Strategies for Success : Landing a Tenure Track Teaching Job

Job Description: Wherever State University. Full-time tenure track position: Applied voice and related courses (Tenor or baritone preferred). Doctorate preferred, ABD required. Active performer with national, international credits preferred. College teaching experience required. Foreign language and good keyboard skills required. May teach Lyric Diction, Vocal Literature, Pedagogy, Opera Workshop, Women’s Glee or other courses as needed. Ability to recruit for the department and work well with students and colleagues. Rank: Assistant Professor. Salary: commensurate with qualifications and experience. Completed application must include signed letter of application, curriculum vitae, copies of transcripts, three current letters of recommendation, audio/video recording of solo performance and studio teaching. An EO/AA Employer. Send application and credentials to…

Singers applying for full-time college and university teaching jobs before 1985 were expected to have a Masters degree in Vocal Performance and a record of successful vocal performance and teaching. Some famous-name singers with international credits skipped graduate school altogether and were later hired by music schools seeking “equivalent professional experience.” By 1990, however, virtually every full-time voice faculty job announcement was looking for new-hires with earned DMAs, professional singing experience, and college teaching experience. So, the question facing singers who would someday like to teach at a university is not “if” they should get a doctorate, but “when.” “Its getting pretty close to a ‘must’ for young singers,” admits Roy Delp, professor of voice and coordinator of the voice faculty at Florida State University, “and the biggest mistake singers make is going off to get a job before they have a completed doctorate. They don’t finish the dissertation and they lose the job.”

While the bar has been raised on minimum credentials, and more singers are going on to advanced degrees, the full-time faculty job pool is shrinking with the national trend of replacing some retiring professors with adjunct instructors or one-year lecturer positions. The good news is that these positions are ideal for young singers fresh out of graduate school who still need some practical hands-on teaching experience and professional singing experience in order to qualify for competitive tenure track positions. At the other end of the spectrum are singers who focused on their performance careers after undergraduate or Masters study and now must decide whether or not to return to school for a doctoral degree. Some voice types that mature later, notably basses and mezzos, may decide to stay on for a doctorate, while young lyric sopranos and tenors may be leery of wasting prime performing years in the classroom. Summer Young Artist programs are peppered with doctoral students who want singing careers now but are planning ahead for possible future teaching careers.

If you’ve got the degree, the performer’s resume and the CV (curriculum vitae), you need to find out who is hiring. The two best places to find voice faculty job postings are the College Music Society MVL (Music Vacancy List) at and the Chronicle of Higher Education job postings at Graduate students who join the College Music Society for an annual fee of $35 receive the weekly MVL e-mail list of US and some foreign music faculty jobs. The Chronicle, which lets non-members view job posts free a week later than paid members, lists jobs by area (Humanities>Music) and by state. You can also receive the Chronicle vacancy list by e-mail. Some jobs only appear on either CMS or the Chronicle, so it’s best to use both resources. It’s a myth that you find out about the best jobs from a friend of a friend. “You might hear of a job by word of mouth, but eventually it’s going to be on the vacancy lists,” says soprano Dr. Nancy Jantsch. NASM (National Association of Schools of Music) guidelines require full-time faculty vacancies to be publicly advertised.

Once you know which jobs are available and—this is important—you’ve narrowed down the list to include only those jobs you are truly qualified for, you can start to prepare your application materials. It takes a lot of work and a fair amount of time the first time you prepare an application packet. Take great care with your cover letter and CV. Spelling and neatness counts. (So do missing Umlauts and accents!) Dr. Kathryn Proctor Duax, professor of voice and coordinator of voice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire admonishes job-seekers to “Follow the instructions given on the application. Make sure your application is complete with transcripts and letters of recommendation. Follow up!”

Most applications won’t be considered until all materials have been received. Long, redundant cover letters are Roy Delp’s pet peeve: “Don’t do your CV in your cover letter. Only include absolute major highlights and state why you are interested in the position. It should be one page! I may not even read a three-page cover letter.” Dr. Karen Wicklund, associate professor of voice at Western Michigan University teaches students that “You must have a good cover letter and your CV must be full of integrity.” In an invited presentation, Finding and Keeping a Tenure Track Job, for Northwestern University Seminar in Higher Education, Dr. Wicklund warned doctoral candidates that “people will find out if you are lying.” Dr. Vernon Yenne estimates he’s been on 30-40 search committees in his 37-year career at Wichita State University. “Our responsibility is to hire someone who will work well with our students. Integrity is extremely important.” Bottom line: Tell the truth.

The truth also applies to the performer’s resume. “Don’t list any roles that you haven’t actually sung,” says Delp. “We don’t want a wish list of roles that you would like to sing!” He also cautions against listing as “teacher” someone who only worked with you briefly in a masterclass, “and if your doctorate isn’t complete, don’t say it will be completed by a certain date.”

When you are asked to send a recording of your vocal performance, send the very best quality recording possible. “Forget cassette tapes,” says Proctor Duax, “A good quality, clearly labeled CD recording will make the difference in your being selected for a short list interview or not.” Some schools don’t ask for a recording in the initial phase of the job search. “How you sing is very important. I am somewhat suspicious when schools don’t want to hear you sing before they decide on a short list, “says Delp.

