MAPH: Week One – Shop Till You [Add]/Drop? or My MA kicks your PhD’s butt!

As promised, this is the first installment discussing my experience in the MAPH program–proper–from the inside. This post will focus first, on the nontraditional approach to curriculum selection at U of C and second, the differences between being a MAPH and a PhD student in the University of Chicago’s graduate studies program.

The Masters of Arts in the Humanities Program (MAPH) is an approximately nine month terminal degree that bills itself as an opportunity for students to follow their personal projects without the traditional discipline divisions getting in the way. As a philosophy student with a firm commitment to aesthetics, the attraction of this approach is the ability to build a curriculum from U of C’s philosophy, art history, and fine arts departments.

In theory, the breadth of the potential options is staggering and necessitates the “shopping” approach. Within any given department a MAPH student could select from fifteen to thirty course offerings. Between philosophy and art history there are forty-nine grad classes I might take–let alone all the rest of the departments’ offerings. This theoretical glut of courses has encouraged “course shopping”–the practice of attending several more classes than you intend to actually take in order to make the best possible selections. While this might be valuable for some other MAPH students, I found that after attending six classes for the first week I have selected the same three (the required MAPH CORE course plus two others) that I had selected based on course descriptions and the reputations of their professors.

In practice, course shopping seems to amount to one of two things 1) either finding the courses that appear to have the “easiest” professors, fewest assignments, or lightest required reading lists so as to ease ones’ work load, or 2) hoping to somehow stumble upon the magical course that will lead one to their thesis topic through sheer over-exposure. Now, I’m not going to pass judgment on those students who “shop” for the first reason–I’ll get to that in a moment. But, for those in the second group, I just can’t imagine having spent four years in an undergraduate program and not having found something to get excited about.

There are good excuses for coming into grad school still searching for one’s niche–a late undergraduate major change, coming back to grad school after a few years out of school, or a massive rethinking of one’s worldview. But, even in these situations, one still has a general idea of their interests and the general field they’d like to work in. I don’t want to offend anyone with a sweeping generalization, but keep in mind that most MAPH students were referred from PhD programs’ acceptance committees. Thus, most have already written research proposals for a grad admin committees months ago–statements of purpose that are supposed to parse out just these sorts of distinctions. Waiting until the first quarter of one’s Masters program to begin the process of specializing would seem to be equivalent to waiting until one’s wedding night to consider his or her sexual orientation.

For me, the first explanation for “shopping” at the U of C actually holds more water. Now, for those that know me, please sit down and take a nitro while you can still move your left arm without pain. I am not one to shirk hard work and brutal schedules. In fact, my commitments to those practices allowed me to finish my double-major bachelor’s degree in three years with an average of twenty-three hours a semester. However, compare the work load of the average University of Chicago PhD student and requirements placed on a MA student.

1. PhD students generally take two grad classes per quarter and don’t begin teaching until after their second year.
— An MA student must take three grad classes per quarter and most are paying all their own tuition meaning that they are likely working a side job at least a few hours a week.

2. PhD students can extend the deadlines for any of the papers due in their courses with–easily obtained–permission from their professors.
— An MA student cannot ever receive an extension on one of their papers.

3. A PhD student’s thesis is nintey to one-hundred-twenty pages in length and must be completed within ten years from the start of the program.
— An MA student’s thesis is twenty-five to forty pages in length and must be written while they are doing course work and within nine months of the start of the program without a special circumstances waver that allows twenty-four months to finish.

Under these conditions, I can understand why people “shop” to avoid classes with excessive reading loads, cranky professors, or extensive assignments due. Now, I am still taking three fairly brutal classes this first quarter–but I’m stupid. The reality is that the MA program at U of C–because its time schedule is so compressed and its mandatory class load a third more rigorous than most PhD program’s expectations–demands both a commitment to working harder and working smarter than most PhD candidates in their first year.

So, one week into the Fall quarter I’ve learned that 1) “shopping classes” might help if you’re still fuzzy about your educational goals–or seeking to remain sane–but if you arrive at the program with a firm grasp on your interests and the willingness to power through whatever the program throws at you–it is largely unnecessary. 2) Masters students might have missed the final cut to make it into U of C’s prestigious PhD programs, but they will actually have to work harder for the program’s nine months than they would have if they had gotten the nod from their respective departments’ ad coms.

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