DMA-- worth it?

January 10, 2020, 5:06 PM · I'm currently applying to DMA programs, and was thrilled to see that I made it past the prescreen round for University of Michigan, Thornton School of Music at USC, Eastman, CIM, Peabody and CCM. My dream is of teaching at the college level- even at a tiny, no-name college- as long as my students are willing to work hard. This year I got to teach at the college level a significant amount as a TA while finishing up my MM and enjoyed it tremendously. It confirmed my feeling that teaching at the college level is what I really want to do.


Everyone and their mother is more than happy to tell me how terrible teaching at the college level is, that a DMA is a waste of money, that I will never get a job, I will die bankrupt and bitter, etc etc etc. How much weight should I give to any of these statements?

(For the record, people said similar things about an MM degree, but I ended up getting a full scholarship and amazing growth and opportunities from it, so I feel like it was certainly worth it!)

Please comment!

Replies (31)

Edited: January 10, 2020, 5:54 PM · If you want a college teaching job and you're not a major international star, the DMA is your entry ticket. It is a job requirement. If you had said you were planning to take professional orchestra auditions, the DMA would be meaningless.

Whether you will be successful in finding a tenure-track job, or will enjoy it if you get one, those are different conversations.

Edited: January 10, 2020, 6:48 PM · Our music department just went through the search process for a new professor to direct the university orchestra. It was fun and exciting to play in the orchestra for their demonstration rehearsals. I was really struck by the depth and diversity of the applicants' backgrounds and by the breadth of their skills and interests. (The same is true of the music department's last few hires, so it's not an anomaly, but as you might expect, applicants for a conducting position tend more toward being generalists than you would as a prospective violin professor.) I don't think the current process is complete, so I should be careful how much I say, but these days, I think a college music department is going to be looking for someone who is more than just a great violinist who is going to teach great violin lessons. They're going to have applicants who will bring a lot more to the job. So as you get close to applications and especially interviews, I think it really pays to do your homework on the places where you're applying, to see what kind of skill set already exists within the music (and other arts!) departments, and what kinds of ideas and aptitudes you might bring to that party that would enhance and extend the activities already underway there -- activities that might range from different types of artistic performances to new ideas for updating core courses, to community outreach efforts. Not only are you looking for a good fit, but obviously they are too.
Edited: January 10, 2020, 7:16 PM · I have played in community orchestras, community college orchestras, and college-community orchestras since 1949. The experiences I have had have given me the greatest respect for the faculty members who have guided, coached, and directed these orchestras and the other associated musical activities of their departments.

My hat is off to you, Liz, for choosing this profession. I wish you a grand life doing it. Some of those I know own fine instruments - one even a new Hamburg Model D grand piano that he imported from London, others - fine violins and cellos - and their own homes as well. You should not starve.

January 10, 2020, 8:35 PM · "My dream is of teaching at the college level- even at a tiny, no-name college- as long as my students are willing to work hard..."

It's hard to predict the career possibilities for anyone, or how much they will enjoy it or if they will fit in.
I can only say that my teaching experiences at 4 colleges and universities were pretty miserable, with very few serious violin students. The problem is that no serious students want to attend "tiny, no-name college."

If you wish to investigate the job market, check two places: the College Music Society's Music Vacancy List (by subscription), and the Chronicle of Higher Education (free ads emailed to you each week). Practically all the job listings will be in one or both. Look at the past couple of years and figure out if there are indeed any openings, and where they are. Personally, I would avoid small, religious colleges unless you think you will fit in. Be suspicious of colleges that advertise year after year--there's usually a reason, like a hostile faculty or administration.

I don't regret getting my DMA, although I am out of the field now. Just don't borrow money to do it. Remember that you will be competing for the very few jobs each year with bazillions of DMA's cranked out by universities everywhere. There is vast overproduction, especially from places like the SUNY system or California's universities. And there is the vast backlog of graduates from past years who are still trying to get jobs.

