Not Quite Two Years Later

 

A few weeks ago one of my students, a philosophy major wrestling with the ever popular “To graduate school or not to graduate school” question asked me, if I had it to do over again, would I be a MAPH student. My short answer was “no,” but to leave it there would have been both a disservice to him and to you, my reader—if there are any of you left.

In ten days I will have had my MA sheepskin for two years. That is, for two years I have been professing at the adjunct level while my salary miraculously decreased at an inverse proportion to my years of experience. Yet, I was fortunate. Professors that I knew and loved pulled all manner of strings on my behalf to get me into that two-year adjunct position teaching the courses I love. My students have, on the whole, been very appreciative of the work that I have done—awarding me some of the highest evaluation scores enjoyed by any professor currently working at that college. The last two years have been some of the most stressful, frustrating, and wonderful of any I can remember in my previous thirty-five.

However, despite the acclaim of my students, the overwhelming support of my former professors—now peers—and even my willingness to work for nearly free, my time as an academic is very likely over. Either the job market in the humanities is not what it used to be or it never really was very good, but it makes no difference because finding an academic job in the humanities with only a Masters degree is slightly less likely than jumping from a burning building and landing in a conveniently located swimming pool filled with feather pillows. Which is to say, it is not likely and should hardly be expected by any sane person as part of their five-year plan. Anecdotal stories from recent PhD grads and data gleaned from the scant “philosophy prof” listings that appear at philjobs.org suggest that the prospects are not substantially rosier for those with stoles and slightly less ridiculous hats. A friend of mine for UChicago’s divinity school continues to pretend that his doctoral thesis is not yet ready for defense despite the fact that its been written and ready to go for two years because, despite his myriad attempts, he has yet to even get a bite from the academy, anywhere. So, better to earn a TA’s stipend and enjoy discounted housing than find himself with as a freshly minted PhD unable to get even an interview. All of this is to say, if your son or daughter expresses interest in history, philosophy, literature, or any other humanities discipline, buy them a tool belt and send them to the nearest electricians trade school, nursing program, or teacher’s college. If I’d dedicated the last six years of my life to becoming a journeyman electrician, registered nurse, or sixth grade teacher, I could easily find a job in nearly any city in the country. Like every contestant on every reality show ever, my fifteen minutes of fame (or academic employment) are up.

But wait, it’s worse than that! My Hyde Park diploma beautifully framed and gleaming actually seems to be putting me at a disadvantage as I attempt to find a living-wage job. Before I returned to school to earn my degrees—when I was merely a high school graduate—I never struggled to find employment. With good references and a solid set of skills I easily scored positions in sales, middle-management, and even worked my way into positions more commonly held by those with MBAs. As I write this, I have applied for twenty-nine positions—from an entry level security guard to an admissions staffer at a community college—and I have yet to receive a single interview. Why? Well, doing a bit of research into the anomaly, my best guess is that graduate degree bearers with a bit of experience in their field suddenly applying for an entry-level position smell a bit hinky to human resource folks—bringing to mind images of mental break downs and sex scandals. As one hiring official put it, people with upper-tier degrees applying for lower level work are either burn-outs to be avoided or damaged goods to be handled with care. There seems to be the lingering, but laughable, perception by the general public that college grads with specialized training ought to be able to find work in their specialty. Therefore, failure to locate a Master’s level position with the requisite degree is perceived as a sign of some deeper, darker personnel issue—such as an inability to take constructive criticism or a taste for human flesh.

So, young sir or madame, do you believe that the MAPH will help you to secure a career? Perhaps, but not in the academy unless merely a stepping stone toward a PhD—but even then, don’t hold your breath. Most of the positions I see in my field are targeted at luring established professors with many years of experience from this school to that, and not, therefore, really open to a newly minted doctor of philosophy. I value my time at UChicago for its formative contributions to who I am as a person, but it is only hindering my ability to secure a decent paying job, a bedroom for a second child, and anything like professional satisfaction.

As always, your mileage may vary—and I sincerely hope that it does.

