Choosing the right fit for undergraduate ethnomusicology
April 26, 2015 3:05 AM   Subscribe

I'm an older student transferring from community college to a four-year to study ethno/musicology. I've been admitted, and now it's time to make the final decision. Do I go for a pretty attractive program at a good school (UCSB), or for a potentially less attractive program at one of the top schools in the country (Berkeley)?

UCSB appears to have a larger department than Berkeley. They offer more classes tailored specifically to my area of interest (primarily ethnomusicology). They have a large number of world music and classical ensembles to participate in. People seem to have a great time there (although I haven't heard from people studying music). It's supposed to have strong academics, but also an overall laid-back, supportive atmosphere. Still holding on to that (now outdated) party school reputation, though.

Berkeley, on the other hand, is the #1 public university, and one of the top schools in the world. The music program seems pretty customizable, especially by your senior year (which can include courses from other, world-class departments). The only problem is that they may not have the same breadth of classes and ensembles that UCSB does. Especially with regards to ethnomusicology, there appears to be a limited number of courses. That said, I'm sure the classes they do have are of a very high quality.

So the big question is: do you choose the more attractive program at the less attractive school, or do you choose the smaller program at the top-level school? Having once been a high school dropout, it does feel very tempting to take advantage of the offer of admission to one of the top schools. But I also don't want to get carried away and choose a program that doesn't have as much of what I'd be interested in. Alternately, it could be that courses with the word "ethnomusicology" in the titles will be interesting, but ultimately less interesting than a self-organized series of courses on culture, history, etc. at a top school.
posted by teponaztli to Education (13 answers total)
Are you planning on going on to graduate school?
posted by jrobin276 at 4:14 AM on April 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

I keep going back and forth. The job market in the humanities is famously horrible. I guess right now my focus is on getting my BA (finally), by way of the most stimulating and engaging program I can take - I want the intellectual rigor, but not necessarily beyond the next two years. I definitely don't want to close the door on grad school, though.
posted by teponaztli at 4:44 AM on April 26, 2015

So the big question is: do you choose the more attractive program at the less attractive school, or do you choose the smaller program at the top-level school?

For graduate school, you would choose the better program. For undergrad, I would say to choose Berkeley for the richest undergrad experience overall.
Yes, UCSB has some amazing ethnomusicologists, and so does Berkeley. But even if UCSB has more courses listed as "ethnomusicology," I would say don't just go by the departmental course catalog of your (still potential) major to think about the breadth and depth of your undergraduate education. Ethno is such an interdisciplinary field that at Berkeley you can also be thinking of classes from world-class departments of anthropology, folklore, and linguistics.
Unless, that is, you are going to have to take primarily *only* classes in your major at this point to graduate. I would find out. UCSB is a very good school of course.
Still, I would encourage you, after your long path, to really lean towards having the undergrad experience of Berkeley. (In addition, as an older, non-traditional student, you just might be happier with the greater diversity of people you'd meet there.)
posted by third rail at 4:58 AM on April 26, 2015 [6 favorites]

Can you arrange to talk to current students in the programs you are interested in - either through official admissions-office channels, or by contacting professors/students directly if you can find a public online presence?

I'd be thinking about what you want to be doing after you graduate. If UCSB has a better program, and you definitely want to stay in your field, having the right connections will definitely help you. On the other hand, if you are less sure of your path, or if you will be employed in ethnomusicology long-term, Berkeley might help you with impressive name-recognition by future employers, and more cross-disciplinary opportunities.

Good luck, and it looks like you have two great options!
posted by fermezporte at 5:03 AM on April 26, 2015

How big is each department? How much mentoring do you get? What kind of volunteering and mentorship opportunities are there? What kind of undergraduate research opportunities are there?

Students in the program I teach for get a better undergrad experience than I did - the school is smaller than the big (and big name) school that I went to, but we provide a lot more mentoring, personalized advising, etc. I walked into advising my first semester back (I wasn't a transfer, but I took 11 years to finish my degree) and asked about how to go to grad school, and got "Oh, I don't know. Where's your list of classes for next semester?" That is not how we do where I work now, ahem. :) We have a thriving internship program, because we're medium sized we know our students and we're merrily getting as many of our top students into research opportunities as we can, etc. I know these are both big schools you're looking at, but the point stands - in which program are they going to know you and mentor you, especially as a transfer who is getting into the game late? (Several of our most successful students have been transfers, but you have to be aware of getting traction and getting your professor's attention early).

If you're thinking grad school, you'll need recommendations, which means that people need to know who you are. If you're thinking work then maybe grad school, you need the internship / volunteering / etc combo, which makes you a lot more employable in your field (one of my favorite students is a dancer along with a major in my $socialscience field, and she's been doing an internship in arts administration this semester, and they're keeping her through at least the summer if not longer. We are so, so pleased.)

