PhD Program Information

All Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) programs at Northwestern are administered and awarded by The Graduate School.

However, each program of study is designed and taught by individual schools responsible for the details of the curriculum. Students apply for admission to The Graduate School and comply with uniform guidelines for candidacy and graduation set forth by The Graduate School and the Bienen School of Music. The Bienen School is responsible for the many details of the degree, the actual teaching, advising, and oversight of research. Students are advised to work carefully with Bienen School faculty for detailed advice and to become familiar with The Graduate School regulations that govern all PhD degrees at Northwestern.

Specializations of study are offered in four fields: Composition and Music TechnologyMusic EducationMusic Theory and Cognition, and Musicology. Each curriculum is structured to take full advantage of the many and varied academic opportunities available within the Bienen School and Northwestern University.

Maintaining Degree Status Top

Many of the forms that students must file to maintain degree status are available on CAESAR via the Self-Service section. The forms can be sent to your department and The Graduate School electronically. These documents include:

Application for Degree
Prospectus Submission
Final Exam Application
Leave of Absence Request

Once you submit a form on CAESAR, the information will be sent to Graduate Services in the Bienen School of Music for approval. Once approved, The Graduate School will be notified and, barring any problems or holds, will also approve. You will receive an email notifying you of form submission and final approval. Students are encouraged to fill out the forms in consultation with their major advisor.

Financial Aid and Expectations Top

PhD students in the Department of Music Studies typically receive two types of funding from The Graduate School: fellowships and graduate assistantships. These awards are in the form of a grant to cover tuition costs, and a stipend for living expenses. Fellowships do not carry a requirement for service to the Department, but graduate assistantships do, in the form of teaching and/or research assistance to faculty. Typically, students in the PhD program are funded for up to five academic years, with the first and last years designated as fellowships. The second, third, and fourth years are awarded as graduate assistantships.

Special Awards

Special Awards are also offered to students on a competitive basis, and include Presidential Fellowships, Summer Language Grants, and Conference Travel Grants, among others. PhD students are encouraged to apply for these special awards in consultation with their advisor and the Director of Graduate Music Studies (DGS) for the Department.

Requirement for Seeking Outside Funding

The Graduate School requires all PhD students to make a good-faith effort to seek outside supplement sometime prior to their fourth year of study. It is hoped that such awards will result in larger stipends, as well as enhancements of student vitae and improved grant-writing skills. The Graduate School incentivizes the process by awarding an additional stipend amount to students who are successful in this endeavor.

Student Loans

Students needing additional funds to pay for their education may wish to apply for loans. Only U.S. citizens and permanent residents who are enrolled at least half-time are eligible for federal loans. There are alternative loan options for part-time students and for international students. For more information, consult Graduate Services.

Graduate Assistantship Duties and Responsibilities

Graduate Assistantships require students to serve the Department of Music Studies for up to 20 hours weekly for each of the 10 weeks in a given quarter. Fall, winter and spring quarters are required for such service; the summer quarter carries no expectation of service, but students are expected to maintain registration and file a study plan with the DGS. Stipends are paid on a 12-month basis.

Assignments for graduate assistantships are made by the Assistant Dean for Admission, Financial Aid and Graduate Services in consultation with the DGS, the coordinators of programs that have PhD students, and the coordinator of non-major courses. Students are notified of their assignments in summer prior to the year of service.

Short Term Absence

Students who receive external funding or have any other professional obligation that would necessitate missing more than two days of assistantship tasks must receive approval as early as possible from their RA/TA supervisor; their major advisor or program coordinator; the Assistant Dean for Admission, Financial Aid and Graduate Services; and their advisor in The Graduate School. A form for requesting such a leave is below.

Short Term Absence Request Form

Types of Graduate Assistantships

Two types of graduate assistantships are specified by The Graduate School, each carrying different kinds of duties: Teaching Assistants (TAs) or Research Assistants (RAs). The following are general descriptions of duties as specified by The Graduate School:

Research Assistants or Trainees may:

  • Work in a lab
  • Conduct other types of investigative research for their primary investigator

Teaching Assistants may:

  • Serve as graders for a course
  • Function in an administrative capacity
  • Lead discussion sections as part of a larger lecture course
  • Instruct their own class sections

Graduate Assistantship Timeline and Duties

It is typical for PhD students to begin their graduate assistantships in the second year of study. Students may be assigned TA responsibilities for 100- or 200-level courses under close supervision by faculty and/or RA responsibilities to assist with faculty research. Generally, TA assignments are made to faculty members teaching courses with enrollments that exceed 25 students, although this varies by program of study.

Students in their second and third year are not assigned their own class sections if they are still in coursework themselves. Students who are finished with coursework are often assigned TA responsibilities, and may teach their own class sections. Students teaching their own classes must submit a complete syllabus to the Department Chair or the coordinator of non-major courses for approval prior to the teaching assignment. Department faculty are expected to mentor students teaching their own classes, which includes class visitations and consultation with the instructor.

At the beginning of the assignment in the fall, or at another appropriate time, the Department expects that faculty members and TA or RA students collaborate to place in writing a clear description of the work to be accomplished during the quarter. This written description should be signed by the faculty member and student, dated, and sent to Graduate Services to be placed in the student’s official record file. It will be reviewed at the end of the assignment to determine if work was done appropriately. It is the joint responsibility of the student and the faculty member to monitor the progress and timing of the work during the quarter.

