Music Teacher's Helper Blog

The Back-to-School Decision

The New Year is a great time to evaluate your career goals. Are you satisfied where you are and where you’re teaching or studio is headed? Or do you want to make a change, move up the education ladder or pursue a different interest?

Pursuing an advanced degree in music pedagogy or music education not only means further knowledge of your primary instrument and its teaching practices, but also means possibilities for advancement if you teach in the public school or university, or in increase in income as a private studio teacher.  But are the costs and rigors of grad school really worth it?

An advanced degree could be the ticket to new career opportunities or advancement within your field. But it could be a complete waste of time and money if you don’t use it as a means to a well-researched end. Not all grad students find their dream job or snag a dream salary.

The sooner you make your decision, the sooner you can start the application process, which can take up to a year for traditional graduate programs. But if you’re anxious to start your studies, check out the growing number of programs with rolling application deadlines and flexible admission dates. If you start the application process now, you could be in a classroom by this fall.

Examine your motivation

The first question you should ask yourself is “Are you going to graduate school for a purposeful reason or are you falling into grad school to get away from other things?”

If you’re going to graduate school because:

  • Your school district or university won’t promote you to the position you want unless you have an advanced degree: right reason.
  • You’re waiting for the job market to improve: wrong reason.
  • You want to pursue a different field of study: maybe the right reason.
  • You are looking to become more specialized in the field of music: right reason.

When you’re certain that graduate school is the right move, ask yourself if you have the time and energy to be a successful student.

Also assess the impact on your home life, and your job performance if you plan to continue working. Could you quit or work part-time? How would this impact your family budget? Do you need to move or can you attend a school close to home?

Only you can decide if graduate school is worth the time and lifestyle changes. A higher education doesn’t come cheap. My husband and I basically have a mortgage — but no house to show for it — thanks to his graduate school loans.

But in his case, the expense was worth it.  There wasn’t a huge job market with a bachelor’s in church music.  But with a M.M. in conducting and a D.M.A. in music education his earning power has risen exponentially with possibilities of conducting at the college or professional level.

Research salaries of different career levels and then evaluate the value of a higher education.

As a graduate student, you’ll pay higher tuition than undergraduates attending the same school. And you’ll need to factor in years of lost income (if you plan to quit your job and attend full-time) plus the inevitable student loans. Use our calculator to help you weigh the actual costs and benefits.

Your choice of school can have a big impact on your bill.  For the most part, the difference between a graduate degree from a big-name program versus a state school is minimal.  There are, of course, exceptions, so talk to other musicians in your area or particular music field to determine the best graduate school program for you.

How to pay the bill

You’ll probably have to take out some student loans to foot the bill, but loads of free money is also available if you know where to look. Check out these opportunities while researching for grad programs.

  • Assistantships: Look for programs that pay you. Many graduate students, especially after the first year, become teaching or research assistants earning a stipend. This allows you to earn money while gaining experience in your field. Some schools even reduce or eliminate tuition for assistants. These opportunities may be awarded every student in the program, or limited to those with superior academic performance.
  • Fellowships: These typically cover part of all your tuition and may pay a stipend for your living expenses. These are handed out through the specific program you apply to, and are designed to attract students with excellent academic records. Obviously, fellowships are the most sought after aid and you’ll probably face fierce competition.
  • Scholarships: Many graduate students make the mistake of thinking undergrads have cornered the market on getting free money from outside donors, but there is plenty available for those seeking advanced degrees too. You can search scholarship databases online at FastWeb.com or Mach25. Or, head to the library and leaf through the Chronicle Financial Aid Guide (usually in the reference section). You shouldn’t have to pay for a scholarship search service.
  • Continuing education scholarship: If you’re already working for a school district or university, check with your employer about tuition reimbursement benefits. Make sure you understand the rules of such gifts. Your employer may limit your study to a field related to your job, or require you to work for the company for a set period of time afterward to reap the full benefit.
  • Loans: Even if you expect to exhaust the resources above, you should still plan to apply for loans. You can borrow up to $18,500 a year ($8,500 subsidized, $10,000 unsubsidized) in federal loans. But if you already have student debt, you cannot borrow more than $138,500 total for undergraduate and graduate degrees combined. Learn more about federal loans and how much you can borrow.

About the Author

Sarah Luebke
Nebraska native Sarah Luebke completed her MM in vocal performance at the University of Kentucky, and her BM in vocal performance at St. Olaf College. Recently she has been seen performing the female lead, Jane McDowell, in "The Stephen Foster Story" and the ensemble of "Big River" with Stephen Foster Productions. Other performances include the soprano soloist of Bach's St. John Passion, La Fee ... [Read more]

4 Comments

  1. schoollife

    Thanks for sharing the valuable information.

  2. Johanne

    That was a very insightful explanation about the process of going back to school.

  3. Recruit

    It’s a great topic. Thank you for really valuable information.

  4. Music School LA

    This is really great information. I am very grateful to you.

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