Public Musicology: Panel on AltAc (Alternative Academic) Careers coming to AMS 2015!

After I returned in early February from the Public Musicology conference at Rider University, I promised readers that I would write several blogs about the conference. I offered my own paper about leaving Academia, and also wrote about curating as #PublicMusicology. One issue I haven’t yet addressed is career options. What, exactly, is available to PhDs outside of the academy? When and how does one make such a career choice? Who is out there to mentor us?

The short answer (well, not really) is that with PhD in hand, we can do nearly anything we set our minds to. At the conference, Amanda Sewell (who has a successful freelance editing business) challenged us to recognize and articulate the skills we learn in graduate school, instead of moaning about how poorly graduate degrees prepare us for certain career paths. We are trained to think, write, and clearly present our ideas. We know how to people (or at least some of us do). We can research our assets off. We know church music, folk music, pop music, and “art” music. Several folks at the conference do museum work. Some are editors and consultants. Others run archives or performing organizations. There are so many options for us, and we’re only beginning to understand who’s out there and what we’re all doing.

There was also lots of discussion at the conference about how to show graduate students that AltAc careers are viable, not just as alternatives, but as planned career paths. Here are a few suggestions:

1. In graduate school (or even earlier), professors need to not just tell graduate students that many career options are available, but also show students concrete examples of successes outside of academia. Professors: invite AltAc folks to your classroom, either in person or via Skype. (Don’t know any AltAc folks? I can hook you up!) Assign scholarship by Independent Scholars. Work with your university to establish internships in a variety of industries that require good thinkers / writers. Teach your students to write for many, many audiences.

2. Schools could help by providing a service for graduate students that helps them translate an academic CV into a resume that can be understood in a variety of business / industry contexts. Career service offices can also help with the letter-of-introduction writing. I feel perfectly qualified to help a newbie PhD prepare a letter of interest for an academic job. The business world, however, has its own language, and needs specialized interpreters.

3. Professional societies can help by continuing to build travel funds for scholars who work outside of the academy or who don’t otherwise have travel support. (I am immensely grateful for the travel grant I received from the AMS to help defray the costs of my travel last fall.) Societies could also help by establishing funds to help their journals pay freelancers / independent scholars for review work. (I recently suggested this at the Society for American Music’s annual meeting.) Academics are expected to do a certain amount of review work as “service.” There’s no similar structured expectation for freelancers, and many of us don’t have a job that continues to pay us a salary when we “donate” our time for a few hours. If we review a journal article, we lose billable hours. But we are scholars, too, and many of us have important peer review perspectives to offer.


There’s so much more to be done. This will be a protracted conversation. As my former director
(Dr. Mike Parkinson) often says, “things take time.” But in order to get this conversation about alternative career paths off the ground, I’ve organized a panel for the national AMS meeting, scheduled for November 2015 in Louisville. Here’s who I’ve got on board:

Jason Hanley, Director of Education, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum
Kendra Leonard, Director, Silent Film Sound and Music Archive
Felicia M. Miyakawa (chair), Freelance Editor and Academic Consultant
Allison Portnow, Public Programs Manager, Ackland Art Museum
Amanda SewellIn the Write
Karen Shadle, Assistant Director of Catholic Worship and Campus Ministry, Bellarmine University
We all have doctoral degrees in Musicology. We all work outside of the Academy. We’re going to tell you what we do and how we got there. Chances are good that I’ll blog about this more as the panel develops. In the meantime, please tell me: what questions would YOU have for this panel?

6 thoughts on “Public Musicology: Panel on AltAc (Alternative Academic) Careers coming to AMS 2015!

  1. Good luck with your panel! I hope that the panelists will be very clear as to what they mean by “career.” “Career” to me means that you alone can earn enough from what you are doing to be self-sufficient. And certainly when we talk about telling graduate students about “alternatives to academia,” we are implying that those alternatives will serve as equitable substitutes for all that one gets out of full-time employment at a college or university. After all, that’s what they’re looking for and need. If the idea, though, is “If you don’t get into academia, don’t worry. You can have a career by freelancing your skills and rake in $6,000 a year,” then this, too, needs to be made abundantly clear. I’m far less optimistic than you are about the opportunities that are actually out there, obviously, but I hope of course that the panel goes well and is inspiring. Just please be sure not to romanticize the idea of “career” — which, to any recent Ph.D. looking for permanent work, needs to equal “full-time job,” which in turn equals “earning a salary that could actually sustain you.” And if this is not the definition of “career” that any given panelist is using, this needs to be stated outright. Again, good luck!

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