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Preparing for a Career in Academia

Updated: May 13, 2020

Any musician on the job market today will attest to the dwindling number of opportunities for an increasing number of applicants. In this environment, more than ever, a career in academia is an extremely attractive goal for any burgeoning artist. Full-time university jobs have flexible hours, stimulating and rewarding work environments, and great benefits. Teaching can be both challenging and gratifying, keeping the professor engaged and innovative in their pedagogical approach. In addition, academic environments usually encourage creativity and productivity in their instructors, which allows the clarinetist to excel as a chamber or orchestral musician, soloist, scholar, or innovator. The job market for university professors is quite competitive, so it is important to prepare for this career path as early as possible.

College Teaching and the Clarinetist: Where to Start

The basis for any college teaching career begins in a good education at the undergraduate and graduate levels. This doesn’t necessarily have to be at a conservatory but can be at a great state university or other private school. Pick a teacher and a program that will invest the time and interest in you.  Questions to ask when picking a program:

-Will this school get me to where I need to be?

-Can I afford this?

-Are the attributes of the program aligned with my personal goals?

-Do I see eye-to-eye with the professor(s)?

-What type of career enhancement can the program offer outside of clarinet?

The last point, opportunities apart from the clarinet, is one that bears further discussion. Entry-level academic jobs will often have requirements other than just teaching the clarinet. These can include music theory, ear training, musicology, music appreciation, technology, and administrative duties. Being versed in a wide variety of subjects when applying for work has the distinct advantage of expanding job opportunities. Sometimes, jobs come with additional opportunities outside of the clarinet because of necessary credit hour allocations on the part of universities. They are required to justify the employment hours if there are not enough clarinet students. Often by increasing recruitment efforts, a clarinetist can have their job relieved of the classroom teaching and other duties once the studio reaches a certain size.

Graduate School or Commensurate Experience

You do not necessarily need a doctorate or masters degree to have a career in academia. If you only have an undergraduate degree, be prepared to have something else amazing on your resume. This can be a stellar chamber music group, an orchestral job, a major solo career, a book published, or some other type of prestigious musical or scholarly activity. Many universities require a masters degree and some a doctorate regardless of these other attributes. The point is: if you are not going to be enrolled in school then make this time count doing something epic for your musical career.

Build your network

Start to build your network early and often. Networking doesn’t (and shouldn’t) have to be smarmy cocktail parties schmoozing and handing out business cards.  It can be simply building a reputation as a consistent, enjoyable person who likes to collaborate with their colleagues. The music business is filled with interesting and charismatic people. Universities are wonderful places to build musical, business, and social networks.  Don’t be afraid to start chamber groups and other collaborations early and often. Above all, realize that your reputation is essential in the music business.  Be professional, reliable, and kind. Good words to live by anyway!

With the popularity of social media, be sure to hone an online presence that is geared towards your professional goals. Cultivate and maintain contacts from school and festivals. Above all be gracious and thankful, even in the briefest of texts and emails. Be as kind to the youngest grade school student as you would to a conductor in a job audition.

Build your resume

I cannot emphasize this point enough. When you are starting off in the music business, there is really no job that is too small. Try to diversify: fill your plate with orchestras, chamber music, summer festivals, and teaching opportunities. You will be required to have specific research areas when you land the academic job. This is a wonderful opportunity to specialize in a subject matter close to your heart or one that begs further study.  Whether recording works of a noteworthy 19th century composer or Georgian polyphonic singing, research is one of the perks of academia. Apply for grants, both in your college and externally, to fund travel, summer salary, or supplies. Start this early, while still a student. It is remarkable how much grant money goes unused every year at universities. And be creative and innovative in your thinking. Don't wait for someone else to make opportunities for you.

Market yourself

Proper marketing and compilation of materials is key to a successful career in music and academia. Create a one-page orchestral resume and short cover letter for orchestral auditions. College teaching CVs should be much longer and include all of your noteworthy work arranged chronologically.

Cover letters are extremely important in an academic job search and should be one to two pages of immaculately written prose. Each paragraph should address a different aspect of the job.  For example, if a job description says, “must teach chamber music, music appreciation, studio clarinet, and recruit a studio,” spend one paragraph on each area listed. Be humble in tone but not self-deprecating. The first paragraph should address the name of the search Chair and committee, so it reads, “Dear Professor Mozart and members of the Clarinet Search Committee.” Address your envelope like this as well. Introduce yourself briefly in the first paragraph, then go on to discuss each aspect of the position.  Conclude with a paragraph explaining why you would be a good fit for that job (regional expertise, skills pertinent for the position) and a sentence about why you would personally want to live there. The latter point assures the committee that you are not wasting their time trying to get a job to use as negotiating leverage in your current situation. End by thanking them for their time and a brief “Sincerely.” The writing style throughout should be warm but professional.

Create a website and get people to link theirs to yours. Maintain a good Facebook, Linkedin (not my favorite), Twitter, and Instagram presence. This is another good reason to keep your online language and image completely professional. Act as if you were a politician-in-training when considering what to post. Get your work out there by being mentioned by bloggers and other social media fans.  Use all the tools that are available to market yourself in this modern age.  Bet that the first thing a potential employers or grad program will do is to Google your name.

Once you have the job, most schools have criteria for the amount of scope your research must have. For example, promotion to Associate Professor and tenure from Assistant (within seven years) usually carries with it the expectation of regional or national presence, while Full Professor (another 5-7 years) means international recognition for your research. Save and compile reviews, articles, concert programs, and any other such pertinent materials for your tenure file.

Keeping the Job

The number one key to success in an academic degree is this: keep the focus on the students. This has a distinct advantage in several ways.  First of all, it’s your job and part of your non-written agreement with the students to give them the best education possible.  This might often require losing any rigid sense as a teacher and really paying attention to what each individual student needs for success. Make sure that you are able to teach a music education, music therapy, or non-major student in a way that is truly contributing to their future, not to yours. In addition to being the actual job, focusing on the students helps keep the emphasis in the right place instead of in departmental politics and other possibly divisive pitfalls of the workplace.

You will be required to go up for tenure in a tenure-track position within seven years of your employment.  If you are not successful at this bid then you will be dismissed from the position. Save all of your programs, records of student achievements, publications, recordings, and other publications, in a highly organized system. This will be compiled and poured over on several levels within the university.  Check your school’s requirements for this important event on day one of your new job.  Also carefully ascertain the feeling about going up early for tenure at your university.  This is a sensitive topic for many, so listen and ask questions. 

Beyond that, remember the “publish or perish” motto that academia is so famous for and take it to heart early and often.  Some schools will have specific criteria in research for promotion and tenure: a certain number of concerts, peer reviews, recordings, or publications. If this doesn’t exist at your institution then be sure to ask your mentors and colleagues who have gone up for tenure recently. It’s also useful to look at the accomplishments of your coworkers to make sure that your accomplishments are keeping up with the expectations for promotion. Which leads to what I feel is one of the most import aspects of keeping a job in academia:


Finding people that can help guide your career is vital at all junctures. As a student this will often be your applied professor as well as other teachers. In your academic career guidance will come from administrators and fellow faculty members. Once you move into the workplace, find mentors that have been successful in the culture of that university.  They will help you guide your recruiting, teaching, research, and service. It’s useful to also have mentors outside of the school who can help you through tenure and beyond. Ask questions often and nurture these relationships. Not only is this vital for career success, but often these people can turn into lifelong friends.

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