Is a DMA For You?

There have been troubling articles over the last several years about the employability of someone with a doctoral degree—and even more troubling articles on the decrease in full-time, tenured positions at colleges in nearly every field. Increased reliance on adjunct professors who do not receive benefits combined with the possibility for crippling student loan debt is enough to make anyone approaching the pursuit of a terminal degree think twice. Why pursue further study if it leaves one underemployed or unemployed? Is a doctorate of musical arts worth it?

For some singers, a DMA is seen as a safety net for a stalled career. The field of teaching singing, however, is every bit as competitive as performing, and students must be realistic about the job market upon completion of their degree. According to the National Science Foundation’s U.S. Doctorates in the 20th Century: Special Report, last published in 2006, 20 percent of terminal degrees are conferred in the humanities, which encompasses the arts, English, literature, and some education programs. These were broken down only in an appendix, which showed that between 1920 and 1999, more doctorates were conferred in music than in any of the other arts. To give a specific comparison: between 1960 and 1964, 518 music doctorates were conferred, while 3,602 were conferred between 1995 and 1999.

Most post-secondary jobs in music now require a DMA or that the candidate be ABD (All But Dissertation, meaning that all doctoral coursework is complete and only the dissertation remains to have the degree conferred)—though some require a master’s and “requisite performing experience.” Even some adjunct positions are looking for candidates with terminal degrees.

There are not a limitless number of positions teaching voice, opera, and choir at the college level. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, musicians, including singers, earn a median of $40,320 per year, while post-secondary arts educators earn a median of $64,300. The Chronicle of Higher Education releases statistics of tenure and tenure-track positions each year, and teachers in the visual and performing arts with a doctorate earn more—over $9,000 more—than those with only a master’s.

Anyone passionate about the arts can argue that the money doesn’t matter, but there is more to it than the numbers found in the charts on the BLS website. While these statistics can be sobering, it can be valuable and rewarding to obtain the degree and can also help with making a candidate marketable for more teaching positions as well as for positions at a higher pay grade.

Matthew Hoch, associate professor of voice and coordinator of the Voice Area at Auburn University, earned his DMA at the New England Conservatory in 2006 and recently completed his tenth year of full-time college-level teaching. He spent only two years as a full-time doctoral student, taking overloads and finishing his residency early—including three degree-required recitals—while at the same time working as an adjunct, teaching as a fellow at NEC, and working a church job. He completed his comps and dissertation while working at his first university position.

Kirsten C. Kunkle, winner of the PA District NATSAA competition, first-place winner of the American Protégé International Vocal Competition, has sung at Carnegie Hall and Opera Lancaster and has taught at the Lincoln University and Shorter College, among others. She earned her DMA from the University of Michigan in 2007. During her studies, she was singing at various companies, had a church job, and was substitute teaching on the days where she did not have classes.

Suzanne Hendrix, whose singing credits include San Francisco Opera and the Wiener Staatsoper, and has won the Kirsten Flagstad Award and Wagner Prize offered by the George London Foundation, completed her DMA from the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory. She completed her degree after three years of coursework, and an additional year because she postponed her comps for an audition at the Metropolitan Opera. While she pursued her degree, she was an adjunct at a small college and sang in the chorus at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.

As you can see simply from the pursuit of the degree, the level of dedication and time commitment it takes to complete this level of study is a serious undertaking. Major considerations for those contemplating doctoral studies include tuition, stipends, and health insurance during this time of intense study and the additional work of singing.

Hoch noted that everyone in the DMA program at NEC received some kind of scholarship. “But I also had to work a lot in order to afford to live,” he adds. “I took a church job and was an adjunct instructor at three different universities, which wound up being essential experience when I entered the job market.”

Kunkle began her DMA at a young age—immediately after her master’s—and while she did not receive tuition assistance or a fellowship, she was able to remain under her parents’ health insurance. Hendrix got a large scholarship, leaving a little left over after tuition. Because she did not have duties associated with her award, she had free time to sing in the opera chorus at the Lyric, audition, and take singing engagements out of town for short periods.

As difficult as the pursuit of the degree itself was, these three experienced a difficult and competitive entrance into the job market as well. “Finding employment as a full-time college voice professor was extremely competitive and still is, especially when you’re young,” Hoch says. “You’re competing against a slew of applicants, many of whom have terminal degrees and a ton of performance and teaching experience. There are also a lot of elements that are completely out of the applicant’s control. The search committees might be looking for a certain voice type or they might already have an internal candidate (someone they know or who already works for the university) in mind for the position.

“Committees also subjectively screen for a certain ‘personality’—someone they think will be a good colleague or a good fit for the institution. In sum, the process is far more complicated than simply having a DMA and being a good artist-teacher. Those are simply prerequisites that you have to have to be in the running.”

