To Doctor or Not, That is (Still) the Question

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Why should I get a doctorate? Will it assure me a job, any job? Will it ever pay off? These questions are uttered with increasing frequency these days by anxious and hopeful students in graduate music programs across the nation. Why should I get a doctorate? Is it a guarantee that I can keep my present job, or secure another one? Will I ever earn back the money it will cost me to return to graduate school? These questions are voiced by many present college and university faculty members who are experiencing frustration with a system which has imposed a "publish or perish," get-a-doctorate-or-else attitude. Combined with the prospect of diminishing enrollments and concomitant tighter job markets (prospect, indeed! they have already arrived) it is no wonder that there is a damper on faculty morale these days.

The two groups noted above—prospective doctoral candidates who covet university appointments, and music faculty without doctorates who are trying to keep the position they have—are caught in a crossfire between the realities of the job market on the one hand and more stringent academic policies on the other. The problems faced by both groups are symptomatic of the buyer's market which currently prevails, an application of the principle of supply and demand (declining enrollments, fewer vacancies, an oversupply of qualified applicants).

As a first-level manager, I am responsible for making recommendations for initial appointments as well as for promotion and tenure of faculty presently employed.1 The possession of a doctorate at the time of consideration for appointment, promotion or tenure is now an issue of prime importance. This was not always the case. In the past qualifications for appointment or advancement of arts faculty have been different from those required of other academic personnel. The main reason has been that arts faculty traditionally have been active as performers, composers, painters and sculptors; they have often worked extended days, weekends (for festivals, for example), and have been involved in off-campus clinics, exhibits, and other types of time-consuming but productive efforts. Many continue to study and to seek coaching throughout their careers. This is not to say that faculty outside the arts fields have lacked commitment and involvement or that they were less qualified. Rather it has been generally agreed that the same criteria, principles or standards governing other faculty could not be applied to them. This had been the practice on many campuses.

But now all bets are off. The attitude that we should "leave the arts faculty alone to do their thing" is changing. One reason may be the existence and popularity of the Doctor of Musical Arts degree (D.M.A.) designed for performers (and for composers and others as well), applied music faculty in other words. This degree emerged in the 1950s and assumed general respectability in the succeeding decades, although that issue—respectability—is still being debated in some quarters.2 Prior to its acceptance, applied music faculty could state with some degree of assurance that the master's degree in applied music, the Master of Music (M.M.) in most cases, was the appropriate terminal degree. Therefore the possession of such a degree and the maintenance of an active performance career were sufficient qualifications to allow one to receive timely and positive responses to promotion and tenure requests. This is no longer true. Music faculty without doctorates are being increasingly pressured to reenter graduate school in pursuit of the doctorate, or are being passed over for promotion if they choose to disdain or ignore the doctorate. In extreme cases those without tenure are not being retained. These are unattractive options from the standpoint of most of the people concerned.

Two sample cases may bring the issue into sharper focus.

Professor X has been a member of a university faculty for 15 years, is an associate professor, tenured, and earning a salary of approximately $20,000 for the academic year. She holds the M.M. degree. Her husband is employed in the community, they own their home and have children in neighborhood schools. She is a successful teacher, is maintaining a reasonably active performance career and is involved in serving the university community. After several years of being considered for promotion, tenure and salary increases based on teaching effectiveness, creative pursuits and community service, she now finds that a doctorate is required before promotion to full professor can be achieved. She ponders whether the $1,100 increase in her salary is worth the loss of income and general displacement that are inevitable if she returns to graduate school for two years while earning the "third degree."

Professor Y is in his third year of appointment on a university music faculty. He holds the M.M. in a speciality area (say jazz studies, for the sake of discussion) and is facing a tenure decision within a few years. He is an exciting addition to the faculty, is in demand as a guest artist, and a teacher in whom other schools are interested for their faculty. In short, his colleagues would recommend him for tenure in a minute. But what about the lack of doctorate? He says that there are no schools which offer doctorates in his speciality. Is he thus exempt from this standard? Should he be expected to earn a degree out of his field? Is he to be considered an exception? Or do his colleagues sit idly by while he is denied tenure and then lured to another school which has different standards? (Another variation on this theme is for Professor Y to resign in frustration prior to the tenure decision year, and leave his position to avoid the unpleasantness associated with the process. High quality colleagues are too often being lost in this manner.)

Another part of the problem concerns what I call the "search and destroy" process: advertising, searching, interviewing, and appointing faculty to vacant positions. A casual perusal of past job notices in placement agency listings and in The Chronicle of Higher Education, for example, will reveal that the possession of the doctorate has infiltrated the published qualifications for positions increasingly over the past few years. It is not a requirement which has been embraced universally but it cannot be overlooked. (As an aside, I am amused at job notices which read somewhat as follows: "Wanted—Artist/teacher to instruct applied bamboo blowers at all levels, including graduate students. Must also be prepared to teach music theory or history, direct a jazz ensemble, teach opera workshop classes, and supervise student teachers. Doctorate and five years of experience required. Salary $10,000".) The popularity of the doctorate notwithstanding, there is no guarantee that its holder will be among the top candidates in any search. In fact it has been my experience that, for applied music positions at least, the majority of the better performers do not have the doctorate.

