NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Five Points of Reflection

After completing and thoroughly enjoying my Honours research project I was inspired to pursue a career as an academic. Having now been awarded a Master of Arts in music performance (100% research) and after picking up small amounts of casual academic employment, I’d like to share my experiences so far to hopefully shed some light on the process for those considering post-graduate research.

By Sam McAuliffe

After completing and thoroughly enjoying my Honours research project I was inspired to pursue a career as an academic. Having now been awarded a Master of Arts in music performance (100% research) and after picking up small amounts of casual academic employment, I’d like to share my experiences so far to hopefully shed some light on the process for those considering post-graduate research. I hope what follows does not come across as self-indulgent; I merely want to offer honest responses to questions I think are relevant to aspiring post-graduate and early career researchers/academics.

1. Why did I choose non-traditional research?

              After completing my Honours project I seriously considered pursuing musicology; I was (and still am) interested in writing about contemporary improvised music practices as this area is thoroughly underrepresented in the musicological corpus. But as a performer, most of the research that interested me at the time was generated through non-traditional means, so that drew me in. Further, the idea of interrogating my own creative output was appealing and aligned with my pre-existing skillset.

2. What was my experience undertaking non-traditional research?

. . . I quickly realised my performance practice would not fit so neatly within any one pre-existing model; I would need to develop a much stronger understanding of qualitative research methods to enable me to adjust and combine models from different fields to suit my practice

              Admittedly, when I enrolled I was somewhat unprepared for what lay ahead of me, particularly from a methodological perspective. My prior experience with method involved applying a pre-existing model and following it, like a recipe of sorts. However I quickly realised my performance practice would not fit so neatly within any one pre-existing model; I would need to develop a much stronger understanding of qualitative research methods to enable me to adjust and combine models from different fields to suit my practice. Also, while I considered myself a decent writer prior to my candidature, I realised I had a lot to learn with regard to academic style. Thankfully, my supervisors, and the Monash staff in general, were very supportive and I’m not sure where I would be without them! (My two cents for anyone considering post-graduate study: choose your supervisors wisely – you can make it on your own but having supportive, encouraging supervisors was invaluable to me.) Subjecting my creative practice to the rigors of academia was extraordinarily difficult and sometimes frustrating, but ultimately, immensely rewarding.

3. Would I recommend post-graduate study to others?

              Absolutely, so long as you know what you’re getting yourself into. The process of producing an exegesis alongside a creative outcome can be gratifying, but your creativity will become entwined with the bureaucracy of the academy; there are hoops to jump through and deadlines to meet. These procedures are generally in place to help keep you on track, but sometimes they can be frustrating, particularly the administrative side of things. Post-graduate research is certainly not for everyone, but I found it a great environment to think critically, write, and create music.

4. Has it led to any employment opportunities?

              Yes and no. Now I have completed my Masters and am taking a year off before (hopefully) undertaking a PhD, my primary source of income is unrelated to academia. Indeed, I have found there are few employment opportunities for those without a PhD, and even then jobs seem few and far between. I’m yet to see a position advertised that doesn’t require previous tertiary-level teaching experience as a prerequisite. Having said that, small opportunities have arisen. I’ve worked as a research assistant for two professors (in one instance, I had regular weekly work until I moved interstate) and I’m casually employed as a teaching associate to intermittently mark undergraduate essays.

As for my career as a performer, I’m not sure having a Masters degree has opened any doors that would have otherwise remained closed. But I don’t think I ever really had a ‘career’ as a performer (least not one that paid the bills for any extended period of time) and at this time I don’t have any real desire to try to make music my primary source of income; I enjoy stability and like the freedom of working on projects without having to necessarily consider the financial gain.

. . .in many ways I find research and teaching equally as fulfilling as performing music. Academia seems to provide a way of engaging with artistic practice without having to rely on the art itself to directly generate income. . .

What post-graduate study led me to discover was the creativity involved in critical thinking. And in many ways I find research and teaching equally as fulfilling as performing music. Academia seems to provide a way of engaging with artistic practice without having to rely on the art itself to directly generate income, and that really appeals to me.

5. Would I do it again?

              Unreservedly, yes. While employment opportunities look meager, I still have hope – someone has to get those jobs, right? But more importantly, I feel like I’ve found ‘my people’. After engaging in faculty workshops, socialising with my peers, and attending a variety of academic conferences I’ve never felt so welcomed and comfortable within a community – to those who have contributed to making my journey so interesting and positive, thank you.


Sam McAuliffe is a musician, educator, and early career academic living in Hobart, Australia. He is a graduate of Monash University where he earned a Bachelor of Music with First Class Honours and a Master of Arts (100% research). Sam has had several peer-reviewed articles published, presented at academic conferences internationally and in Australia, and has collaborated with many of Australia’s leading improvising musicians and performance artists. Sam’s current research interests include improvisation, music and place, hermeneutic-phenomenology, and philosophical topography.

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