Appropriate Duties

Duties are assigned by faculty in the Department of Music Studies who oversee RA and TA work, and are consistent with The Graduate School regulations regarding this work. Examples of inappropriate duties include:

  • Personal requests not related to research and teaching
  • Requests for research assistance that place an undue burden on the student
  • Maintenance of office hour consultation on behalf of faculty
  • Grading, marking, or other evaluation of student work for courses above the 200 level
  • Requests for grading without proper explanation of grading process
  • Requests for teaching sequences on topics of study not well understood by the student
  • Duties that exceed the stated limit of 15/20 hours per week, and for weeks not included in the allotted number of 10 per quarter

PhD students who feel uncomfortable with the execution of duties during work assignments should discuss the issue first with the faculty member. If no resolution is found, students should seek assistance from the Assistant Dean for Admission, Financial Aid and Graduate Services.

Guidelines for Research Assistants (RAs) and their Advisors

Below are some best practices to calibrate expectations and responsibilities.

The Student RA undertakes to:

  • Approach the research assistantship as a learning experience, seeking clarification as to the expectations and benefits of engagement with the project and its applicability to academic protocols, roles, and expectations.
  • Manage the assigned responsibilities along with other academic work, keeping to deadlines and problem-solving with the supervisor when adjustments seem necessary.
  • Meet regularly with the faculty supervisor.
  • Fulfill the commitment of 12-15 hours per week (averaged over the quarter) on this project.
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The Faculty advisor undertakes to:

  • Select a specific project and duties that contribute to the student’s education. This may be within any of the academic realms of research (e.g. organization and project management; data gathering and/or analysis; writing and/or publication), teaching (curriculum design or evaluation; pedagogical innovation; exploration of new technology), or service (especially assistance with professional organizations or journals).
  • Provide an overview of the project at the beginning of the quarter, detailing what is expected of the student, a timeline, how the student will contribute to the project, and how the student’s efforts will contribute to her/his professional development.
  • Meet regularly with the student.
  • Scale the student’s contribution to an average of 12-15 hours per week, recognizing academic expectations of the student during the quarter.
  • Explain at the outset whether or not there is a prospect for coauthored research results.
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Health Insurance Top

For PhD students, the University provides 100 percent of the cost of individual health insurance during the time that a student is funded. The health insurance subsidy will appear on the student’s account as long as the student is registered for the appropriate coursework and is in good standing. For information on the Northwestern student health insurance coverage, contact the Student Health Insurance Office.

Learn More about Student Health Insurance

Advising Top

Each PhD student is assigned both a program specialization advisor within the Department of Music Studies and a student services advisor from The Graduate School. For additional advising, contact Bienen’s Graduate Services or your Department Chair. The specialization advisors are in charge of the overall academic career and may or may not be the major advisor for the student's dissertation.

Learn More about Graduate Advising

Music Studies PhD Directory

Bienen School of Music

Graduate Services:
Assistant Dean for Admission, Financial Aid and Graduate Services: Thomas Crespo
Chair for Music Studies: Drew Davies
Director of Graduate Music Studies, PhD: Ryan Dohoney
Assistant Director of Graduate Services and Financial Aid: Christina Wouters 
Coordinator for Composition and Music Technology: Jay Alan Yim
Coordinator for Music Education: Sarah Bartolome
Coordinator for Music Theory: Vasili Byros
Coordinator for Musicology: Andrew Talle

The Graduate School

Course of Study Top

Students design a course of study incorporating their individual interests and a broad-based approach to contemporary music research. A year-long sequence of selected courses in Music Education, Musicology, Music Theory and Cognition, and Composition and Music Technology provides an interdisciplinary context for students in all specializations, with additional seminars and colloquia in each major as a foundation for advanced work. 

A unique aspect of this program is a cognate area requirement in a non-music field such as psychology of learning, cognitive science, learning sciences, cultural studies, social sciences, humanities, philosophy, or communication studies. Students are encouraged to check with their specialization advisors to obtain any additional information about expectations not specified here.

Period of Study 

A student pursuing a doctoral degree must have a minimum residency of nine quarters of full-time study or its equivalent. (Up to three quarters of residency credit may be granted for a previously earned master's degree.) Three of the last six quarters must be consecutive and full-time.

Registration in the Summer Session is not required to fulfill the continuous residency requirement, but registration is required during summer periods in which a PhD student is in residence and can be fulfilled with courses in either the Bienen School of Music or The Graduate School. Except for the three required consecutive quarters, a student may meet the residency requirement on a part-time basis. Registration for two course units in one quarter and four course units in another does not constitute two, but rather one and two-thirds quarters of residency.

Time Limitation 

Each doctoral student must complete all requirements for the PhD by an established deadline. Graduate Faculty legislation states that all requirements for the doctoral degree must be met within nine years of initial registration in a doctoral program. 

Learn More about the PhD Timeline

Academic Standing Top

To be eligible for all forms of financial aid, continuing graduate students must remain in good academic standing and demonstrate satisfactory progress toward their respective degrees. In general, to be in good academic standing in The Graduate School, students must meet the standards set by the academic program and The Graduate School and make satisfactory progress toward fulfilling all stated requirements for the degree.

A student whose overall grade average is below B, has more than one incomplete grade, or otherwise fails to make progress toward the degree in accordance with the requirements adopted by Graduate Faculty is not considered in good standing. The definition of "Satisfactory Academic Progress" encompasses enrollment stipulations and time limits for achieving the degree, as well as grade quality, and differs for students pursuing the master's degree as compared with those pursuing the doctorate.

Learn More about Satisfactory Academic Progress

Student progress is reviewed annually by the Bienen School of Music and The Graduate School. Students will submit an annual review, which will include a self-evaluated form, updated CV, and if required, summer reading list to the Assistant Director of Graduate Services and Financial Aid. A formal, written review by the music faculty occurs at the end of the first year of study.


The Bienen School of Music, in conjunction with the administration in The Graduate School, is ultimately responsible for monitoring Satisfactory Academic Progress. If students do not maintain Satisfactory Academic Progress or if major deadlines for degree completion are not met, students may be dismissed after due process.