Consider these examples. Recently we advertised for a one-year leave appointment in an instrumental area. Forty-one applicants responded, most of whom were extremely well qualified. Only one had the doctorate. He was employed by another school before we could interview him (they concluded their search earlier than was possible in our case). Another search for an applied music faculty member resulted in more than 50 applications. Ten of those applicants held the doctorate. However, not one was among the final three in terms of performance abilities or teaching potential. I could cite other similar cases. This is not to say that professionals who have the doctorate are not good performers. The point is that the doctorate is not to be considered as a substitute for performance integrity or teaching potential.

The problem is two-fold—(l) How to promote and retain top-quality faculty, both tenured and untenured, who are presently on our staffs, and who do not possess the doctorate, and (2) how to assure ourselves that only the best qualified persons will be hired in the future, regardless of degrees held. The search for a solution brought my institution to a crossroad recently. It became increasingly apparent that upper-level administrators were no longer accepting the "leave the arts faculty alone" argument. There was pressure on them to apply principles, standards, and criteria uniformly across campus. Those criteria were possession of the terminal degree (the doctorate in this case), evidence of excellence in teaching and research, and proof of activity in the area of community service. These accomplishments had to be documented before action on promotion and tenure requests would be taken. Applied music faculty without the doctorate felt betrayed. When many of them were hired, there was no mention of the doctorate as a prerequisite to receiving promotion and tenure. Someone had changed the rules in midgame.

At the time this became an issue (1978) there was no research on the topic of which I was aware. I called several of my colleagues in the region for information and commiseration. I received more of the latter than the former. Some of their responses, however, were interesting. A sampling: "The M.M. is not a terminal degree; anyone who thinks it is, is crazy." "Earlier we used the 'in lieu of the doctorate' approach; now exceptions to the doctorate are possible only if equivalencies can be documented." "Equivalency must relate to national or international reputations." "No restrictions whatsoever on music faculty who are considered for promotion and tenure. . . . Of course faculty members in theory, musicology and music education must have the Ph.D. . . . In applied areas, as long as a faculty member is a producing artist (recordings, significant off-campus performances, for example) no problems are encountered." "Each dean who comes along has agreed that the Fine Arts faculty are exempt from the standards for promotion and tenure which are applied to other units on campus." And finally, this response from a seasoned administrator: "Young faculty are advised that . . . although having the doctorate is no guarantee of tenure and promotion, it is very difficult to secure either without it. They are advised that possession of the doctorate is about the only way to assure a pay scale commensurate with the other disciplines across campus."

One can reasonably conclude that few schools are totally immune to the doctoral/promotion/tenure problem. Perhaps a few of the top music schools or conservatories can remain above this issue by appointing famous artists, but I doubt that this will continue indefinitely. The rest of us have to confront the issue. At my institution the problem was addressed on two fronts. (1) We developed a doctoral equivalency document which the School of Music faculty and the university administrators could support, and (2) the university implemented a special leave of absence program for those untenured faculty members who were hired before the screws were tightened (that is for those who were not informed in writing at the time of hiring that a doctorate would be required before promotion or tenure could be achieved). The purpose of the special leave program was to allow such faculty members to return to graduate school and complete the doctorate. For persons on this program the "tenure clock" would stop. In other words their "up-or-out" year would be delayed a prescribed time period while they were making normal progress toward a doctorate.

The doctoral equivalency document was neither easy to write nor readily approved by the faculty or the administration. There were bitter pills to be swallowed on both sides. For example it states, "The School of Music recognizes that the doctorate is the terminal degree for the following areas of specialization: music theory, music history and literature (musicology), music education, composition, conducting, performance." Some faculty were reluctant to embrace that statement, especially the reference to "performance." The document also sets forth a description of those kinds of exceptional circumstances which could allow a faculty member to obtain promotion or tenure (or both) by way of doctoral equivalency. There is an understanding that these cases of doctoral equivalency are to be few in number. The assumption is also that they will decrease over the next few years as the new policies are phased in. The doctoral equivalency portion of the document (its central focus) reads as follows:

Any person who wishes to be considered as an exceptional circumstance, that is for whom a doctorate will not be required prior to positive action on appointment, tenure and/or promotion, shall document a competence equivalent to that normally obtainable in doctoral study, as follows:

1. Performance—Extended study with one or more artists/teachers of national distinction, and a distinguished and continuing record of performances and/or recordings—such as appearances as a professional recitalist, a member of a professional chamber ensemble of recognized quality, member of a larger ensemble under the direction of a conductor of recognized stature.

2. Composition—Extended study with one or more composers of national repute and a distinguished record of prizes, commissions, publications, or performances.

3. Conducting—Extended study with one or more conductors of international repute and a distinguished record of performances with chamber or larger ensembles of recognized stature.3

The doctoral equivalency concept was the "bitter pill" for the administration. They could be vulnerable to charges of applying a double standard, one for the music faculty and a more stringent one for all other faculty on campus. Presumably the primary reason that the doctorate and evidence of publication had become so important to university administrators in the first place was that these accomplishments reflected the application of objective and standardized criteria, a safe antidote to the "old boy, buddy-buddy" systems which reportedly characterized many previous promotion/tenure/search processes.

