This article complements Variations on a Higher Degree.

Studying the Options Available

It’s a buyer’s market out there in postgraduate music land. Where twenty years ago there was a distinct divide between a postgraduate diploma for performers and a postgraduate degree for musicologists, the past two decades have experienced a significant increase and interest in pursuing study post-completion of the (now almost obligatory) undergraduate degree.

There have been a number of factors which have contributed to this increase, the most obvious one being the amalgamation of conservatoria with universities from 1991. Other influential reasons include a growing understanding of the benefit of post-graduation specialisation, and greater encouragement for professional development. For universities, a compelling motivation is the significantly higher income that accompanies postgraduate students.

The recent survey of Australian tertiary institutions (Music Study in Australia) indicates a wide range of postgraduate study options, from Postgraduate Certificates and Diplomas through various forms of Masters degrees to a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA). It is also worth noting that the traditional entry points into such programs can vary significantly from one university to another. Most universities recognise a high-achieving Honours degree as a prerequisite for entry direct into doctoral study, by-passing the normal journey via a Masters degree. Depending on the program, some will even acknowledge professional experience in the mix of considerations.

The purpose of postgraduate study is usually to add depth and maybe also the edge of specialisation to whatever the undergraduate degree provided. How one does that remains with the individual. After a first degree in music performance, a graduate might choose to continue the performance track at a postgraduate level, or change the music focus to musicology, ethnomusicology, music therapy, or music technology. Alternatively, they may add a second discipline, the most obvious ones being education, psychology, business, law, and economics. My own case abandoned music for Cultural Policy and Leadership, but used institutions of Higher Music Education as case studies. My supervisors were from the fields of Cultural Policy, Leadership and, (wait for it), Decision-making!

Once the content is decided, other choices relate to the manner of delivery — whether by coursework or research, full-time or part-time, on-campus or off-campus. The choice is a complex one, and needs careful consideration. It isn’t uncommon to see a prospective applicant prefer a pure research option over a coursework one, simply because the pure research degree is more often than not funded by the Federal Government. Yet, unless that prospective applicant has had some research experience, and is confident working independently towards long-term goals, the choice is fraught with lack of direction and unseen obstacles. Those who benefit from regular assessment, short-term goals and consistent support should probably take out a loan and enrol in a coursework degree.

A Good Supervisor is Important

A research student does have a ‘supervisor’, often more than one. However, that doesn’t negate the fact that the research path is one which can be lonely and confusing. The quality of supervision may be different between institutions, and also among individuals. The bottom line is that a supervisor is allocated a certain number of hours for each research student, and those hours are valuable. The way in which they are used is critical to the ultimate success of the candidacy. A good supervisor guides, supports and advises the student, monitors progress, gives feedback, helps the student to solve problems and ensures that the student understands the requirements. Within the time allowed for each student, those roles are more than may be feasible.

For these and other reasons, having decided on the research path, the applicant should give careful consideration to the choice of supervisor, even more so than the choice of institution. The supervisor has the potential to enhance the candidacy. A high-profile researcher in a related specialisation can introduce the new researcher to the field, including to other high-profile researchers and publications. Even more importantly, one needs to get along with one’s supervisor(s). It’s a marriage which needs to work through the inevitable tough times.

A Profusion of Options

A brief glance at higher degrees on offer around Australia uncovers a diversity of options and confusion often arises because one title can represent different types of content, delivery and outcome. Take for example, a Masters degree. It may be delivered via coursework or by research. Not all Masters degrees in music are called ‘Masters of Music’, but may be in Arts, Creative Arts, or Creative Industries. For an alternative research option, the Masters of Philosophy (M.Phil) is a useful option. Like the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), an M.Phil may be applied to any discipline, and it presents some interesting differences. Unlike its coursework cousin, it is usually government funded, and may offer a pathway into the PhD. Some choose to begin the M.Phil and convert to a PhD before completion. This isn’t as easy as it might sound — the initial months of the M.Phil must develop the topic to such a level that it is seen to have greater potential than required by the Masters degree. Universities are understandably cautious about this transition, and may guard the quality of it quite zealously.

Masters degrees by coursework are most often specialist programs, targeting those who seek professional development, and in some cases they are available online. Among the specialisations currently offered at Masters level are Music Therapy, Music Education, Composition, Ethnomusicology, Musicology, Instrumental & Vocal Teaching, Music Technology, Music Studies, and Community Cultural Development. Even the bland title of Masters of Music is likely to allow the candidate to specialise in, e.g. Instrumental Performance, Instrumental Pedagogy, or Aural Pedagogy.

