Graduate School

Table of Contents


V. Graduate School

Maybe you’ve decided to continue your education with a graduate degree. This step will also take planning, time, and preparation. The main differences between graduate school and undergraduate school are:

  • More seminar-type classes
  • Fewer tests; more papers, projects, and presentations (which results in reduced short-term feedback)
  • Increased course specialization
  • More self-motivation required
  • Increased pressure to maintain your GPA; generally, a grade of B or better is expected
  • Greater competition
  • Fewer ensemble credits; more practice hours expected for performance majors
  • Increased emphasis on writing ability
  • Increased emphasis in the theoretical and philosophical aspects of teaching music; decreased emphasis on practical skills


An Overview of Graduate Education1

Graduate education is rigorous, specialized training in academic and professional fields and generally includes all post-baccalaureate programs. Traditional graduate music education programs culminate with the granting of a master’s degree or a doctorate. Admission to graduate music degree programs in the United States is usually based on students’ undergraduate records, recommendations by professors, auditions or videotapes showing applicants in teaching situations, and scores on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).

Advanced education in law, medicine, and theology began in European universities during the Middle Ages, but modern graduate education, emphasizing scientific research, began in Germany in the early nineteenth century. German universities had the best graduate programs until the 1890s. A few American colleges experimented with graduate education before the Civil War, and Yale University awarded the first doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) degree in the United States in 1861. Graduate education grew rapidly during the twentieth century, and today there are more than three hundred American universities that award doctoral degrees.



Doctoral programs in the United States usually consist of three stages. After completing a specified number of advanced courses in their fields of study, students prepare for and must pass an oral or written qualifying examination. Students then complete a period of supervised research, which culminates with the submission and oral defense of a research dissertation. Students pursuing a doctor of musical arts (D.M.A.) degree must give a series of recitals and may submit a shorter thesis.

While the Ph.D. is the dominant doctoral degree associated with graduate education, other doctoral degrees also exist. They include the Doctor of Education (Ed.D.), Doctor of Business, Doctor of Administration (D.B.A.), and Doctor of Psychology (D.Psych.). The Doctor of Arts (D.A.) degree was introduced in the 1960s and emphasizes college-teacher preparation. Students desiring this degree must write an expository thesis instead of the traditional research dissertation.


Master’s Degree

Although the academic and intellectual achievement represented by a Ph.D. has long been recognized, the achievement represented by a master’s degree has long been a subject of controversy. Nevertheless, the master’s degree has been around for eight centuries and is today the most widely awarded graduate degree.

Master’s degrees were recognized as distinct from doctoral degrees as colleges and universities began admitting greater numbers of students, especially women, and expanding their offerings in the field of education. Beginning in 1939 and for the next twenty years, approximately 75% of liberal arts master’s degrees were awarded to public school teachers, and the growth of master’s degree education was tied to the expansion of elementary and secondary education. Many education schools also provide a special nondegree program beyond the master’s degree for further education of teachers and administrators.

1 This excerpt is based on information from the Academic American Encyclopedia (Danbury, CT: Grolier, Inc., 1995).

When to Go to Graduate School 

Ideally, your decision to pursue a graduate degree in music should be based on your long-term career goals. A master’s degree may be required in your state for continued certification, or you may wish to pursue a teaching career in higher education, which will require a graduate degree.

Some students opt to postpone employment and enter graduate school immediately following their baccalaureate degree. Sometimes students follow this path for the wrong reasons including:

  1. You can’t find a job. If you’re having trouble finding a job, chances are that a graduate degree will not help the situation. School districts will have to pay you more if you have an advanced degree and may opt instead for a cheaper but equally experienced applicant.
  2. You are afraid to look for a job. A graduate degree will probably not drastically alter your current outlook on life. Use this career guide to help you tackle your job search, or see a career counselor to find a field that interests you.
  3. You aren’t sure you want to teach music. If this is the case, a graduate degree in music education would be ill-advised. A graduate degree in another area of music (such as performance, composition, music therapy, technology, ethnomusicology, etc.) might, however, be a good decision.
  4. Your college ensemble director has offered you an assistantship. This is a frequent scenario at schools that house both undergraduate and graduate programs. College ensemble directors often recruit outstanding seniors to remain on campus and pursue a graduate degree while serving as a program assistant. Although this may be a tempting offer, it is usually not the best reason to pursue a graduate degree in music education (see numbers 1 and 2). In addition, many graduate programs require at least one year of post-baccalaureate teaching for admission. Thus, participating in classes comprised of experienced music educators may be uncomfortable for you if you have little or no experiences to share. Any ensemble director who wants you with no teaching experience will want you even more after you have taught for one or more years. And too, many music educators encourage students to attend a different institution for their graduate work to broaden their perspective and gain the expertise of a new faculty and a different program.


