MAPH Mailbag: Answering Questions & Questioning Answers

Man, could I would commit a venial sin for a gyro right now…

Welcome to a new segment here at MAPHmatically Yours: the MAPH Mailbag.  It is that time of year, when Ph.D. programs near and far begin the difficult task of deciding who’s in, whose out, and University of Chicago decides who will fund who in the coming year.  From this point forward please address questions you’d like to see addressed and other–salient–comments to (This address will also appear in the “About Me” section of the website.) For our inaugural question, we have a doozy.

Dear Maphman,

I’ve applied to University of Chicago’s Classics Phd program and have yet to hear back.  A friend of mine applied to the same program last year and was rejected but offered the unfunded Masters of Humanities program.  She rejected that invitation since she really wanted a Phd.  I’m worried that I will get the same offer since our GPAs and test scores were pretty close.  If it turns out that I don’t get a spot in the Phd should I consider the Masters program as a worthwhile alternative?  My friend just worked for a year before she re-applied to less picky schools.

Sincerely, Johann Pidgeon

First off, don’t be so certain that you won’t find a place in your dream program.  University of Chicago is very serious about using student’s writing samples to judge their worthiness to be in the program.  While I wouldn’t say that class rank and GPA aren’t part of the equation, the admissions folks I’ve had the opportunity to speak with take it as a point of pride that UChicago relies heavily on the quality of writing samples.  However, if you are not one of the folks picked up by the Classics department and are instead offered a place in the MAPH program all is not lost.

The MAPH can do different things for different people and whether or not you ought to take U of C up on their offer depends on what you would need it to do.  So consider the following:

1) If you failed to find a Ph.D. program because your grades, scores, and writing sample were subpar, you probably will not have been offered a shot at the MAPH program.

UChicago says that it considers about a thousand applications for the Ph.D. programs associated with its Humanities Division.  Of those applicants, who fail to receive a Ph.D. candidacy, only about a hundred are offered a place in the Masters of the Humanities program.  It might seem like UChicago sends everyone who failed receive a Ph.D. spot an invitation to the MAPH, but that is simply not the case.  This means two things, if you do get an invitation to the MAPH–as your friend did–then you’ve actually done something worthy of note.  However, if you do not get an invitation to MAPH, you are in very good company.  Nine out of ten students won’t be selected for the MAPH after the initial offer of Ph.D. positions.

2) If your ultimate goal is a Ph.D. the MAPH is a legitimate option for increasing your chance of winning a spot in future application cycles.

While it is still true that outstanding candidates with amazing credentials do manage to secure Ph.D. positions right out of college, the reality is that in many fields top-shelf schools can be increasingly choosy–selecting from pools that include folks with one or more graduate degree already in hand.  These students have demonstrable proof that they are capable to working to the level required by a Ph.D. program–there is actually very little difference between what is demanded of a Master’s student and what is demanded of a Ph.D. student.  If you aren’t one of these student superstars, then you will likely need to consider getting a Masters under your belt before being really attractive candidate for a Ph.D.  The alternative, of course, is to consider lower ranked, less prestigious institutions, and realize that the best candidate doesn’t always find the appointment.

3) If your ultimate goal is a professional career outside education, then accepting a spot in the MAPH program is a bit more risky.

I’m assuming that a person applying to the classics program at U of C probably wants to be a professor–Greek and Latin are not known as good bets to enhance a career in business–unless you intend to sell gyros in Vatican City.  For those with interests outside dead languages, however, it may be that the MAPH has been pitched to you a way of enhancing a career in some exiting–or at least less boring–professional field.  While it does seem that the MAPH has helped people secure positions in museum curating, cultural or art journalism, and even publishing.  I’m not sure how much help it is for most aspiring non-academics.  What the program brings to the table is a great network of MAPH alums that work very hard to secure positions for new graduates in fields already infiltrated by older MAPH graduates, it also costs about the price of a 2012 Corvette coupe.  That is some serious indebtedness should you not be one of the two or three each year offered a half-tuition grant.

So, there you have it.  Please feel free to comment and question, read and respond below with the ever-present comment box below.  Also, if you have a question you’d like to see addressed send it off to MAPHman at



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