If you do make it to the coveted short list (usually three candidates), consider yourself lucky, and continue to do your homework by learning as much as you can about the school before you visit. Most schools will pay your travel and housing expenses if you are invited to interview. “In my opinion, “says Delp, “it’s unethical not to pay the candidates’ interview expenses. The school isn’t investing anything, and they are putting the candidate completely at risk. They are playing with you.” Karen Wicklund advises job candidates to go on as many job interviews as possible. “Keep at it. You’ll get better at interviews and you’ll see firsthand how the fit is.” She speaks from experience as someone who went on nine interviews and received five job offers in her first tenure-track search. Proctor Duax has a totally different perspective, “Don’t interview for fun. These interviews are crucial and expensive. Go to the interview with a plan of accepting the job if offered: this will intensify the interview and help you be more sincere.”

“The personal interview is very important. We are a close-knit faculty, and the fit has to be right,” says Yenne. Delp advises, “Talk about yourself, not just about your mentor or famous voice teacher. You are not a clone of your teacher. We want to know what YOU have done.” He cautions, “Be careful about criticizing the school and telling us what we need. We are here to evaluate you.” Proctor Duax encourages job candidates to be candid in their opinions about teaching issues in the studio and classroom: “What is your teaching philosophy? What subjects are you prepared to teach? Don’t claim to teach something you really don’t care to teach and have no interest in. Honesty is important!” She adds, “Interviewing is intense, so try to be rested when you arrive.”

In addition to personal interviews with the search committee, other faculty and administration, most voice position candidates will give a master class or sample voice lessons and perform a recital. A huge part of the evaluation is the quality and professionalism of your vocal performance. “Sing GREAT!” says Yenne, simply. Proctor Duax wants to hear a variety of styles, languages and time periods. Delp adds, “Know your recital rep well, and sing your art songs from memory. You’ll be working with a pianist with minimal rehearsal, so mail difficult music ahead—or don’t do it!”

At the end of your interview process, you’ll be meeting with a senior administrator—the dean or the department chair. This is the time to discuss money and benefits. Salary ranges are rarely given in faculty vacancy notices, but starting salaries for assistant professors are typically in the $45,000 range. In addition to financial details, you’ll also need to know what the basic expectations are for achieving tenure. What will your non-teaching duties be? How many committee assignments will you have? Emily Toth addresses the special concerns of “artsy academicians” in her Ms. Mentor column at “Will you be evaluated as an academician (who must publish) or as a practitioner (who must create or perform)? What level of artistic success is expected?” The job candidate with an active singing career must also know how much time is allowed away from campus each term for performances, and what arrangements will be made for lessons and classes in the teacher’s absence. Clear communication at this point in the interview will help the singer/teacher avoid future misunderstandings. As Ms. Mentor observes, “Tenure is a great prize, but for some artistic souls, it can be a prison.”

After your interview, go home and write thank-you notes. Eventually you may receive a congratulatory phone call or a conciliatory e-mail. If you didn’t get the job, you probably won’t be told who did. Don’t ask, and don’t ask why you weren’t chosen. Move on. On the other hand, if your circumstances change before or soon after your interview, be a professional and let the committee(s) know as soon as possible. When Dr. Nancy Jantsch decided to stay on at Ohio’s Kenyon College as voice coordinator and opera director, she removed her name from more than one short list.

Some of the best advice regarding academic jobs comes from Dr. Todd Queen, who joined the voice faculty at Colorado State University after two years in a tenure-track position at North Dakota State. “Build your tower,” he says. He explained that a friend of his realized that he’d been so busy trying to build a raft to get away from an unhappy teaching position that he had neglected to build a tower where he was. “You don’t want people to be glad to see you leave, so determine to build your program and support your colleagues where you are. Make the very best of your situation,” says Queen. “In my case, I was happy where I was, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity in Colorado, especially the chance to direct the opera program. When I left NDSU, I didn’t burn any bridges. They were sad to see me leave but sincerely pleased for my success.”

Many singer/teachers struggle with decisions such as whether to teach voice privately while pursuing a performance career, accept low-paying adjunct or one-year lecturer positions, or stay at smaller schools while they wait for a dream job at a top university. Full-time teaching offers the possibility of steady income and a modest living wage, but staying on the performing circuit might lead to a better teaching job down the road. On the other hand, young artists who plan to sing for a while and then get a teaching job “just like my teacher” may be surprised to discover the fierce competition for full-time academic jobs in today’s market. It’s a safe bet that there will be far more sopranos vying for a tenure-track position at Wherever State University than there are sopranos auditioning for La Traviata at Wherever Civic Opera.

It’s a jungle out there, and the pool of applicants grows with each graduating class of newly minted DMAs. As you consider the balance between singing and teaching careers, don’t forget to honestly ask yourself, “Do I have a passion for teaching? Am I an effective teacher? Do I have the skills, knowledge and experience to motivate young singers?” It’s well known that the best performers don’t always make the best teachers, and the most inspiring teachers don’t always have a stellar singing career. The good news is that there is not a one-size-fits-all plan for a successful singing career or a satisfying teaching career. So, examine your strengths and special skills (languages? computer technology? pedagogy and voice science?), get that doctorate, build your performance resume, line up your three letters of recommendation, and start searching the vacancy lists. With a bit of luck, in a year or two you’ll be grading 100 voice juries and wondering how you ended up on so many faculty committees. Welcome to academia!

Cynthia Vaughn

Contributing Editor Cynthia Vaughn has had successful private voice studios in Newark, California; Hanover Park, Illinois; Middletown, New York; Arvada, Colorado; and Springboro, Ohio. She is currently a doctoral candidate and Teaching Assistant at the University of Northern Colorado.