What I learned from doing a PhD in music

I thought I was done with academia after finishing my Master’s. My financial situation was dire and my disillusion with universities was severe. To make matters even worse, I was deemed ineligible for a UK work permit. Can you guess the reason? I didn’t have enough money to support myself for 6 months. As if I wanted to work just for kicks and giggles. Alas, such was life for a Romanian citizen back then in the UK. (Really curious what the recent Brexit fiasco will unleash. But I digress.) I went back to Romania in the summer of 2013, planning to return to the UK and find a job after January 2014, when the restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians were dropped. They had to do better to get rid of me!

Preamble

I spent about 6 months teaching guitar at a private school in Romania. I was overworked and felt unfulfilled, but I ploughed through it, knowing that, come January, I’d be back in the UK and would be taking full advantage of the Oxford degree. People would line up to hire me for sure! It worked in Romania, where I had been hired on the spot, so it should be the same in the UK, right? Right?! The months passed and I found myself in London. However, I soon realized that the Oxford brand wasn’t enough. (Go figure.)

But wasn’t enough for what? What job did I actually want? I wasn’t sure, but I knew that academia wasn’t the place for me. I became disillusioned with higher education and it’s obsession with ‘dancing about architecture’. I wanted to make music or at least be in some way involved in the process. While doing my Master’s, I sidelined my guitar playing and hadn’t composed a single piece of music. It was a dry artistic period, so I wanted to get back on the horse. But I didn’t necessarily go for playing music, for some still unknown reason.

I started applying for jobs at record labels, music shops, radio stations and anything vaguely linked to the music industry. I literally went into every shop on Denmark Street and handed in my CV. No one cared, of course. I applied to tens of jobs and nothing came out of it. I started to panic, realizing that merely having a degree means absolutely nothing on the market, particularly nowadays. OK, you have this piece a paper, but what can you actually do?

Slowly, Inception-style, the question started to surface: should I go back into academia? At least there was some sort of job progression from PhD student to teaching assistant there. It wasn’t easy by any means, but it couldn’t be as difficult as getting into the music industry, right? Perhaps, but did I really want to go through having to not only read and write for the next 3–4 years but also publish, go to conferences, and everything that an academic life requires of you before you’re even considered to get off the bench? Well, no, but it was better than laying around waiting for Universal Music to hit me up.

So, reluctantly, I applied for a PhD. (This was actually the second time I applied, after doing it while I was at Oxford. I applied to Oxford and Cambridge and got accepted to both, but I didn’t get a scholarship for either, and since I didn’t have £22,000 laying around, I decided to decline the offer.) I applied at Oxford (again, mainly out of inertia) and Surrey in late 2013, wanting to work with Prof. Allan Moore, pop music’s academic guru. Got in at both, but decided to go for Surrey. I was somewhat excited, more than I’d expected, as I was really into progressive rock at the time and wanted to do a thesis on the concept album — Moore is one of the leading academics on the topic, so everything seemed to be on the right track.

The early days

While the PhD system in the UK doesn’t involve taking classes, I did attend Moore’s undergrad course on progressive rock, for obvious reasons. This was the only time I actually consistently went to Guildford (where the Surrey Uni campus is), as I would spend the remainder of the PhD years mostly in the living room of my London flat, researching remotely. (I was so unfamiliar with the campus that I was almost late for my graduation ceremony because I didn’t know how to get to the place where you were supposed to pick up your robes from.) Most of my research was done at home or on the London Underground on the unending journeys to and from guitar lessons (which ended up being my job for a few years).

Outside of these lectures, I used to constantly meet with Allan to discuss ideas about my project. In the first 6 months I had read all I could find on progressive rock and had written various pieces that stretched just over 60,000 words. But the more I read and wrote, the more my original idea about unity in progressive rock concept albums got uninteresting. It wasn’t necessarily that there wasn’t an angle I could explore, but that no angle I could conceive seemed even vaguely entertaining. I started to think that I’d better change my subject. But I was 6 months into a full-time PhD, so this wasn’t an easy request. Allan was on board, thankfully, understanding my reasoning. I was approved the topic-change under the condition it would be the only one. So I had to choose wisely.

