Job Talk for Ethnomusicologists

Editor's Note: Beverley Diamond is the incoming President of the Society for Ethnomusicology. This essay was first published as the President's Column in the latest issue of the SEM Newsletter.

The “contingent faculty crisis,” as it has been labelled, continued to generate lively but anxious discussion at the recent SEM conference in Indianapolis. The neoliberal causes, the abuses, and the societal toll of universities’ increased reliance on “adjunct” or “sessional” workers have been explored in recent President’s columns in the SEM Newsletter and both the SEM Board and Council have been discussing action and responses to the complex institutional issues. A number of contributors to the Student News have addressed various aspects of job seeking, public sector opportunities, and directions in applied ethnomusicology.

Three issues, I suggest, have had less attention and hence I will focus on them here. One is some critical reflection on the terminology we use to reference “work” in our discipline. A second encompasses the lessons to be learned from even small samples of data—samples which could, of course, be aggregated into something more broadly meaningful. The third is the all-important gap between Ph.D. and employment, and what to do with it productively (other than worry). While the third of these is oriented more to Ph.D. students, post-doctoral fellows, and other recent graduates who are seeking full-time employment, the issues should also concern faculty who advise younger colleagues and help them engage in multi-pronged career planning. The second issue is addressed both to jobseekers and to those faculty who might usefully track data about their own advisees throughout their career. The first issue—how we categorize the work of ethnomusicology—is at the very root of how we define our discipline.

The conceptual boxes we use to categorize and describe what we do as ethnomusicologists are, of course, never value-free. As critical thinkers, we surely know that it is always advisable to ask who benefits and who suffers from the implicit values embedded in terminology. How do conceptual frames advantage or disadvantage certain institutions, certain generations, certain communities of thinkers and social actors? If we insist on a division between “academic” and “non-academic” jobs, for instance, we articulate a false binary which, in the manner of all binaries, instantiates the former as normative  and casts the latter as its negative shadow. Similarly if certain kinds of work are “alternative,” they are implicitly alternative to something allegedly mainstream.

The phrase “public sector” also merits scrutiny. Its standard sociological definition as those domains  supported by government or public institutions authorized by the nation state, as distinct from the private sector, could be a distinction relevant for job seekers. There are significant national differences in the proportion of state-run institutions, be they colleges and universities, museums and archives, broadcasting and publishing, arts administration, or others. But these differing governance frames are not generally what is referenced when the phrase “public sector” is uttered in our conference meeting rooms. Ethnomusicologists have come to equate “public sector” with work outside the academy, work that is somehow thought to be more directly relevant to “publics” beyond the classroom—to individual artists, communities, consumers or audiences, for instance. More conceptual clarity might have practical impact.

A second issue is the need for data on changing career paths, both those that precede and those that follow professional training. That ethnomusicologists are employed in many types of public sector work, not just the academy, is no news to anyone. That ethnomusicologists nearing the end of their graduate study need to prepare broadly for a wide range of potential jobs is, in my experience, more often on the fringes of consciousness, not at the center of collegial conversations or university fact gathering. It is hard to find statistics, for instance, on postdoctoral employment patterns. Faculty advisors, on the other hand, are probably aware of such patterns for their own supervisees. The SEM Board is currently considering the design of a new membership survey. How might we use this tool to compile data about career challenges and strategies? With a view to stimulating conversations, I offer some remarks about the wide-ranging careers and career strategies of my graduate supervisees (about 75 of them over several decades) as well as other early-career ethnomusicologists whose careers I have followed. My comments are informed, not just by the U.S. context, but by the situation in Canada where we have never had an abundance of tenure-track positions in ethnomusicology and where, hence, it was always necessary to advise graduate students to prepare simultaneously for at least two possible careers, usually one academic and one or more in other sectors. While these remarks are directed primarily to those who are in late- or post-PhD quandaries about the future or who are already in the contingent faculty mill, I hope that faculty colleagues will respond with information about contrasting patterns at their institutions, or in the context of their state, province or country. I hope that public sector ethnomusicologists will expand the discussion about the training and preparation required for various jobs that they know much better than I. In other words, this column is intended as part of an ongoing conversation.

I often ask job seekers the following questions: What is the range of knowledge-making (subjects, but also skills, methodologies, technologies) and the social networks that your training in ethnomusicology has enabled you to acquire? For those who do fieldwork on specific musical practices, I might rephrase: in addition to (probably) loving the musical practices and the people with whom you do research or perform, what else do you love about ethnomusicology? Might it be the multi-tasking, the engagement with urgent social issues, the wide range of people you encounter, the pleasure of making AV recordings, or a host of other things? For those who define their research more broadly, perhaps in relation to “sound studies,” the question could relate to how they became engaged by the policies and relationships as well as the aesthetics of the sound world in which they work. What follows from the answers to such questions is logically a close look at different types of employment that draw on that range of knowledge. These are, of course, different questions from “what do you know?” and “in what university might you teach it?”

The former supervisees with whom I have been privileged to work have been, by and large, a highly creative bunch of job seekers. According to my informal record keeping, slightly more than half of the PhDs have full-time work in universities. Many are now tenured and several hold prestigious research chairs. While their degrees are mostly from music departments, their academic jobs are not only in music but also in anthropology, communications, women’s studies, media studies, indigenous studies, and even Aboriginal business. While a realistic assessment of one’s knowledge/skills and the likelihood of being regarded as a serious contender for academic jobs in well-established disciplines in which one does not have a degree is obviously wise, it is clearly the case that individuals shape their graduate training in unique ways, often explicitly to acquire both intellectual grounding and experience in another discipline. For those boundary crossers, some risky applications might pay off. Occasionally, ethnomusicologists are the cross-over candidates or the voices of innovation that a humanities or social science department might be seeking.