So I agreed with fermezporte that if you can talk to current students, that will really help this decision, but I would advising specifically to ask about the level of mentoring in the department.

Good luck! Congrats! :)
posted by joycehealy at 7:51 AM on April 26, 2015

Always choose the better program, not the better school. Whether you're applying for a job immediately post grad, or applying to graduate school, it's the prestige of the program that matters. And you are very likely going to find yourself happier.

Case in point: I had a studious, straight-A friend with incredible artistic talent who chose to go to a very elite, in-state public university with an "okayish" art program, when he had the opportunity to go to the top public art program in the country. Since both universities were in-state and public, it wasn't a choice about tuition costs and what he could afford. It was the fact that he didn't want to go to a school that wasn't "overall prestigious." He justified this by saying he wanted to go to a university where he knew all of the programs would be challenging and above par, and where he knew his fellow students would be intellectually curious. But I think the truth was that he felt like because he worked so hard at school, he deserved to go to a school with an indisputable academic pedigree. He felt really insecure about the idea of this other university being the one on his diploma, never mind the fact that their art program was highly renowned, highly competitive to enter (he was not just accepted at the school, but into the art program, which you have to apply for separately!), and in the middle of a city with a vibrant art scene.

Needless to say, he hated the art program at the prestigious university. He was always complaining about how they had no resources and how one time, he went up to Tufts University (which also has a high ranked art program, and where he was also accepted!) to visit a friend and was blown away by how much more stimulating, weird, inventive and well-financed their fine arts program was.

He still managed to put his time at the prestigious public university to work, and made lots of connections and networked well. So there's that. But if you're looking for the best education and the best time in school, go with the superior program.

PS, sending you a side-related memail.
posted by nightrecordings at 8:35 AM on April 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

One thing to remember is that UCB has arguably the best anthropology dept in the country, one of the best in the world, so although I agree that its music program isn't as lauded in the scope of music programs, the cross-pollination with anthro would, I think, tip things in Berkeley's favor, particularly for undergrad. Additionally, its location offers you a lot more access to a greater variety of music ensembles and organizations generally.
posted by vunder at 6:27 PM on April 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

It depends on what you hope to get out of this. If you want to get the best education, and advance in your career based on your mastery of your subject, choose the better program. If you are more focused on just getting a good job afterwards, choose the more prestigious school.
posted by MexicanYenta at 11:04 AM on April 27, 2015

After your last posted question, I'm glad you're considering ethnomusicology programs. I wouldn't worry about the stature of the programs, because I think they are both strong. I'd think about what exactly is most important to you. First of all, take a look at the published work of the faculty that you would take classes with. Both Jocelyn Guilbault at Berkeley and David Novak at UCSB are brilliant scholars, but very different in approach. Take a look at their books, as well as Bonnie Wade at Berkeley's Thinking Musically, Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture paperback to see whether their approaches are up your alley.

Also, you mention that you've been learning instruments from all over the world, but your username suggests that you have a particular Mexican, or at least Latin American interest. Santa Barbara has a Mexicanist, but the closest at Berkeley is Guilbault's Caribbean expertise. Does that matter to you? Finally, which kinds of ensembles would you like to participate in? Both schools have a gamelan ensemble, but UCSB has Middle Eastern, Indian, and Afro-Brazilian, while Berkeley has the African Music Ensemble. If learning a bunch of hands-on techniques performing music from around the world is part of what you want to do, UCSB looks more comprehensive.
posted by umbĂș at 7:54 PM on April 27, 2015

OK, so I know both of these departments and their ethnomusicology faculty very well.

Of the two, Berkeley is the far more serious and renowned PhD program. You're wrong about the faculty numbers, by the way. UCSB has three f/t Ethnomusicology-specific faculty members. Berkeley has four plus usually a postdoc. But the numbers of faculty members don't matter. If you were going for a PhD, Berkeley would be one of the hardest programs in the country to get into, and UCSB wouldn't even rate in the same category. (Truthfully, UC Berkeley is a far more academically rigorous and esteemed institution across the board, certainly including its undergraduate offerings. And it's way more well funded.)

I'm not knocking UCSB. I have a close connection to the place. But the question is a slam dunk if you are ambitious to go on to a PhD.