 

Selling the MAPH

One last semi-regular post–I promise.  For those who have been here from the beginning might recall that one of my concerns from way back at the pre-colloquium series of posts was how the MA delivered by the MAPH program would be perceived.  That is, while one is likely referred to the UChicago MAPH department due to their application to a Ph.D. program in History, Classics, Literature, Philosophy, etc. the degree awarded is a Masters of Arts degree in the Humanities generally rather than in a particular discipline.  So, one fear was that this cross-disciplinary approach–while allowing all sorts of awesome class cherry picking–might actually scare off an admissions or search committee comparing one applicant with a MA in Philosophy and another with an MA in Humanities.

So, what’s the final verdict you ask?  Well, from my oh-so-limited experience at applying to small, private liberal arts schools I can really honestly say that–”they don’t really know the difference or particularly care.”  It seems that most schools that grant an interview to an applicant or are otherwise seriously interested ask for a grad school transcript anyway which is used to peek behind the awarded degree and see if the candidate was actually educated in the topics/traditions that the potential school is looking for.  This means that even if your search committee is savy enough discern and have preferences for a particular approach to a given discipline–analytic v. continental in philosophy, objectivist v. constructivist in education, etc.–they will use the classes you took and the instructors of those classes to decide whether your degree really qualifies you to attend or teach at their institution.  However, it actually seems that–without prodding from an opinionated departmental head or within the context of some established debate–the little interdisciplinary differences that academics use to distinguish those with competing approaches or philosophical commitments just aren’t the sorts of marks that will distinguish one candidate from another.

Now, all that being said.  The beauty of the MAPH degree in “The Humanities” is that one can easily make a case that they are qualified to teach a broader range of classes than merely those within a particular discipline.  For example, I have successfully argued that my experience at UChicago qualifies me not only to teach history of philosophy courses but might also allow me to teach art history through the lens of aesthetics and even academic writing.  If one intends to teach at one of those schools that employs a Core or Gen Ed collection of professors then the MAPH can easily be sold as an advanced degree in a broad range of topics useful for humanities core classes.

So, if one really needs to demonstrate a graduate level grasp of a particular discipline or sub-discipline, the MAPH MA won’t hurt ones chances of doing so–assuming that the courses a MAPHer took and their grades in those courses bear out that argument–and if one needs to have a “fuzzy” degree that allows them to claim aptitude in a multidisciplinary “generalist” approach, the MAPH MA seems tailor made for doing so.  The challenge comes in knowing when–and to whom–one needs to argue for its specificity and when–and to whom—its breadth.

…..

This is the final semi-regular post in the AfterMAPH series.  I do reserve the right to add future posts for the purposes of reporting on MAPH graduate’s experiences and opinions of the value of the Master of Humanities degree in The Real World!  or in order to amend or update details or policies related to the MAPH experience.  The daily traffic on the website has cooled down considerably over the summer–due in part to the lack of new posts and also to the fact that most MAPHers past and present are trying to enjoy some time away from the specter of UChicago–but I am gratified to note that web traffic still provides occasional banner days with upwards of 75 or a hundred people stopping by to browse the archives.  It is my hope–as always–that this website will provide the kind of insider information that will allow future prospective MAPH students to make informed decisions and provide some encouragement and advice for those in the midst of writing their first analytic exposition or feeling the weight of their thesis deadline.  It has been a pleasure to serve all of you on the net and to have worked with some really first-rate people including the site’s regular contributor Bill Hutchison, and guest bloggers Vincent Mennella, Alissa Smith, and Robert Minto.

As I sit in my new office in my new position as an adjunct racing toward a new school year where I am firmly–and finally–no longer on the student side of the glass, but one of the professors, my time in Hyde Park is already a lifetime ago.  My recollections of UChicago have solidified into anecdotes rather than old news or even memories–their quick transmutation perhaps owing to the spirit of alacrity in which they were initially forged.  I don’t miss Hyde Park.  What I set out to do, I have done–at least for now–and though I miss many who still reside there, we are all getting on with the business of our lives.  I am not haunted by UChicago the way that I feel oppressed by my remembrances of childhood nor return to it in order to relive and fantasize about some happier time.  If anything, Hyde Park stands as a ongoing symbol of a finite part of my life–a living monument to a transitional phase of my own academic growth.  While I might someday return, I feel no need to revisit it to prove that I basked in–for a time–some measure of its greatness.  The fingerprints of the place are all over me, but it persists and grows apart from me in order to mold and change others as I have been molded and changed.  More briefly still, I recommend the Grey City to you though know that one does not leave as one entered–though the change is painful, it is also for the best.

