Nina Penner, Assistant Professor

Nina Penner completed her PhD in musicology in 2016. She later published the research from her thesis in a book, Storytelling in Opera and Musical Theatre (2020), which explores how operas and musicals tell stories. Today, she is an assistant professor of music at Brock University, where she continues her research, combining musicology and analytic philosophy. 

Q: I’d like to start by asking you, what motivated you to pursue a doctorate? 

I was a clarinet player before I became an academic. I was really interested in my music history classes so I decided I’d do a Master’s and see how it goes, because that’s just two years. It’s not a big commitment. I enjoyed that a lot, I was doing well, the life of a professor sounded pretty good—the autonomy to do research—and I enjoyed teaching. I saw a future for myself in academia. 

Q: Can you describe what your research was about and the challenges that it presented? 

My thesis was called “A Philosophy of Operatic Storytelling.” I drew on narrative theory to ask questions about who is telling the story of an opera, how point of view is conveyed, etc. But I was also very interested in performance, and in how the performer’s choices influence all of that. The composer and librettist can give instructions of what they want their work to be, but performers can depart from that. They can decide to cut things and even change the text. 

My thesis was very interdisciplinary, so it was challenging to be both an expert in philosophy and in my home discipline of musicology. Another challenge was writing about performances. It’s challenging in the sense that most times you can only see an opera production one time. While I’m seeing it, I want to be in the moment and not distracting others, so I didn’t take notes while I was watching. I would go home and write down some things and try to write about it as quickly after the fact as possible, at least in very rough form. 

Q: Concerning the final year of writing and trying to finish your doctorate, can you tell what’s involved in getting the thing done? 

It’s just a lot of hours of work. In this way I feel like my performance background really helped me because I was used to putting in three to four hours a day of practice plus rehearsals and just doing it every single day. As a performer, you have to do it every day, so I approached my writing that way. I really tried to plug at it and do something every day. I think that was one thing that set me up for success in comparison with other people that I know that had more trouble with it. 

You can’t really wait for the inspiration to come for writing. I think it’s important just to get the words down, especially when you start a new chapter—and you’ll go through this when you start every single new chapter. It’s a blank page in your word processor, and you have to figure out how to start. Introductions, at least for me, are really hard. You’re like, “oh, I don’t know this interesting way to introduce the topic.” Just don’t care about that. You just tell yourself that you’ll find some interesting way to begin. You just have to start getting things down. 

I’m a big outliner, so I did a lot of outlines. I think that helps to have a road map so it’s not just stream of consciousness. Some of that is necessary to just get things down, if you’re not sure of the structure yet, but I found outlining was really helpful and I do that with my students now. 

Something I always tell people at the end of their thesis is “the best dissertation is a done dissertation.” You just have to get it done. I used to say “you’ll make it perfect for the book.” but now that I’ve just reviewed the proofs of my book I realize that it obviously never becomes perfect. I’m ready to send it to the world and I’m happy with my statement, but I realize I have more to say on the topic, and I can say it in another piece. 

Q: What’s your career like now? 

Well, right now [June 2020] I’m unemployed. I have been unemployed since the end of September 2018. I had a baby during that time, so there was some time when I wasn’t actually looking to be employed. I had completed the book manuscript during my postdoc at Duke University so I’ve been wrapping up that and a few other things. 

In the fall, I did an interview for a tenure track position and it didn’t work out. I also realized that I didn’t want to leave Canada and that the number of academic opportunities was just too small, so I started to think about what other non-academic work I’d want to do. That’s part of why I haven’t started new stuff. There’s no point starting a new book if I’m not going to have a faculty position in which to finish it. 

In July, I’ll be starting a new position at Brock University. I’m going to be back in academia, but it’s only a three-year contract, so in the back of my mind, they may not want me at the end of three years, and I’ll be in the same position. So I think I’m going to be a bit smarter and not be as research-focused because, for non-academic careers, whether I publish more articles doesn’t really matter so much. They’ll be more interested in me cultivating skills at managing people and working in teams, etc. 

Q: What are some of the things that a doctorate helps you to do if you want, not to work in academia, but to work in an industry? 

I first thought about editing and publishing. I’m a good writer and I have mentored other people in writing—not just working with students, but also my advisor. For his last book, he sent me each chapter as he produced it and I provided comments. Aside from the teaching, I didn’t get paid for most of these types of things. When colleagues sent me stuff to read, it’s just as a friend doing a favour. I realized that outside of academia people get paid for this kind of work, and I enjoy it. 

Most people have taught a course and managed some TAs by the time they’ve done their doctorate. Maybe you’ve been a bit luckier and you were employed by a larger research project like the Single Interface for Music Score Searching Analysis (SIMSSA) project at McGill—I worked as a grant writer for them. They have a really big team with professors, postdocs and graduate students at different levels and undergrads.  With this kind of tree, you have to have people managing other people, so if you worked in that sort of project, you’ll have built some management skills. I would recommend graduate students get involved in one of these larger research teams if possible. You’ll build up some more diverse skills than if you just write your thesis. 

Q: Is there something that you wish you knew before you started your PhD or that you would tell yourself if you were starting it now?

Even though things did work out for me, I had been unemployed since the end of September 2018. It’s been almost two years. The reason that’s been possible is because I have a partner who has a good job and is willing to support me for that time. If I had been single, I would have already gone to something else and I wouldn’t be on the market now, so I would have never gotten the job at Brock. 

I think the main thing I would have done differently would be to consider non-academic paths for myself from the beginning. There were several points in my life when I thought I might not be continuing in academia and there was sort of a mourning process. I just wish that I had considered non-academic careers not just as a plan B. For my psychological health that would have been helpful. I wouldn’t have had to mourn the death of my academic career because I would have gone in thinking that, yes, academia is one thing I could do, but I could also do all these other things.  

Many thanks to Nina for sharing her PhD narrative! You can find out more about her on her website. Her book is available from Indiana University Press and Amazon.

This interview took place in June 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.