I’ve been thinking, lately, about the career expectations for composers in general and the state of the academic job market for composers in particular. When I started down this road some 21 years ago I had the expectation, like many of us did (and many, like my students, still do), that I would settle into a comfortable if not always lucrative teaching career as a primary source of income to support my “research” (I always feel funny calling creative work “research,” so I have to use quotation marks, even if ironic ones). I held this expectation for the entirety of my four years as an undergraduate and six years as a graduate student and valiantly (and unsuccessfully) dipped my feet into the job pool in 1999 (not too unsuccessfully, though: I did make one short list, much to my delight). In 2002, having completed my doctorate and finished a year as an adjunct I took a job as a Visiting Assistant Professor and moved my family to the Pacific northwest for a year, expecting this to be the typical first step towards a tenure track university position.

Well, as the man said, life is what happens when you’re making other plans. Almost ten years later and I still have not found a tenure track job. I spent three years outside of academia entirely, then landed a visiting position in upstate New York which lasted two years and, while it boosted my resume (I’ve made more short lists and gotten more interviews since) it still did not lead to a full time position. I’ve been lucky enough to find a fulfilling, well-paying and relatively stable (at least for the time being) adjunct position at a prestigious conservatory, though, which has allowed me to pursue professional opportunities that I might not have had the opportunity to pursue had I been in a tenure-track position from the beginning. A number of my friends haven’t been so lucky, however, and continue to struggle to make a life in music or give up entirely and move on to other, less punishing professions. Others have managed to piece together careers either through sheer luck and perseverance while precariously balancing a number of part-time jobs to help support their careers. This has led to an unusual, perhaps unique situation in our field over the past decade in creating almost an entire generation where a great number of the most prominent young practitioners of our craft are not associated with a particular university.

I’m lucky. I have a job, and a pretty good one, all things considered. I’ve also been able to forge a career, however modest, as a composer and have the majority of my music performed, and very well at that. But in teaching at a conservatory I come across students who still expect to find a university position and make their way as composers that way at a time when universities are cutting programs and consolidating others into sometimes bizarre combinations (good luck finding that one composer who can also teach ear training, run the electronic music lab, teach applied tuba and manage the school’s underwater Tai-Chi Renaissance Shawm Consort!). I can’t help but feel like we’re doing them a disservice if we don’t at least hint at how difficult a life they are headed into. Thankfully, a number of university programs are requiring “business of music” type courses that teach survival strategies and alternative approaches to generating a musical career, but I still get nervous knowing how difficult landing a teaching job (even for rising superstars with every award and fellowship in the planet, as it turns out) can be.

9 Responses to “State of the Job Market”
  1. I agree. I wrote about this issue extensively for an article in NewMusicBox a while back: http://newmusicbox.org/article.nmbx?id=6559

    I encourage you and the other folks at S21 to read the whole thing, but the main point is that you are not alone in your experience, and that there are very clear reasons why this is happening in the academy. It comes down to simple math: every year, the number of students graduating from music degree programs is much larger than the number of professors hired by those programs. And since most of those graduates don’t have much in the way of alternative career options, it makes the market for academic positions extremely — and increasingly over time — competitive. Just like the market for listeners!

    I absolutely do think that music professors have a responsibility, I would say an ethical responsibility, to give their students a reality check for the world they’re looking at when they graduate. Especially when they’re still undergrads and people don’t care as much what your major is/was.

  2. Ten years ago I was under the impression that to succeed in the composition world I had to slug it out through graduate school, earn a doctorate and get a job teaching to support myself while composing. Ten years later having just completed said doctorate, having stellar GTA teaching experience, and moderate success on the “contest circuit” I find myself getting the cold shoulder from academia. Whether its the economy, the highly competitive and overpopulated field, or if I am just not THAT good, all I know is that currently every day is a challenge to keep positive and not give up music entirely.

    My best friend calls this my “starving artist phase that will fuel my writing for the next decade” and while funny and possibly a relevant observation, I am more than ready for it to be over and on to some stability. Here’s to hoping the spring brings good news!


  3. Paul Muller says:

    My daughter teaches Psychology at a small midwestern college and she says that the academic job market is the worst she has seen. She was lucky and caught on in a tenure track spot 4 years ago – and had two offers at the time. Faculty lost are not being replaced as endowment funds reflect the general crash of 2007.

