Oberlin Blogs

Applying to Grad School, Ch. 1

September 12, 2010

Will Mason ’10

The thinking seems to go like this: The job market is awful, and it doesn't look like it's going to get any better soon. Wouldn't it be great if you could just stay in college forever? Oh, that's what professors do? Sign me up!

It seems like as many as 25% of the people in my peer group are applying for graduate school right now, and most of them have designs on a PhD. I perceive a couple of reasons for this. The job market right now is certainly principal among them (case in point being my philosophy major friend who currently hawks cell phones for a living), but I do think there's also a culture of grad school at Oberlin. Students talk about it often, which in turn inculcates the notion in others, and so on. Professors also are very encouraging of graduate study. I remember complaining to David Walker a few years ago about the agony of preparing a cover letter for a job I didn't want (and didn't get!) and he joked "There's an easy way out: become a professor."

Truthfully, the job market is not my impetus for applying to graduate school. I can prove this is the case, because it is my intention to apply for Music Theory, and thus to become a specialist in an area that usually yields bemused laughter from those unfamiliar with its workings and scornful derision from those who are. Certainly it doesn't do much for your job prospects. Nevertheless, it is something that I love very dearly. The idea of holing up in a library for six years to study nothing else save for music holds great appeal, perversely enough, and though it pains me to say it I can't really imagine doing the same with my politics degree.

But what really drives me to go on to graduate school is simply that I enjoy teaching. Being a teacher has always been a career ambition of mine, fortified by my work at a small summer camp in Maine for the past few years. I also have an agenda, which is that I love contemporary music and I feel that it is unfairly reviled by most listeners, especially when you take into account how accepting people are of avant-garde art, cinema, et cetera. I've walked into college dorm rooms with Rothko prints hanging on the wall, and yet most people only encounter the music of Iannis Xenakis when it's playing as background music in a horror film. It's inconceivable to me that people can listen to the same basic musical content repeated ad nauseam -- the same chord progressions, the same melodies, but with different lyrics and performed by different singers and maybe they play with a full band or maybe it's a solo concert... It's like someone who only eats bread every day, alternating between white, wheat, and rye. There's so much richness in new music and yet so few people are willing to investigate it. It's my hope that through teaching I would be able to champion this music that I value so greatly to an audience who may not otherwise discover it. I know this has happened to me on multiple occasions here at Oberlin, in a variety of subject areas.

I have heard complaint from some who are attracted to the idea of teaching in college but who are turned off by the idea of having to publish original research on a regular basis, which they feel would take away from time better spent with students. I am attracted to teaching at the college level precisely because I think that strong original research enhances teaching abilities, and that teaching is an effective way to stumble upon new ideas for research. It makes no sense to prioritize one over the other, since they feed off each other and are mutually beneficial.

These are my broad reasons for applying, and it feels good to lay them out on paper, as I may need to remind myself over the course of the coming months why, exactly, I am inflicting all of this extra work on myself.

Stay tuned for Applying to Grad School, Chapter 2: "This is a terrible idea!", where I'll outline specifics about what I'm doing to prepare.

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