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LINES OF ENQUIRY | Ten Pieces of Advice for Prospective Graduate Students in Musicology

By Curtis Perry on October 16, 2014

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I recently started an MA program in Music and Culture further north, at Carleton University, Ottawa. I feel it could be useful to give a few points of advice based on my brief experience to far, for those who may be beginning to consider something similar, as the Fall marches on and the next year’s plans come to view. Granted, this is only one graduate student’s perspective one month in, but I’ll do my best.

1) Ask yourself why you want to do this.

This is a deceptively obvious question. You’ll state your research interests on your Statement of Intent when you apply, sure. However, that’s only the “what.” What you’ll need to answer to is the So What. Part of this is going to be made clearer over the course of readings in the fall – both the problems, and the contemporary work and tools having been devised to tackle these problems. The question is one of sufficiency. Speaking of a broader topic, has the notion of “community” in fact been thoroughly deconstructed through a hermeneutic approach by Kay Shelemay, for example? For me, understanding musical communities better should enhance my approach as an arts administrator for Ottawa’s new music society, ONMC. I also expect my research to better inform the development of educational materials, as I am a registered Ontario teacher. I also hope to address gaps in knowledge, or possibly help inform contemporary debates for questions like the role of the CRTC in the age of music streaming services. These are broad goals, yes – I’m sure it will necessarily narrow as I develop a thesis proposal, but I think these are all valid and useful reasons to pursue graduate studies in musicology.

2) Learn the lingo.

You’re going to learn to stop throwing around terms like “postmodern” or “hermeneutic,” or “community” for that matter and develop a much more nuanced understanding of the conception and evolutions of such terms in historical, political, and ethnographic terms, for example. These literary tools of the trade are loaded with meaning through use, and must consequently be used with great awareness and care.

3) Learn a second language.

If you aren’t already bilingual, I recommend going ahead and reading some websites en français now. Most MA programs in musicology hold a language requirement that can be fulfilled through a reading and translation test, or through basic courses.

4) Place yourself.

By this I mean, any work you do must be thoroughly situated in the context of past and contemporary work. In fact, the bulk of your papers will consist of or relate to literature review and the acknowledgement of the limitations of your work. An undergraduate paper might focus on arguments with adequate citation. A graduate paper focuses on citation with adequate arguments. It is enough to advance the needle on a topic just slightly if done so in a way that is fully contextual, situated, and original.

5) Pace yourself.

You’re going wind up creating sub par work if you attempt to write either in advance or rubbing up against the deadline. Enjoy the summer beforehand; you’ll have plenty of work to do in the fall. You work better under pressure? Okay – create a deadline for yourself at least a few days before the real one. You will thank yourself when you give your paper or presentation a fresh set of sober eyes before submitting it to, you know, real scrutiny.

6) Wear a few different hats.

If you’re a graduate student, you’re probably also a teaching assistant. Take advantage of the training universities offer to TAs. The TA is a social entity existing squarely between the professor and the student body, and this complex social position needs to be negotiated very carefully. The TA is amiable and professional, and in many courses where the class consists of dozens or even hundreds of students, represents the personal face of the University for many first-year students. In seminar classes, you will often need to lead the group, whether through presentation or discussion. Among your peers, you’re just another student. Just be prepared to change your hat as necessary.

7) Mingle and experiment.

Don’t be afraid to entertain controversial viewpoints, or be a contrarian. Understanding another side, if nothing else, serves to strengthen an argument or viewpoint you may hold through understanding. Knowing and investigating the work of others – in your cohort, in the wider faculty, and in the world – gives you a better understanding of how your niche fits into the wider framework of problems that your colleagues are operating in. You never know what experience or conversation will lead to a welcome change in focus in your own research.

8) Have a workflow.

There’s no doubt that you will be conducting a lot of research and writing hundreds of thousands of words on your computer. It really preserves your sanity to have a comprehensive filing, research, and writing system in place in order to produce your best work – whether that means a presentation, a paper, or an application for funding. Personally, I like to use Evernote for organization, Instapaper for online reading, Feed Wrangler to pursue RSS, Mailbox to manage my email, and Sibelius for notational needs. I could get very deep into this, but the overall point is that you should take the time to find the digital resources and tools you could and should be using to keep yourself sane and happily productive.

9) Keep a tab on opportunities, and be selective.

There are quite a few academic journals and conferences out there – take the time to see what conferences are happening close to you, what conference themes and academic societies you might feel “at home” in, and what journals are publishing. Do consider what journals, societies, and conferences you might want to take part in when writing your papers. Do consider these audiences. Use social media, institutional emails, listservs, and RSS to stay attuned to opportunities. If a conference is happening close to you, consider going before you begin the MA.

10) Be grateful.

No matter how hard it might seem to get, how demanding the deadlines are, or how unforgiving the program might appear to be, as an MA student the onus is on you to prove your capability in investigating and finding ways toward solving real problems in society. If you become an MA student, you’ve been given an amazing opportunity to conduct research investigating your interests that only 3.38% of the population has been granted, with the support of public funding. Be grateful, should you be granted this rare opportunity. I know I am.

Curtis Perry

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