What did I like more than anything? Rock guitar music, at that stage. Who wouldn’t I go mad with listening for the next 3 years? Steve Vai. OK. And what aspect of his music? Sound. His personality in sound. Not bad, that’s something I could work with! After a few more back and forths with Allan, I settled on the issue of expressivity in instrumental rock, particularly the notion of the instrumental persona. I’ll spare you the details — you can read more about this in my PhD, which is free to access and read! (I’ve written a few other pieces, but, in true academic fashion, these are behind a paywall. Knowledge for everyone, amirite?)

Everything was set. I spent the rest of the year reading the basics (and not so basics) on ‘persona’ and listening to the music of what became my four case studies: Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Yngwie Malmsteen, and Guthrie Govan. The latter part was both a blessing and a curse, as, on one hand, I got to listen to obscure tracks and delve very deep into the nuances of their playing, but, on the other, it also meant that I analyzed the music until there was nothing there to get excited about. Still, it was a fruitful and entertaining stage and the key change in Malmsteen’s ‘Leviathan' still gives me chills.

I never really liked to read, but one thing that saved me a number of headaches throughout my education was that I am a very fast reader. And I can also read regardless of setting. Commuting to and from lessons was the pang of my existence in year 1 of the PhD, but I’d put music on and read on the interminable tube rides. I’m also good at spotting and skipping filler, which is abundant in academic literature, so I could quickly trim down a paper to its core ideas. The downside to this method is that you tend to forget details, and concepts start to blur after a while, but, save for the viva, you’re achievements are judged purely on written work. Overall, it was a productive time where I got up to date on both the literature and the music.

Financial

As with my Master’s, I had to pay for my tuition. Universities seem to be fast to offer you a place but very bad at making it financially viable. I didn’t get a scholarship, so I was in desperate need of money. Again. And family and friends stepped up. Again. (Unsung heroes of all my adventures during this time.) The tuition fee was around 4.2k a year, which was half the Oxford fee. But you had to pay it every year for 3 years, so it actually ended up being much more expensive than the Master’s. Thankfully, I could pay it in 2 installments a year, which made it a bit more manageable. Nonetheless, money was tight, as, on top of that, I also had the audacity to eat, travel, and rent.

For months, particularly when I was out and about teaching, my lunch consisted of a 30p seeded mini-bread from Sainsbury’s and a banana, which at the time was 18p. Not that much sustenance, but it got me through the day. I never bought anything nonessential and saved up every pence to pay rent and other bills. This didn’t improve for the majority of my PhD studies. However, towards the end of it, I got fortunate enough to find a couple of music-related part-time jobs that I enjoyed and also made enough money from to be able to stop worrying about what to eat the following day. (But that’s a story for another time.) Long story short, while I’m still in debt because of this stage of my studies, at least the creditors were, again, friends and family, not banks.

Hell breaking loose

Everything was going according to plan. But then, in the blink of an eye, the train derailed. Hard. The University of Surrey, because of the financial instability of universities as of late, was ‘forced’ to either sack or offer voluntary redundancy to most staff. The music department lost a third of its teaching staff as a consequence. Allan was one of the people affected by this. I won’t go into detail, but he had to leave the University and I had to make a choice. Stay or leave with him? For various reasons, I decided to stay at Surrey, even though Allan was the reason for choosing the University in the first place.

All of this was devastating on its own, but it was made even worse by the attitude and general approach of the University and Music department, who didn’t actually bother to inform me about these changes and how it will impact me. I found out through the grapevine that everything was in shambles, and they got in touch with me only after Allan was well gone and I had chased them for an explanation. Unprofessionalism aside, we finally had a meeting where I gave them a list of people I want them to substitute Allan with as my PhD supervisor. At the top of the list was Prof. Simon Frith, another one of the greats of popular musicology. He came from a more journalistic and social science perspective, which fit my project very well. I wasn’t holding my breath, though, especially after everything that had happened until that point. But, planets aligned and Simon accepted to be my supervisor and take me through to the finish-line.

The only downside to him taking me on was that he was a full-time professor at the University of Edinburgh. I had to go there a few times, even though most of our meetings were done over Skype. One meeting in particular was OTT, as I flew into Edinburgh in the morning and then flew back to London in the evening. Living the rockstar life, amirite? Nonetheless, I really enjoyed working with Simon on the project. Whether through email or during face to face meetings, I always felt elated and excited about the next goal in the process. With Simon’s help, I was able to finish writing the bulk of the thesis by the end of the second year. The rest of the time was spent fine-tuning points, going to conferences, and writing papers and chapters.

