulfilling career in many areas. Those who wish to pursue a career at a college or university normally complete the Ph.D. Academic positions generally include a balance of teaching, research, and publication. Several musicologists have recommended the first two chapters of The Chicago Guide to Your Academic Career (2001) as an introduction for those considering an academic career.

The AMS conducted a demographic survey of its members in 2007, the results of which give an indication of career paths taken by members. The following table reflects the respondents' career paths.

Academic/teaching Administrative
Private appl. instruction

See the August 2007 AMS Newsletter (p. 9) for more details.

Questions you may wish to ask as you consider musicology as a possible career:

  • What are the expenses involved in taking on graduate study?
  • What are the normative salary and benefits for faculty members in humanities disciplines, or for other careers that follow on from the musicology Ph.D.?
  • What are the job requirements for academic or other careers?
  • If your goal is a position in academe, would you be willing to work as adjunct for several years prior to a more permanent position?
  • How great is the risk that a position in academe may not be forthcoming at all?

2. Understand the structures of graduate programs in musicology

Graduate programs in the U.S. and Canada that lead to the Ph.D. have a coursework component that lasts several years, followed by the dissertation, an extended independent study leading to book-length original research on a topic of the student's choosing. Some Ph.D. programs begin with a Master's program (including thesis), with Ph.D. following. Most Ph.D. programs plan for a minimum of two years to complete the dissertation, and it is not unusual for students to take three or four years. The entire process normally lasts at least six or seven years.

Some graduate programs lead to the terminal Master's degree. These typically consist of two years of coursework (the second including a Master's thesis). The Master's degree in musicology may be right for those who are not ready to make a seven-year commitment, or who need focused preparation prior to entering a Ph.D. program. Some undertake the Master's who wish to pursue a performing career in academia and are strongly interested in the academic side as well; they do a double master's degree. Some do the Master's to help decide what area within the discipline they wish to pursue at the doctoral level. Many who successfully complete Master's degrees go on to complete the Ph.D. in less than seven years, and Master's programs are often designed to give students a solid foundation for the Ph.D.

3. Draw up a list of potential graduate programs

The AMS web site has a list of graduate programs in musicology that is maintained by members who send in links to the programs where they work or attend. The College Music Society publishes the Directory of Music Faculties in College and Universities, U.S. and Canada every other year; it identifies all programs that offer graduate degrees in music (it is available to CMS members online, and may be found at most music libraries). Browse these resources to determine the pool of programs to consider.

A. Evaluate the programs

Graduate programs can be evaluated on their past performance and future likelihood for success. Here are some considerations for evaluating programs (the AMS encourages graduate programs in musicology to publish this information at their web sites):

  • How many students are admitted each year? How many apply? How many enroll?
  • How many years of funding are normally offered to those who are admitted?
  • How much teaching will be offered to you? required of you?
  • Are there other obligations that are part of being accepted? (Gauge the details of tuition waivers and stipend amounts in conjunction with the cost of living in the area.)
  • How long does it normally take students to complete their degree?
  • Evaluate the placement profile of the program: where are the program's graduates one, five, and ten years beyond graduation? Consider both jobs and post-doctoral fellowships.
  • How many of those who enroll drop out of the program after one / three / five years? (All programs lose students along the way; try to learn why and at what stage it happens. Indeed, talking with those who have dropped out of graduate programs may help you determine your best course of action.)
  • When comparing the profiles of different departments, be aware that data compilation will be different; be sure you are making balanced comparisons.

B. Evaluate the faculty

Evaluate the faculty broadly. It is not necessarily a good idea to choose a program based on your current plan for a thesis or dissertation topic and its affinity with the work of a single faculty member; there is no guarantee that your final topic will be anything near what you are now interested in. It is not unusual for a first-year seminar to radically influence students towards (or away from) preconceived notions of a research topic.

For each program you are considering, identify all who teach musicology courses, and read their published research. Their work can be found in many places:

Read reviews of the faculty members' published work that have appeared in musicology review journals (see JSTOR): MLA Notes, JAMS, Music and Letters, Nineteenth-Century Music Review, Journal of the Society for American Music, Ethnomusicology, etc.

