To PhD or Not to PhD

By Megan Nicely

January 1, 2007, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Dance study and practice do not fit easily into systems of higher education. On the one hand, dance is an artistic practice that requires creative and technical training. On the other, it is a scholarly discipline that calls for specific methodologies. Currently, the field is changing. Longtime faculty members are retiring and departments are being forced to examine what it is they do. Some are eliminating positions completely, while others are broadening their offerings to include low-residency program or courses designed specifically for professional choreographers. More and more university job postings require that applicants hold an MFA with a “PhD preferred.” Those looking for an artistic candidate to teach technique often seek a former member of a national touring company. As an independent choreographer with an MFA who has recently entered a doctoral program, I too have many questions. What I present here are some of the discoveries I made and choices I faced as I made my way through the graduate school application process last year.

Why do a PhD in dance?

My own decision to pursue a PhD is two-fold. Primarily it is personal— I want to further my investigation of dance by including a more rigorous intellectual component to my existing artistic practice— one that will hopefully bring current theory into play in the production of ideas. The second reason is future employability— yes, I do want a job in my field that pays real money. As an independent choreographer who has danced professionally for many years while teaching part-time, I know as well as anyone that unless one is willing to move to a smaller city (and a place where you might not have an audience for your work), there are few jobs teaching dance at the university level, and fewer still that are full time options. Currently, those with PhDs in dance are being hired right away.

What is a PhD in dance and what are the options?

While the MFA is the highest creative degree, a PhD is the terminal scholarly degree. Basically what this means is that you read and write a lot. You don’t actually dance in a doctoral program, although you can certainly draw on it within scholarship and continue to pursue your creative work in tandem with your studies. Dance can be studied in fields such as anthropology, history, or theater, but it has not stood on its own until recently. As “embodied practice” becomes increasingly fashionable, scholars are starting to validate what dancers have known all along— that movement has meaning and produces its own knowledge. But I discovered that the programs in which to study dance vary greatly. There seem to be three main trajectories: education, theory, and practice-based research. The programs at Temple University, New York University’s Steinhardt School, and Texas Women’s University (which now has a new low-residency program) focus mostly on dance education. UCLA’s World Arts and Cultures Program (WAC), UC Riverside’s Dance History and Theory Department, and NYU’s Department of Performance Studies all take a more theoretical approach to dance, especially in relation to culture. While the U.S. relegates practice to the MFA, in the UK you can also pursue an MPhil (Master’s of Philosophy) or PhD in practice-based research. Basically this means that you work through theoretical ideas in the studio as well as on paper. Programs include University of Surrey, Middlesex, and University of Surrey at Roehampton, but there are others. This model is still being worked through and the English educational system is quite different from ours. There are no courses at the graduate level and the degree requires a high level of expertise upon entry.

What is Performance Studies and how does it relate to dance studies?

This is a tricky question in part because Performance Studies differs from department to department. For some it is merely the new name for the school’s theater department. Many still base study around the text, not a moving body. The major players in performance studies are Northwestern, Brown, Berkeley, and NYU. Of these, only NYU specifically supports dance with two full-time dance faculty, and it was the first university to develop a Performance Studies department in the early 1980s. The approach is to take performance as both the object of study and mode of inquiry, so you might look at stage performance or the performance of everyday life. Much more can be said, but this is a never-ending dialogue. Moving on…

How long does a PhD take?

The length depends on the program, but generally 5-7 years, including coursework, research, maybe some teaching, and writing. One major consideration is whether you are applying directly to a PhD program or whether you need to apply for the MA first. For example, at NYU you must apply for the MA, and only then can you apply for the PhD— you cannot enter the PhD program directly. On the other hand, at UC Riverside and UCLA, you are accepted into the PhD and earn the MA along the way. if you hold an MA from another program, in most cases it will not transfer (you need to earn their MA). Alas, the MFA bears no weight—it is not viewed academically in this case. UK “taught courses” are like our MA programs and usually run 1 year, while a research degree is 3 years.

How much is it going to run me?

I can’t quote the exact price, but roughly $20,000/year plus living expenses. That said, hopefully you get some funding! Every school is different. The UC schools are less if you are in-state and offer some financial assistance, but it is usually not guaranteed for the full term of study. Loans, scholarships, grants, and a job may be necessary. NYU is fully funded for 4 years of study but you usually have to pay for the MA, which is not cheap. Texas Women’s University’s low-residency program is very affordable.

Other deciding factors?

These might be location and quality of life. As a dancer, one important factor for me was how I would maintain my dance practice. What classes and performing opportunities are available during study? I chose NYU based in part on the location. Other schools such as UCLA have MFA departments, and this can also be a great way to continue dancing. Or you may decide to put your performing career on the back burner for the time being. Then there is your personal life, which is definitely important for maintaining sanity— although the time for this may be cut to a minimum.

What to do next?

While it may seem obvious, my best advice is to first go to the department website and check out the program. Most have their information online, including course offerings and current faculty. Since you will most likely be shaped in some way by the program you attend, it is a good idea to find at least one professor whose interest might jive with your own and who is actually there and not on leave. Look at the professor’s publications and their educational background—since dance is such a new degree, most professors hold degrees in other fields and it can be helpful to know what these are. Additionally, it is really helpful to talk to current students, and perhaps visit and sit in on a class or two. Nothing like first-hand experience. Deadlines for programs vary from November to as late as February, and not all require GRE scores, but some do.

Applying and Final Words:

The application process can be grueling and competitive, but know that your previous professional and life experiences really carry a lot of weight. Two key pieces that are required for most schools are the personal statement (why do you want to do this and what is your area of interest?) and a substantial piece of writing, like a good term paper. I suggest if you have been out of school for a while that you re-edit an old paper, or write something new. In both cases, have someone else read it before you submit. Letters of recommendation are also very important and it may take time to get these. Make sure the writer can honestly recommend you, and if applying to a theoretical program I would say former professors are preferable to employers or professional associates. Then throw in the transcripts, GRE scores, and a check for the honor of having someone read your application. Much of the process can now be done online. Then you wait. In some cases you receive a letter, in others a phone call, but for many the response comes by email. These usually arrive sometime in March with the response deadline around April 15. If at first you don’t succeed, talk to the department and consider reapplying. A lot can happen in a year.

Northwestern Department of Performance studies:

NYU Department of Performance Studies:

NYU Steinhardt Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions:

Temple University Dance Department:

Texas Women’s University School of the Arts:

UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures:

UC Riverside Department of Dance:

This article appeared in the January 2007 issue of In Dance.

Megan Nicely is an artist/scholar whose research focuses on experimental dance after 1960 in the US and Japan. She directs and performs with her company Megan Nicely/Dance, writes for publications such as TDR, and is Assistant Professor at the University of San Francisco.