I’ve uncharacteristically procrastinated on this post for about a month and a half. In early December (I think), Christian Carey asked me to write a note about applying to doctoral programs in Music Composition after reading my incessant tweets on the subject, and I’ve been sitting on the assignment ever since. Much of the delay owes itself to my Masters Thesis. But, as of Monday afternoon, that project is finished and I have no more excuses.


The decision to apply to any program, whether a D.M.A./Ph.D. or a summer festival, is individual; the core motivations for pursuing or abstaining from the activity are absolutely personal. I urge anyone out there considering a graduate track in Music Composition to consider all the options – I have just as many peers who take time in between the stages of their education as those who, as I aspire, follow an unbroken path from their undergraduate studies to their doctorates.

With that said, I believe there is one universal I can offer: DO NOT do this because ‘everyone else’ does it, or you think it is a de facto part of a composer’s life. Although extraneous forces may shade doctoral studies as pro forma for the professional composer, this is not necessarily the case. No one should pursue a doctorate without a heartfelt motivation for staying in school.

My reason for continuing my education is impossible to capture in a pithy catchphrase. Even saying I, “love to learn”, is wholly inadequate because we are always learning no matter where we are and, more importantly, school isn’t the only place to absorb what we need to know. Last year, a doctoral student-friend of mine at UM told me, “don’t let your education get in the way of your learning”, which I think is excellent advice for any creative person in any level of schooling.

Along these lines, I didn’t choose to apply to doctoral programs for any curricular reason. Although there are specific parts of my craft/musicianship I look forward to working on (electronic music, orchestration, for starters), I don’t think I must be in school to meet these goals. In other words, I’m not searching for something in the schools I’ve applied to; rather, I’m looking for a place where I can look inside myself, become more familiar with the forces that drive me and mature into the musician I need to be to do my best in professional life. Perhaps naively, I consider the other responsibilities of a doctoral student ancillary to this process of self-discovery, experimentation and artistic refinement.

Additionally, I feel inherent to the act of applying for a doctorate is my recognition of the consequences of my actions as a composer. I cannot live off performance royalties and commissions. I haven’t built a name for myself through awards and competitions. If I were to leave school now I won’t be able to focus on composing as much as I can if I continue my studies. Of course, a doctorate does not guarantee commissions and performances; it gives me time and the best circumstances to continue to develop my skills and presence as a composer

Admittedly, I know other musicians who see little or no value in doctoral degrees. I can’t remember the exact quote a singer-friend of mine used on this subject, but she essentially told me last semester that, as a singer, getting a doctorate is a sign of professional surrender. I found her sentiment ironic because, much like composers, I know singers take time to mature. When I look at the widely-performed, frequently-commissioned composers out in the world who have built careers without a doctorate, they seem to possess a clarity about the sound of their music, the subject of their art which I do not yet share. Unwaveringly confident in my music and my abilities as I am, I also feel, were I thrust into the ‘real world’ of composing today, I would walk its streets unprepared.

A particular analogy has guided me through much of this process, and I apologize if I lose any of you by sharing it because it involves sports. I believe collegiate football and basketball players face a similar decision to mine when they choose to leave college. The upside of leaving school at the earliest possibility is not as clear as it would seem. For example, in basketball, players only need to attend one year of college before entering the professional draft. Every year, there is a crop of ‘one-and-done’ players who enter the NBA, but don’t necessary flourish immediately. Instant success, particularly sustained success, is rare in both professional football and basketball, and, more often than not, players who maximize their college experience succeed over the long term.

These players who stay an extra year or three years don’t just grow physically over that time, they come into their own in terms of their position and their sport as a whole. This learning equates to the self-reflection and self-learning I seek to pursue in my doctoral studies. Not to be tautological, but there are also specific concepts I will benefit from studying further (such as big words like “tautological”!). I feel, above all, the personal understanding I will focus on in my doctorate will ultimately bear more fruit in my life and career.

As you can see, honest, thorough contemplation has been omnipresent in my decision-making these last few months, just as it will be when it comes to choose a school to attend next year, assuming I am accepted somewhere. I feel all the places I applied to offer me an excellent situation to achieve my goals, though each in a different way. Truthfully, this process is far from over, but, as of now, it is out of my control. Clearly, The Wait has given me time to reflect on what this experience means to me, and I hope this account, though not my typical review, does not only seem worthwhile to me and Christian.



If you are interested in more of my observations on my experience as a graduate composition student at the University of Michigan, check out my website.

6 thoughts on “My Truth On Getting A Doctorate”
  1. Garrett, I get where you’re coming from completely. I’m in the same boat as you at this moment, actually, and have a similar outlook. Having been out in the working world for a couple of years now, and also having found a little bit of success and income from my music, my decision to apply is not about finding a job coming out, or, as you mentioned, even about finding the perfect program to nurture what I consider my deficiencies.

    Really, it’s about having three to five years to focus solely on composing. It’s a bit about being sick of getting home from a day job at 7 at night and getting straight to music after dinner, errands, chores, and whatever else. I’m not ready to relegate music to a hobby and side pursuit. So whatever comes of the PhD, I barely care. I’m in it to make music the center of my life again.

  2. I’m a bit startled by this post, which is framed in institutional terms of “programs” and “tracks” with no mention of what I would assume to be the most critical element in a decision to study someplace: while institutional affiliations and credentials might, eventually, offer some advantage in placement for a day job teaching theory or music literature, studying composition at an advanced level, with the intention that composing is to be one’s principle activity, is largely a question of with whom one studies. AFAIC, if composing is it issue, then the main question is: Is there a match — or, as the case may be, useful contrast — of genre, style, aesthetics, methods, intentions, personalities between a potential student and teacher pair?

  3. Here is a little exercise I did before I decided that had a big impact on my decision. I made a list of the 100 living musicians who’s work I admired most at the time and looked to see how many held advanced degrees. For me the numbers were dramatic and helpful in clarifying where my tastes and interests did not belong.

    Worth trying.

  4. Where your sports analogy fails is that the professional world on composing is not a regulated league. I’m not sure I completely agree with the sentiment that a doctorate will somehow make you better prepared for the “real world” anymore so than just being in it. I feel rather confident that you’ll walk the streets feeling unprepared no matter what degree you get. I guess that I feel there is nothing more educational than being in the thick of things. Survival in the “real world” for a composer depends on so much more than just composing, as any number of blogs and articles have mentioned in the recent past. The things that will help “mature you into the musician” you need to be before entering the professional world are much more related to business etiquette, work ethic, fiscal responsibility, and personal skills.

    Having my first child while still in grad school pushed me much harder to succeed than any degree program or course requirement. The knowledge that another life was completely dependent on my abilities to get things done immediately flipped a switch in me to cut the bullshit and focus on my work. Similarly, life post-grad has afforded me no shortage of opportunities to push myself and stretch my creative potential. Not having the scrutiny of academic panels or grad school peers makes for an extremely satisfying experience, as well as a somewhat scary ride. The initial feeling that you are free to make whatever decisions you want to make, and that full responsibility lies solely on your shoulders, is enlightening. It provides an amazingly direct opportunity to reflect on your own creativity.

    All that said, good luck!

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