My best to all of you, my readers.

Cheers,

MAPHman

Ending Well & Lingering

Well, it turning out to be a rather long week between my last post and this one.  My apologies to those who were disappointed, but trust me when I say I have a string of good excuses.  Now watch this video.

Before I began pursuing my grand path of academic development I working a whole string of horrible jobs.  I worked as a digital photo retoucher for a nationally known professional portrait photographer who seldom shipped an order in the same year she shot it–and used her two employees as her excuse when in reality she just couldn’t find the time between cheating on her husband and jet setting to far-off trade shows to actually do her job.  I worked for a mom-n-pop electronics retailer under a boss who was known to both drink on the job and steal merchandise–but who was too convenient to be terminated.  I also spent the first year of my married life commuting to a town of seven hundred people in Missouri to work at the world’s smallest Wal-Mart as a cart boy–the very lowest circle of retail hell.  Suffice it to say that I can understand the nearly pathological desire to write “I quit” on my chest in sharpie and dance to Queen all the way out the door–see, you should have watched the video.  However, as much as I can understand the desire to treat graduating from this or that school with a pyrotechnic display of vitriol on your blog, on another person’s blog, or by some other means equivalent to dancing on the cafeteria tables of your former employer there is a real danger in doing so.

Academia is a small world and your discipline–whatever that happens to be–is an even smaller world inside that already shrunken planet.  Even worse, it is a land in which strange, ethereal things called “reputations” are forged, fostered, or forgotten through highly subjective processes–behind closed doors and at the whim of strangers.  Yet, it is only by securing a “good reputation” that one can possibly hope to improve one’s station within the academy.  All that is to say, that while it might seem cathartic to trash your old school the day after graduation or air their dirty laundry to the first available audience, the world has ways of making you pay for such indiscretions.

I have heard would-be public intellectuals argue that any institution that would consider a candidate’s kvetching about their previous school or academic position on the Internet a reason to dismiss that candidate from consideration for some future position is simply not one worth applying to–the argument being something like “a good school with real integrity would not discriminate against someone honestly and accurately complaining about another institution.”  As good as such pompous poppycock sounds when spouted by one not yet worried about the harsh realities of rent checks and insurance payments, any adult familiar with the real world will freely admit that every institution is made up of good eggs and bad and every student or employee subject to fair treatment and subtle slights in turn.  As such, it falls on the adult graduate and/or professor to use discretion when discussing previous engagements with other schools.

To bring things down from the lofty heights of theory and to the brass tacks of this blog, as a graduate of University of Chicago’s Masters of Arts Program in the Humanities  (MAPH) some would say that I have the right to share each and every highlight and weakness of the program–and my experience of it–by any means available to me.  However, my advice to fellow graduates and my own tack has been to treat that nine-month relationship in much the way I would discuss an my time with an ex-girlfriend: it behooves me to sing her praises–because if there was nothing noble or worthy about her then why would I have spent so long with her?–and it costs me nothing to hold my tongue about her inadequacies except where I might spare another from entering into a relationship with her under false presumptions.  When I praise UChicago and the MAPH I add to the prestige of the school and the value of my own degree and when I rail against the school, its professors, and programs those attacks only serve to potentially alienate people from whom I might someday need a word of recommendation.

As an aside, certainly the wrinkle to my little plan to only speak well of the program is that I spent nine months excavating as much unvarnished truth about the MAPH as I could on this blog–some of it far less than complementary.  However, my defense against the dirty laundry I have aired is the sheer size of the blog and the fact that those comments are so deeply contextualized within the historical events in which they were first made.  While someone could come through at a later date and assemble every less than kind word I ever spoke about UChicago, they would have to be highly motivated to do so.
The challenge comes down to finding a way to end every relationship well.  Doug Walker’s video ends with the observation that “that bridge has officially been burned” and certainly a hard and fast split at the end of some academic relationships might be best response–yes, Chariton Community schools I’m talking about you.  Those dysfunctional relationships that brought out the worst in all involved need to be excised with surgical precision.  However, there is also no reason to dredge up the dirt on one’s ex to the world at large once the bond is well and truly broken.  She may have done you wrong, but no future relationships will be enhanced by recounting tales of her sordid deeds so ending that past relationship well means only speaking of it when absolutely necessary and with great discretion.  On the other hand, most academic relationships do not warrant such a cease and desist response and the best route to ending them well is to try not to end them at all.

