Dear Performers: Don’t Get a DMA

Foreword: I wrote this post in 2014, while smack in the middle of the typical post-doctoral job hunt. I was in the market for a tenure-track professorship and decided to not publish these thoughts out of some strange fear that my opinion - if read by search committees - would make me much less likely to be offered an interview. With no plans to search for a job in higher ed in my near future, I feel more confident posting my feelings now. All that said, this post is entirely based on my own opinions, as a result of my own experiences, and like everything I write, should be taken with a massive grain of salt. The post has only been lightly edited from its original 2014 form, and it is entirely possible that everything has changed since my days as a doctoral student! So, here we go. -JDD

I am not what you might call a “delusional” person. Certainly, like most performing musicians, I have the occasional delusion of grandeur: I have dreamt of sold out performances on the big stage at Carnegie Hall, triumphing at a large, prestigious competition, and collaborating with my musical heroes and mentors. But, generally speaking, I am not a delusional person. I feel the need to make this statement as a preface to this post because I think I was a bit delusional in my academic pursuits. I pursued and completed a doctoral degree in music (the Doctor of Musical Arts, or DMA) that was completely unnecessary for both my professional development and progress as a musician. Though I now hold said doctorate in cello performance, I believe that doctoral study is unnecessary, lacking in prestige, not worth the expense, and - when it comes to the ultimate payoff - delusional.

Look around you, musicians: there's a good chance that your teachers and your teacher’s teachers probably don’t have doctorates. A DMA wasn’t necessary to have a performing career when many of your mentors entered the professional world, back in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Even today, though times have changed, a handful of singers - performing at high levels and speaking anecdotally - have told me that a DMA on their resume hurts more than it helps in an audition, and would hardly assist in landing them on the Met stage, to say nothing of a more minor gig. I believe the reason a doctorate hurts some performers harkens back to the old, tired adage, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” There's still a stigma from the last generation, that a doctorate is a signal that the holder of the degree couldn't make it as a performer.

Truly, there remains little reason to pursue a doctorate unless one plans to teach in their field, specifically in higher education. That said, more and more active, outstanding performers hold doctorates these days, so it’s obvious that one can “do” whether or not they also “teach.” My friends in doctoral programs entered said program because they wished to hone their performance skills. Still, at the present time the DMA only truly serves an academic means to an academic end, eschewing some of the performance study that many are seeking when they begin the degree.

Have a look at this summary of one doctoral curriculum (from a major American conservatory):

Performance Area: Majors in performance and literature enroll for at least five consecutive semesters of applied study, perform a jury in the first year of residency, and perform three recitals, and a lecture recital.

Research and Writing Seminars: Courses in musicology, music history, and/or theory must be taken, including doctoral seminars and/or a dissertation, at least three theory courses, and additional music electives.

The “Performance” requirements sounds great; who wouldn’t want five semesters of study with a master teacher, and the opportunity to perform three recitals? However, the rub is in the “Research and Writing Seminars” requirement. That’s quite a bit of academic study - and don't let the word "recital" in "lecture recital" confuse you. A lecture recital is a major academic project, a research-based presentation that masquerades as a performance. And this from a conservatory, which many may expect to be light on the academic load. For comparison, here’s the doctoral curriculum summary from my own university doctoral program:

The program of study for the DMA includes coursework in five areas: major field, minor field, musicology and music theory, music in higher education, and research. A minimum of 90 semester hours is required beyond the baccalaureate degree. A maximum of 32 semester or 48 quarter hours from the master’s degree may be applied toward meeting the 90-hour minimum. Minimum credit hour requirements beyond the baccalaureate degree area are listed below:

Major Field: 40 hours
Minor Field: 12 hours
Musicology and Music Theory: 20 hours
Music in Higher Education: 2 hours
Research, Recitals, Special Requirements: 16 hours

Let’s be frank: this is a huge amount of academic work, 50 hours of academics to 40 hours of instrumental and performance study. And to continue with my frankness: it is largely unnecessary for the modern performer. (An aside: it is also next to impossible to complete these requirements in three years time, which was the length of my funding. But just wait, the money comes later.) There are many things I learned in the academic side of my doctoral study that have helped in my post-doctoral performing life, but there are many more things that were (at best) unhelpful or (at worst) unnecessary for me, as a performer.

Do I find it worthwhile that - thanks to my doctoral minor - I know a bit more than the average Schmoe about music history and literature? Absolutely, yes. Do I believe this was worth three seminar courses (and their culminating research/writing projects), half of my comprehensive exams, or that it will significantly improve my teaching, performance, or interpretation?


Equally nice to have had is the rigorous education in advanced music theory, such as Schenkerian, tonal analysis. While this method may help me to dig a bit deeper into a tonal work, one of my high school students noticed a (somewhat hidden) linear progression in Bach the other day; it enhanced his interpretation. But, he didn’t need a doctorate to figure it out.