That said, the two places offer different foci and different kinds of undergraduate experience, and *very* different intellectual and musical cultures. One of the most brilliant scholars of the rising generation is at UCSB. But the senior people at Berkeley are, as a group, far more senior and distinguished (as of yet). Very importantly, Berkeley offers huge strength in the relevant *ancillary* fields (especially anthropology and linguistics, ethnic and area studies, technology studies, political science) in which you MUST do coursework (if not major) to do a PhD in ethnomusicology these days at a top program, no ifs, ands or buts. Ethnomusicology is more anthropology than musicology anymore. If you are even thinking of a PhD in your future, you should choose Berkeley, period.

By the way, canards about the humanities aside, the job market in ethnomusicology is one of the healthier ones in the humanities and has been for over a decade. By which I mean there were about a dozen good jobs last year.

I've been teaching the discipline in a top PhD program for 17 years. I've seen the CVs and read the work of the vast majority of Ethno PhDs on the job market in most of those years. I believe that if you can get a fully funded ride at one of the top 5 or 6 PhD programs, which I won't list here but which any professor in the field could list without thinking, your odds are pretty good (though I don't want to predict the future too much as so many large public institution schools of music that employ a large number of people are likely to be scaling back of shutting down in the future). There's been a good flow of jobs in liberal arts colleges and research universities; the field is still ascendant in some ways. Ethnomusicologists still fill classrooms with eager students. The public remains interested in our work. We do a lot of public-facing work that's of value to universities and colleges. Our ranks are super diverse relative to other fields in the humanities, which helps a lot with robust placement. It's never a guarantee, but I note that the numbers (of good placements) even for top law schools are about the same as the numbers for the top half dozen PhD programs in ethnomusicology, so put that in your pipe and smoke it. And you should NOT have to go into debt for a PhD. If you aren't fully and *well* funded, you don't go. Period.

But getting into one of those top six PhD programs is hard, and very, very competitive anymore. You will be competing with three dozen or so young people, nationally, who have taken a relatively straight and systematic path to the PhD -- about a two to one ratio of competitive candidates to placements in top PhD programs (that is, about 36 highly qualified, credible people will apply for about 18 places nationally in programs that have really good placement rates of around 75% over time, a number I have modeled rigorously from hard data). Most of the rest will wind up in the next-lower tier of 5-6 PhD programs (all still very good) that still place half their students reliably. Anything below that and you are taking a giant gamble with your future.

Your only real shot comes from hanging out around a top PhD program as an undergraduate and absorbing everything you can about how to model yourself after its students, postdocs, and young faculty members.

If you seriously want to go on to graduate school in ethnomusicology at a top program, the other things you must do in your remaining college years include:

1) As many anthropology and social science courses as you can take, also area studies, political science, and economics help a lot, as does anything related to policy analysis and social science of technology. I frankly and frequently advise people to major in anthropology, and take a lot of music classes, in many circumstances. Being at a school with a top PhD program in ethnomusicology would be one of the few circumstances where I would NOT advise against majoring in music (or only in music). I see the top applicants every year and have for many years. Most of them have extensive social science backgrounds these days. A lot majored in fields other than music, but maintained active lives as musicians and did a lot of academic coursework in music.
2) You must have a wide working knowledge not only of Western classical music (less important than it used to be, but it's still a bar to clear for most PhD programs) but of world musical styles and histories, and know a LOT about at least one area of the world outside the US/Europe and its musical history and cultures.
3) You must study at least one language to near oral fluency, especially if your eventual field research is going to require that language. There is little time to acquire such skill between entering a phd program and starting dissertation field research. It helps a whole lot to have travel experience and other kinds of social experience in the part(s) of the world where you hope to do research.
4) You should do a senior thesis or honors essay or whatever it is called, it should be advised by a known faculty member in ethnomusicology or anthropology, and it should entail at least some primary participant-observation fieldwork. That is a huge divide in who gets into good programs.
5) You should try to attend a meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology (next in Austin in December) to see the people in various programs give papers, get a sense of their morale and quality, talk to them, and meet with faculty members.
6) Spend your summers reading like crazy and learning a language (to repeat, it's essential). Ask your most well known faculty advisers (and even more, the most ambitious grad students) to give you bibliographies related to your areas of interest.
7) Make sure you have very up to date technology and media skills, especially with video and audio production and editing, website design, etc. All future PhDs will need to be "public intellectuals," so start blogging or otherwise putting out your thoughts in the world about musical topics. (And be careful about your online persona and identity. If you wind up as a professor you will be a semi-public figure.)
8) Take classes -- preferably several classes -- with the best known ethnomusicology and anthropology faculty members around. Get to know them. Bust your ass. They will be needed to write letters for you when you apply to PhD programs. You need at least one from a known figure in the field. They need to know you to write a good letter.

Most of these will be much easier to pursue as goals at Berkeley.

