In the fifth and penultimate part of our transcription of the ‘Life Post-PhD’ roundtable discussion that took place at the RMA Research Students’ Conference in January at the University of Bristol, Dr Katy Hamilton (RMA Membership Development Officer, and freelance researcher, writer and presenter on music), discusses going freelance and considers the numerous and diverse opportunities available to those who wish to do the same.
I’ve managed to cause a look of fear in at least one person here today by saying that, among other things, I am the RMA Membership Development Officer. This does not in fact mean that I will be tripping you up on the way out and demanding your fees, but I am here partly in an RMA-related capacity, which is very nice indeed. I am also deliberately freelance and so I feel as if I’m on a slightly different route from the people we’ve heard from so far. I did my undergrad and my masters at Nottingham University – in fact, I overlapped with Justin for about a year. At the time that I went to university, I thought I wanted to be a school teacher. I thought I was going to do music school teaching, secondary school teaching, I’d decided that’s what I wanted. I’m a pianist so I did quite a lot of playing and I played a lot for the choir. I did quite a lot of singing and some conducting and had a very good time. By the time I got to the end, I thought ‘no, academic research is where it’s at’. At which point, as [Tim Summers mentioned], this narrative kind of kicks in: this is what you now do in order to get your academic career.
The first thing I did was to take some time out. My PhD research was on the vocal music of Brahms. I went to Schleswig-Holstein, to the new Brahms edition, for six months to live, to improve my German, to meet the scholars, and to generally have a good time. I then came back and I started my PhD at the Royal College of Music in 2006. I chose the RCM because there was a particular supervisor I very much wanted to work with and because some of the repertoire I wanted to look at was not recorded, and I wanted the opportunity to perform it, to have good musicians that I could work with there. Arriving at a conservatoire – having previously been in a pretty small, cosy music department tucked away with a self-contained library and everything else on the edge of campus – was a massive culture shock, in a really good way. The undergraduate department at the college has about 100 students a year, they are all extremely keen, they are mostly quite competitive, they are all very socially able and will stop you in the corridor to say ‘hello’ and try to figure out what you’re doing, try to get you involved. There’s a sort of buzz all the time. They’re very, very conscious of the fact that as practical musicians who are going to have to try to make a living, they have to, right from the word go, get out there and make themselves known, and that was a very good lesson for me to learn because I think, as academics, we can all tend to be relatively shy, we quite like being on our own, we quite like sitting in a nice warm corner and reading a book and all of those sorts of things. So it was very good for me to be in that kind of environment – very, very stimulating. I met a lot of interesting people and I had the chance to do a lot of interesting things, including pre-concert talks for concerts that Vladimir Ashkenazy was conducting, writing programme notes, and having discussions with interesting people who would come along to give workshops or masterclasses. I also volunteered in the instrument museum at the college and I started working in the concert programme archives; the college has a very large concert programme archive. I was given a Junior Fellowship for two years towards the end of my PhD which provided a little pot of money so that I could do some teaching and also work, officially work, one day a week in the concert programme archive. Consequently, my concert programme research became an additional strand, as well as the Brahms-related stuff that I was doing, so I kind of had a secondary research area that I’ve been gradually building up since then. I submitted my PhD in 2011 and passed it at the end of that year, graduating in the summer of 2012, at which point I was extremely lucky because the college offered me a part-time job. They offered me a .5 permanent position to work in the archive, to do some teaching, some music history teaching, to run their public research seminars, and various other things as well. This was lovely and I really enjoyed it, but it had the slightly deceptive title ‘Junior Research Fellow’ which implies that in two-and-a-half days a week also teaching music history, working in the archive, organising a weekly research seminar series, and various other things, you can actually do any research. This is not the case and I’m sure I’m not the only person in the room who has been in an academic position where the research time in your contract is an exciting and slightly mythical thing that you have to squeeze in at six o’clock in the morning and between midnight and two if you actually want to get any done.
In the other .5 of my life, I was carrying on various strands that I’d been working on, on and off, since I was doing my masters at Nottingham. I was doing a lot of programme notes, professional programme note writing, I was singing with a choir, I was doing some paid performance, various other bits and bobs of that nature and I was also very lucky to be taken on as a research assistant on a big Schubert-song project. Gradually, things started to kind of build up, other sorts of work outside of academic work, like the programme notes. Also, one of the things that the college musicians have to get good at – and there is very little formal training for this as part of their course – is to present in public. Now, as a PhD student, one is expected to go to conferences and present, so I had kind of got quite used to idea of standing up and speaking in front of people, and I was asked if I would speak to some of the masters performance students about what is was to actually introduce concerts to their audience and we’d done some performance workshops and that sort of thing. So, having been at the college for eight years, last July I decided that this was actually the moment to see whether or not I could make it work freelance because gradually over my time at the college, although I had loved the academic teaching and I had loved the opportunities to do research, the thing that I realised increasingly that I was very passionate about was broader public engagement of all kinds of things to do with music history, performance research and so on, including my own research.