    That said, hang in there. The economy will eventually improve and there will be a lot of open spots when hiring starts again. If you are under 40, keep in mind that most of the current department chairs, etc are at or near retirement age. So prospects in the long term are somewhat brighter than the next year or two…

    I do think academic music needs to reinvent itself – many schools are trying to show prospective students that their training will be relevent in the job market and that is an increasingly tough sell for music.

  4. Joseph, I’m still looking for the T/T job after ten years. And yet, I don’t know that I want a T/T job at this point. It helps that some stability is coming my way through my wife’s job, but many have been the times I’ve also thought about giving up on the whole thing. The itch to create, however, is too great.

    Paul, I hear you. I agree that academic music needs to change. I often wonder if part of that change needs to be more selectiveness in the number of students accepted to music programs and, therefore, the further shrinking of the academic job market. The whole thing starts feeling like a self-perpetuating system on a mobius strip after a while, and that makes me uncomfortable.

  5. At just-concluded NY recording sessions (Harlem Quartet and Awadagin Pratt), the page-turner was a current masters comp. student with whom I had two conversations on this issue.

    He’s not even planning to look for a job in academia; instead, he’s already employed 3/4-time as an engineer for a recording studio. He’s decided that separating his dollars-earning -function from his artistic one is a better, more secure, and cleaner option.

    That gibes with decisions made by certain of my former Minnesota comp. Ph D’s :
    maybe the state-celebrated examples of Larsen and Paulus — who actively chose no regular teaching position up front — is a current wisest course. Two went to CA for orchestrator jobs in film ( it’s been an OK choice for Pasatieri); a couple do sound design in theatre; three are concert producers; one writes for a well-known magazine, two others work in administrative jobs at conservatories; ; etc.

    And, yes, some are teaching – while I still write letters of rec. every year for two or three, a fair number did snag tenure-track jobs in comp.

  6. I’ve learned a lot in the past year. After 45 years of non-academic work (from grading lawns with a rake to driving truck to designing hardware/software to writing articles and books to who knows what else) I began my first academic job, part time, teaching theory, composition, etc., at a small state college. It’s certainly fun (outside of ‘faculty stuff’) but I wouldn’t ever have wanted to do it full-time — much less with tenure. Working the freelance world has allowed me great experience and wider (even if not larger) audiences. Even at age 61, I think the instability keeps me sharper (as well as outside the having-to-put-everything-into-words mode). I’ve been invited back for a third semester, and it continues to be a rewarding experience. After two years? Three? Doesn’t sound appealing.


  7. Laoshi Ma says:

    I think this issue points to unrealistic expectations of job options as a musician. An academic tenure track position is a great situation, but does not reflect the full depth of options for composer. An approach like a “gigging composer,” similar to jazz musicians, combined with freelancing, as the above comment pointed out, gives you a similar amount of opportunity to both enjoy a large network and have a large group of people hear your music.

    I don’t think it’s a matter of how tough a sell it is — it’s a matter of how you can’t create a community top-down; the students have to make their own connections so they can, like a rock band, find venues that will provide a space.

  8. I tried to post a response to this back when it was first posted, but WordPress seems to have eaten it. So I’ll just provide you with a couple of links for further, relevant reading.

    First, an article I wrote a few months ago for NewMusicBox examining (in part) the role of grad school in the economic lives of composers:


    And second, an article for the Economist that states that for every new professorship created in this country, our system graduates more than 6 newly-minted PhDs:


    It’s all about the math!

  9. By happenstance I stumbled across this thread today. Armando, a resoundingly concise and accurate portrait faced by so many of us, yet admirably devoid of the vitriol one can sometimes experience when considering the topic. I also connected to the link offered by Ian–thanks for that.

    I am extremely lucky (I admit luck!) in having found a TT job 5 years ago at a regional school in the midwest. Even with this job I must still make time (often after hours) for composing and promoting my work. It became clear to me–having spent a few years either working as a paralegal or on the VAP circuit–that I had to embrace the reality that I might never land a job, and still make peace with my life and passion for composing. An opportunity for spending time outside of academia is that one will learn about how vast the world is–and what a little part new music is (as Ian offered). I honestly believe that the more we reach out into diverse and distant communities, the better we can position ourselves and our music. Watching how X composer landed Y job is often like getting relationship advice from someone: when applying their experience to one’s own “romance” you learn how even the smallest nuance in variation yields an entirely different result. The fact is that we must all invent our own method. I believe that the ultimate result will be that those without motivation to keep composing no matter what will select themselves out of the pool.