Of those who found public sector work after a Ph.D. or an M.A., many identify a skill and a strong passion for certain kinds of work, or for broader institutional goals/roles. A few looked to elementary or secondary teaching, discovering the great pleasure of introducing diverse music to younger students. Almost ten percent acquired additional training for work in museums, archives and libraries. Some got an additional degree in library science or museology. Some honed their digital skills to become knowledgeable about the vulnerability of technologies of preservation, the potential and challenges of copyright (and other cultural protocols for access or ownership) in the digital era, and the possibilities of reaching new audiences through new forms of virtual interactivity. A handful took curatorial workshops offered by local museum associations and did some volunteer work, assisting with exhibit curation, becoming capable for the moment when a job opened. Some now work in large national or regional institutions but others have found spaces for community interaction and creativity in the smaller heritage museums that dot the landscape in many parts of the world. Others built on their experience with audio-visual media. One individual with film-making skills, ever a self-starter, formed her own film production company over two decades ago, and continues to make a modest living doing contract work for government departments, private organizations, and individuals who had the foresight to build fees into research grants for professional production or post-production AV assistance. Others founded record companies or taught production skills. As commodities such as CDs rapidly give way to virtual distribution, new forms including e-books create new needs for people who combine disciplinary knowledge and technological know-how.

One skill that most ethnomusicologists seem to acquire through fieldwork is a capacity for administration. Many of us have observed informally that there seem to be a lot of “ethnos” who become Deans, Directors, Department Heads, and Project Coordinators. The ability to juggle different kinds of work, to schedule and undertake multi-stage projects, to mediate interpersonal differences among individuals or culturally diverse groups are all part and parcel of fieldwork. Administrative jobs emerge in the cultural development departments of cities or the offices of State folklorists, at university research centers, in professional societies, or performing organizations. Some young colleagues have discovered that they love admin, particularly when such work can play a role in reshaping institutions, perhaps making them more open to cultural diversity. One individual, for instance, has a job with a major city, enabling cultural programming in communities of new immigrants. Another became the executive director of an ethnically specific cultural centre, one that mediates the complex terrain where community needs meet tourism. Others direct educational programs for a major performing arts centres or touring companies. The same organizational capacity has positioned ethnomusicologists well to become festival or event organizers, or curriculum developers. Indeed the pathways are not unidirectional: a number of leading SEM members entered the academic field after a successful career in one of these worlds.

If your interest lies in public policy, granting councils may be good entry point. Area knowledge is a requisite for overseeing granting programs, finding of specialist assessors and guiding applicants through the process. Positions with granting councils often involve arts policy creation. Government jobs may be increasingly places for ethnomusicologists who work in such policy sub-fields as medicine, intellectual property law, human rights, education, and urban planning, to name only a few. The regular public policy panels, which were the vision of Past-President Gage Averill and which materialized this year at SEM due to outstanding efforts of Vice-President Anne Rasmussen, will be places to meet and learn more about these sub-fields.

The third issue signalled at the outset of this short article is “the gap”—the limboland after grad school. It is hard to find extensive data on the rhythm of work for post-M.A. or post-Ph.D. graduates, but, in my experience, most individuals experience a space of three to five years between Ph.D. and full-time employment. For some it is even longer. It’s not failure to be searching for that dream job over several years. Many young scholars fill the space with one or more post-doctoral fellowships, with part-time teaching, work for small budget NGOs, or professional contractual work that is better for the CV than the pocketbook. Many augment their income with contracts for translating or copy editing, website development, AV production or graphic design (depending on training and skills of course). While post-doctoral fellowships have increased substantially over the past decade, however, the rigors of competition have increased at the same time. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, for instance, increased post-doctoral fellowships by approximately 25% since 2003 but the success rates dropped from 27.3% in 2003 to 20.2% in 2013. Those years are often frustrating and worry-making, but arguably less so if the task to ensure carefully tailored preparation for a range of plausible career paths. Those of us with faculty positions should envisage and argue for a wider array of university-run internships and community collaborations for which ethnomusicologists might qualify. Some universities gather data annually from community organizations about research needs, pairing researchers with appropriate partners; many have public engagement offices. Current students at my own university are partnered with communities to organize local archives, digitize materials, conduct interviews, and develop websites in support of local initiatives.

Those between Ph.D. and full-time job have probably been wisely and repeatedly told that scholarly productivity is key. I would argue that connectivity is equally important whatever the nature of the job to which you aspire. Among the most enterprising of my former supervisees are a couple who negotiated dual postdoctoral affiliations with both a university of their choice and a relevant public sector institution. Others have connected through research projects, some by taking intellectual leadership in those projects. They approached co-applicants and collaborators who brought added value to both their project and their career development. Some of the most active have proposed and successfully overseen innovative collaborative symposia, anthology projects, research collaborations, or workshops with ethnomusicologists who are already in positions of full employment. Not only have they built bridges with individuals and institutions, but they have demonstrated highly valued capacity for both leadership and team work, capacities that served them well in the job market.

That space between formal education and employment most certainly has a liminal quality. As our knowledge of ritual theory teaches us, liminality may involve ritual inversions that could lead either to a reinstatement of the status quo or to social transformation. We should all try to enhance the transformational possibilities.


Beverley Diamond is the incoming president of the Society for Ethnomusicology, and the Canada Research Chair in Ethnomusicology at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

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