Music notes: How one (well, two!) follows a music trail to academia


It’s interesting that people sometimes ponder the unique qualities of being a scientist/researcher/academic. For example, people muse about working hours, sexism, pay, and job security. I’ve (Luna) met fellow scientists who have generally moved from completing a bachelor’s degree to grad school and straight to an academic job (post-doc and/or professor). Not only do these people have an affinity for “back to school” shopping (who doesn’t, really?!), since they’ve always been in “school”, but they also lack perspective of working within other industries.

@nickwan and I (@lunacentifanti) found that we came to science from working in the music industry and have thought about some interesting similarities and differences. In addition, we were interested in our journeys, which I have recently blogged about.

What’s similar:

There does exist some sort of tenure process in music. From the music journalism perspective, life is seemingly temporary. There’s always a plethora of writers and pieces, but a finite amount of space per news company. There aren’t many periodic columns left — which would be the equivalent of tenure, I’d say (Nick says). The columns that do exist are sans-authors now: top 10 lists, new music lists, etc. You just rip the dates and rankings from some sort of data aggregate now. I don’t know if science will ever be automated like that (see: what’s different). In addition, you see some parts of the industry closing (people no longer want to buy Time Life compilations as they used to, so licensing departments are seeing lay-offs) — equivalent to a lack of interest and funding (as I [Luna] see happening to some of my social psychology colleagues).  Just like academia, then, a job in music isn’t guaranteed or secure at any point. It’s weird how close music industry and academic industry are in terms of “making it”.

In both academia and the music industry (and probably a lot of other jobs besides), the thing that’s similar is the rewarding nature of an element of risk-taking. At Warner, meetings would involve brainstorming about new music compilations that could be developed – monsters of rock, songs that won the war, love ballads, etc. We would try to push the envelope to create an album that was not already being developed by another company. This could be risky but could be a big seller. So much the better if your name was in the credits of the liner notes! The same is true in research. Lab meetings may consist of everyone generating ideas about how to create original, ground-breaking research that is risky but hopefully impactful. And so much the better if your name is on the list of authors, of course! We discuss the competitive nature of music and research below.

Science deadlines aren’t so different, neither in their competitiveness nor in their strategic nature. For paper writing, I’ve (Nick) been in labs where we get wind that someone else is doing some sort of research at some other lab similar to ours — so we get competitive in terms of how fast we want a paper to be published. You never know when someone is working on an extremely similar research question, and when I hear about someone working on a study like mine I get flashbacks of when I would see some album pop into my inbox and I would think Oh god, I need to review this before Pop Matters does. Being the first and being the most current is both important for being a pioneer of sorts (e.g. ego-stroking), but there do exist metrics that both writers and academics rely on. The first person who breaks a story in music industry generally gets the bulk of the credit, which can translate to advertising dollars (via links in). For academics, being the first to publish an article might mean more citations for the article, leading to better tenure-earning metrics like h-index (and metrics are controversial in both fields, clearly).

What’s different:

In conversations, Nick and I (Luna) noted there is a striking difference in how easy it is to feel part of a community within the music industry and within academia. Although it is difficult to break into the music industry and to be accepted, once you’re in, you’re family. One could phone another licensing assistant working at another record label and easily get tickets to a music performance. Trades would happen for performances and for CDs. In the music industry, your colleagues would never let you down; they are loyal. For example, when I left Warner, I was given a big book by my colleagues of memories from my time there, peppered with sayings, inside jokes, photos, and wishes for my future. I was only there for a little over a year, but I felt like I was losing a family. This is vastly different from academia where one typically gets a card with little wishes expressed as vague one-liners (reminding me of the movie Say Anything yearbook entries, like “Lloyd, see you around, maybe”). Also, generally, academics are all quite proprietorial. Nick and I joked that we would not be willing to share our ideas with each other and even our equipment is strictly hands-off. My electrocardiograph and his electroencephalograph equipment never shall meet or be traded! In this cautious collegiality, the two industries are very different. We acknowledge that this may differ by labs, however.