If you chose to go for a DMA, especially with smaller colleges in mind, you will be more attractive if you have more skills than just teaching violin. You should be able to teach viola, theory, aural skills, and music appreciation. It's likely that you will have to conduct and administrate an orchestra. You may be pressured to recruit.

Whatever you do, do your homework.

January 10, 2020, 9:26 PM · Also worth noting, to Andy Victor's comment, that a few decades back people had tenured roles and made decent money. Now most profs are adjuncts, and may actually make less money from teaching lessons at the university than they would per-hour teaching kids privately.
January 10, 2020, 9:33 PM · As far as other skills, I have taught viola in the past, studied conducting, and have taught music theory and ear training. I feel pretty confident about my ability to do many things that would make me an attractive candidate. I know that most of the schools on my list- Eastman, CIM, USC, UMich, Peabody- have excellent reputations but are known for being expensive and stingy with scholarship. How important is the name of the school on the resume in terms of hire-ability? I have heard from some that it is worth borrowing some to attend a school like Eastman or CIM for the name, especially for DMA, because it will make me a much more attractive candidate for a professorship. I was told by many people not to even bother looking at less prestigious music schools for DMA, such as UC Boulder or U Utah, because they would not help me get through the resume screening process for job applications.
Edited: January 10, 2020, 9:43 PM · One other thought- I have noticed the trend that even at private HIGH SCHOOLS many new hires have DMA’s!! It seems impossible to get any decent teaching job without one these days! One of my first teaching jobs was at a private music school on the East Coast. Half the teachers had DMA’s, but most of the students were only middle school age (up to a few high school seniors) and not very advanced at all. However, the pay was commensurate with # of degrees and years of teaching experience. The teachers with DMA’s earned far more than I did, with only a B. Mus degree. Therefore, even if I never obtain a tenure-track college job, perhaps a DMA will still help me command a higher hourly rate for private teaching. Thoughts?
Edited: January 10, 2020, 10:15 PM · Well, there is a good reason why private high schools expect their applicants to have DMAs: Because they can. It's stone-cold proof of what Scott is saying about the glut of DMAs on the market.

I don't think a DMA will elevate your salary in private teaching. Reputation and outcomes will do that. One thing that teaching at a small college can do for you is provide you with a measure of credibility within the community, which could help you build your private studio a little faster than you might otherwise. Just bear in mind that if the town is very small, then so is the market, and there can be competition. I can tell you that when college profs start to build private studios on the side, there can be resentment from local private teachers who often have to charge more (or operate on much narrower margins) because they have higher overhead (they're buying their own health insurance, etc.). Where I live the university profs are careful not to undercut the local teachers out in the community. But then they also created a class-style string program as a form of outreach, and the stark reality is that class instruction is much less expensive than individual private tutelage and it's not clear what effect this may have had on the local market. My hunch is that it hasn't helped. There may be a lot of personal reward in music education, but it can be a rough-and-tumble business too.

January 10, 2020, 10:10 PM · I know you are absolutely right- degree inflation is real. But doesn't that make it that much more important to have a DMA if I want to be competitive in the (teaching) job market? I know a DMA has no relevance for winning an orchestra job, but I don't have much interest in that, at least right now. I have held two professional orchestra jobs in the past five years - not the best or biggest orchestras, but modest salaried positions- and decided that is not the career I really want to pursue for many reasons.
January 10, 2020, 10:11 PM · I was editing and expanding my post while you were writing yours.
Edited: January 10, 2020, 10:19 PM · Interesting about the U Professor vs. local private music teacher dynamic. I had never considered that. I never had trouble finding students- usually the opposite. Lots of kids/parents wanted to work with me. The problem is that I honestly don't love teaching little KIDS. I don't like dealing with the behavior issues. I have no desire to be a disciplinarian, and don't enjoy feeling like a glorified babysitter. (Ironically, I used to baby sit during undergrad and liked it a lot more than teaching violin to little kids. It's amazing how much more fun little kids are when you aren't trying to coax them into holding a wooden box awkwardly under their jaw while standing still! ) However, I really enjoy working with motivated teens and twenty-somethings. It's an entirely different dynamic. I find it very rewarding.
Edited: January 10, 2020, 10:39 PM · But violin teaching is a pyramid. Lots of little kids at the bottom, precious few conservatoire-bound high-schoolers at the top.