Finally, I won't lie to you. As an "older student," whatever that means specifically, it's going to be harder unless you can develop your research out of your experience in the intervening years in a substantial way, and even then, it's a rougher road the older you get for all kinds of reasons, but the main one being that the nature of the career itself is structurally age discriminatory. (It takes 10-12 years from starting the PhD to getting tenure with no interruptions, so if you start at 40, you'll be 50 before you come up for tenure; look around and see how many 49 year old Assistant Professors you see.) I'll be blunt and say that except in rare cases it is inadvisable to start a PhD program in the humanities after 40. Some people do and succeed, but the odds favor the young, mobile, family-less, mentally flexible, and energetic.

If all this sounds daunting, I'm just being honest as hell from deep experience at the heart of the machine, and having mentored more undergrads than I can list from memory all the way from their sophomore or junior year through a PhD and a tenure track career (and watching many others divert in various ways along the path, often to very interesting alternative careers that build on their undergraduate passion for ethnomusicology). Literally about 15-20 people a year in the US (I'll leave aside the increasingly international character of the profession) *should* be entering PhD programs in ethnomusicology at MOST to stay about even with the job market, and factoring in some level of attrition. In reality, the number is three or four times that. Unsurprisingly, you want to be one of the 15-20 with the best shot, and that means getting into one of six or maybe eight or ten top programs (with some exceptions for particular specialties in otherwise less than stellar programs).

I often recommend considering a path into arts administration or (even better) into library and information science (and specifically with a tech focus) working with audio-visual archives and materials as a way to have a career in close proximity to ethnomusicology and related subjects, where you could wind up in an academic environment working closely and in interesting ways with ethnomusicologists. It's not like library science is a booming job market either, but there are specific ways it intersects with ethnomusicology (and the arts more generally) and the digital humanities revolution.

I know what I am talking about. If you want to grab for the brass ring of a Phd in ethnomusicology, finishing your BA at Berkeley is a wise move.
posted by spitbull at 1:55 PM on April 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

Oh and another thing: it doesn't matter what your specialty is. The old view -- that you need to study with an area specialist in your area as an adviser -- is demonstrably of diminishing value in the field. Even with a specifically Mexican (or certainly a broader Latin American) interest, Berkeley is the far more richly provisioned university.

In fact I'd venture to bet that the *majority* of Ethnomusicology PhDs who were placed in tenure track jobs in the last decade (a good percentage of whom have been from my program!) studied with advisers who worked outside the area of their research as a primary specialty. We all work globally anymore anyway! Among other things, across the humanities but certainly in ethnomusicology, most programs have moved away from the "you are here to study with one primary person" model and most dissertations are much more collectively advised. We are beyond the era of replicative research, and theoretical rather than areal specializations predominate these days at the top of the profession.

Go onto Proquest and search by faculty adviser for each faculty member at each program. Wade, Guilbault, Brinner, and co. have advised *dozens* of dissertations outside their own particular areas of research interest. It's really common. I am an Americanist but have trained working Africanists, Asianists, Latin Americanists, Europeanists, and more. What matters is the strength of the *university as a whole* in your broad areal study interests. And UC Berkeley has one of the top Latin American Studies PhD programs too.
posted by spitbull at 2:09 PM on April 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh and finally, *do not go into ethnomusicology* thinking it's a way to be a "musician" for a living. There are a lot of very great musicians in the field, and in a previous era one could craft a substantial career in the field primarily as a musician, but that is simply no longer the case in any appreciable way. You must go into it knowing you are going to be a research scholar, cultural activist, or public intellectual. It is a field based on words, not making music. Being a solid musician is really important, if not quite obligatory the way it once was, and being able to run ensembles and teach performance classes etc. are really valuable skills on the job market. But admission to a top PhD program, on which your future in the academy will depend, deprecates musical skills in favor of academic preparation, language and travel skills, and above all social scientific reasoning and some sort of activist politics guiding your research objectives. Most ethnomusicologists are serious, and usually good, musicians in addition to being, primarily, social scientists. But a lot of people are disappointed to learn that being an ethnomusicologist is a terrible way to remain a professional musician (or certainly to spend most of your work-time making music) unless you have a unique level of access and skill in a small number of musical styles that generate enough passion and support to be institutionalized in college music curricula.
posted by spitbull at 2:31 PM on April 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

And yet another thing. Berkeley is such a major institution in the field that there will be a *constant* stream of very major figures passing through to give talks (not to mention big visiting things like the Bloch lectures, which have included prominent ethnomusicologists on a regular basis). You will be exposed to far more robust picture of ethnomusicology as an academic profession just by hanging out and going to all the talks that happen. UCSB has talks too. But go have a look at the schedules for each department, which should be findable on the web.
posted by spitbull at 2:49 PM on April 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

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