I (Luna) feel academia and working in the music industry are very different worlds for females to navigate. Image and appearance are very important in the music industry, even when your only “audience” consists solely of other people in the office – with no TV/movie cameras in sight. Many women in the office had boob jobs. For their work in an office! Where they talked to people on phones and faxed sheets of paper! This is very different from academia, where, yes, women may feel judged for what they wear but the expectations are not as extreme nor insistent on conformity toward a very stereotypical norm. I felt the extreme expectation in the music industry — many a lunch hour was spent shopping for make-up (something most people would never associate with me — Luna, that is. I won’t speak to Nick’s personal beauty regimen).

Another difference is in the way data is generated. A lot of the music industry is automated now. Music is becoming more data driven — with streaming radio sort of spearheading the way for how people are listening to music and what they listen to when they are in the listening mode. Music discovery is sort of a crux of the industry at this point, as things like radio and music videos are becoming less and less popular delivery-systems for new music (due to the internet/streaming radio/music discovery apps). People in the industry are informed by data generated by computers, essentially.

Research in academia is a bit different in method and timing. In the music world, a machine is giving the information to write about or review, yet in the research world you are the data-generating machine, asking questions you hope might blossom into fascinating results. And then you write about your findings. We scientists don’t have apps that millions of people use in order to collect area-defining research (except Facebook, perhaps!), nor does research have a device that is similar to “music discovery” (e.g. there is no “research discovery” tool where you input methods you do and it pops out papers you have never heard of, or might like, etc). The closest thing is the literature review, but even then, you’re receiving information constrained to a specific topic rather than from a broad research  field. For example, I’ll (Nick) read a paper on The Prisoner’s Dilemma but there are papers on computational game theory models that are potentially relevant. However, I’d skip over those papers because they wouldn’t contribute to the particular study I’m currently working on. A “research discovery” app would be conceived as something where you’d have to read some sort of literature and then it’d suggest to you other cool literature that was similar.


Nick: Since high school, I wanted to be in music — whether in a band or a part of the industry some how. As an undergraduate, I ended up realizing that dream in the form of music journalism and concert photography. I ran a company for four years, spending most of my sleepless nights going to concerts and editing posts and photos from my 12 staffers. Along the way, I was also doing undergraduate research using neuroimaging techniques and researching in the field of music processing. I had to make a pretty difficult decision between the two career paths I began after I got rejected from grad schools the first time. I had a growing company. Was easy to turn it to profitable since I had the readership already. But the skills I gained from the lab I was in would have gone to waste. Sort of like a weird cognitive dissonance thing — did I really want to give all that up for stuff I already knew I could do? I ended up going to research because I wanted to use those skills. I believed I would be able to create more change around me if I did research than if I did music journalism.

Luna: I was always working since 14. First worked for a band (The Children), shrink wrapping their CDs and putting liners/booklets in cases. Then, I started working at Tower in NY then Los Angeles. I was a buyer for various types of music. Then, I found a job at Warner Special Products (because of my expertise in Office learned through my experience working as a secretary for the National Audubon Society). I had planned all along that I was simply taking a 1-year break after my BA. However, I failed that year to get into USC, my chosen university. So, I took another year off to study and retake my GREs. My boss at Warner helped me write a better personal statement, through making me soul-search. Why did I have a passion for research? What in my past led me to want to research the topic I was interested in? These were hard questions that I’m grateful to my boss for encouraging me to answer them. That year, I applied to 16 PhD programs and got into one – not in CA! I drove back to the northeast to pursue PhD at PennState. It was a hard choice, because my colleagues at Warner said I could progress up the ladder quickly; it was a 9-5 job with benefits and xmas bonuses; the job was not my life. But I chose research, to have a job where it was essentially my life.


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