The performances referred to above are to include "significant appearances beyond the local area." This posed another problem for our faculty, one which could have a direct impact on our ability to continue to attract students to our programs from the surrounding areas. Specifically if the reward system now encourages out-of-state tours by our faculty, at the expense of the effective in-state, in-school clinics, recitals and workshops which had been our main recruitment aids, then an interruption in the flow of students from the high schools to our music programs could be an unfortunate by-product of that change of emphasis. (As a result of this recent emphasis on out-of-state tours and performances, any faculty member who is off-campus—whether for an hour or for several days—is accused of "working on his national reputation.") On the other hand, if there is no incentive or reward (promotion, tenure, salary increase) attendant with local efforts, faculty members are committing what amounts to professional suicide if these efforts are continued to the exclusion of activities on a larger scale. As is so often the case in academe, compromise and balance are required. We thus try to encourage and reward both kinds of efforts.

The doctoral equivalency document and special leave program already are working. Tenure has been granted in one equivalency case recently and a special doctoral leave for next year has been approved. Undoubtedly a few other equivalency cases are in the wings. We are cautiously optimistic about the outcome. Our School of Music seems to have been an ideal choice for such developments. We are not heavily "tenured in" (approximately 60% of the faculty are on tenure) and only 33% of our faculty currently have the doctorate.

What of the doctoral equivalency document and the new appointee? Not wishing to face again the problem of appearing to change rules in midgame, we are now very explicit concerning the appointment letter, spelling out precisely what is expected of a faculty member before action on a request for tenure or promotion is likely. In the event that the best candidate for a position does not possess the doctorate, we inform him or her that in our judgment it would be wise to secure it by the tenure decision year or to be prepared to document doctoral equivalency according to our published statement.

Almost every university administrator has had to cope with these problems for several years. The problem was become acute of late, particularly in schools of music. The guidelines which appear below are those which we have developed for this situation.

1. From the standpoint of personnel management, every attempt should be made to foster an atmosphere in which faculty feel encouraged to achieve at their maximum levels.

2. The reward system's procedures should be clearly understood by all parties, equitably applied, and updated as conditions warrant.

3. Top-quality faculty members should be retained at all costs. If they are effective, if requiring a doctorate would pose real hardships or force a resignation, then a declaration of "exceptional circumstance" might be in order. (The School has to be convinced of the merits of the "exceptional circumstance;" otherwise if abused the doctoral equivalency route could become meaningless.) To be insensitive to a faculty member's real value to the School is to border on the inhumane; to force the resignation of a gifted, effective colleague for the lack of a doctorate is to encourage your competition to benefit from your troubles. Your loss could be their gain. It has happened more than once.

4. While the doctorate can be expected from applicants for all vacant positions, the overriding concerns should be (a) to comply with "Affirmative Action" procedures, (b) to assure that the job notice accurately portrays the School's needs and contains a detailed description of duties, qualifications, and materials requested in support of the application, and (c) to appoint the best qualified person for the job.

Of course it is more desirable if all appointees hold the doctorate and in addition are talented, experienced and congenial. We do not feel that we have solved all of our personnel problems with the creation of one document. The real work is just beginning, for as with any law or standard, the proof is in the testing. We shall be tested by the manner in which we implement and interpret the doctoral equivalency document, by our ability to maintain an equitable and balanced reward system in times of severe inflationary pressures and declining enrollments, and by our success or failure in terms of maintaining a quality faculty. Even though the coming decade promises challenges and uncertainties never before confronted by our educational system, it is encouraging to see faculty and administrators at this university approaching complicated issues with reason and compassion.


1We are now into our second two-year collective bargaining agreement on this campus. This process has helped to clarify manager/employee roles to a great extent as well as to codify existing practices and policies. Evaluation, promotion and tenure procedures are specified in the contract; appointment procedures and promotion/tenure standards are contained in a separate faculty manual.

2Two interesting and somewhat opposing viewpoints on the D.M.A. can be found in SYMPOSIUM: a defense of the degree by Chappell White, XVI (Spring 1976), 133-136; and an article by Milo Velimirovic which questions the need for the degree in XIV (1974), 22-31. The reader is also referred to the following issues of Proceedings of the National Association of Schools of Music for relevant opinions and commentary: "To DMA or Not?" by Thomas W. Miller (1976), pp. 88-90; a series of statements by persons representing doctoral degree granting institutions called "The Music Doctorate—Status Quo or Change," (1977), pp. 220-238; and a provocative article by Robert Trotter entitled "The Structure of Graduate Education in Music and Future Needs of the Profession" (1978), pp. 147-158.

3Although research on the topic of doctoral equivalency was sparse, as stated earlier, we were fortunate and grateful to receive a few documents from other schools which to some extent addressed similar issues. Particularly useful and influential was a document from the Department of Music, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, after which our statement is patterned.

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Last modified on Thursday, 25/10/2018

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