I recently read my friend Dave’s blog post called ‘Thoughts on doing a master’s in music science‘ and have recently asked to provide some advice on the topic myself so I figured, if it can be helpful at all, I can also share my thoughts and advice I have related to graduate studies in music science!
First, to situate myself and give some context to my opinions. I was always interested in the sciences and I had always played music. My original plan was to be an ophthalmologist, until I was given This is your brain on music by Dan Levitin as a high school graduation gift from my piano teacher. As soon as I realized that you could study the science of music, I changed my career aspirations. I started taking psychology courses to get a minor, choosing not to have a specific major in favour of a general music degree (if you chose a major, you weren’t allowed a minor in my programme). I carried out a research project in my fourth year (that failed miserably, btw) and started looking for master’s programmes in music science early. My goal was always academia so I knew that I would also be pursuing a PhD afterwards.
In the end, my master’s was a means to an end: it got me into a PhD programme on a studentship with a great supervisor. However, it was a default choice: it was the only programme that offered me a spot: the MSc in Music, Mind and Brain at Goldsmiths in 2013-2014. It’s worth noting that leadership of the programme has changed since and courses went through many iterations and formats before I went through it and as far as I understand it still is in an effort to best serve the students in a fast-changing field – so take my experience with a grain of salt.
I wish many things could have been different during my master’s and they are just as much my fault as they are opinions I have about the programme and how it could be improved. I expected a research master’s instead of a taught master’s and found myself feeling like I was in undergrad all over again, learning many basic things all over again. The thing is, it’s extremely difficult to offer a programme for students of all backgrounds and make sure no one is left behind, so I definitely sympathize though at the time was much more critical. But instead of engaging with the material and challenging myself to learn more new things, I checked out. I could have used all that time to read so much literature or even pop science books in psychology, philosophy, science, etc. I could have invested so much more time in learning R.
At the same time, I’m not sure that I actually could have – I didn’t expect any culture shock moving from Canada to the UK but it happened and I wasn’t motivated. I talked to friends and family at home a lot and didn’t invest much in my time in the UK until I found out I’d be staying another three years. That’s when I started to really dig in more and I started to really love living in London.
Another thing I was unprepared for was what I at the time considered to be lower expectations of me. In Canada, the programmes I was applying for had a long list of expectations including helping develop lab code and protocol, staying on top of the literature, attending and presenting at lab meetings, supporting senior students in their research, attending conferences, etc. In my programme, I wanted to design my own research project (we’re given a list to choose from) but I was told that would be too difficult. I wanted to attend an international conference and was told it’d be too much work. I wanted to apply to PhD programmes (given a year-long master’s and early application deadlines in Canada, this meant starting applications about 6 weeks after starting the master’s) but was told it would be too much. I think it was genuine concern for my work load but I did go to that international conference and I did start a PhD a week after finishing my master’s. I didn’t end up needing to design my own research project because I was assigned the one I was interested in (there was only one) and the external supervisor on that project became my PhD supervisor. For me, I need to have a lot on my to-do list to be productive; there needs to be a lot asked of me to be motivated, whether that’s external expectations or things I expect of myself.
The best thing about my master’s programme was definitely the research project. After the disaster of my undergrad project, it was good to have another chance at implementing a research project from A to Z! I was lucky to have found a project that I was interested in given the MMB programme is so wide-ranging in terms of research topics. I did apply to programmes with more specific research projects that I wanted to be a part of but didn’t get accepted to the programme of study. This is because aside from the MMB master’s, there is no such thing as a “master’s in music science”. It’ll be a master’s in psychology, or music, or computer science, or music theory, or music technology, or neuroscience, etc. Labs will be affiliated with a faculty and a programme and this is what you have to be accepted to to join the lab. For me, one rejection was the McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind, where I wanted to join the MAPLE lab; my statistics background wasn’t considered strong enough for admission to the psychology programme. At McGill, my best shot at working with Stephen McAdams at CIRMMT was to apply to a master’s in composition, because I certainly wasn’t going to get into a music theory or music tech programme, but I didn’t get in. Looking at it right now, it seems quite clear that for these specific programmes, I had to invest far more time in either music or science to get into either, while Goldsmiths’ MMB programme allowed for a more balanced background. And this is something that has to be planned years in advance. That being said, it’s also possible to take a year to gather the extra credits you need to apply to the programme you want (though I think this applies more to psychology or computer science/engineering-based programmes than music ones like composition); I’d just say that this is a pretty big investment so try to have a good relationship with the person you’re trying to work with and be sure that the extra work you’re doing is what is required for admission.
So, given my experience, here’s some bits of advice I would have told the me from five years ago:
- thoroughly research all programmes you’re going to apply to and speak with all your potential supervisors
- look for a research topic that interests you and prepare yourself for admission to that academic programme; whether psychology- or music-based, look for a few labs that you can join via a programme that plays to your strengths
- aim to make the most of your time familiarizing yourself with the literature of your field, developing research skills and building a network of people in the field
- ask what is expected of you; find the programme that will challenge you without overextending you
- invest in your community; take the time to get involved so that there’s something in your life other than school
There is so much more I could say about grad school but I’ll keep the focus on the master’s stage for now. I hope this is helpful! Feel free to reach out with any questions or suggestions on any topics I can expand on in this post!