Part-Time versus Full-Time Graduate School 

The decision to continue or interrupt employment to pursue your graduate degree will depend largely on your financial situation and the proximity of an available graduate school. Master’s degree programs (about thirty semester hours) will take an average of one to two years if you attend full time. Doctoral programs will take longer–from three to six years or more.

It’s always preferable to attend an institution as a full-time student during the regular school term. This allows you to participate in ensembles, have full access to faculty, and avoids scheduling and travel problems. Attending full time also makes you eligible for any available financial aid. If you can’t take courses full time, many institutions offer extensive summer study that allows teachers to continue their employment and simultaneously work toward a degree. Other music teachers attend classes one or two nights a week at a nearby university.

If your school district permits a leave of absence or a sabbatical, you may elect choose to attend graduate school full time and then return to your school district following graduation.


Selecting a Graduate School

The first step in selecting a school is to establish what you want to achieve while attending and whether or not you will attend full time. Discuss your plans with your colleagues or a college faculty adviser. Send a postcard to the graduate admissions office of all the schools you’re considering and request an application form and course catalog. Write to the music department separately for additional brochures and information.

If you choose to work on your degree part time, you’ll need to find whatever school is nearby. If, however, you are planning to interrupt employment and attend school full time, you’ll want to consider the following factors:


Quality of the faculty

How many music education faculty members are there? What are their specialties? Are performance faculty members on staff full time or part time? How strong are the ensemble conductors?

Music departments come in different sizes–small, medium, large, and gigantic. The size of the faculty is usually determined by the number of students and the diversity of the curriculum. Not all faculty listed in the catalog may be on the graduate faculty. If your specialty area is general music, does the school have graduate faculty in that area? Access to faculty is an important issue. Consider the number of full-time versus part-time faculty. Talk to current or past grads about faculty strengths and weaknesses. Many departments are also judged by the strength of their ensembles (which may reflect the strength of their performance faculty). What level of competition are you looking for? How successful have their graduate students been in finding jobs?



Never, never attend any graduate school that isn’t accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM) and at least one other accrediting agency!


Admissions requirements

What do you need to score on the GRE? Do you need to audition? What undergraduate GPA is required? Is any teaching experience required? Will you have to interview? Do you need any letters of recommendation?

Admissions requirements vary widely from school to school. Research programs carefully to make sure you qualify for admission and haven’t forgotten to submit any materials during the application process.



Will you attend a public university or a private one? Will you attend a college in the state where you live, or can you afford to pay out-of-state tuition? Is any financial aid available? What kind of assistantships are available?

Graduate education is expensive, and the competition for scholarships and assistantships is fierce. If you’re applying for financial aid or for an assistantship, it’s important that several faculty members become acquainted with you and your interest. Write personal letters to individuals and follow up with a visit or phone call. You also may want to ask your undergraduate ensemble conductor or a music education professor to make a personal phone call on your behalf.



What is the distance between your home and the university you plan to attend? Is relocation necessary? What’s the social atmosphere like? Is university housing available? How much would it cost to rent an apartment? Make sure you like the location of the school before committing yourself to its graduate program.


Degree Requirements

The specific course requirements for master’s and doctoral degrees vary significantly from school to school. Some schools require extensive work in music theory and music history during all master’s degrees. Others require a foreign language. Some schools prescribe a strict series of courses, while others allow for flexibility.


Applications and Auditions

Applying to graduate schools can be very time-consuming. Start early–request your applications and catalogs during the summer and register for the GRE in the fall. Submit your application materials by February or March. You will usually be notified first concerning your overall admission to the graduate program; financial aid decisions are released later in the year.

Type your application and cover letter carefully–no errors! Do a draft copy first and make a copy of all completed applications. If an audition is required, do so in person if at all possible. CD recordings can be a good alternative to a campus visit, but they should be prepared carefully–use quality recording equipment, and put your best material first. Faculty are often pressed for time and may only review the first few minutes of your recording. Submit a repertoire list with your recording as well to show the breadth and difficulty level of the literature you’ve mastered.


Graduate Record Examination (GRE)

Many graduate schools require potential students to submit their GRE scores when applying for admission. This series of tests is usually taken in one full day. The morning session is devoted to basic skills such as language and mathematics, and the afternoon session consists of a specialty exam in music history, theory, and so on. There are several practice manuals on the market that will help you review for this exam; in addition, preparation courses, such as the one by Kaplan, may be offered in your community. If at all possible, register for the GRE during your last year in college. If your basic skills are fresh, you will require much less review for the test.

