The Tenure-Track Job Search in Music Theory

I was on the job market this past year for the first time. No one will be surprised to hear that it was quite arduous. I’m very pleased to say that I did win a job as an Assistant Professor of Music Theory at George Mason University, located in Fairfax, Virginia (in the Washington, D.C. metro area).

Now that it’s all over, but while it’s still fresh in my mind, I compiled statistics from my search and personal advice, which I hope will help other aspiring theorists in their own searches. I’ll provide:

  • statistics on the season
  • what goes into the application process
  • how long it takes to get results
  • recommendations for surviving/thriving.

This post is aimed at people who are very invested at this point. If you’re questioning entering academia at all, I strongly recommend Jennifer Snodgrass’s piece “Truths about an academic career people often don’t share.”

Some Statistics on the 2016–2017 Season

How many jobs were there?

I applied to 25 total tenure-track (TT) jobs, a number consistent with Kris Shaffer’s estimate that there are about 26 TT jobs per year in music theory.

Where were the jobs?

Screen Shot 2017-04-27 at 5.07.27 PM.png

All the jobs were in the United States, except two jobs in the Toronto, Ontario area. The jobs are clustered where you would expect: along the East Coast, and in highly-populated states like Florida and Texas. Jobs in the West, Southwest, and Midwest are noticeably scarce. One of the fixtures of the life of an academic is non-academic friends and family asking “Why don’t you get a job in [hometown]/[current city]/[where I live]?” You can show them this map of 25 jobs and demonstrate that you don’t get a ton of choice.

When were applications due?

The TT job market is quite seasonal.

deadlines bars numbers
out of 24 total deadlines

Search committees want to have things settled with their new faculty member before summer break. Thus the application deadlines cluster together around late November to mid December. This gives plenty of time for the search to conclude even before spring break. A handful of people get out ahead of the game by requesting earlier deadlines; some schools for whatever reason take a little longer to get their search posted and thus have a later deadline.

What went into an application for a TT job?

Every application requires a curriculum vitae, a cover letter, and 3 letters of recommendation.

64% of job applications require additional materials on top of this.  These materials will help the committee evaluate you further, often aligning with the priorities of the school/job. Teaching statements, diversity statements, sample syllabi, and teaching videos are all common from teaching-focused schools; research statements and writing samples are common from research-focused schools; but, of course, many schools want you to excel in both.

Below are the percentages, of applications that require different types of materials, out of 25 total applications. Many applications requested more than one of these.

How long did it take to get results?

Unlike jobs in the outside world, academic job searches are ssslloooowwww.

elapsed app final

Some of the jobs, as of today (May 2), still have not sent out results, nor has anyone posted them on the jobs wiki, so you’ll notice I only have 20 results here total. On average, you can expect to wait 3–4 months after the application deadline to hear officially that you did not get the job (because if you did, you probably would know by now).

Some Recommendations

I prepared a lot for all of my interviews and materials, and I got good results. This preparation took many forms: reading books, personal mentoring, and my own foresight and planning.


For books, I most highly recommend The Professor Is In by Karen Kelsky. Karen also has a website which can be useful for the comments sections, but all the good stuff has been exported to her book. She has a very no-nonsense and bare bones writing style that steers you through the minefield of the job search. There is a lot of advice that is specifically tailored to women, also. The Academic Job Search Handbook is more dry and thorough, with lots of sample materials. I did not read this cover-to-cover, but I did reference it from time to time.


The significance of personal mentoring can’t be overstated. I ran almost everything by at least two advisors at first. As I got more confident, I was more selective, but still pretty much always checking in with these advisors. This took several forms:

  • one-on-one meetings and feedback on materials with my mentors
  • workshopping my letters and statements with my school’s Professional Development office
  • Test calling friends on Skype to check for lighting, dress, background, connection speed, etc. before doing Skype interviews
  • runthroughs of my job talks with my peers and mentors for critique
  • runthroughs of my lessons with pedagogy experts for critique and tips
  • mock job interviews in front of a “committee” of advisors and peers

I asked for a lot of help throughout this process, and people were very willing to give it. Don’t be shy and don’t try to do this on your own.

On letters of recommendation

Dossier services seem to be the norm for our field. Interfolio is well-known, but you have to pay to send your letters places—something I find a bit backwards. I used a free alternative, Chronicle Vitae, to no apparent ill effects. Some jobs do require that you use Interfolio, but in these cases, you do not pay to apply. Besides this, once, I did have to pay to use Interfolio instead, to snail-mail my dossier as part of an application that required that a hard copy be mailed to them. I could have gathered the letters and mailed them myself, but it didn’t seem worth the savings to me… but anyway, this is not typical.

Dossier services are nice, because you get to control the distribution of letters, and you know that the letters have been sent. Unfortunately, many schools use application portals that auto-generates an email sent to your letter-writer, requesting that they upload their letter to the school’s system. This is harder to manage effectively, and I recommend planning to complete your applications two weeks in advance of the deadline to deal with this. I talk about this more below.

Stay organized

I am a highly organized person, which is part of what helped me survive this. I suggest two spreadsheets and a packing list:

  • A “jobs summary” spreadsheet with the following categories of data: school names, locations, application deadlines, “unusual materials” (see above, not really that “unusual” per se, but beyond the standard), a link to the job announcement, how letters of recommendation are requested (see below), and date I submitted the application. Create this at the beginning of your search. As time went on, I added new columns for each stage that I progressed through. When I had submitted an application, I made the text gray. When I got a nibble, I made the text green. When I got a rejection, I struck through the text. It was very helpful to see this all in one place.
  • A spreadsheet to help deal with recommendation letters, which lists all the schools that ask letter-writers to upload/email the letter of recommendation themselves along with deadlines. You will need the spreadsheet for two reasons: one, so that you can be timely and considerate about what you are asking of your letter-writers, and two, so that you can personally email your letter writers and check in on the status of your letters. Even before you’re ready to apply, see if you can request the letters from your letter-writers without submitting the application—often, you can. Request the letters ASAP. If you must submit the application before the portal will request letters, then you need to submit your application one to two weeks early. This gives you plenty of time to warn your letter-writer about the application and to check in on them. I also liked to do this in batches, then send an email saying something like “Today, I applied to 3 schools that require you to upload a letter: X, Y, and Z. Please look for these emails in your inbox and upload the letters ASAP. The deadlines are A, B, and C.”
  • A packing list, like the one I’ve made here. I really did print this off and check off the boxes. This is maybe the most helpful thing in this blog post, because my brain was never in the right headspace to plan to pack things like clothes and snacks. I’ve generalized the list to be applicable to everyone (I think), accessible here. (Let me know if you think something should be added!)

Further reading

Here are some helpful websites for your music theory job search:

  • Music Theory Online’s job postings. Almost all jobs will be posted here.
  • The Music Theory and Composition Jobs Wiki. The wiki is a(n infamous) crowd-sourced gathering of information on all the jobs out there, TT and non-TT. You can go here to find out about jobs that might not have made it to MTO. More realistically, you can go here to find out whether or not you should give up hope on your dream job (seriously—I find knowing better than not knowing, but your mileage may vary).
  • Kris Shaffer, “So You Want to Be a Music Theory Professor.” Kris does some wonderful statistical analysis based on data from the jobs wiki to talk about how many jobs there are, who gets the jobs (institution and year of PhD), and how many applications there tend to be.

As a disclaimer, I have never been on the other side of this, i.e., on a TT faculty search committee, but my memory is quite fresh with all these experiences from the past months. My opinion is that we would all benefit from speaking more freely about our experiences so that everyone knows what to expect on the job market.


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