Choosing the Perfect Grad School: Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, we looked at faulty assumptions that many artists make when seeking a graduate school.

So, if you decide to pursue an advanced degree in the arts, what question should you ask above all others?  In my opinion, this is the most important one:

How will this next degree advance my life goals?

Many artists never ponder this angle before applying to schools, let alone attempt to answer it.  They just try to improve in their major field and cross their fingers that life will magically work out.  As a result, they garner degree after degree, yet have no realistic idea how to create a viable life through their art.  Upon graduation, these individuals are barely closer to having a career than they were as a high school student.

Finally in the real world, without the benefits and resources of a school, these artists have no choice but to start from scratch to build their career.  They are forced to develop essential marketable skills that were neglected during the college years.  Or give up their art altogether.  Hmmm…maybe it’s time to go back to school in another field…

Graduate school can be a wonderful and valuable experience.  Personally, I loved my graduate years.  And when approached in a savvy way, it can be one of the best tools for propelling your career and life in the arts.

Many of the resources available through schools cannot be found in any other environment.  Obviously, they provide a framework for focusing intensely on your art and craft.  They allow you to develop weaknesses and hone strengths.  There are ample opportunities to network.  Faculty members, even ones with whom you don’t study, are readily accessible.  Student colleagues are often willing to rehearse/collaborate for long hours without compensation (i.e. if you’d like to become a professional chamber musician, this is an ideal place to start a group that will continue beyond the school years). Academia is the ideal environment for experimentation, as the consequences for failure are low.  In fact, most skills that contribute to success in the outside world–marketing, attracting new audiences, developing your voice, differentiating your work, exploiting technology, colloaborating with others, using art as a tool for transformation and change, etc.–can be developed within the pearly gates. If these things are not part of the curriculum, it just takes creativity and pro-activity on your part. (In future posts, I will outline some specific activities and approaches that savvy students can take.)

So before contemplating where you should attend, what would look most prestigious on your resume, and who’s the best teacher, ask a different question.  What do you truly want to do with your life, and how can an academic experience help you realize those aspirations?  How will your studies help position you for future professional and personal success? If this is your point of departure, you may make a very different kind of decision about where to study and how to approach the experience.

Only after answering this query should you begin considering schools and compiling your priority list.  At this point, pick institutions that will actively assist you in achieving those objectives.  And after enrolling, be sure to realize your goals.  After all, you—and no one else—are in control of your own education.


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  • Rachel

    I’ve met a lot of musicians that become professional students precisely because they don’t know what to do with their talent and ambitions. They go back to school, not really to practice, but to defer their loans and delay having to really figure out what they can make their music do for them. A school is not going to get you a job most of the time. You get out of school what you make the school give you. It is a resource, certainly, but by no means is it, on its own, a promise of job security. You have to make that happen.

  • Becca

    Just a warning to those who have doubts about a career in music: I thought that going to grad school would clarify my feelings about pursuing a career. I even got in to a famous east coast music school. Now that I have realized that I don’t want a career in music, I still have a year and a half of grad school left. I’m not miserable, but not happy on this path. Now I see that I should have given myself more time.
    Any one else been down this road?
    Should I get my degree, or just bail?

  • David Cutler


    Sorry to hear you aren’t enjoying your current path in music. You alone have to make the call on whether or not to stay in school.

    But here’s a different way to approach your studies. If (IF!) you do things right, and act as a savvy student, music studies can help you succeed in a number of different paths. For example, there are major corporations that prefer to hire musicians because we are creative problem solvers and disciplined worker. For more thoughts on this, read my post ARE MUSICIANS CREATIVE PROFESSIONALS?

    As I suggested above, ask yourself how this degree can help advance your life goals. True, it’s a music degree, and you are thinking about other directions. But music studies can help develop a number of transferrable skills, and the “Famous East Coast School” where you find yourself undoubtedly has tremendous resources.

    Better yet, you might find yourself enjoying music making more once again…

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