Educational Testing Service: Graduate Record Examination Website

Online Graduate Education

A newer option for music educators, is to attend graduate school part-time via the internet. Several quality graduate programs are now available which provide fully accredited, graduate degrees completely online. This option may become increasingly popular as more schools develop distance learning programs in music education.

What to expect in an online graduate course Online courses are delivered using some type of Course Management System (CMS) software that resides on the university’s mainframe computer (e.g. Blackboard, WebCT). You access the software with a secure login name and password which leads you directly to your course website. Typically, instructors provide a brief orientation unit to familiarize new students with the software and course procedures. Your course might then be organized into modules, each containing online lectures, required readings and online examinations. Lectures are usually provided by text or multi-media using web browser plugins such as Quicktime, Windows Media Viewer, or FlashPlayer. Many instructors also utilize various communication tools—some built into the software (email, chat room); external live conferencing tools, regular Email or telephones to stay in touch with distance learning students.

Click on images to expand

Sample Online Course

Sample Online Course 2  


Types of Online Graduate Programs

Occasional Online Courses

Many schools occasionally offer individual courses via the internet. These courses may be used toward their traditional on-campus programs or transfer to another institution. If you are already admitted to a degree program, be sure that you contact your graduate program adviser about transfer credits before registering at another institution.

Hybrid Programs Combining Online with On-Campus

Some schools provide only a portion of their required graduate coursework online. The remainder of the courses must be taken on-campus. Be certain to determine how much on-campus time will be required, and if those courses are provided at a convenient time, before you begin a hybrid program. Also determine when and where required entrance examinations will take place. Some hybrid programs require additional campus visits to complete those examinations.

Completely Online

A handful of schools now provide full graduate degrees via the internet with no campus visits required.

Online Degree Considerations

As a pioneer in this field, and the director of a completely online degree program, I would offer students considering this option the following questions to consider before selecting an internet degree program:

  • Does the school allow you to register for online courses casually (e.g. a few credits for re-licensure), or must you be admitted to their graduate school?
  • Is the music program (and online program) accredited by NASM? If not, under no circumstances should you register for any courses from that institution towards a graduate degree. Degrees from non-accredited institutions may not be recognized by your district or any future institutions you may wish to attend. There are several “diploma mills” also operating on the internet which attempt to offer online music courses for graduate credit. Do your homework. If it sounds too good to be true. It probably is a scam.
  • What curriculum has been created for online delivery? Are these courses of interest to you?
  • What are the qualifications of faculty teaching the online courses?
  • Does the program website clearly communicate all information about costs, expectations, schedule of courses, faculty, technical or equipment requirements, contact information, and registration procedures?
  • Do the online courses require specific login times or are they completely asynchronous?
  • Does the school charge additional fees for online courses?
  • Does the school charge out-of-state tuition for online courses?
  • During your online course, was communication with the instructor adequate? Was the course monitored effectively? Did you receive sufficient feedback? Was the interaction with other students well organized? Did you learn much?

Are You A Good Candidate for Online Graduate Courses?

You will need a fairly new computer (less than 3 years old) and solid computer/internet skills in order to be successful in online courses. Not everyone is a good candidate for distance learning. Take the brief quiz below and find out whether or not this might be something for you to consider.

Online Course Readiness Quiz

1. My need to take this course is:
high- I need it immediately for a degree, job, or other important reason.
moderate- I could take it on campus later or substitute another course.
low- it is a personal interest that could be postponed.
2. Having face-to-face interaction is:
not particularly important to me.
somewhat important to me.
very important to me.
3. I would classify myself as someone who:
often gets things done ahead of time.
needs reminding to get things done on time.
puts things off until the last minute.
4. Classroom discussion is:
rarely helpful to me.
sometimes helpful to me.
almost always helpful to me.
5. When an instructor hands out directions for an assignment, I prefer:
figuring out the instructions myself.
trying to follow the directions on my own, then asking for help as needed.
having the instructions explained to me.
6. I need faculty to constantly remind me of due dates and assignments:
7. Considering my professional and personal schedule, the amount of time I have to work on an online course is:
more than for a campus course.
the same as for a class on campus.
less than for a class on campus.
8. When I am asked to use email, computers, or other new technologies presented to me:
I look forward to learning new skills.
I feel apprehensive, but try anyway.
I put it off or try to avoid it.
9. As a reader, I would classify myself as:
good- I usually understand the text without help.
average- I sometimes need help to understand the text.
below average- I often need help to understand the text.
10. If I have to go to campus to take exams or complete work:
I have difficulty getting to campus, even in the evenings and on weekends.
I may miss some lab assignments or exam deadlines if campus labs are not open evenings and weekends.
I can go to campus anytime.
  Total points should be 24 or higher.



