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 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:

2. Understand the requirements for entry into graduate study 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.

Many graduate programs have language proficiency requirements, and it is advantageous to have significant foreign language skills; try to pursue one or more foreign languages as an undergraduate.

Your graduate school applications will consist in part of writing samples; prepare your writing well. Ask someone to read your application essays and provide constructive feedback. Make your writing samples reflect the full extent of your abilities.

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):

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, 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

4. Visit the campus

Other sources of advice

The Chronicle of Higher Education has many articles pertaining to graduate study. See 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.

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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