After my graduation for my BA and while I was at UChicago I did my very best to maintain the relationships that I had spent the previous three years forging at my alma mater and the end result was the job that I officially began yesterday as a philosophy adjunct.  Since graduating from UChicago I have attempted to remain connected to some of the professors and administrators there with hopes that at some point those relationships might serve me in similar stead there.  My goal in both cases was/is to linger in the periphery of the institution’s consciousness as a happy memory and a future resource.  The art of lingering is to remain periodically present without becoming a “hanger-on” or evoking the image of one who didn’t or couldn’t move on.

Much more could be said on the task of ending well and the art of lingering, but what I offer here is merely a gesture at both suggesting the possibility of a better alternative to those who might–as job hunting season draws to a close–be tempted to take out their frustrations on their previous academic engagements.  To the MAPH class of 2012: I remember you with an undimmed fondness and a special concern and wish all of you the best for your future prospects.

Tomorrow: Selling the MAPH

AfterMAPH: Picking Up the Pieces Part 4

Again, my preference is to approach the process of requesting LoR as an exercise asking the question “what has my professor agreed to grant me?” rather than assuming that he or she owes me something.  With the initial letter out of the way and a bright shiny guarantee of a strong letter newly delivered to one’s inbox, the electronic request made through Interfolio can be much more brief and direct–while still providing the information necessary for the writer to produce a good letter. Just as the informal request has five parts: 1) Re-introduction/relation, 2) Purpose for requesting a letter, 3) program of study/professional position description, 4) Reference materials, and 5) instructions for response, so too does the formal request through Interfolio.

The process of requesting a letter of recommendation is as easy as punching in the administrator or faculty member’s official email address and name into the Interfolio “Request a Letter” form which will then allow the graduate to request a letter either by sending a request electronically or by printing that request out.  Either way the contents of the request as dictated by the Interfolio form remain the same: an official id number for the document–that insures that the correct document from the correct respondent is matched to the correct graduate, the names of the requester and the proposed letter writer, and a generic request note which reads:

I am pursuing an opportunity that requires that I provide a letter of recommendation written about me by someone who knows me and my work. I am writing to request your assistance in that regard.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Now, this generic block of text might do the trick, providing that once the proposed letter writer gets around to actually addressing themselves to the Interfolio request that letter writer still remembers which of the tens 0f thousands of students the requester is and the contents of that initial informal request and doesn’t mind the fact that the graduate who set this process in motion is requesting a personal recommendation couldn’t be bothered to personalize their request.  However, returning to the tenants that we worked out in this series’ second post, the goal to make a request that doesn’t assume anything, makes the process of giving a recommendation as convenient as possible, and only to request letters from folks that have agreed to provide the best letters possible demands that we give the Interfolio text box a significant make-over.

The One-two punch – Stage 2: A Formal Request

The formal request is just the informal request with all extraneous information removed.

Dear Dr. Art,

Thank you so much for agreeing to strongly recommend me for future graduate work!  During my time in “The Aesthetics of Hume and Kant, “Philosophy and Literature,” and “Ordinary Language Philosophy” I came to appreciate not only your insights in philosophy and aesthetics, but the time that you spent both inside and outside class with me–so your willingness to take even more time to reflect on my qualifications and write a letter of recommendation is truly appreciated.

Your letter will help to establish my capacities for future graduate study at the Ph.D. level with selection committees some time in the next five years as I apply to pursue questions related to the “meaning” of art as communicated by the inclusion or exclusion of formal elements interpreted through some hermeneutic system akin to Grice’s Cooperative Principle which considers artistic intent as the guiding principle of critic’s interpretive work. As such my graduate work would likely follow lines similar to Noël Carroll’s work in intentionalism but with greater concern to build a theoretical model of how visual works communicate as analogous with methods and purposes of ordinary human conversation.