What’s Different About an Online Music Course?

Taking a course completely online may seem a little strange at first, but it is rapidly becoming a popular method for delivering university courses. Millions of college students around the world will complete courses completely online this year. You may notice some significant differences between online courses and your previous traditional university encounters.

First, the good news about online courses. You do not have to find parking. If you own a computer at home, you do not have to buy meals or even get dressed if you don’t want to get dressed. You can choose your own seat and even bring a pillow if it makes you more comfortable. You do not have to worry about being embarrassed by a professor “grilling you” in front of other students. You can eat and drink during an online class. You can answer your pager or cellphone during class. You can work late at night, early in the morning, or during your lunch hour—-anytime that’s convenient.

Now for the bad news. You will still have to participate. It is not possible to hide in the back of the room in an online course. If you don’t login, your professor will know –the course software keeps track of your activities. If you do not participate in discussions, the professor has a written record. Also–you have to “mother” yourself about getting your work done. Online courses are a test of self-discipline as well as intellect —you will not be facing the teacher three times a week to prompt you to do your work. Finally, you will lose most of your popular excuses for not getting your assignments done, e.g. “My printer broke,” “My computer crashed,” “I had to go to work,” “I had to go to a funeral in West Virginia” etc. All of these can be solved by going to another computer site and logging on–your online course is accessible from anywhere in the world.

Here are a few additional popular myths and realities about online courses:

Myth #1: You have to be a computer genius with a huge computer to take an online course

Reality: In an online course, you only need a working knowledge of how to surf the internet (clicking on links, scrolling, menus, downloading, uploading, etc.) an internet browser (software) and a reliable internet provider to successfully take an online course.

Myth #2: Online courses are easier than traditional courses

Reality: Online courses usually are not designed to be easier. For some students, especially those who consider themselves “aural learners” as opposed to “visual learners”, these courses actually may be more difficult. Most online courses require more extensive reading—from the computer screen and often from an accompanying textbook. They also rely heavily on your typing ability.

Myth #3: Online courses take less time

Reality: Online courses may take just as much time, if not more, than traditional courses depending on your computer expertise and self-discipline. The time difference is substantial only in the decision as to when you work on an online course, and the setting in which you do so. Many people find that they love being able to “attend” a class whenever they feel like it, rather than being tied down to a specific attendance schedule several hours per week. This is especially true of students who have busy and varied work or family schedules to maintain.

Myth #4: It’s easier to cheat on exams in an online course

Reality: Professors who design online course examinations generally do not use any kind of “honor” system. They know that you have books. They know that you printed out the lectures and other materials. Fortunately, online course software allows for a variety of assessment tools to find out if you are really meeting the course objectives. First, by assigning a “time limit” to objective exams (multiple choice, matching, etc.) the instructor can make it impossible for you to look up every single answer. You may be able to sneak in one or two, but any further “exam research” will result in several questions left unanswered. Secondly, you may be assessed on your critical and analytical ability to use the information from the course, through a series of essay questions and/or projects.

Myth #5: You can’t really get to know a professor or other students unless you meet them in person

Reality: A good online professor will encourage you to interact through email, the bulletin board and chat rooms available in your course. Many students find that they have more contact with the professor in online courses than they do when attending on campus. They also report that the contact is a more personal connection because the communication is often private and more frequent. Instant Messaging and telephones are always an additional option to help you build a relationship with your online professor and fellow students. Participation and initiative will be the key to your online relationships.

Online courses neutralize many negative aspects of classroom interaction. No more biases based on how a student looks or dresses. No problems with foreign accents or speech impediments. No preferential treatment to older students. No closing down good discussions because you ran out of time. Online communication can be a wonderful equalizer and it often opens the door to significantly improved course interactions. It also provides for preparation time and reflection before responses, thus improving the scholarly research that should accompany graduate discussions.

Myth #6: You can’t learn as much online as you can in person.

Reality: Online courses are no different than any other method of delivering instruction. You will “reap what you sow.” While it is true that you will not have a professor looking you in the eye three times a week, reminding you that you haven’t completed an assignment, it is likely that you will have as much success taking online courses as traditional courses. Online courses will, however, require a more mature approach to learning the materials since you will be at the mercy of your own self-discipline. Online courses are a “guided” self-study approach using most of the same materials and lectures that you would find in a traditional “on-campus” course. There are also bonuses to online learning. First–the lectures are always available–you can read or watch them many times. This is very helpful for students with shorter attention spans. Secondly, online music courses may require that you listen to recorded excerpts. In an online class, you m ay listen repeatedly, thus improving your understanding and study possibilities. Finally, if you get sleepy during an online lecture–no one will know except you!