Music Psychology

Life as a music psychology academic

This week I had a nice email from a chap called Thomas who lives in the US. Thomas is considering a career in music psychology and was asking, as many do, about what my day job is really like.

I have written a blog before about how to prepare for a music psychology master course. I have also written a little piece on the types of job you might go on to enjoy once you have finished. But Thomas wanted to know a bit more about the other end of the road – what is it like to be a music psychology academic (lecturer). So this is the subject of today’s blog.

I have not been a lecturer for long but I think I have had a taste of just about everything the job entails in the early stages. And the things that I have not experienced personally I have seen  in my colleagues. So let’s start by talking about the responsibilities. An academic in any discipline has three main tasks, and one that runs along underneath all three:

  1. To do research and produce papers
  2. To write grants and produce money
  3. To teach and produce happy students

And the secret everyday task is, of course, administration. All these three tasks require a degree of management of resources, people and working with the administration within your institution. At the end of the day you are part of your university or lab and it is important to do your bit and contribute to the life of the establishment, as well as to represent your institution wherever you go.

The extent to which your daily effort goes into each of the three main jobs depends on a) the stage of your career and b) the type of place where you work.

a)  Early career lecturers will typically have more teaching responsibilities than more established staff and less time for research. But I am assured that this changes as time goes by! And there may be times in your career where you are able to devote yourself to research, for example during a fellowship grant or sabbatical.

b) In a typical university you will do a balance of all the three jobs, unless you are in a special period of work as discussed in the above section. But all over the world there are different types of universities that focus almost exclusively on either research or teaching. So if you find out that you prefer one of these activities then you can aim for either a research institution or a teaching college.

So, with all this in mind, let’s deal with the three jobs one at a time.  

1) Research is what most people see as the traditional job of a scientist and is what you will find yourself doing for most of your PhD. It is a cyclic experience which goes from having an idea, through to development, testing, analysis, and finally writing up a report that hopefully makes it to a journal publication. The number of publications you produce is one way in which people judge your performance as an academic.

You will need to keep up with the latest ideas and research to make sure you are contributing to current theories and practice. You will probably work as part of a team, whether it is with other academics (in your own country and overseas) or with students/ research assistants. In both cases, people skills are very important. And then there is one of the ‘perks’ of the job – conferences. I love visiting different parts of the world and meeting with fellow academics who have similar interests. I find them inspiring and always make new friends.

2) Another way in which your job performance is assessed is in terms of how much money you bring in to your institution. This means writing grants. The biggest grants are for doing research or even setting up your own teaching course or laboratory, but then there are smaller grants for things like workshops, teaching and conference travel. Every little bit helps as it all means you are proving that you can support yourself and your institution.

Writing grants is an art form and it takes practice. It is a good idea to start as soon as possible and to get advice from someone who is good at it. I’m lucky in that my boss is brilliant at it. So while it used to be rather upsetting when my efforts came back covered in red corrections, I now understand that it was a learning experience. Just like everything in academia – you will never stop learning!

3) Ahhhh teaching. This is probably the one reason that most people decide that they want to be a lecturer in the first place. That was my motivation from day one. And I love teaching still, even when it is a subject that is not my direct research interest, which is often the case.


Of course the actual teaching – in front of a large group of students –  actually takes up quite a small amount of the time. A lot more time will be spent on preparation, meetings and marking. But for me it is still all worth it. I really enjoy teaching both on a group and individual level, especially working with a student on a project.

So that is it – a little summary of the job of a music psychology academic (and academia in general). What you really need is an infinitely curious mind, a passion for your subject and an interest in communicating your work and/or discipline to students, colleagues and the public.

And of course the most important thing: an understanding that this job is a life-long commitment to learning. You will never know everything; the fun is in the exploration!




  • Aaron Wolf

    Thank you for this wonderful article (and all the others)! I really admire your openness and dedication to sharing your perspective clearly with the world. It means a lot to me. I went through a traditional music degree where there was little encouragement to pursue scientific research, and now I have been struggling to determine the best options and improve my credentials — all without the formal support of advisers or an institution. I love your welcoming and encouraging writing style. Thanks for the inspiration!

  • Thomas Frost

    Thank you so much Vicky for you very in-depth guide to Music Psychology and your course! As soon as I finish my studies here in the U.S, I will do my best to get in touch with you. That way I can take your course and help in this very progressive field of Music Psychology/Psychology of Music! Thanks again for everything!

  • aoisdana

    Thank you for taking the time to write such a wonderful post!

    Everything you post makes me even more excited about music psychology!

  • Diana Hereld

    Dear Vicky,

    If I wasn’t excited by all of your wonderful thoughts before, you can only imagine the anticipation and happiness I experience reading them whilst looking forward to joining the course this Fall. I can’t wait! Thanks as always for a fantastic read.


  • Jennifer

    Yes, it sounds idyllic – what is hard is finding the opportunities in academia to further develop your trajectory; it is so important to be embedded in a culture that values what we can learn about human processes and humanity through music. That culture will then want enquiry and investigation, and education. It will foster the development of the next generation of researchers and educators and enhance the lifelong learning and contibution from more experienced researchers-academics. As I write, the word advocacy comes to mind; as does Susan Hallam’s book, the Power of Music. Hmmm…will keep reading the Vacancies section!