Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Is a Career in Academia Still Worthwhile?

This is a challenging time for academic institutions, many of which are dealing with shrinking endowments, growing administrations, capital project financing, rising executive salaries, and the implementation of strategic business plans. Pianists finishing graduate school or on the job market are advised to read Billie Whittaker's Careers for Pianists Part I: Expectations and Beginnings, which does not paint a very optimistic view of tenure-track academia as an achievable career option:
For some, academia means more than an easy transition: it is an idealized sanctuary of civilization. Spending many years in that environment has deluded some to believe that life outside of academe means failure. An article [by Thomas H. Benton in The Chronicle], Is Grad School a Cult?, talks about the ivory tower seduction of such students, who become convinced a university is the only 'real' option for meaningful employment. When the realistic likelihood of landing a full-time position in a good location with job security (tenure track) is the equivalent of winning the lottery - it is time to change faiths. Believe that meaningful jobs exist outside academia.
I found Billie's article to be fascinating and will hopefully be a wake-up call for many pianists to consider much wider career options. For example, if you're lucky enough to land a part-time adjunct or sessional position in a major city, it can often be an ideal springboard for a performing career without the administrative responsibility that comes with full-time academic employment. The same goes for positions at opera compaies, orchestras, new music ensembles, and chamber groups - they may not provide full-time employment, but being connected to a network often makes these positions highly worthwhile in terms of spin-off engagements. Arts administration, both in academia and in arts organizations, is currently a big growth industry many places. Why not consider it?

What are your impressions of the changing face of academia from recent experiences, positions, and job searches? I understand I'm opening up a can of worms here, so if you feel the name to withhold your name, sign in either as an anonymous commenter or invent a nom de plume. Please try to speak in general terms, and if you mention universities by name, you'll never work in this business again I may need to delete your comment.


  1. Anonymous1:54 PM


    i think taking academic tenure track job is like becoming a secular monk. the journey includes giving up all your friends and family when you move to teach at very small schools on your path to full employment and tenure. things really don't get that much better once you finally get that great tenure job b/c you are surrounded by a group of people who are just like you. living in a city not of your choosing without any direct connection to the community or family. no wonder there is an ivory tower. i also think that this is also why the faculties in higher ed can be so vindictive. since you have no real support group its very easy for your colleagues to obsess about minor slights and disagreements because they really are so cut off from the normal world.

  2. Anonymous2:02 PM


    Since beginning grad school, I've only discovered that a career in academia is what I do _not_ want. With all of the bureaucratic nonsense and drama that goes with it, I've decided that its not worth the extra effort. I just want to make music, great music, and to work with other musicians, to learn from them and to give them something. I don't need a university job to do that!

  3. Dear Chris, I am 50 years old, a freelance pianist and I have done it all; accompanying, teaching, composing, arranging and anything else music related and wouldn't you know, I still have a fantasy of being a professor in a college. I dream of going back to college, getting my masters and PHD and just like that, get a secure, tenured professorship in a college setting within a cultural, intelligent, music loving community. (I keep googling for the location of this community and all I get are music magazines). Of course to accomplish this feat I would have to leave my present life with 60+ students and my yearly musical jobs (play for churches and synagogues, provide music for weddings and receptions, accompany any local musical endeavors, prepare students for college auditions and such), prepare and apply, move away, go into debt, study, practice, and...what? Get that dream job? Isn't this silly? I probably have the best job there is but the academic track is so hyped and my community musician position is so "not popular" (how often to you ask a music student what s/he wants to do after grad school and they answer, "I want to be a community musician."? I have yet to find one. I certainly wasn't planning this course but I needed to feed myself after college graduation.

    I am lucky that I still work with my college piano teacher (for over 30 years) and she shakes reality back into my ear and keeps me sane and thankful that I was able to create such a rich musical world around me while being married and raising three children.

  4. Anonymous12:21 AM

    I've been a tenured professor at a mid-sized university, and I've performed and taught privately. Both have their advantages and disadvantages.

    There does need to be a major change in how university positions work. Far too many see college positions as a way to subsidize their concert career, giving recitals to audiences of 50 people (most of whom are there for Music Appreciation attendance credit), and self-publishing recordings that nobody will ever purchase. The university system needs to start serving students and the public more effectively.

    In the town where I live, most of the university faculty disappear every summer to teach and perform at minor festivals in bucolic paradises around the country and around the world, often with travel assistance from the school. Meanwhile, a building full of wonderful pianos sits empty while all my piano students spend their summer in university-sponsored art, science, and sport camps.

    No wonder so many music schools can't recruit in-state students and have to look outside the US for graduate students; we're doing a terrible job of growing our own. I think there will start to be a great demand for quality teachers of young pianists when the economy recovers. I think parents will be very interested in the benefits musical training has on children, and hopefully, the balance will shift to something a little more healthy in the coming years.

  5. Anonymous1:38 AM

    I'm in grad school for collaborative piano, and my mother is definitely pushing for me to try for a job in academia afterwards. It's more "respectable" or something than freelance work. (And if I were a scientist, that would make my mother even happier, of course.) But honestly, Ellenjohansen, your lifestyle seems more attractive to me. I chose to study music because I DON'T want to "settle down" somewhere and do the same thing everyday. Even if I COULD get one of those hyped up jobs in academia someday, I don't know if I'd take it. Maybe if it paid well, and I needed the money...

    The music departments I've seen are all super-political and seem to give tenure to professors based on things other than quality of teaching/musicianship. I hope I don't have to deal too much with that kind of environment in life...

