Nathaniel is in the fourth year of the Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) program in trumpet performance at Michigan State University. He currently works at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Wu Family Academy of Learning & Engagement as their Education Librarian & Program Assistant.
What did you hope for in terms of employment as you started your DMA?
As I finished my master’s program, two options were presented to me. The first was to move to a large city like Chicago and try to live solely off freelance trumpet jobs (private lessons, pit orchestra gigs, etc.). To make it big in our field, lots of people live the “starving artist” lifestyle in a big city for some time to try to make the connections and get the experience you need for the few stable jobs that are out there in our profession.
The second was to go get a Doctor of Musical Arts degree and teach trumpet at a university. That seemed like a much better idea at time. I wouldn’t have to move to a big city with no job and no idea how to pay my rent, and would be on track to a nice steady job at a university with a decent salary and benefits. However, starting in the second year of my doctorate, I began to realize how difficult it was to even find an adjunct job in our field, and it dawned on me my degree program was essentially preparing for jobs that were nonexistent in 2016.
What was your first “alt-ac” job?
After coming to the realization the DMA degree in and of itself was not going to land me gainful employment, I started doing a ton of informational interviews, and I still do lots of them. I didn’t know what they were or how useful they were until I first met with Julia McAnallen, the Director of MSU’s Office of PhD Career Services.
Two fields that seemed the most viable at that time were university administration and working in administration at an arts non-profit, so I info interviewed a lot of people in those fields. After doing an interview with the Executive Director of the Lansing Symphony Orchestra, I was offered an internship in their administrative office. While I had done one other similar internship and had a lot of other part-time jobs outside my major, this was the first job I went into with the intention of getting experience for an alt-ac career.
What do you do now?
At the moment, I have two rather different jobs, besides a few freelance music gigs I still do and helping out with my wife’s tutoring business.
The first is working as the education librarian & program assistant for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Wu Family Academy (the education and outreach wing of the DSO). The second is a fellowship with Michigan State University’s Office of PhD Career Services. I landed both those jobs mostly through networking. The DSO job started with an informational interview a year and half ago with the current director of my department, who at the time was at a different arts non-profit. They had an interim position they needed to fill at the DSO, and he was aware of my interest in working at an arts non-profit, so he asked me to step in. After the interim position was filled, they decided to keep me on.
The PhD Career Services position came through networking as well, since the office normally prefers to hire student affairs graduate students for their fellowships. I had become very passionate about alt-ac careers and helping others transition into them, and I had launched a Versatile PhD meetup in East Lansing and demonstrated my commitment to a non-ac career through the Lansing Symphony internship. It’s been one of the best places I’ve worked. I love the fact that office is sincerely dedicated to helping doctoral students from all disciplines leverage their skills to succeed in academic and non-academic careers.
What kind of tasks do you do on a daily and weekly basis?
At the DSO, my primary job is managing our youth ensembles library. We have about 450 students in our program, and it takes more work than you’d think to manage a library that serves that many people. When needed, I also do some marketing and planning for DSO education events. For instance, we have a middle school honor band day quickly coming up and are expecting 260 students. I use my writing skills a ton when communicating with parents and their teachers about such events (one way in which I definitely use my graduate-level education).
At PhD Career Services, a lot of my work is communications-related. I manage our social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn), and I profile alumni in non-academic careers for MSU’s Chittenden Commons blog. When needed, I also conduct resume, CV and cover letter reviews for graduate students, and I especially enjoy chatting with other graduate students about their career goals and helping them tailor their resumes for specific jobs.
What most surprises you about your jobs?
What’s funny is that ever since high school, I’ve been either an undergraduate or graduate student. When I first started focusing on non-academic work, I figured I would have a ton of skills to learn and would be woefully behind my peers who had gotten their first jobs right out of college. To be honest, while I have learned a lot, non-academic work was definitely not rocket science. The biggest thing for me, I think, to succeeding in non-academic work is proving that you can work well with other people, and that you’re not going to turn your nose up to tasks that PhDs stereotypically would think “beneath them” and that you can get along well with people without PhD-level education.
What are your favourite parts of your jobs?
At the DSO, I get to be behind the scenes at an amazing orchestra and one of Michigan’s finest arts organizations. While there are deadlines and while things sometimes get crazy, I love the fact I can work for a high-caliber arts organization without the pressure and competitiveness that exists in the world of trumpet performance (my academic discipline). There’s such an oversupply of qualified trumpet players, and I sincerely believe I’m making contributions to the art form that I wouldn’t be able to do if I had stuck solely to trumpet performance.
At PhD Career Services, I love the fact I can help others going through the same transition. Transitioning to the real world is tough, and we all need to band together to remind ourselves there is one than one person in the world going through this. MSU deserves much credit for having such a great and supportive office for doctoral students.
What’s next for you, career-wise?
Hopefully something full-time in the arts management world, or once I finally get out of school, I’ve even looked to trying something wildly different, like picking up some basic computer programming skills and seeing what jobs I could do with that. In addition, I’m looking forward (after school) to helping my wife build up her tutoring business which focuses on helping middle and high school students develop writing skills. Along the same lines, before moving to Detroit, I had a large trumpet studio and want to look into building one up again in this area.
What advice or thoughts do you have for PhDs in transition now?
Be honest with people about your career plans. When you apply for a job and people see your PhD on your resume outside of the academy, they’ll be tempted to think, “He/She will find this job boring” or “Once he/she is offered a tenure-track job, they’ll be out of here in no time.” Tell people the truth: you tried academia and while you might have decided to finish your degree, you’re ready for the next phase of your life, and ready to tackle new challenges in a non-ac position.
Surround yourself with people who genuinely understand the situation as it is for PhDs. Events like Versatile PhD meetups are good for this, in addition to visiting your university’s graduate career center, if that exists.
Think entrepreneurially. You aren’t going to transition into a job out of the academy right away, and you can get valuable experience and side income through starting something similar to the tutoring business my wife runs.
Do lots of informational interviews and networking. These have landed me more opportunities than staring at the computer screen and blasting off resume after resume. If you can, do informational interviews with people who have a similar educational background – and learn what helped them transition successfully.
There is nothing shameful about looking into work outside your discipline or the academy. You have to do what is right for you and do not compare yourself to the lucky few who do land work in the academy. The “shame” of “abandoning” my discipline is what kept me so long for seeing the situation as it really is.
This Transition Q&A was originally featured on University Affairs.
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