Please allow the three seminar papers I enclosed in my earlier email to inform your opinion of my capacities for academic work and my Masters thesis on the possibility of ethical constraints on appropriative art to serve as an introduction to and justification for the project which I propose to pursue in further graduate work at the Ph.D. level.

Sincerely,

MAPHman

Obviously, the goal is to jog the potential letter writer’s recollection of the earlier informal request and also to provide, for reference, the broad strokes of the proposed course of study.  If, in the informal request, you spent significant time explaining and justifying the work you intend to pursue, that extra fluff can be trimmed from the body of the informal request. If Interfolio allowed attachments to their official requests, the inclusion of those documents in the original informal request would be unnecessary–as well as the need for the letter writer to dig out that earlier informal request–but unfortunately that option is not yet available.

Of the four requests that I have made using this One-two punch format through Interfolio, I have been successful in securing letters of recommendation in a timely manner in each and every case.  My hope is that you will be as fortunate with this system as I have been and if you aren’t successful at least it won’t be because you gave your letter writers an excuse to avoid writing a strong letter.  Good luck!

Note: My lovely wife and I will be returning to the frozen North over the next few days which means that the rest of this series will continue after a brief gap.  Topics I still intend to cover include the idea of “ending well” and “How to Market the MAPH” so look for those sometime next week.

AfterMAPH – Picking up the Pieces Part 3

Yesterday’s post attempted to lay a groundwork for today’s post by addressing some of the misconceptions that graduates might have about letters of recommendation and the process of securing them.  The fundamental tenants argued in that post included the ideas that a) Professors have no obligation to write you a strong letter, so make writing a letter as convenient a task as possible, b) You are not nearly as memorable as you think you are, so include samples of your work in your request for a LoR and mention those connections that you did make with the professor or administrator–even if they seem off-topic, and c) The goal is merely to collect strong recommendations, so only solicit letters from people willing to write strong recommendations–even if their names are “up in lights.” So, how best one go about requesting a letter while remaining cognizant of these claims–either within the world of electronic document storage or without?

A One-two Punch: Stage One – Informal Requests

I prefer to approach the process of requesting LoR as an exercise asking the question “what has my professor agreed to grant me?” rather than assuming that he or she owes me something.  The initial letter, therefore, has a tentative feel and really tries to provide reasons for all its requests.  In contrast, once the faculty or administrator has consented to write a strong letter, the electronic request made through Interfolio can be much more brief and direct–while still providing the information necessary for the writer to produce a good letter. The informal request has five parts: 1) Re-introduction/relation, 2) Purpose for requesting a letter, 3) program of study/professional position description, 4) Reference materials, and 5) instructions for response.

1) Re-introduction/relation

My name is MAPHman and I just graduated University of Chicago’s MAPH program this past Saturday. I took your Fall class “The Aesthetics of Hume and Kant, the Winter course “Philosophy and Literature,” and the Spring’s “Ordinary Language Philosophy and received an A in each course.  Allow me to thank you once again for the time that you spent both inside and outside class with me. It really meant a lot just to have somebody that I’ve looked up to for so many years be willing to talk aesthetics and discuss my future in the discipline.

The purpose of this section is just to remind the potential letter writer who you are and how they know you.  On the formal side this is the place to remind them that they were your instructor for particular courses, lead the workshop that you attended, or advised you on your thesis.  On the more informal side, this would be the place to remind them of your shared interests, allude to a conversation or event–in which you had some part– that would be memorable for the letter writer, or a general statement about your relationship with them.  The goal of this brief introductory paragraph is to jog the letter writer’s memory as to who you are and how they knew/know you so that what follows in the request can  be connected to a particular person–you.

2) Purpose for requesting a letter

While I already have a position secured teaching philosophy of art and philosophy of language at my alma mater, Myskatonic University, I do plan to apply to Ph.D. programs in the next five years which is why I am asking for your recommendation regarding my capacities for future graduate study at the Ph.D. level.