I left the RCM last July, and I made a huge list in the two or three months before I left of all the people I knew who might be able to help me get enough work to be able to sustain a freelance career. I discovered at the point that I sat down to make the list that over the years of coming to RMA research students’ conferences, other conferences elsewhere, and various other events and people I just generally met, I knew really quite a lot of people who did quite a lot of interesting things. As both of these guys [the two previous speakers] said, all you have to do is ask; the worst that can happen is that you get a no or no response. I wrote to a load of people and quite a lot of them got back to me and said ‘yes, we do need some programme notes for next season’ and ‘yes, it would be quite nice to have some notes for the digital download series that we’re running’, and ‘yes, I could pass your details onto radio 3’. Also, the job with the RMA came up last year, and I was very keen to be part of the organisation in a formal capacity because it would give me the opportunity – whatever happened elsewhere in my life – to remain part of a broader scholarly community, because I did want to carry on doing my own research. I had a co-edited book that came out just a couple of months ago, so I had a publication in the pipeline and I had a couple of articles as well. So now my life is a really weird and wacky patchwork of all sorts of different things: I write a lot of programme notes for a number of different venues, including, still, the University of Nottingham, for whom I’ve been writing notes since I was a masters student; I write for Naxos: for the CD and digital download labels; I do duo work with a singer friend of mine, doing background music for weddings, hotels, and bars; I give pre-concert talks up and down the country and guest lectures; I also run presentation skills workshops for the students at the RCM; I have done a couple of bits for Radio 3, here in Bristol, in fact, and I’m doing my first CD review next month. I am also an hourly-paid teacher at Middlesex University which was an opportunity that came completely out of the blue and which came up only a couple of weeks before the beginning of term, so it was the very fact that I was not pinned down somewhere else that meant I could take that on. They were looking for someone to teach nineteenth-century music history, so that was absolutely up my street, and consequently they’ve extended it so I can do some teaching in other courses I’m interested in as well. They’re also prepared to help me put in a research bid for an edited book project I’ve got going on over the course of this year. I work for the RMA. I write a weekly blog on my website about all sorts of weird and wonderful things to do with what I’ve been up to or what I’ve read in the papers this week, or things I’ve decided I’m going to have a rant about because of productions I don’t like at the Royal Opera House, or whatever it might be. I also teach occasional sessions for music appreciation courses, music history courses, do study days – all sorts of bits and bobs – and I get to do my own research in the time in between. The research is the thing that doesn’t make me any money – at the moment, anyway, because I don’t have any grants for it. But I’m really cool with that because actually I’m making money out of doing all sorts of other research, all connected to what I initially studied for in the first place. This involves lots of different formats and reaching lots of different people and different audiences, getting to find out what sort of things they want to hear, how I might be able to pitch programmes, how I might be able to make suggestions to venues about what sort of things they might want to involve and bring potentially cutting-edge research that I’m doing in one area of my life into lots of different forums, and to share it with lots of different people.
At the moment I don’t have any pretensions to head back into an institution. It may be in the next two or three years that will change, and that is certainly something that comes out of the same sorts of bits of advice that you’ve been given by my colleagues here on the table: things like ‘be kind to yourself’; think about why you are where you are and actually what it is that you want, and are you on this conveyor belt because you feel as if you’ve sort of been put there and now you’re not entirely sure how to get off; stop and look around every now and again and figure out where you really are, where you want to be, or if you can see how you can get to where you want to be. If you’re going to think about doing some sort of freelancing work, you need self-discipline, you need to be organised – not that different from doing a PhD. There are a lot of options out there, career-wise, beyond working just in academia, if you are interested in them, and those options are not immediately apparent at the various stages of passing through your academic career of undergraduate degree, masters degree, and PhD. Keep your eyes open because some of the things I’m doing now it hadn’t occurred to me were things that you could do to earn money. Yet I’m having huge fun doing them. Make the most you can of socialising, spending time with your contacts, meeting people at conferences, talking to the person sitting next to you in the concert hall. Last week I was on holiday and I decided to go on a tour of a tiny cinema, in a tiny town on the Suffolk coast, and discovered that the person who was showing me round ran the local arts festival and she’s now asked me if I can fix some musicians for them. You never know who you’re talking to; it’s always worth finding out, and it’s always worth making notes. Carry cards, take some contact information with you. You’d be amazed what a small world it is, and how helpful and kind people are if you ask them. The worst that they could say is no.