For Hoch, his experience as an adjunct during his master’s and DMA studies paid off. He was able to land a full-time, tenure-track job right away. “It’s all about that first job—then you’re up and running!” he says. “My advice for young professors is that they should send out as many applications as possible and be willing to move anywhere. Literally.”

Kunkle took three adjunct positions immediate after completing her DMA across the state of Ohio. “It was incredibly taxing to travel so much for adjunct work, but I did enjoy my students and colleagues very much,” she says. “After a year of adjunct work, I obtained a visiting assistant professor position at Shorter College, where I stayed for two years. After my time at Shorter, I became the opera director and a voice professor at the Lincoln University for four years. Although I am currently not teaching at the collegiate level, I found that I grew very much as a singer and a teacher during that time. I have always felt that singing and teaching are intrinsically related. When I am singing consistently, my teaching improves, and vice versa.”

Hendrix had a different experience upon completing her DMA “I applied for so many teaching jobs, it was depressing and I stopped counting,” she says. “I had close to 20 phone interviews and one on-site interview. Oddly, it was the best job for which I had applied. It was non-tenure track at a nationally recognized state university. They said when they wrote the job description, I was the exact type of candidate they thought they were looking for—but many, many more people who had more experience applied, and so I was the lone person they chose to represent the ‘newbies,’ which was flattering, but I was up against really veteran teachers with longer performing careers. Other schools seemed very concerned about my performing, which I was doing primarily to get experience to be a better teacher.”

Hendrix was an adjunct for several years while looking for full-time teaching work and, while she enjoyed the work, she had to substitute teach and maintain a private studio to pay base expenses. “And, like all adjuncts, I had no idea how many students I would have and how much money I would be making,” she says, “or if I would even have a job.

“After three years of applying, I gave up,” she continues. “I’m making as much singing as I would at a small school as a beginning teacher and, frankly, in a weird way, I feel like I have to prove less as a singer than at schools. So, I’m sticking with singing for now, even though teaching is what I always wanted to do.”

Some singers want to teach, but are afraid a DMA will negatively influence their performing career—there has been a stigma against a terminal degree. For Hendrix, her DMA studies helped. “I wasn’t performing before my DMA, so it must have helped!” she says. “Of course, with my voice type, I needed extra time to mature, so getting a DMA is a ‘practical’ way to kill time. Better, in my mind, than an AD [Artist’s Diploma], especially since I have interest in teaching.

“I haven’t encountered a stigma,” she continues, “but also, with my voice type, it is easy to explain why I would have been in school a long time. No one really wants to hear a 25-year-old Azucena.” For someone singing “-ina/-etta” roles, performing while younger and waiting until later for doctoral studies might be better.

For Hoch, the idea of an academic lifestyle was appealing. “I never tried to have a performance career,” he says. “I never wanted one. I always knew I wanted to be a college professor, even in junior high school. I would still rather teach a voice lesson than sing an opera any day. I love being a college professor and would never trade it for the lifestyle of a performer.”

Hoch believes that might be unusual, as many voice teachers identify as “singers first” and then move on to teach later in life to “settle down.” “I don’t really think there is much of a connection between DMA programs and a performance career,” he says. “From my perspective, a DMA serves one purpose only: to propel one into a full-time college teaching position. If that is your career goal, then the DMA isn’t really a positive or negative—rather, it is simply necessary.”

Kunkle believes there is still a stigma in the singing world. “The idea that you teach only because you can’t really sing is incredibly present,” she says. Kunkle also disagrees that a DMA is specific to working in academia. “Although I enjoy research and teaching, my field is vocal performance. I was incredibly young when I finished my DMA. I always wanted to pursue my education to its fullest extent. I also needed to be in an environment that can usually be found only in a school.”

Voice type was also a factor for Kunkle. “As a young dramatic soprano, my voice did not really start to fully develop till I was 30, which was about four years after I finished my doctorate,” she says. “Staying in school was vital to me, to both grow as a person and an artist, but especially to nurture my large voice that was still quite difficult to navigate at the time. I’m currently putting my focus on singing full time, but I am so glad I spent the time early on to learn my craft in an academic setting.

“Acquiring a terminal degree was never about finding a job for me,” she continues. “It was based on a drive for education and my own personal goals. I might get more singing jobs without it but, at least for me, I doubt that I would be the musician I am without it, because of the rigor that is required to finish a DMA. It’s a large commitment of time and energy but, ultimately, it is worth all of the effort.”

These three individuals encompass the variety of work that is possible for those who pursue doctoral studies. It is competitive and it requires passion, much like a career as a performer. There are many paths in both performing and teaching—and doctoral studies, while not for everyone, are a means to follow that path.

Joanie Brittingham

Joanie Brittingham is a soprano and writer living in New York City. She can be reached at joaniebrittingham@gmail.com. Visit her blog, Cure for the Common Crazy, at commoncrazy.blogspot.com or see her column, Big Apple Sauce, on the arts scene of New York, at the website JuicyHeads.com.