Guest Article: Five Pieces of Advice for Aspiring University Professors

This RMS Guest Article is written by David Cook, Assistant Professor of Clarinet at Millikin University and Principal Clarinet of the Millikin-Decatur Symphony Orchestra.


When I ask new or prospective students about their career goals, their responses often include teaching at a university. Now in my fifth year of university teaching (one year tenure-track, two years adjunct, two years graduate teaching assistant), I have experienced many benefits of working in academia, including collaboration with faculty colleagues in performance and research, institutional support for scholarship, and above all, the chance to guide students and help them reach their fullest potential.

I encourage all musicians, especially those that intend to pursue university teaching, to partake in the following activities. Even if you are not interested in academia right now (and when I was an undergraduate, I wasn’t!), these are fantastic abilities to develop for anyone looking to improve and develop as a musician!

Prepare a Core Repertoire for Campus Interviews

Every campus interview will include a recital of anywhere from 30 minutes to a full hour. However, choosing music for this is a bit different than for a degree recital or a community performance. Your repertoire for this should be music that (a) you can play at the highest level of technical and musical proficiency on short notice, (b) demonstrates your versatility as a performer, and (c) requires minimal rehearsal with a pianist. I suggest including at least one or two pieces of standard repertoire (depending on time) in addition to an unaccompanied piece. Practice and rehearsal time are scant during a campus interview, so select pieces that you know like the back of your hand and can put together with a pianist quickly.

Cultivate Your Speaking and Writing Skills

As with any job, you’ll be subjected to a barrage of questions in both the phone/Skype stage and campus stage of the interview process. The interviewers are interested in your teaching philosophy, past experiences, pedagogical approaches, and career goals, amongst other things. You need to express yourself thoroughly enough to convey your thoughts, yet succinctly enough to avoid rambling. You also need to be able to explain your ideas in a way that someone with little to no formal musical training will understand—in a campus interview, you’ll speak with administrators including a dean, provost, and possibly the president of the university!

All of these skills also apply to your writing, as your first step in applying to any position will be to submit a cover letter (describing your interest in the position) and a curriculum vitae (demonstrating your qualifications for the position). Your cover letter and the curriculum vitae are likely the first materials the search committee will examine—ensure their first impression of you is a good one!

Diversify Your Area(s) of Expertise

More and more search committees are looking for one person to teach in multiple areas. In the past year alone, job postings have sought applicants who possess the following skills beyond teaching clarinet:

  • Music theory and/or musicology
  • Saxophone and/or flute
  • Music education
  • Music composition
  • Conducting a wind ensemble/orchestra

How many of those would you feel comfortable doing at the university level? Now might be a good time to begin taking advanced courses in these areas or look into the possibility of a double degree. If enrolled in a doctoral program that includes cognates, carefully elect yours as to maximize your value on the job market. I actually completed a MM degree in music theory while pursuing my DMA in clarinet performance—since then, roughly half my university teaching has been music theory instead of clarinet! Even if you don’t end up teaching in an additional area, you’re guaranteed to learn something that will benefit you as a musician and educator.

Be Active in the Profession

Search committees want to see what you have done beyond your degree requirements. Are you attending (or even better, performing) at conferences? Are you performing outside of the university as a soloist, chamber musician, or member of a large ensemble? Have you published in any journals? While most likely not required for your degree, all of these activities add prestige to your career and show that you’ll be a valuable addition to a university faculty. Beyond this, you’ll make valuable connections with fellow musicians and expand your network of colleagues, which leads me to my last point…

Ask Others for Help

Solicit input and advice from experienced professionals in the field. It never hurts to have another set of eyes look at your cover letter or a pair of unbiased ears to help you decide which recordings to submit in your application. I had somewhere between 10–15 people look at my cover letter in the past two years! Having someone to run through a mock interview with you is even more beneficial—it will help you perfect your speaking skills that I mentioned earlier. Your major professor should be your first source of advice, but definitely consult with other advisors and mentors that you trust. Just like anything else in life, don’t be too proud to ask for suggestions.

Life as a university professor is incredibly rewarding and full of excitement. I hope this helps you reach your academic and musical pursuits. Good luck!


David Cook is Assistant Professor of Clarinet at Millikin University and Principal Clarinet of the Millikin-Decatur Symphony Orchestra.

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