Grad School: The Application Process

On this rainy afternoon in New York City, I’d like to begin a conversation on applying to graduate schools in ethnomusicology. There’s certainly not one way to do this. I’m not an expert or a guidance counselor. All I can offer are my reflections from recently completing the process – a process that moved along more smoothly thanks to the help of those who had already been there.

Our blog has been rather light on comments thus far, but this time especially, I want to hear your thoughts. Anyway, my saga began last spring 2013. I found a guidebook listing all the music graduate schools in the U.S., and checked each of their websites for ethnomusicology programs. Don’t do this. To save yourself lots of drudgery and toil, go directly to the Society for Ethnomusicology’s graduate program guide, a much more direct list of the programs available. In hindsight, the more I sought help with these applications, the easier the process became. My advisor, an ethnomusicologist at Franklin and Marshall College, gave me that help I so desperately needed. We talked over different departments, she gave me a sense of the distinct cultures cultivated in various departments, and we figured out which ones felt like a good fit for me. Ultimately, I chose to apply to eleven schools. What do you think: was eleven crazy, or well-planned?

Either way, whether you’re applying to one program or 27, start in the summer. That is, for those applying to graduate programs while still completing undergraduate school, summer is a great idea. I took care of the easy steps first, like opening accounts on each school’s website, and filling out my name and address a million times. Once finished with the brainless parts, I found the personal statement the most difficult aspect of each application, but surprisingly, I got help from the Marshall Scholarship. Franklin and Marshall College has an incredible post-graduate fellowships advisor, and she worked very closely with me to develop that statement. What I completed for the Marshall served as my basic framework for graduate schools.

Here’s the bottom line of my advice for this afternoon – find someone to work with on your applications. Ideally, find someone with experience in academia. My advisor gave me insights on schools that I never would have gathered from their websites, and helped shape my applications based on what these departments actually look for. Even once I finished college last December 2013, I continued to work with my advisor, sending her a running commentary via email as I did interviews and visited different departments. Just a few weeks ago, I chose University of California Santa Barbara, and felt so much better about the decision knowing a newly tenured ethnomusicologist supports the choice.

For the rest of the week, I’m looking forward to hearing from readers with thoughts of their own. Whether your considering graduate work in ethnomusicology, or are just hearing that strange word for the first time, send along your thoughts. That would brighten up this rainy day.





2 thoughts on “Grad School: The Application Process

  1. It sure is a rainy day here in NY; where is the sun?!?!

    Anyway, I too just finished the process of applying to grad schools, and I will echo your support of the SEM graduate program guide. I spent hours looking through that guide, comparing programs and narrowing my field of choices. Along the way I learned that Ethnomusicology programs differ more than I’d imagined between universities. For instance:
    -In some places, students spend significant time studying instruments and performing in world music ensembles, while in others Ethnomusicology isn’t even part of the music department.
    -Some programs focus on “armchair” research (aka studying texts and writing papers) while others are encourage fieldwork and community engagement.
    -Some universities pride themselves on the specializations of their faculty and tend to accept students with particular research interests, while others embrace a broad range of topics.
    -Some programs are extremely rigid, with many required courses, while others are more flexible and self-designed.
    -Some programs only offer en-route Master’s programs (leading to a PhD) while others only offer the Master’s.

    So…after learning all of that (which was all news to me), I chose seven programs I liked and contacted each department to learn more. I think it’s important to make connections with schools early on so that when faculty are reading applications, you are more than just a name on paper. For schools too far to visit, I set up phone interviews with professors. With schools that were nearby, I arranged to visit campus, meet faculty and students, and sit in on classes (to give you a timeline, I started contacting schools over the summer and visited campuses this past fall). In each case, I asked faculty what advice they had: What could I do in the coming months to become a better candidate for their program? I followed up each visit with thank you emails.

    Next, in the following months I worked on my personal statements. I think it helped that I was able to include information on how I was preparing for each program (ie: if a professor I spoke with suggested reading a certain book, I read it and mentioned it in my statement). When I completed the statements, I had someone from my undergraduate institution’s Career Center read them over before submitting. Each statement included base information about my background and my story, with a couple unique paragraphs catered specifically to each program.

    I know this sounds extensive, but showing drive and self-initiative by creating relationships with schools early does pay off; I’m happy to say that my top-choice school not only accepted me but also offered me a fellowship award. So…if you plan to start grad. school in Fall 2015, I’d highly recommend checking out the SEM list now, contacting professors this summer, and visiting campuses in the fall. Hard work and persistence really can make a difference!

  2. I absolutely agree with the above statements. Applying for graduate school is almost like a job. You have to devote a lot of time, thought, and in some cases, money to the process. Since money is a consideration for some students, I would add that you should check out what kind of application fee is required. This can add up quickly if you are applying to many schools. This shouldn’t necessarily deter you, but it’s something to consider. Another thing to think about is whether the school requires GRE scores and whether you’ll have to take the test (again). This also requires time, study, and money. And it also kind of requires that you know which schools you’re going to apply to before you take the GRE. You can send your scores automatically from the testing site, but you need to know which schools should receive them.

    Another thing to think about, if you are applying to a school to work with a specific professor, make sure to ask (or consider) how close they are to retirement, sabbatical, or any other form of leave-taking. You may get accepted to the school of your dreams only to find out that your prof has a major fieldwork project planned for the year you want to graduate.

    Good luck to everyone applying!

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