Mentorship as a way to mind the gap in music academia and to prepare students for the “real world.”

Blog post by WiMIR mentee Stefanie Acevedo, PhD Candidate at Yale University

I knew I wanted a career in music academia since I was fifteen. Now, as I begin the last year of my PhD program in music theory, I feel a mixture of fear, eagerness, and sometimes, uncertainty as to whether I wish to continue in the field. This comes not only due to increasing hostility toward the “liberal conspiracy” of higher education, budget cuts across the board for humanities and music programs, and increasing corporatization of Universities, but also due to slowed (and perhaps even declining) progress for women’s and minority rights in the United States. After spending so many years in graduate school, I worry that all of that effort will be for naught and that my student debt will only grow deeper and deeper due to accruing interest while I make ends meet as an adjunct or visiting professor.

Then again, that anxiety may just be coming from my impostor syndrome [1].

Yet the reality brought on by many of these problems ring true, especially for individuals who make up minorities in musicology fields (women, people-of-color, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ individuals alike): not only must we navigate the world as minorities, but we are also facing a volatile job market.

As a rising educator, then, how can I speak to my students, especially those who are minorities, and tell them that music is a worthwhile career? How can I responsibly educate my students and let them know that, despite spending many years and dollars putting themselves through graduate school, they might have to face years of uncertainty on the job market?

This is where mentoring programs by organizations like WiMIR play a large role.

But first, let us ignore the current job market and focus on the benefits of mentoring. We know that mentoring and support systems allow minority students to thrive [2]. Many minority students are surrounded by societal pressures and, consequently, insecurity – a mentor, aware of the psychological and social dynamics at play, is then able to aid the student in reaching their goals. I, personally, have been lucky to have a PhD advisor who is sensitive to the hardships faced by minority students, and can thus, guide me in matters other than my dissertation research. I am also very lucky to have a wide support network of past professors and mentors who have encouraged me along the way. Many students, especially minorities, do not have that type of support from their advisors or professors, and could benefit from these type of relationships beyond their immediate school environments.

Further, research has shown that women and other minority faculty are more likely to take on mentoring roles than non-minority faculty [3]. This can be problematic in, at least, two ways: A) The amount of time spent on mentoring and related service can compromise minority faculty’s research time (affecting advancement in their field) [4] and B) in departments were minority faculty are scarce, students may not be able to receive the full support they require (leading to lower diversity). Organizational mentoring programs, such as WiMIR’s, can definitely provide outside help to attenuate these problems. These programs also have the potential to indirectly alter department cultures. By becoming mentors, non-minority faculty members can learn and adapt their mentoring to better suit the needs of minority students (and faculty) – they are often even more willing to mentor in the future [5]. Many benefits arise. First of all, minority faculty would be less burdened, giving them more time to research or extend their service elsewhere. If a wider range of faculty invested time into and valued mentoring and similar service more, those activities may be better appreciated by the University as a whole – the service may then be weighed more heavily on, for example, the tenure dossier [6]. And, finally, as non-minority faculty become better attuned to issues faced by minorities, they can facilitate change in department cultures toward inclusivity and diversity [7].

More importantly, though, mentoring programs by organizations such as WiMIR can aid students in diversifying their interests in order to better prepare them for successful careers. As an educator in music, I believe it is my duty to enable students to follow their dreams, but also to prepare them for the real world. As a Hispanic woman, I want to increase the diversity in music theory, but I feel a responsibility to my students to give them the broader picture: academia is cutthroat, the road is long, and job prospects are difficult. I want students to be able to follow their hearts and passion for the arts, but I also want them to have financially-stable and bright futures. The best possible way to prepare a student for a music career, in my opinion, is to diversify their portfolio with a secondary interest in order to develop lucrative skills (not just for a job at a music department, but also for a job in Arts Management at BMI or ASCAP, or as a Data Scientist at Spotify or Google). In my case, I diversified by pursuing a master’s degree in experimental psychology and learning computational skills. We need to be marketable as specialists in music that can apply that knowledge outside of the concert hall or theory classroom. While Universities tout interdisciplinarity, resources are often lacking and students may not have the knowledge, time, or guidance to seek out secondary interests (especially at disadvantaged schools). Not many students can afford the luxury of getting multiple degrees. At many schools, a music degree does not provide training beyond the traditional Western Classical music curriculum. This, then, is where external mentorship can aid students to not only experiment and define other interests, but also gain exposure to and prepare themselves for alternate career paths that also utilize their musical talent. Even for older students, like myself, or those who have already graduated, cross-disciplinary mentorship can help us expand our horizons, leading to a broader portfolio, an increased awareness of the applications of our research, or even, a back up career plan.

Stefanie Acevedo is a PhD Candidate in music theory at Yale University. She is a past member of the Society for Music Theory’s Committee for the Status of Women, a past board member of the International Alliance for Women in Music, and currently serves as a member of the Graduate and Professional Student Title IX Advisory Board at Yale. Her dissertation is a computational and EEG study of popular harmony expectation. She is currently a mentee in WiMIR’s mentorship program.

END NOTES:

  1. Peteet, B.J., L. Montgomery, and J.C. Weekes (2015). “Predictors of imposter phenomenon among talented ethnic minority undergraduate students.” The Journal of Negro Education 84(2), pp. 175-186;  Richards, C. (2015). “Learning to deal with the Impostor Syndrome.” The New York Times, October 26.
  2. Thomas, K.M., L.A. Willis, and J. Davis (2007). “Mentoring minority graduate students: issues and strategies for institutions, faculty, and students.” Equal Opportunities International 26(3): pp.178-192, doi: 10.1108/02610150710735471; Blackwell, J.E. (1989). “Mentoring: An action strategy for increasing minority faculty.” Academe 75(5), pp. 8-14.
  3. Acker, S. and G. Feuerverger (1996). “Doing good and feeling bad: The work of women university teachers.” Cambridge Journal of Education 26(3), pp. 401-422.; Flaherty, C. (2015). “Negotiating Balance.” Inside Higher Education, April 22.
  4. Guarino, C.M., and M.H. Borden (2017). “Faculty service loads and gender: Are women taking care of the academic family?” Research in Higher Education.
  5. Ragins, B.R. and J.L. Cotton (1993). “Gender and willingness to mentor in organizations.” Journal of Management 19(1), pp. 97-111.
  6.  Aguirre, A., Jr. (2000). “Women and minority Faculty in the Academic Workplace: Recruitment, Retention, and Academic Culture.” ASHE-ERIC HIgher Education Report 27(6).
  7. Baez, B. (2000). “Race-related service and faculty of color: Conceptualizing critical agency in academe.” Higher Education 39(3), pp. 363-391.
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