I also agree with Scott about the motivation and skill level that you're likely to find at a "no-name" college. I attended a small Christian college for my BS in chemistry. I was employed as an accompanist in the music department. My assignment was 3-4 female voice students at a time, all of whom were music-education majors. They hardly ever practiced. I went to their lessons and to their weekly master class if they were singing that week. I know it sounds awful to say this, but the degree most of them were really after was the MRS. The teacher would excoriate them for being lazy and they would cry and make excuses. It was quite an experience. (In fairness, I took piano lessons a couple of semesters and I didn't practice much either, but my teacher knew I wasn't lazy.) One advantage of the very small college is that they aren't likely to have prominent majors in areas that are known to consume vast amounts of student effort like science and engineering.

January 10, 2020, 10:44 PM · A DMA is absolutely meaningless when it comes to private teaching and the fees you might be able to command. Reputation and track record are far more important when it comes to charging more than the going rate--and whatever the going rate is, there will be an upper bound that is not likely to be much above the going rate unless you have some sort of amazing story in your bio. A DMA is not that story.
January 11, 2020, 10:48 AM · Liz, there are people on this forum who are consistently hostile to the DMA.
One wonders that, had they only had a bachelors, would they say the same thing about the masters?

I suppose that I'm the type that doesn't make a simple calculus out of education, that one doesn't necessarily have to get $X=degree, but values education (if you can afford the time/opportunity cost) for itself.

I experienced a lot of growth and opportunities from my DM. I ended up with much more solo repertoire under my belt than I would have had otherwise. I played in period ensembles and had good training in baroque performance, and had teaching and administrative opportunities. I was exposed to many more fine musicians of every type. Perhaps many coming out of Bachelor programs are fully-formed musicians with large repertoires and thus have no need for more training. I wasn't that musician.

I don't think of my experience, even if I am no longer a college teacher, as "meaningless." As one of my doctoral professors used to say, "everything counts." Sometimes you don't know why or how it will count.
My understanding of just the Bach sonatas, for example, is on a much higher level (which may explain why I'm now so dissatisfied with most interpretations that I hear). There are works in the repertoire I never would have performed or even know existed had my professor not suggested them.

So if you wish to pursue a doctorate and have the time and money, I say go for it. If you only want to do it to get a college teaching job, then I'd say have a backup plan.

January 11, 2020, 11:31 AM · You are very close to finishing the masters, so go ahead and run through to the end of the race. You will get a superior credential and will learn more stuff during those extra two years. I only have the BA in music and will never know what might have happened if I continued. I had a choice of going to a good grad. music program or joining a top professional ensemble. At the time my thinking was that it was better to do the thing than study the thing.
January 11, 2020, 11:48 AM · Thanks for this, Scott. I'd add to that the following: Whatever field you are in, a doctorate is a worthwhile experience by itself regardless of its use for your career (well, maybe except the law). Mine was in organic chemistry and was essential even for the rather middling career I have had. But it was an experience I'd recommend anybody to have who has the chance.
Edited: January 11, 2020, 4:23 PM · I'm not hostile to the DMA. At one time I considered it for myself, before deciding to have a third child instead. It's just not a ticket to anything other than being eligible to apply for tenure-track teaching jobs. If that's what someone wants, then they need the DMA. If they have the time and money to spend getting several more years of an excellent musical education, the DMA is a perfectly fine way to do that as well as long as they understand what the degree can and cannot do for them. If what someone really wants is to win a major orchestra audition, though, the DMA is counterproductive. That time would be much better spent studying excerpts with a major orchestra concertmaster and taking auditions.

What the DMA is NOT: a ticket to a professional orchestra job; an automatic bump in private lesson fees; a guaranteed equivalent to a BM from Juilliard (that discussion still makes my eyes roll hard into the backs of their sockets); or any sort of certification at all that the holder plays any better than those of us with lowly MMs or even BMs. In my orchestra I can think of four people off the top of my head with DMAs. One is a principal but he won that position long before earning the DMA. The other three are section players, two of whom are in my section (I have an MM) and one of whom is in a section where the principal has only the BM albeit from a top school. They're all fine players but the DMA isn't what got them through the audition.

