Thinking Beyond Your Degree: Eleven Suggestions for a Competitive Job Search

By Dr. Rebecca Dirksen (Indiana University)

*This article originally appeared in SEM Student News Volume 12.1, Spring/Summer 2016.

There’s a great deal of handwringing over the state of today’s job market. This anxiety makes sense: we are facing restructuring of the academic world, with a move toward fewer tenure-track positions for humanities scholars. Moreover, there’s a generalized (and often poorly articulated and thus poorly received) antipathy toward academics, as public dialogues turn to “elitism,” “irrelevancy,” and “employability.” Technically, however, academic job rates for early career ethnomusicologists have been relatively constant if not higher over the past several years, based on the unscientific measure of job postings to the job wiki, ethnomusicology-related listservs, and the Chronicle—although as a discipline we have no firm grasp on where these figures will stand in just five years. But let’s be blunt: even the most accomplished ABDs and recent PhDs with the best connections and the most exciting, cutting-edge research are not guaranteed an institutional home at a university. That said, there’s a comparatively strong market outside the university setting for those with serious public/applied/activist research skills. And there’s an extensive and growing range of available tools and resources that have opened up tremendous latitude for self-designed and directed careers.

So it may be time to reframe a solution to job market stresses: ethnomusicology graduate students might be best advised to build the skills necessary to be a competitive applicant for university and community college jobs while simultaneously positioning themselves to pursue other avenues. Landing a job on either “path” doesn’t preclude anyone from also walking down the other “path.” Academic work and public sector/applied work are not mutually exclusive categories. With this in mind, I’d like to share a few thoughts I’ve had while navigating the process of becoming an applied/engaged scholar, and as I now reflect on how best to assist my own graduate students.

1. Don’t expect your formal education to prepare you perfectly for exactly what you need to do. That’s okay; it’s not supposed to. Customize your learning process, and chart your own course of acquiring knowledge and wisdom in tandem with your academic program.

2. If you haven’t already, hone a secondary skill set that is not directly related to your academic training (and hold yourself to the same professional standards in this area as you do with your research). You might consider: filmmaking, web design and coding, podcasting, social media management, community organizing, non-profit management, project design and management, accounting, cultivating expertise in applied statistics, urban planning, digital humanities, exhibit curation (conventional or online), or public policy analysis.

3. Familiarize yourself with arts and cultural organizations that may have objectives roughly parallel to your own. Good places to start: museums, archives, independent record labels, music festivals, city or state arts councils. Think: Smithsonian Folkways, the Library of Congress, the Musical Instrument Museum, Maryland Traditions, California Arts Council, the Lotus World Music and Arts Festival, the World Festival of Sacred Music, the Northwest Folklife Festival, etc.

4.Get to know the people who do stuff similar to what you ultimately want to do. There are many scholars concentrating on public/applied/activist work whom I admire. I have found that meticulously studying their methodology and process is instructive for my own work, even if they’re working in completely different settings and contexts.

5. Diversify the ways in which you present your work, and capitalize on different publishing mediums for each major project. Different types of audiences are receptive to different types of presentations and media. You could think of this method as a “production suite” of publication, to borrow a phrase from one of my colleagues, IU law professor Christy Ochoa.

6. Study grant writing as seriously as you study for your qualifying exams. It’s an art form. It’s a literary skill. Grant writing to support individual research contrasts greatly from grant writing for nonprofit organizations, and it’s useful to be well versed in both genres. Straight-up fundraising is again a different beast. While I’m personally ambivalent about crowdfunding, you may find that it is appropriate and desirable for your work and research situation. As a public/applied/activist ethnomusicologist, your ability to convince funders to give you money (assuming that you do what you say you will with that money) may be a key indicator of your long-term livelihood and project completion success.

7. Consider incorporating a practicum or partnership into your studies. Through the IU Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, for example, students may hold graduate assistantships with the Archives of Traditional Music and the Archives of African American Music and Culture; they can do practicums with Traditional Arts Indiana and the Mathers Museum of World Cultures. Such activities encourage professional relationships between students and faculty and set the scene for modeling and mentorship. There may be comparable opportunities on your campus or in your community. It may be possible to arrange independent study credits for such training.

8. Put together or collaborate on a clearly articulated and carefully documented public/applied/activist project while working on your degree that is ready to showcase around the time you go on the job market. If completing such a project means opting out of one or two conference presentations during your grad career, and assuming you have demonstrated your aptitude for this performance mode that is a staple of our profession, so be it. If you can find a way to work an applied aspect into your dissertation, even better.

9. Quite possibly the most challenging thing you will encounter throughout your career is ethics—pertaining to your research and professional activities, your interactions with others, and your personal convictions. Study every publication you can get your hands on from a wide variety of disciplines and, critically, from scholars from the country or community (ideally!) in which you work. Speak with as many people from different backgrounds and experiences as possible to gather their perspectives. A lot of complex politics are tied up in ethical issues, as well as family and social histories going back generations and centuries, to which you will never fully be privy, no matter how much of an expert you become. Ethics is all about how we balance conflicts, especially when we can’t see all facets of an issue or situation.

10. Determine the level of commitment you are able and willing to make, and design your plans accordingly. Your commitment level may be about timing (Will your project be completed over a few months or is it about long-term investment in a community?); it may be about the resources you are able to pledge (What sort of financial implications might this have? What sort of emotional or physical reserves can you draw on?). Such determinations will need to be made according to your personal situation, which may include family responsibilities, financial realities, health concerns, etc. Construct your life and career with these considerations in mind. Be realistic.

11. Most importantly, figure out the “meta” questions. What drives you to do this work? What can you contribute? What should you contribute? How are you managing your partnerships with your field colleagues? How do you answer the “so what?” about your research? Try to assess responses to such questions not just from your viewpoint but from the viewpoints of your field colleagues and any beneficiaries of your projects—to the best of your ability.

I hope these ideas serve as encouragement for a proactive approach to the job market. Good luck!

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