When outlining the purpose for which you are requesting a letter it is important to manage the scope of your explanation.  In my undergrad days I–and I think think most–were told that the best LoR are highly tailored to a specific program at a particular school with an individual adviser–something like: I am applying to Yale’s philosophy program with the hope of pursuing my doctorate under philosopher and art historian Karsten Harries.  The problem with this approach under the new electronic model, is that letters of recommendation are requested and submitted one time and need to be applicable to all the schools to which a graduate plans to apply.  Now, that’s not to say that a student couldn’t request new recommendations down the road, but at the very least, the expectation within this new system is that one letter from one writer will suffice for one accademic application season.  However, while it might seem that the best way to avoid a too narrow scope of explanation is to write an extremely general one like “I plan to continue my academic studies at some point in the future.”  However, this explanation will likely yield both a bland, nonspecific letter and cause your potential letter writer to wonder why they are even being bothered at this point in time to write a recommendation that might not see the light of day for many, many years.

If you know of some reason why your request for a letter might seem strange or out of character, this would also be the time to explain your reasoning.  For example, if it is a well-known fact that you intended to pursue a professional position, but are now requesting academic recommendation or if–as in my case–the professor in question knows that I already have a job, then this is your chance to explain yourself.

3) Program of study/professional position description

My hope is to continue working on questions related to the “meaning” of art as communicated by the inclusion or exclusion of formal elements interpreted through some hermeneutic system akin to Grice’s Cooperative Principle which considers artistic intent as the guiding principle of critic’s interpretive work. As such my graduate work would likely follow lines similar to Noël Carroll’s work in intentionalism but with greater concern to build a theoretical model of how visual works communicate as analogous with methods and purposes of ordinary human conversation.

In case its not already obvious, the paragraph explaining your academic or professional goals should–at least for the academic side–bear a strong resemblance to your graduate study application’s “Statement of Purpose”–albeit in a condensed presentation.  The goals here are to demonstrate a continuity between the work that the letter writer has seen you complete and the work that you propose to do in the next stage of your academic career.  If this letter of recommendation is designed to further a professional goal, then this is equally the time to demonstrate continuity between the work that the recommender can attest to and the work that will be required in a proposed professional position.

This particular example was sent to a professor that shares many of my philosophical convictions and would be unlikely to have concerns about the plausibility of the work that I propose to do.  However, in the case the the letter writer would have questions about or object to certain portions of your proposed course of study, these questions and objections should be anticipated and then either rebutted or at least acknowledged.  This paragraph might easily become the longest in your initial, informal request, but if it does its job then the gloss version in the final request need not be as detailed.

4) Reference materials

I have enclosed the three papers I wrote for your classes as well as my Masters thesis on the possibility of ethical constraints on appropriative art. I thank you for being so generous with your time both past and–as it relates to this recommendation–future.

This section penultimate section should list and–if necessary–justify the attached samples of your work that you have enclosed.  Obviously, well received seminar papers from a course that you took with the professor should be included and a copy of the Masters thesis you wrote if applicable.  However, don’t overlook other documents that you might have prepared for other classes that relate both to your proposed course of study and the letter writer’s areas of interest.  The writer may not read everything you send, but at least it will be available to them if they should need it.  Many LoR requesters forget to include these sample documents which forces faculty to either strain to remember who wrote which paper when, request papers later, or even tempt them to just deny the request as a whole rather than wrestle the necessary resources from the graduate.  Because these papers are long, and sometimes dry, and the summer vacation is already upon us, I think it is a good idea to thank faculty again for their willingness to give of their time as a way of apologizing for what you are asking them to do on their time off.  I don’t know if it works, but I know that it can’t hurt.

5) Instructions for response

If you are willing to write a letter strongly recommending me for future graduate studies in the areas I have outlined on the basis of my previous work, please let me know and I will contact Interfolio in order that an official request may be made.  I look forward to hearing from you!

Sincerely,

MAPHman

If the prof says “Yes,” then you’ve done something right: you’ve provided them with all the resources they need to, provided a justification for why they should, and made it conveinient enough that they will write you a strong letter of recommendation.  In tomorrow’s post we will consider how to follow up informal request with its official counterpart and discuss what elements may be eliminated from that final request.

