Friday, March 18, 2011

Applying to a PhD program

It's official: I've been accepted to the Theory program at University of Washington and the Composition program at Florida State University, albeit with no word on funding yet from either school. I was rejected by Princeton and Eastman for Composition, and by Yale and Indiana for Theory. Overall, I'm quite happy with this outcome.

During the whole application process, I found Trevor de Clercq's webpage detailing his own experiences to be a very useful reference, as there really isn't much advice out there that pertains specifically to doctoral programs in music. My results are nowhere near as lofty as his, of course, but I'd still like to pay it forward and help shed some light on the process for any future applicants.

I should begin by saying that I applied to eight Composition programs last year and was soundly rejected by all eight: Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, Eastman, University of Chicago, Northwestern, CUNY, and USC. Eastman actually interviewed me for my second choice of Theory, but I was ultimately rejected for that as well. While I was there, I realised just how out of my league I was: I'd never heard of transformational theory, for example. In hindsight, it was probably a stellar recommendation from Poundie Burstein, a heavyweight in the Theory field, that netted me the interview.

Still, my weekend in Rochester was an eye-opener, and taught me two things. First, I should have put more thought into the schools I chose, and second, I should apply to some Theory programs for the next round. My pieces are overwhelmingly tonal and influenced by popular music, which isn't what the prestigious schools want. I felt like I would always be just an also-ran in the hopelessly subjective world of Composition; by contrast, the more objective world of Theory seemed to offer greater certainty and control over my future.

With guidance from my Theory professor Philip Ewell last spring, I began reading the recent literature on transformational and neo-Riemannian theory. Twice a week, I would read a journal article and then write a thorough summary. My Kindle DX came in extremely handy since I could download the pdfs from JSTOR and read them on the train. I became intrigued by the work on geometric voice-leading models, which led to the ideas outlined in my two writing samples. I chose schools and programs based on those who have written on this subject, which led to an even balance between Theory and Composition programs.

I also joined the Society for Music Theory mailing list, which kept me informed about various things happening in the Theory world. That's how I heard about a summer program in Durham, UK, to which I applied and was accepted. I also managed to snag a diversity travel grant to SMT's annual conference in Indianapolis last fall. Both experiences made me realise just how small the Theory world is. You can make friends and connections just by sticking around long enough.

Here are my academic qualifications in a nutshell:
  • UC Berkeley: BA in Religious Studies, 3.72 GPA, Regents Scholar
  • Hunter College, CUNY: MA in Composition, 4.0 GPA
  • GRE score: 760 verbal, 800 math, 4.0 analytical writing
Other components of my application:
  • Personal statement
  • Writing sample #1: "Using Geometric Models to Compose in Virtual Realms"
  • Writing sample #2: "Diminished Triads and Scale Networks in the Hexagonal Virtual Room"
  • "Amnestic Hexagon": a short wind trio demonstrating the method of virtual composition described in my two writing samples
  • "String Quartet": a four-movement pop suite performed by the Attacca Quartet
  • "Ash Wednesday," "Cremated," and "Kyon?": three Bobtail Yearlings songs, each displaying a notable musical feature (quarter tones, Shepard tones, and polyrhythms, respectively)
  • "Classical Symphony": my Master's thesis, a four-movement symphony; score only, since it was never performed
  • Letters of recommendation from Poundie Burstein, Shafer Mahoney, and Philip Ewell

Update, April 1, 2011: I've decided to go with UW. I would have studied Composition under Clifton Callender at FSU; at UW, I'll be studying Theory under John Rahn. Both are very good programs, and each has its unique merits. In the end, it came down to which city I'd prefer to spend at least the next three years of my life in.

Update, June 17, 2011: UW has offered me a $10,000 scholarship and an RA position for the first quarter, which comes with a stipend and tuition waiver. I found out about this a couple months ago but forgot to update this post. Sorry.