From Performer to Academia: Is It the Path for You?

Aaron Dworkin is one of the most inspiring individuals we’ve encountered on our path. A rapid thinker, he has a way of inspiring us (and everyone else around him) whenever he utters a sentence. He’s a man who lives and breathes his passion — and it’s contagious! Few individuals have had a more visible impact on our arts industry in just a couple short decades. We asked him to share with us how he got where he is now and what has motivated him to do all the great work that he’s done.

I never really laid out my career path. Initially, I wanted to be a violinist. To some people, that means winning competitions, doing cross-disciplinary work, and performing at specific venues.

While all of those things are necessary to becoming a violinist, that’s not how I laid out my path. For me, it was less about the “architecture” and more about what I wanted to accomplish.

I asked myself, “What is the difference I want to make?”

What Impact Do You Want to Have?

If you’re a performer or young professional who is trying to find your direction, I say you absolutely need clarity about what it is you want to accomplish, but it’s far more important to know the impact you want to have.

Here’s an example. If you want to be a concert soloist, my question is: “What does that mean to you and why do you want to do that? Do you want to transform people’s lives in the audience through your music?”

To me, it’s important to understand why you’re pursuing a specific goal.

I rarely hear someone say, “I want to be an entrepreneur.” More often they say, “I want to start a nonprofit that’s going to bring music to underserved communities,” or something similar. They say, “I want to make a difference.”

Performers and young professionals can approach their careers the same way. Ask yourself why you want to do what you’re doing — then let your answer to that question be your guide.

Changing Your Path

About two years into founding Sphinx, a Detroit-based national organization dedicated to
transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts, I felt like I had to decide between my violin and my organization.

Violin had always been my primary path. But there are so many hours in a day, and I felt guilt-ridden if I didn’t practice.

It led to an epiphany where I realized that Sphinx had become my primary instrument. This organization was the way I was going to “speak.” This revelation freed me from that sense of guilt.

For a time, Sphinx served as my primary instrument. And now, serving as Dean of the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance is my primary instrument. Thus, I approach the institution as an artistic endeavor.

Finding Fulfillment in Academia

When I became Dean, I was worried that operating in a much larger system would mean that I would not have the freedom and opportunity to be as fulfilled as I was at an independent entrepreneurial organization. So far, I’ve found that concern to be unfounded. My current job is utterly fulfilling.

I value the freedom to innovate. If we wanted to change something at Sphinx, as long as the board wasn’t opposed and we had the money, we could do it. In a large university environment, it isn’t always as easy as that. But I’ve found that I can still be entrepreneurial.

You need to have your faculty engaged and feel ownership. It’s very similar to Sphinx — there, I needed to create an environment where other people could be innovative and entrepreneurial. I’m doing the same at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance.

For example, recently at the university, we launched what will probably be the largest chamber music competition in the world. We are creating and innovating every day.

Is a Career in Academia Right for You?

Academia is a phenomenal career path that can be incredibly rewarding. You can be the architect of your future. If you choose, you can be entrepreneurial in your role as a faculty member — or you could decide not to be entrepreneurial at all.

In my case, I would certainly describe many of our faculty members as entrepreneurs rather than faculty members.

If you choose to pursue a career in academia, it’s important to develop skills, as well as take on services and professional activities, that will make you stand out and be valued by an academic enterprise. Ideally you want to have the freedom to choose your academic home.

Getting Noticed by an Academic Enterprise

Of course, to be considered for a career in academia, you must have the appropriate degrees for the role you’re seeking. You have to have the talent level — you have to have the basics.

The reality is, a lot of people have the basics. What do you offer over and above that? @AaronDworkin Click To Tweet

Highlight the things that set you apart. That could mean taking note of a difference you’ve made in your field that’s profound and relevant.

Speaking of relevance, this term is highly important. I use the dictionary definition of relevant, which is, “Having a significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand.”

At the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, our vision is to be the most relevant school of the performing arts in the world.

Not only do we strive to empower our faculty to have a significant, demonstrable bearing on society or on a particular community; upon graduation, we also want to make sure that our students have the ability to have a significant, demonstrable bearing on their field.

Ask yourself, what action are you taking to make a difference in your field? What impact are you creating?

If you’re struggling to create a career you love, start with these questions. The rest will take care of itself.

Named a 2005 MacArthur Fellow, a former member of the Obama National Arts Policy Committee, and President Obama’s first appointment to the National Council on the Arts, Aaron P. Dworkin serves as dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance, which is ranked among the top performing arts schools in the nation. He is also the founder of The Sphinx Organization, the leading national arts organization for transforming lives through the power of diversity and the arts. A multi-media performing artist, author, social entrepreneur, artist-citizen, and educator, he continually receives extensive national recognition for his leadership and service to communities. Dean Dworkin founded the Dworkin Foundation where he serves as chairman of the Board. His memoir titled Uncommon Rhythm: A Black, White, Jewish, Jehovah’s Witness, Irish Catholic Adoptee’s Journey to Leadership was released through Aquarius Press.

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