January 12, 2020, 8:13 PM · If you want to teach college, I would definitely get a DMA. Yes, there is a glut of DMA's but it's also become a requirement for higher ed. If you have already had orchestra jobs, it sounds like you can very easily become a triple threat (DMA + great player + professional experience), and there are not nearly as many of those as you might think so that gives you an advantage. The fact that you are flexible in location and love teaching young adults also means you are a good fit. My advice is to not go into unreasonable debt and to create your own track record of concerts and masterclasses/presentations while you are in school for DMA, so that you come out with a strong resume of being on the upswing. Continue adjunct teaching when you have the chance, and if you get the opportunity to teach in a classroom (history for example), take (if if you don't want to!) it as it will serve you well to make the cut in more desirable locations. Above all, have fun while doing it. I teach college full time, and although I don't like the email/admin part of the duties, I absolutely love teaching college and would not trade it. I'm lucky also to be in a location with a thriving music community where I continue to play and work on my playing. Side note: I never finished my DMA, so only MM, but now that I have ssat on many search committees I know that was a fluke and wouldn't fly to get a tenure track job anymore. I feel lucky. Good luck!
Edited: January 13, 2020, 1:26 PM · It seems to me you will have more decision-making freedom later if you avoid going into debt now. When choosing a DMA program, why not look for a well-known teacher at a place where you can get a scholarship? A location where you have opportunities to continue performing professionally would also be a plus.
Edited: January 13, 2020, 2:09 PM · You should do it if you get a scholarship. Don't go into debt because it will be hard to pay off with the salary of a faculty job. And if you don't get a faculty job, it will be even harder to pay off. You could probably find state school salaries in music departments online. Make sure you get a sense of what the starting salaries are before you take out debt 3-4 times one year's worth of salary. Also examine how many entry-level, full-time violin faculty jobs are available each year and assess your odds against the competition.

Regarding whether a teaching job is awesome or awful, I think it depends what you are comparing it to, and what you value in work, like anything else.

January 13, 2020, 2:15 PM · i would be interested (I am from Europe) to understand what it takes in the US to get a tenure-track position, say, assistant professor of violin, in the music department of some (possibly lower-tier) university. In the branch that I am familiar with (and there I am also familiar with the US system) what is needed is a PhD, but most of all, scientific publications. I suppose for violin this is different?
Edited: January 13, 2020, 6:08 PM · The DMA is the violin performance equivalent of a PhD and as discussed above, it is necessary unless you have a major performance career. If you look at the faculty at Juilliard, for example, quite a few do NOT have the DMA but what they have instead are major prizes and significant solo, chamber music, or orchestral careers. Frank Huang, who is concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, lists only the BM with additional studies on his Juilliard bio. In general, the lesser the music school, the more they care about what degrees their faculty hold. I think both of my conservatory/grad school teachers held only a master's.

For lesser mortals hoping to teach at lower tier schools, yes, the DMA, with publications and/or performances as appropriate for what one is applying to teach.

Edited: January 14, 2020, 6:54 AM · The comparison of DMA and PhD is apt. However, my university (and I suspect many others) is now starting to broaden the range of faculty lines that are available, and the training requirements differ. For example we have "professor of practice" and "collegiate professor" positions, which are "permanent" types of jobs but NOT tenured (maybe 3-5 year contracts that are intended to be renewable). And for these, the requirement of a PhD is a little less strict, but there is much more emphasis on the breadth and depth of your experience. I'm not sure how that trend will play out in the performing arts departments though.

When I was choosing an undergraduate college, I remember that one of the numbers that was always touted by institutions was the percentage of teaching faculty who had PhDs, or the percentage of courses taught by people with PhDs (or equivalent terminal degree such as DMA or JD or MD). And it may even have been something that was regulated by accrediting agencies. These days my sense is that people do not care about that as much, but I'm not sure.