I must say that I really don’t mean to bash my education at any level, though I realize that's hard to believe considering what I’ve written thus far; I am certainly very happy that I have learned so much from so many. Surely, if I ever end up teaching in higher education, I will be thanking my lucky stars for this rigorous academic background, especially if I have to teach academic, non-cello courses! Additionally, I am an ardent supporter of education-for-education’s-sake. Learning is fun!

BUT! We live in America. Education ain’t free. And in addition to being time consuming, this shit is expensive. DMA programs are accepting more applicants each year and offering less funding. This trend is true across the board at the doctoral level. The Atlantic sums up what Karen Kelsky has found in her unscientific survey on PhD debt, and adds information from the National Science Foundation: up to 20% of PhD’s leave their programs - graduated or not - with $30,000 or more in doctoral debt. It should be noted that the degree programs whose graduates leave with the least amount of debt are those that are traditionally the most well-funded programs at universities (referred to colloquially these days as STEM areas). Students in the social sciences - which must be as close to an arts field as the NSF is going to get - have the highest levels of debt from their PhD programs. $30k is significantly less than the average medical school debt of $167,000, however the short- AND long-term earning potential - ESPECIALLY as a musician - in most fields within higher education is significantly less than that of a medical doctor.

Here’s another thought on program cost: if you want a DMA from a top program, best be prepared to get out your checkbook, especially if you are an unknown fresh face at your chosen institution. This is simple economics: the best students are applying for the best programs. These programs are in great demand and can charge what they want to whomever they want. And why should these programs take a financial chance on you - the unknown - when they could fund a recent graduate (i.e., the devil they know) from their Master’s or diploma programs?

Conversely, if you require your DMA to be completely funded, or at the very least, adequately funded, best to resign yourself to the fact that you will probably be attending a school whose name and reputation may not jump off the resume page, and may not have the resources or reach to lobby on your behalf during the academic job hunt. This may (but not necessarily) put you at a disadvantage in the academic marketplace. Personally, I auditioned for doctoral programs right around the worst of the Great Recession, when many schools had slammed closed their financial aid checkbooks. Because I had already accumulated significant debt from my private and almost-private school(s) education, I wanted to be very well funded for my doctorate. The result, frankly, is that I took the best financial deal that was offered to me, eschewing “better” programs for a more rosy financial outlook. I do not regret this decision.

(Now, before someone yells at me: the previous two paragraphs are made up of some generalities and anecdotes from my own experiences, as well as those of my colleagues, and will not be the case in every situation.)

Then, there’s the post-DMA reality that too many pre/mid-doctoral students don’t consider: there are few, if any, full-time academic jobs available (even in well-funded STEM fields). Unless you are a choral or wind conductor (just about every college has a choir and/or band), and even if you are, many focused, tenure-track positions have been replaced by jacks-of-all-trades - those who can teach voice and trumpet, conduct the jazz band, and also teach music history and composition - as well as non-tenured, part-time (read: starvation wage) lecturer positions: the “adjunctification” of higher education.

In 2013-2014, I applied for no fewer than twenty available, tenured/untenured jobs. Of these, only six were strictly for cello, and of those six, three were top-level schools blatantly searching for the next Janos Starker, Bernard Greenhouse, or Aldo Parisot. While I was offered a handful of phone interviews, I was a finalist for just two of these twenty job postings. (Surprise! I didn’t get either job!) Most positions to which I applied were much more general (a music professor who can teach an instrument; string position, low string preferred but not required; music history teacher who conducts the orchestra; etc.). Since one pursues a DMA with - it would seem - a desire to teach in higher education, one must consider the financial risk of the degree if it will not pay off in tenured employment and may be looked down upon in the world of music performance.

While reading this, you should not assume that I am bitter or angry about my own student loan debt (which is, admittedly, a very large sum of which I will probably never rid myself), or unhappy with the education I was privileged to receive, at any level. Neither of these assumptions are (necessarily) true. I hope that grad students who make such statements as, “I want to be a [insert instrument here] professor,” or, “I plan to get a doctorate after my Master’s,” consider the ramifications: could your time in a doctoral program be better spent building your performance network and actively concertizing, or perhaps pursuing a certificate/diploma and refining your skills in a practice room while studying with a dedicated master-teacher, rather than revising the fourth draft of a dissertation that nobody will ever read?

The reality is that performing musicians can make their way in music - and make a living - without a doctorate. There are academic alternatives, post-Master’s degree: consider pursuing a Graduate Performance Diploma (GPD), Artist Diploma (AD) (and their various counterparts), or hell, just pay a teacher out of pocket to study with them! Do the math: that private study will probably be cheaper (and maybe more artistically and financially fulfilling) than a doctoral degree.

Were I to make a decision today - four (edit: now seven!) years after beginning my DMA program, with all that I learned along the way, and with the realities of the post-DMA shining squarely in my face - I would not have pursued the degree, and I would have been okay. So will you. Don’t get a DMA.