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I have recently applied to two PhD programs (in Europe) under professors working in the area of Sound and Music Computing (SMC). Both programs are very well regarded in this area.

SMC covers topics such as:

  • Music information retrieval
  • Computational musicology
  • Algorithmic composition / performance
  • Sentiment and expression modelling in music
  • Computational approaches to music cognition
  • Audio signal processing

This is not a complete list. I find the field very interesting.

However, would the industry want to hire someone with a PhD in SMC? Let's say Google (just as an example), which is known to hire many PhDs. Would they be interested in someone with a PhD in SMC, or would they restrict themselves to machine learning / web / search PhDs? And yes... I'm sure that Yamaha would love to hire an SMC PhD, but would I be restricting my options to only a small subset of the industry?

What about academia? How would they look upon an applicant to the assistant professor position who has a PhD in this area? Would they simply reject him saying "Sorry, but we don't do research in your area...", since it is true that most CS departments don't do active research in SMC? Again, would I be restricting my options to only a small subset of universities?

Secondly, how easy / hard is it to switch fields AFTER doing a PhD in it? I may like SMC enough to work on it for 5 years (and get a PhD) but I MAY not want to work on it for a lifetime. In industry or academia, could I switch to something else when (and if) I want to?

One researcher told me that I should only consider pursuing my interest in SMC after I have already established myself in some other, more fundamental, area of CS, like algorithms or AI. Do you agree?

This thread should be useful to anyone considering a PhD in a specialized or maybe even an obscure area.

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SMC sounds like a very interesting but somewhat narrow specialization. Since it's not likely that an expert will appear to answer this question, here are some comments:

One key question regarding career paths is how bad you would feel if they fell through. For example, suppose you got a Ph.D. in SMC, tried and failed to get an academic job in this area, and ended up getting a job in industry that was relevant but didn't really require the full Ph.D. Would you regret having started on this path, or would you be happy to have had a chance to study something exciting and to have developed expertise that might still serve you well in the future? If you would regret it, then you need to think very carefully about the job market, but if your personality could handle this situation, then this path could be a wise choice.

The big danger with unusual fields is that few people will be specifically looking to hire in this area. You may get lucky and find someone who is, but you may need to create your own opportunities. If you have an outgoing personality and are good at networking and making connections, then there will be less risk.

In academia, you'll run into two difficulties. One is that no CS program will need to have this area represented, so you'll have to make a stronger case for why you would be a great hire. The other problem is that if a school is open to SMC, then they may already have someone in this area, and it's a narrow enough field that making multiple hires could be a very tough sell. So you would be looking for the schools that are interested, but not so interested that they have already hired someone. Of course, it's far from impossible, but some other branches of CS may be a little easier.

As for switching areas, it can certainly be done. You may run into a little resistance, depending on what you were originally hired to do. (This could be a serious issue in industry, and even in academia your colleagues may be counting on you to teach the introductory course in your old field.)

If you are equally interested in and talented at algorithms and SMC, then it's probably a little safer to start with algorithms. However, if only one of them will make you happy and inspire you to do your best work, then that one would be the better choice.

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  • Thanks for the reply. In the situation you mention "Happy to have had a chance to study something exciting and to have developed expertise that might still serve you well in the future" would describe my stance almost exactly, I think. About creating my own opportunities, I'm not the most outgoing of people, and I probably will not be good at that. Thanks for outlining the difficulties I may face - I'll keep them in mind. – Velvet Ghost Apr 20 '12 at 8:04
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Every PhD is necessarily specialized, but along the way you must obtain different depths of knowledge from different fields.

So rather than selling yourself as someone researching Sound and Music Computing, you should mold yourself as someone doing, for example, Machine Learning with a focus on Sound and Music applications. This way, when you have finished your PhD doing what you love, you will still have skills that some department will be willing to hire you for. If you know machine learning, then you'll be able to teach machine learning courses. You'll be able to adapt that knowledge to solve other problems that may have similarities at some abstract level to Sound and Music, perhaps because they involve temporal streams of almost repeating data points.

When publishing, you will need to try to publish in top quality, general conferences or journals, rather than publishing everything in smaller, Sound and Music specific events. Naturally, the small events may provide you with good feedback and exposure within your community, but the larger events are what count when people are looking at your CV.

I think that it is very important to study what you find interesting, but do not overspecialized yourself into a tiny niche.

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  • Thanks for the reply. Regarding your point about publishing: Lets say I'm applying machine learning to SMC. Would machine learning journals accept my work, even if it is of high quality? I was thinking that they wouldn't - because it's not original research in machine learning itself (the core of the subject), but research in one specific application. In that case, wouldn't I be restricted to publishing only SMC journals, since that's the work I'm doing? – Velvet Ghost Apr 20 '12 at 11:45
  • I think they would. Naturally, you'd need to sell it as generic work that is applicable outside of the area you have applied it in. (I cannot say for sure, as I'm not a machine learning person.) Almost every piece of research fits this description. It is something specific, within a general area. I'd just do what you want to do, but keep aware of the potential consequences if you limit the scope of your knowledge and publications. – Dave Clarke Apr 20 '12 at 11:50
  • exactly .. it s all about marketing! +1 – AJed Jan 29 '14 at 1:01
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I think it would be fine. How would it be that much different from someone in EE, physics, or CS who does a general degree in their topic and then a project on acoustics? Even then, they would not be restricted to acoustic jobs but could do a lot of things in signal processing, spectral analysis, sonar, speech processing, NSA crap, even geophysics perhaps, later.

Yeah, you don't get a general grad degree but in some ways get even more breadth (acoustics plus computing). It sounds like a really cool program. Get to do all that cool acoustics and never have to do graduate physics E&M with teh Jackson.

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SMC is not a narrow field. You listed some topics, but in reality this area can cover anything from speech recognition (machine learning, signal processing, etc) to art installation design, covering architecture, musical instruments, computer architecture, virtual reality and hearing aid design along the way.

Have a clear idea of both what interests you, and what career path you might want before you apply though. I took my master's in this field in an attempt to find a new career path. It opened so many doors that I am now frozen trying to decide which way to go.

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  • The OP is getting near retirement now... – Solar Mike Jan 28 '19 at 9:23

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