Where can a graduate degree from the University of Illinois take you? In this monthly series, we catch up with one recent Graduate College alum and ask the question: "Where are they now?".
Hannah Chan-Hartley graduated with a PhD in Musicology from the University of Illinois in 2014. Now, she works as the Managing Editor and Musicologist at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. In this capacity, she oversees the production of the TSO’s program books and other print publications such as the subscription brochure, which includes the creation, commission, editing, and proof-reading of content. She also works with graphic designers and printers to shape the look of these publications.
What was most surprising about your career path? Or, what has surprised you most about your current job?
Compared to working on a PhD (particularly the research and writing), which can be a rather solitary experience (and with goals often being quite personal in nature), in my current job, I work very much as part of a team which seeks to fill an organizational mission. In producing the publications for the TSO, I have to consider the needs, goals, and desires of many stakeholders — not only those of the artistic, fundraising, and marketing departments at the TSO but also the orchestra’s musicians, artist managers (who want to ensure their artists are being well-represented), and perhaps above all, the TSO’s audiences. The concert is really the end of a whole trajectory of work that a team of us accomplish in order to give our musicians and our audiences the best experience possible.
What is the most interesting, rewarding, and/or challenging aspect of your job?
I feel fortunate that in my job I get to draw frequently on the knowledge and skills I gained from my academic and music performance experiences. For example, my familiarity with the music and the history of classical music in general is quite essential to the task of editing content for the program books. But I’ve learned a lot on the job as well—in working with many graphic designers and printers, I’ve come to feel strongly that something like a well-designed program book can help elevate the live concert experience.
I recently oversaw the redesign of our program books which included the opportunity for me to explore an idea I had for some time: to create graphic listening guides of major classical music works to help audiences better understand the structure of these pieces. I’ve completed twelve of these now—to my surprise, they began to receive a lot of attention worldwide (including recently winning a design award). It is rewarding to see that my idea is resonating with people and that they are eager for new and different ways to understand the art form.
What has been the most valuable transferable skill you gained from graduate school?
Honing my communication skills, through writing and teaching, and learning how to adapt the presentation of complex information for different types of audiences. For example, in my role as editor of the TSO’s program books, I aim to find a balance in the content I create or edit, making sure that it appeals to a broad audience—from a first-time symphony goer to a long-time subscriber with a deep knowledge of classical music. To this end, my previous experience teaching music history to music and non-music majors in particular has significantly shaped my approaches.
What experiences made an impact on your career choices?
My husband and I were both PhD students at the University of Illinois when the 2008 financial crisis happened. At the time, we were still a few years away from completing our degrees, but as the years unfolded, seeing the academic job market freeze or even shrink, while simultaneously get very competitive with the growing numbers of graduates entering the hunt, we felt compelled to be proactive about our future. Ultimately, we decided that what was most important to us was to live in a city, one that offered a broad range of cultural and intellectual stimulation as well as job opportunities. Thus, for a myriad of reasons, we felt Toronto was the place for us and we moved in 2011, despite having no certain prospects.
In making the decision to move to Toronto, I think we had to be open to the possibility of not working in academia; while the city is home to several major institutions, jobs are nevertheless very limited. It would be unrealistic for us just to wait until academic positions became available. Thus, I think we had to keep an open mind about our career options. We’ve been very fortunate so far to find stimulating and fulfilling work in which we’re able to directly apply our academic experience in non-academic settings.
What is one piece of advice you would give to graduate students at Illinois?
Keep an open mind about what kind of career will make you feel stimulated and fulfilled…and remember it’s okay if it’s not in academia. When you’re immersed in the rigors and “culture” of graduate school where you’re honing your research and teaching skills for years, it’s easy to get into the mindset that you’re only fit for an academic career, or that a career in the academy is the only one worth having. For some, a career in academia may indeed be the path. But the reality is that there are more qualified candidates than tenure-track jobs available. Few will get these jobs immediately out of graduate school; more likely, some will spend some years in one (or more) post-doctoral programs, or move from one temporary teaching position to another, often in different cities. Meanwhile, other life factors will likely come into play (e.g. the career of your partner/spouse, children) that will affect the direction of your career. Taking a holistic view of what matters to you (as well as being adaptable and flexible) will be important in helping you make decisions that will better meet your needs, desires, and life goals.
This interview is part of the monthly Grad Life series called "Where Are They Now?" which chronicles the career paths of recent Univeristy of Illinois Graduate College alumni. This interview was conducted by Derek Attig. Derek is Assistant Director for Student Outreach in Graduate College Career Development. After earning a PhD in History here at Illinois, Derek worked in nonprofit communications and instructional development before joining the Career Development team. A devotee of libraries and all things peculiar, Derek is currently writing a book about bookmobiles.