Cutting through the Noise:  Selecting a Master’s Program in a Time of Information Overload

Cutting through the Noise: Selecting a Master’s Program in a Time of Information Overload


Continuing your studies with a graduate degree can be daunting. Read on to learn how to find the right fit for your educational goals while maintaining a clear sense of financial realities.


This may age me a bit, but when I was applying to graduate programs, I had to write a letter to or call (from a landline…long distance) the universities I was interested in and ask for application materials, brochures, and course catalogs. A few weeks later, I would receive these materials and then sit huddled over piles of papers strewn across my living room floor trying to answer an extremely pressing question: “Where should I continue my education?” Based on little more than name recognition, I would narrow my choices from around seven to around four, and those were the schools I would apply to. 

Since the proliferation of the Internet, researching programs and applying to schools is undoubtedly easier than it was in the past. However, in many ways, the overwhelming amount of information available can make picking a graduate school more difficult. 

When asked by undergraduate students what graduate schools they should attend, I often refrain from giving specific recommendations (i.e., “You should definitely go to…”). Instead, I put them to the task of researching schools and creating a list. I give them a formula to follow and, with all due modesty, my students have experienced tremendous success in the application process and have been very happy with their final choices.

In addition to running university opera programs for the past 14 years, I have maintained a professional opera career for the past 25 years (first as a singer, then as a stage director). So, when I advise students on their next steps, I always consider the most current hiring trends and the direction they are moving. I also consider my own singing career and the holes in my education (the ones I didn’t know existed until my first professional contracts). 

Next, I look at the intangibles—chief among them, the accumulation of debt. I consider the number of low-paying contracts or Young Artist Programs I turned down so that I could pay my rent and student loans. I think about the number of talented singers in my cohort who left singing for “Corporate America,” went to law school or, most recently, got their commercial pilots’ licenses because they were sick of the stress of building a career while trying to pay rent on a 300-square-foot studio apartment. Relative to this, I consider the prohibitive cost of applying to and, in many cases, auditioning for several schools.

Determining Which Schools to Apply To

The first thing I counsel students to look for is a teacher with a proven track record of teaching singers in their Fachs (this does not necessarily mean someone in their Fach). The students’ current voice teachers are often their best resources for this (though, not always). Then, I tell them to look for opportunities to get onstage as much as possible (more than one or two shows a year). I also tell them to look at the course requirements with an eye toward skills classes (like coaching, acting, stage combat, movement, diction, languages, etc.). 

Students should ask themselves, “Is there a vocal coach for opera on staff, what Young Artist Programs or professional companies have they worked for, and will I get weekly coachings in addition to my lessons?” and “Is there an acting teacher or stage director who teaches acting on staff, and what are their qualifications to teach those classes?” One might be surprised how few schools have skilled coaches (vocal coaching requires a very specific skill set not always held by collaborative pianists). 

At the risk of alienating many of my colleagues, I also think it crucial that, at the very least, the stage director and coach (or music director) have solid professional opera experience to draw from. There are many truths learned only in the profession. Professional experience also implies connections in the business (another item for the “pros” column). 

One ancillary piece of advice: there are wonderful schools in New York City, but seldom is the cost/benefit ratio 1:1. Unless a student is awarded significant financial assistance (scholarships or grants, not loans), the education is rarely worth the debt accrued.

Next, I suggest that students organize their schools/conservatories lists into tiers*:

  • Tier 1 (dream schools): those with a lot of name recognition and/or famous faculties
  • Tier 2 (schools with a proven track record): those with good name recognition, excellent faculties, lots of performance opportunities, and proven track records (successful alums)
  • Tier 3 (hidden gems): those with less name recognition but solid track records, one or two extraordinary faculty, and performance opportunities
  • Tier 4 (backup schools): those with less name recognition but a few solid faculty members and some performance opportunities

(*Note: These tiers should not be limited to the United States as there are many wonderful options elsewhere, such as Canada and Europe).

Finally, I require that the students do the research and whittle the list down to one or two in each tier. These will be the schools they apply to. Once the application process is done and invitations extended, it is then time to pick the auditions to attend. 

Many assume they should audition for every school that grants them an audition, but it is not always practical given the expense of traveling to and from multiple cities. This is also an opportunity to get a list of four to eight schools down to two to four, making the final step that much easier.

How to Pick the “Best” School from the Offers Received

Once auditions are completed and acceptances granted, it is time to make a final decision. It is tempting to jump at the dream schools, but the dream school is not always the best school. Research is again necessary to make sure the singer is making the best choice. 

And, once again, unless one is independently wealthy, financial assistance matters. I reiterate that students should always factor in debt when making decisions. It shouldn’t be the only factor, but it should also not be ignored. After all, Young Artist Programs do not pay particularly well (some will need to start at the “pay-to-sing” level), and loan interest accrues.

So, teacher + skills + performance opportunities + opportunities in the community ÷ total cost = best option. There may not be a “perfect” option, but of the schools that make offers, there will always be a “best” option.

If any offers are received, a “best” option will surface. However, that “best” option may not feel like the right choice at the moment, in which case it might be necessary to “punt” (i.e., try again next year). This is by no means a failure and it presents students with an opportunity to take a year off, save some money, continue their studies, and come out swinging for the fences in the next audition cycle (not to mix sports metaphors). 

I have often found that students who take a “gap year” are more prepared for auditions, have a renewed sense of purpose once they arrive at their new schools, and suffer less “burnout” during their master’s program. I am not suggesting that attending graduate school immediately upon completing an undergraduate degree is a bad thing. I am suggesting that the path to initial success in opera takes considerably longer than does the path of an MBA or JD, so singers should never feel pressure to enroll immediately or finish quickly. 

Alan E. Hicks

Alan E. Hicks is a professional stage director, director of the Emerging Artist Program at Green Mountain Opera Festival, and author of Singer and Actor: Acting Technique and the Operatic Performer (Amadeus Press, 2011). In addition to teaching acting and stagecraft, he has taught auditioning and business classes in universities across the country.