  6. Thanks for the comments, Ellen and anonymi!

  7. Ann O.10:38 AM

    I was on my way down the tenured-piano-professor path and completed a M.M. in piano at a good state university. After that, though, life circumstances directed me down another path. Now at 56, I'm tenured librarian by day, and a pianist and teacher after work. I spent a lot of time struggling and trying to make peace with my change in direction, but I finally realized that if I want, I can still get a DMA if I want to, or not if I don't want to. I study privately with a wonderful tenured professor in a community nearby, perform as much as possible, and teach 8 private students, ranging in ages between 4 and 50. I hope to retire from the library before I'm 65 and continue teaching as long as I can.

    It's a happy life, and I'm thankful to have a pleasant and well-paying "day job" and still have the energy to do my "love job".


  8. Anonymous10:30 PM

    Good questions and responses. A few random notes from someone who went into academia (10 years now, currently a music dept. chair) after being in business for 12 years. It's a mixed bag:

    -tenure is falling out of favor in many institutions--many are going to a yearly or multi-year contract, business style. You do a good job, you keep working there. Good for eliminating dead wood that results from tenure, but bad for that dream of the perpetual job.
    -why do we want these jobs? Short list: Students, faculty interaction, salary/health care benefits, etc... look at them one at a time, focusing on the "downside," not for sake of griping or negativity, but in line with the "reality check" attitude of this blog post and article:
    1) Students: we're not going to have a stellar studio of students like we probably were part of when we were students. Likely, starting in any institution, even that rare high-level music job, we'll have non-music majors and unmotivated students, and not so much choice in the matter to fill our teaching load.
    2) Faculty Interaction: this holds the most promise, I think. Our fellow musicians are mostly eager for collaboration.
    3) Salary/benefits-- compared to the business world or many other professions, pay at even the best universities sucks. We only think of it in dreamy terms because we're conditioned by years of instability and low income from freelancing and low paying B-level orchestras, etc. In 1985 when I graduated from my undergrad at a conservatory, I was having a "what now?" discussion with my piano professor. I distinctly remember him bringing up pay for academic positions, saying "maybe you'll start at $35,000 a year." Guess what--35 years later, that's still the entry level pay at many colleges and universities in US. I know Starbucks baristas who are making close to that after 4 years of mixing lattes. Healthcare benefits are being cut everywhere--most colleges/universities are only paying 50% at the most of benefits and many have eliminated matching retirement contributions (many businesses are going this route too, though.)

    Many musicians look at the College Music Society MVL Music Vacancy Listing for openings in academia. A glance at the last few months and even the past 2 years compared to previous years--it's dried up. The current list is about 1/10th as long as it was a couple of years ago at this time of year.. There just aren't the jobs, and there are many more people trying to get the few that exist.

    I agree with above posts that point out that there is a world of possibilities outside of academia. Much of the creativity and entrepreneurial savvy that it takes to nuture these possibilities is invigorating and fulfilling. I know few academics (and I know many) who can say that their work in the university is so.

  9. Anonymous10:33 PM

    sorry for the bad math above (typo, actually) should read "...25 years later."

  10. Anonymous8:22 PM

    If someone thinks that they will not encounter frustrating, angering, time-wasting, doubt-provoking circumstances in life because they are not in academia, then someone is simply not aware of how life works, musically or otherwise. Yes, academia can be a frustrating place to work, but this is no different from many many other professions. To focus only on the negative aspects as reasons for not being an academic is naive. Many, many musicians who move to academia understand it's role in teaching and equipping subsequent generations, helping to guide, advise, encourage, admonish, challenge. When an environment loses its focus on the singular goal of equipping students, then it begins to be vulnerable to much of the nastiness that some encounter. It's obvious I'm an academic but only years of freelancing, adjunct, or other methods of earning income as a musician - all my choice. I'm an enthusiastic supporter of encouraging musicians to look beyond academia as a primary goal. Particularly in my field there ARE ways to support oneself without a university/college paycheck. Few people go into music with the goal or misconception that there will be big money for most of the outlets of income we find, so one area (academia) deserves no more of a "holy grail" type of designation than another. So, there's no sense in slurring one field in music in order to justify choosing another. One of them is right for you or it's not - just like the choice to become a musician to begin with.
    My academic career is musically exciting, challenging, even exhilarating at times as a still-active performer (nationally and regionally, occasionally internationally) and a teacher. There are certainly systemic problems that need addressing(many places are doing so) and the paper-shuffling side can be, admittedly, extremely frustrating - but the trade-off is the pleasure and privilege of working with talented, enthusiastic (mostly) musicians as students and colleagues.
    We should embrace the diversity of our field of music and actively cultivate all types of earning potential and creative outlets, be they local, national, or international.

  11. Anonymous11:54 AM

    I don't see any "slurring" of academia above--only some relating of experiences and realities. There are 1000's of DMA/PhD musicians looking for academic positions, and let's see, the MVL lists 5 jobs right now. So it's important to look beyond academia, no only to address the reality, but to dispell what may be for some an idealized vision of the academic world. There are certainly many happy, engaged, prospering musicians in academia, but it's simply not going to be the answer for most, so we need to look at other options.

  12. Anonymous11:54 AM

    I don't see any "slurring" of academia above--only some relating of experiences and realities. There are 1000's of DMA/PhD musicians looking for academic positions, and let's see, the MVL lists 5 jobs right now. So it's important to look beyond academia, no only to address the reality, but to dispell what may be for some an idealized vision of the academic world. There are certainly many happy, engaged, prospering musicians in academia, but it's simply not going to be the answer for most, so we need to look at other options.

  13. I'd say it's worthwhile IF it's a passion. Otherwise, I'd stay clear of any musical endeavor.