Excellent research is no guarantee of outstanding mentoring. The best mentors have successful former students who are active in the discipline or engaged in fulfilling careers. Review the list of dissertations that each faculty member has been principal advisor for, and compare this with the department's published "placement profile" of the careers of their graduates.

Beware of outdated information. Faculty members move, and what was true two years ago is almost certainly different today.

C. Evaluate the students currently in the program

Gain a perspective on the program from current students. Evaluate the quality of the community (consider all the programs that offer the Master's or Ph.D.: musicology, ethnomusicology, music theory, composition, anthropology, etc.).

See the student profiles at the department web sites and identify students with similar interests that you may wish to contact.

D. Evaluate the activity of the program

  • Consider the courses that are required and offered
  • What is the extent and quality of the program's guest speaker series?
  • Do current students use the library frequently? What is their assessment of the quality of the library?
  • What role in the larger local community does the program play?
  • What is the "local musicological scene" like? Is there an active humanities center on campus? How active are the local or regional chapters of academic societies such as CMS, SEM, SAM, SMT, and AMS?
  • What is the performance scene like?

4. Preparing an application

Graduate programs will have different conceptions of what constitutes "musicology." They will have different application requirements—make sure you adhere to them—and will place different weights on the evidence you submit to meet them (e.g., on your prior GPAs, GRE scores, writing samples, and so forth). They will also have different views on the types of music or other college/university-level courses that should already have been taken. If information on all these issues is not readily available, a program’s Director of Graduate Admissions (the person's title may vary from program to program) will be able to provide more.

As a normal rule of thumb:

  • Some level of musical literacy and knowledge will be required.
  • Evidence of moving beyond this level will be preferred.
  • Competence in one or more languages other than the medium of instruction will be an advantage.

Your decision to enter graduate study will probably influence your current course choices or similar strategies: consult with your mentor(s). As you enter the application process, consider also how the work you are currently doing might support it: for example, by allowing you to produce more extended pieces of writing or the equivalent (to submit as part of your application) than might be required of a typical undergraduate course. Use that work to reflect the range of your interests and abilities. Have a mentor review it, and revise accordingly.

Admission committees understand that people come to graduate programs with diverse backgrounds, experience, and skills, and whether straight from undergraduate study or not. Make clear in any application statement what you bring to the table.

While an ambition to pursue graduate study is essential, committees also understand that the precise directions that ambition will take may not be clear at the outset. Some enter graduate programs in musicology with very specific interests (including possible dissertation topics) in mind, but many do not, and those who do often change their mind in light of their graduate experience.

It usually makes sense to apply to more than one institution, but every program to which you apply should be one that you would be happy to enter. Making a large number of applications is not necessarily a sensible strategy.

5. Visit the campus

Some programs will hold formal interviews prior to making an offer of admission; some will offer “open days” or similar group events for applicants; some will prefer less formal visits arranged individually. Whatever the case may be, it is very much in your interest to see things on the ground whether before or during the application process. During a campus visit, you should:

  • Make appointments with the director of graduate studies and musicologists you particularly wish to meet
  • Meet and talk with current students, both in groups and singly
  • Identify seminars you would like to sit in on
  • Consider visiting concurrently with a talk in the program's guest speaker or symposium series
  • Ask questions that demonstrate your preparation
  • Visit the library
  • Take time to explore the campus and the local environment
  • Explore the larger graduate student community

Other sources of advice

The Chronicle of Higher Education has many articles pertaining to graduate study. See David Shorter, "The Gentle Guide for Applying to Graduate Schools" (8 May 2017), Karen Kelskey, "Graduate School Is a Means to a Job" (27 March 2012), Lennard J. Davis, "What I Tell My Graduate Students" (6 March 2011), or Thomas H. Benton, "Making a Reasonable Choice" (18 April 2010), for example. Each year the Chronicle publishes a "Careers in Academe" supplement.

Inside Higher Education, likewise, has many articles regarding career choices in academe. Some, like this one, are very discouraging; remember that all columns are opinions, not eternal truths. But enter this profession with eyes wide open.

Katherine Sledge Moore's "Applying to Graduate School" page (not oriented to musicology) offers additional suggestions, including timeline planning, the GRE process, advice on writing a personal statement, advice on acquiring the best letters of recommendation, etc.

Advice from musicologists: six words. (Collated by Nicholas Reyland for British Postgraduate Musicology in 2004.)

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