 Tomorrow: A One-two Punch: Stage Two – The Formal Request

AfterMAPH Picking Up the Pieces Part 2

Welcome one and all to the second irregular, post-MAPH Maphmatically Yours installment intended to provide a bit of helpful advice regarding those final issues associated with nine-months in Chicago not yet tied neatly into a bow at graduation.  Yesterday, I introduced an electronic dossier service popular with University of Chicago profs–and soon every other faculty member on the planet–called Interfolio.  As far as I am concerned Interfolio is a distasteful, but necessary evil that was bound to crop up in response to the needs of large educational institutions in this technological age–like previously submerged bodies dislodged by water skiing turbulence.

Clearing up some Misconceptions

I feel it my duty at this point to challenge and overturn some commonly held misconceptions about the process of securing letters of recommendation so as to justify the advice that will follow.  First, there is a common but almost entirely unfounded belief that if a professor awards a student high marks in a class that the professor will necessarily be willing to write a strong letter of recommendation.  This chestnut fails on two fronts: 1) the evaluation process in grad school is highly compressed so that a “B-” in some programs is the equivalent of failing a course.  Thus, the actual level of performance designated by an “A” or an “A-” is actually much broader than the normal scale would dictate and might not necessarily suggest that a student’s work has been judged by a professor to be worthy of a strong letter of recommendation. 2) Faculty don’t ever have to write letters of recommendation.  LoR, despite what you might have heard, are not the obligation entailed by a student showing up to class and earning a passing grade.  Professors have and will continue to deny students letters of recommendation for a whole host of reasons.  Students should not enter into the process of requesting LoR with the sense that they are entitled to them.

Second, some folks are under the impression in the time they spent with a given professor their startling insights, witty bon mots, ground-breaking papers, and overall fashion sense have indelibly branded those student’s identities into the minds of that professor so that for years to come–and in times of deepest depression–that faculty member will return to those memories for solace and comfort.  Hopefully, the preceding hyperbolic restatement of the claim has already made my point–but if not, let me state the facts plainly: at a large institution like UChicago nearly everyone is exceptionally gifted, incredibly witty, and produces strikingly original work in their discipline.  Therefore–and repeat after me–”You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.  You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, and we are all part of the same compost pile.”  So, while you might have a special relationship with this prof or that administrator, it probably has little to do with your actual participation in class or academic output and instead rests on a shared appreciation for the band Nine Inch Nails discovered as both of you wore the same concert t-shirt to an extracurricular function or, as Bill would put it is the result of “face time.”

Third, there is a common misconception that the actual content of LoR are less important than the name in the letterhead.  Now this misconception is not commonly stated as plainly as I have in the previous sentence, but it is the subtext in some contemporary conversations about LoR and LoR writers.  The point to be made for the purpose of this conversation is that a weak letter of recommendation from a Rock Star likely does less good for a candidate than a strong letter from a low-ranking lecturer that no one has ever heard of.

So, in summary: a) Professors have no obligation to write you a strong letter, so make writing a letter as convenient a task as possible, b) You are not nearly as memorable as you think you are, so include samples of your work in your request for a LoR and mention those connections that you did make with the professor or administrator–even if they seem off-topic, and c) The goal is merely to collect strong recommendations, so only solicit letters from people willing to write strong recommendations–even if their names are “up in lights.”

Tomorrow: The One-two Punch: Stage One – Informal requests

AfterMAPH: Picking Up the Pieces Part 1

Well for those still lurking around the site–and a gratifyingly large number of you are–this is the first of a handful of posts intended to address a few of the lingering issues connected with a year  spent in the MAPH program.  As I’ve already suggested this is not a “regular” MAPHmatically Yours post–those have gone the way of the Dodo–and is instead the first of what I hope will be occasional update posts connected in ever more tangential ways to the MAPH experience.

However, before we get to the content of this post there is one programing note worth giving further attention.  The only thing worse than a lack of information is a great bounty of misinformation and as time–and program changes accumulate–MAPHmatically Yours will necessarily edge toward that unenviable position.  However, one of the benefits of Bill Hutchison’s new position as one of the MAPH Program’s mentors is that the threatened obsolescence is pushed at least a year further into the future.  So congratulations to Bill, to the incoming class of MAPH students, and all those that might benefit from at least another year of reliable–if possibly revised–information on the site.