Beyond the Masters degrees are the professional doctorate (e.g. Doctor of Musical Arts, DMA; and Doctor of Music, D.Mus) and the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). Differentiation between these varies among institutions, and it is wise to research them thoroughly, in association with potential supervision. The potential student needs to balance the mix between potential outcome (title), content (professional development), supervision (professional advantage), delivery (life balance), requirements and timeframes.

As already noted, some institutions retain alternative postgraduate options — graduate diplomas and certificates, and postgraduate diplomas, most founded on specialisations: e.g. a Graduate Diploma in Composition, or a Graduate Certificate in Music and Imagery, or a Postgraduate Diploma in Performance Creation. Some allow transition into a Masters degree, giving professionals access to postgraduate education on the basis of professional experience instead of undergraduate qualifications.

At many universities, established professionals use a higher degree to re-focus, re-train, and enhance their potential for promotion. In such cases, the choice of coursework or research may be pragmatic: if an employer is supporting the study, steadily accumulating coursework units whilst still working may prove an easier option. There are some who may be able to focus a research project around their work, an alternative which is worth consideration, especially where the support for professional development is time-based rather than financial.

Changing Nature of Research

One of the interesting developments over the past decade has been that research in music no longer needs to be entirely text-based. Research in the field of creative practice is now well-established in many of Australia’s institutions, and the diversity of subject matter associated with creativity is extensive. The MCA Audit of Post-Secondary Music Education and Training has uncovered a range of research topics among higher degree candidates at various institutions around Australia. In Variations on a Higher Degree, I noted the example of Grant Collins (Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University) whose PhD study is developing new techniques for coordination and independence of movement relevant to the large modern drum set. Collins is creating repertoire and studies for training polyrhythmic independence, and presenting these outcomes in a series of performances and recordings.

At the University of Western Australia, Masters candidate Paul Evans is exploring factors of motivation which may offer a better understanding of why people participate in music, how educators can help sustain young children’s music learning into adulthood, and how it might be possible to assist more people to enjoy active and rewarding musical engagement throughout their lives.

Adam Thwaites offers a good example of adding extra dimensions to one’s initial study. A graduate in jazz guitar from the Australian National University (ANU), Thwaites sought the University of Melbourne to pursue study in musicology/ethnomusicology, exploring exoticism and Sun Ra via fieldwork amongst Uighur people.

In an extension across disciplines at the University of Newcastle, Joelene Griffith (M.Phil) is investigating how physical fitness affects vocal fitness and the production of healthy vocal technique in performance. Further north at the University of Queensland, Jeanette Kennelly’s PhD study explores the views, experiences and practices of Registered Music Therapists regarding their professional supervision whilst practicing in Australia. Kennelly’s data obtained from a national survey and from interviews have the potential to enhance understanding of this professional support system.


These and many more research higher degrees being undertaken across the country demonstrate the future wealth of knowledge which will inform the next generation of students and researchers. With only adequate supervision as a fundamental requirement to enrolment, research higher degrees offer opportunities to professionals as well as recent undergraduates, even in the smallest of university music schools. Nevertheless, if research is the choice, no matter what the actual award, the candidate should look closely at the support services available to them, such as library services including allowances for inter-library borrowing, access to online databases, access to dedicated study space, access to other research students, even potential for tutoring — all enhance the experience. From the data gathered by the MCA to date (Music Study in Australia), it would seem that the services provided to research higher-degree students are best where the larger number of such candidates exist. Moreover, if the university has a research centre dedicated to music, it is likely that students will encounter many visiting researchers during the term of their candidacy.

One fact is constant in all of the possible options — a higher degree, especially a higher degree in research, can be as individual as one wishes to make it. Candidates should ensure that they enrol in a program that suits them, with staff who will enhance their experience. With the level of funding available to institutions for higher degrees, it is important to remember that this is the one situation in higher education where the university needs the student more than the student needs the university!


Helen Lancaster. Entered on knowledge base 22 May 2013. First published in Music Forum, Vol. 18, No 1, November (Summer) 2011, 42-43.

Dr. Helen Lancaster offers advisory services to higher music education institutions, music teachers and arts organisations. She is a former Chair of the Music Council of Australia, and a Research Fellow at Queensland Conservatorium of Music. For the MCA she established the National Instrument Bank in 2008, and the Australian Youth Music Council in 2009. With a team of distinguished researchers, she undertook the audit of Post-Secondary Music Education and Training published with further analysis in this knowledge base as Music Study in Australia.

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