So why require the PhD or the DMA in the first place? Again, it's because they can. There are plenty of folks with those degrees pouring out of the pipeline because of the self-serving, perverse incentives built into the system. Requiring the highest terminal degree is a cheap-and-easy coarse filter, so that you're only reviewing 200 applications for an open faculty position, not 700. (Yes, my department had an open tenure-stream position last year and we had 200+ applicants for it. The year I was hired, 1995, there were two positions which netted 150+ applications each with very little overlap, so it's a long-standing problem.)

January 15, 2020, 4:04 PM · Thank you, everyone! I appreciate all the input.
January 15, 2020, 7:37 PM · "Everyone and their mother is more than happy to tell me how terrible teaching at the college level is, that a DMA is a waste of money, that I will never get a job, I will die bankrupt and bitter, etc etc etc. How much weight should I give to any of these statements?"

None. Consider instead what it's going to do to you. Will it help you learn and grow in a direction you want?

January 15, 2020, 9:22 PM · There's a school of thinking that regards education as a financial investment, a means to an end, wherein one spends money on schooling in order to get specific career returns with "hard ROI".

There's another school of thinking that regards education as a good to its own end, part of a self-actualization process.

Where you sit on those elements and their balance probably has quite a bit to do with your financial situation and life goals.

January 15, 2020, 9:54 PM · I agree with Lydia, but I think for Liz, the focus should definitely be on the former sentiment (i.e. using the DMA as a means to obtaining opportunities and connections). I am all for self-actualization, but I think the time where one could claim that as a victory in and of itself passed long ago (i.e. undergrad). Mary's comments above hit on this quite well I feel - pursuing a DMA is worthwhile if you know what it is good for and that is what you want. It sounds like you do.

I think the concern Mary expressed is partly because there are plenty of aspiring orchestral musicians who reach the age of 24/25 and haven't yet won jobs. They sometimes feel that pursuing a DMA (i.e. being in school) will look more impressive than gigging until they win a full-time position. I agree with her that this is wrong, as the DMA was not meant for these people. As an aspiring teacher, however, it makes sense for you to do a DMA, and may be required. Best of luck to you with your applications.

Edited: January 16, 2020, 6:59 AM · ROI vs. self-actualization is not entirely the province of the client. Universities today -- especially public universities -- are tripping over themselves trying to emphasize and "sell" the institution on ROI. It's been going that way for a long time and I don't think it's reversible. Programs within the university that emphasize self-actualization vs. ROI will eventually see their funding slashed. And you do have to wonder how ROI on a history course for non-history-majors would be measured. Are you really going to survey the salaries of your graduates ten years out to see whether those who took medieval history earn more than those who took Civil War history? You laugh ... but I can see the bean-counters wanting to do just that.
January 16, 2020, 11:53 AM · The University of Maryland relatively recently went through a bean-counting exercise looking at university revenue per square foot of space used, per program, which is why UMD no longer offers a an MM in instrumental pedagogy. (That required space for the grad students to do their teaching in, see, which has horrible revenue per sqft.) Even though the graduates had the best ROI / salaries, on the average, of the music grads. The ROI to the school matters a lot more than the ROI to the students.
January 16, 2020, 12:02 PM · "Everyone and their mother is more than happy to tell me how terrible teaching at the college level is, that a DMA is a waste of money, that I will never get a job, I will die bankrupt and bitter, etc etc etc. How much weight should I give to any of these statements?"

"None. Consider instead what it's going to do to you. Will it help you learn and grow in a direction you want?"

In all fairness, people probably SHOULD listen to those who have been in the business. There's a huge disconnect between conservatory culture and the ordinary college culture. I'll be that many conservatory-trained musicians, in their attempt to recreate that culture in the typical college get quite disillusioned when their attempts fail.

January 16, 2020, 12:05 PM · To be fair, I do mentoring for college students / early-career folks in my own field of computer science, and there, there's also plenty of seeking the advice of grizzled veterans only to ignore it entirely too. :-)

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