Last week, I had the strange, exciting, and enjoyable experience of seeing my student days from the other side of the fence. Nine years after graduating from the University of Nottingham, first with a BA(Hons) and then a Masters in Music, I found myself back in the lecture theatre where I’d attended countless classes – only now I was the one doing the talking, delivering a presentation on my research to undergrads, postgrads, and staff (including several who had taught me). After a lively Q&A, and some general mingling, a small group of us went to the pub. And I found myself with a little clutch of postgrads at various stages of study, debating that age-old question: what are you going to do when you’ve finished studying?

Rewind to 2006, after my stint at Nottingham, and you would have found me standing in the entrance hall of the Royal College of Music, a newly signed-up PhD student, looking rather overwhelmed. Five years in a cosy university department was a far cry from this teeming mass of student musicians, dashing to seminars and rehearsals, all (it seemed to me) with buckets more confidence than I had. And for many I encountered there, the question of ‘what are you going to do?’ seemed irrelevant. The answer was obvious: be a musician. Whatever that meant.

I’m looking forward to the results of Bachtrack’s survey, because I know how frustratingly awkward my own responses would be. They would go something like this:

When you enrolled at your university/conservatoire, did you intend to pursue a full-time career in performing or composing?

Well… no. Probably? I decided to study music because I loved it. I had some half-formed idea that teaching could be fun. I played the piano a lot, and quite well. I hoped my future would involve some music.

“I was made aware of all the possible career paths while studying at my conservatoire/university” – do you agree with this statement?

How can you even begin to list all of the possible career paths in music? At Nottingham, if you wanted to know about possible career paths, your best bet was to go and talk to people about what they did (lecturers, arts management staff, secretarial staff, music librarians, visiting teachers and performers). At the RCM, the fantastically energetic staff of the Woodhouse Professional Development Centre helps students talk through possible career options, meet professionals in relevant fields, and try out projects that might be of interest. But the onus is still on the student to seek out that information – and that seems right. If you want answers, you should be encouraged to go and look for them. That’s the only way you’ll figure out the questions that you need to ask.

So what are the questions you need to ask? What are the jobs you could be doing? What is a musician? And how much responsibility should your institution be taking for making you into one?

I have major concerns about the ‘degrees are there primarily to get you a job’ approach. Higher education (HE) is about far more than employability: it’s about independent enquiry, taking responsibility for your own learning – for your own life, actually. The tactics you will develop for researching questions that you have had to think of yourself, dealing with peers, sticking to deadlines, organising your schedule, learning how to cook something more sophisticated than beans on toast, networking, identifying anxieties and trying to find ways around them… these skills are all vital to being alive in the world (and are non subject-specific). In HE, they are things that you can learn together, and discuss with peers. In a well-resourced institution, there will also be the opportunity to do things that you might never have the chance to do again: play a piano concerto; meet a leading researcher; direct a play; get your paintings displayed in a gallery. The best degree courses are like labs bubbling with possibility. The alchemy of good teaching, good facilities, student-organised events and diverse peers is a magical one.

All these aspects of student life need considering when we come to ask ‘what next?’. Success looks different for everyone, yet external feedback (satisfaction/employment questionnaires, newspaper reports, implicit hierarchies in specialist publications) can make us feel that being ‘a successful musician’ is a narrowly-defined thing. Being a successful musician does not necessarily mean leading the BBC Symphony Orchestra, or singing at the Met. It doesn’t have to involve commissions from the London Sinfonietta, or a score for a Hollywood blockbuster. Maybe it means working on small-scale community projects with disadvantaged kids. Building your own instruments. Giving talks and writing about music. Perhaps you yearn to be a classroom teacher, work on local radio, get involved with publishing scores, or do a combination of extremely varied things which might involve music in many different ways. I always thought that I wanted to be a straightforward university lecturer, but I changed my mind: my life is now a combination of talks, writing, research, playing, education projects, workshops… every day is different, every engagement with music is different, and I adore it.

But no one told me that this career path was an option, and frankly I don’t blame them. The greatest favour my tutors did for me was to give me a clear indication of my level of ability, and what broad possibilities this presented in terms of employment. They were supportive when I asked, and happy to talk about work, life and the future. I was granted an environment in which there was both realism, and freedom to explore. That, I think, is an organisation’s responsibility.

Not everyone is going to be the next Lang Lang. And you know what? Good. If all we had was several thousand people who could rattle off the Hammerklavier, we’d be in extremely poor shape indeed. We need to remember how much rich and varied work there is that exists in and around the arts, and remind the next generation that this is theirs for the taking. What is the one piece of advice that I think students should be given about their future career? That it’s ok not to know quite how it looks yet, and that it might take a few years after graduation to get there. That you should talk to people about it, and give it plenty of thought. That being a successful musician is what you decide it is. Enjoy the ride!