Conferences

Academic conferences are peculiar on multiple fronts. Yes, there’s the idea of disseminating, proposing, testing, and debating ideas and expanding the world’s knowledge, but most of the time it’s about intellectuals trying to fascinate themselves with their intellect while also beefing up their CVs in the process. Very few conferences I’ve attended featured mind-blowing presentations. Most were mind-numbing at best. Thankfully, most of these events took place in very nice cities around Europe. Highlights for me were the conference on Prog in Dijon, France, post-communist pop in Olomouc, the Czech Republic, and pop musicology in Osnabruck,Germany. Hats off to the organizers. Sadly, most of the content was suffering from the same ills I described above. (Mine included!) There were several occasions where I walk down the beautiful streets, stop on a bench, and read the latest issue of Batman rather than attend panels (thank the Lord for conference programmes!).

But this is only one side of the story. The actual benefit of attending these conferences is meeting people who work on the same or on similar subjects, exchange ideas and whatnot. That part was really enjoyable. I met some fascinatingly bright people along the way, many of whom I worked with on various academic projects in the months and years following these conferences. While many panels were agonizingly boring, it was well worth enduring the pain for meeting some of these individuals. The by-product of these meetings and conferences were articles and chapters that, while not necessarily NYT best-selling material, were still worth the work.

Publishing

Conference meant new friends, opportunities, and papers, but getting everything to fall into place and actually publishing some of these findings is some feat. Academic writing is very particular and few papers see the light of day in top-tier publications. A lot of prep work goes into it: you read a lot, fine-tune your research question(s) and methodology, write an appropriately long text, and then, when you think you’re done, the actual work begins. Writing a good academic paper resembles writing a good film script. Draft 227 is light-years ahead of draft 1. But going through those drafts can be a chore.

The best thing about writing articles like the one you’re reading now is that you can basically say whatever you want. Whether that leads to an interesting, informative, entertaining read or not is less of an issue — the freedom is the selling point. With academic writing, on the other hand, few people get that freedom. Except for established academics, your paper needs to not only be good (whatever that means), but it must also get the stamp of approval of reviewers and/or editors, which is… tricky. Some people are so convinced by their perspective on certain issues that unless you change your paper to reflect their views you don’t really stand a chance to publish. It’s often a case of ‘this is how I see it and how you should see it too’. (This is such a juicy aspect of publishing that I might write a separate article on it.) I’ve been in few such scenarios, with most editorial teams being fantastic to work with — and my papers were that much better for it.

Time is also a huge factor. You send something to a journal and then wait for a reply for weeks if not months. (Longest I waited to date was 167 days. And the outcome was that they won’t publish it. Time well spent.) The problem here is also that academic etiquette as well as common sense dictate that you send your paper to a single journal at the time. So you spend weeks writing something and then get radio silence for half a year. Good combo.

While publishing isn’t necessarily essential to PhD work, is it probably the single most important thing that can lead to you working in a University. Fact of the matter is no one cares if you have PhD when applying for a Uni teaching job. Everyone has it, it’s a basic requirement at that level. (Although some more progressive universities hire staff based on industry experience, as was the case for Mike Mangini of Dream Theater at Berklee, for instance.) Publishing sets candidates apart. (For teaching jobs, which seems… odd.) While I did manage to publish quite a few things during and after my PhD, it was mostly due to inertia, as the last thing I wanted after completing it was to go into academia. I was just going through the motions during the final 18 months of the PhD. I had my eyes set on another prize.

Conclusion

All in all, the PhD process was less taxing on my wellbeing than my time in Oxford. I didn’t really loose sleep over anything thesis related, save for the supervisor-change debacle. I visited some amazing places in Europe and met dozens of people much smarter than myself. Nonetheless, the experience left me feeling empty. It just wasn’t for me. While there still seemed to be some desire for academic greatness at the end of my Master’s, the well would be all dried up by the end of the PhD. I was done. I got my certificate and title in December 2018, and that’s the last time I gave it any real thought until now.

Musicologist. Music Producer. Guitarist. https://andreisora.com/

Musicologist. Music Producer. Guitarist. https://andreisora.com/