The Proper Courtship and Care of Academic Recommendations

One of the all consuming questions of MAPH’s second quarter circled around the value of what the site has labeled “Rock Star” professors and the reason that those questions had real endurance is intimately connected with today’s topic: the practice of graduates soliciting letters of recommendations in order to enhance their application for future graduate study.  Ideally, strong letters of recommendation allow graduate program’s selection committees and future employer’s search committees to consider the testimony of a fellow impartial academics regarding the capabilities of graduate student applicants with whom they have varying levels of familiarity.  The old saw says that these letters become more valuable or persuasive according to 1) the quality of the testimony as measured by the quality of the relationship between impartial recommender and the graduate–longer and closer relationships are considered more telling of a student’s abilities, 2) the quality of the recommendation as measured by the actual content of the praise lavished on the graduate–the more praise heaped on the student the better, assuming that it seems sincere, and 3) the quality of the recommendation as measured by the respectability of the recommending faculty member–better known and respected professors yield stronger recommendations when factors (1) and (2) are held equal.  Thus, the “Rock Star” prof whose exploits are known far and wide, whose great and mighty deeds are sung from hill and valley, are understandably courted as thesis advisers in the hope that their recommendations will carry extra weight and distinguish candidates from among the multitude applying for any given position.  However, as long-time readers will no doubt note, at least a majority of these high-powered academic heavy weights are considerably less communicative and less prone to form lasting relationships than many a MAPHer might once have hoped.  So, assuming that one has taken classes or written a successful thesis with one of these venerable hory heads, what is the process for finagling a letter of recommendation from the lady or gent that never did learn your name or return your emails?

I Sing the Letter Electric

While my undergraduate letters–and I suspect those of the majority of undergrads from small to medium sized schools–were requested in person, printed on rag paper, and included pre-addressed stamped envelopes, in a place like the University of Chicago letters have gone high tech.  Tentatively broaching the topic of a letter with one of the more approachable of my Rock Star profs I was immediately directed to secure an account at an online dossier service called Interfolio and make my request through their web-based system.  Perhaps it was the result of the whiplash induced by the sudden recommendation reversal I had sustained earlier, but after a quick search brought me to the membership page and I discovered I would be charged $19.00 for one year, $39.90 for three years, or $57.00 for five years of service, I happily signed up for a one-year stint–without realizing that each and every document (letter of recommendation, transcript, statement of purpose, or introductory letter) had its own significant price tag.

Now, I really can’t blame the profs at a place like UChicago.  With several thousand students pouring through the doors in any given year and many–if not most–of those students wanting three or four of their professors to supply five to ten letters of recommendation for each academic application cycle–plus the back log of previous graduates spinning the wheel again and again for multiple years–one can easily imagine particularly popular–or particularly Rock Star-ish–professors having hundreds of letters to write, print, and ship–or at least having to organize the writing, printing, and shipping there of.  Under such a weight, one can easily understand the appeal of writing one letter for each student and then allowing an automated service like Interfolio to do the rest. While students might pay ridiculous sums to the service, the faculty is freed of the burden of collating and managing the incoming requests and outgoing submissions and allowed to focus on the contribution that they are best able to make: the actual content of the letter.  While the cost per letter sent of $6 is many times the cost of one first class stamp–or the large flat-rate envelope cost of $6 for a whole application set–any economy for the student comes at the expense of the possibility that their letters would have been dashed off without due reflection by professors just trying to survive the onslaught of requests, the possibility that their requests would have been overlooked, recommendations mishandled, or letters miss-sent/sent too late.

Thus, while Interfolio might not be your new best friend, electronic dossier services are–for pragmatic reasons–here to stay and likely to be the only option available for students of larger institutions.  What they lack in economical pricing they make up for in convenience to both letter writers and graduate applicants.  So, armed with my shiny new Interfolio account the rest should be easy, right?

Tomorrow: Crafting Convenient Recommendation Requests likely to Secure Timely Responses or CRRLTSTRs