MAPH: In the Balance Part 2

Welcome once again to the second installment of the final dual-blogging retrospective covering the whole of the MAPH year and asking the question “Does the program do what University of Chicago promises and what people intend it to do?”

The Grey City: Houses of Sand and Fog


Quickly flipping through the University sponsored alumni profiles in the MAPH section of University of Chicago’s website one finds a common thread: students who were uncertain about their future success in graduate school or unclear about how best to pursue the topics they desired to study. I suggested in yesterday’s post that UChicago’s MAPH program, because of its intense demands, truncated schedule, and pressure-cooker atmosphere is an insanely powerful tool to separate those students well-fitted for academic work from those more likely to find fulfillment in the professional world and I think that ultimately that is a service to MAPH students uncertain as to whether they are well suited for life in the academy. Now, for those who might pay $46k to learn that they’ve been barking up the wrong Ph.D. tree, the selection mechanism undoubtedly arrives as cold comfort, but what does that mechanism do for those who decide to remain “in the hunt” for a Ph.D.?

Well, for starters the MAPH program does do wonders for flabby, unfocused research proposals. As I’ve written before, I thought that my research proposal was a sharply defined and well written outline of the course of study I intended to follow while in a Ph.D. program, but a few months in the MAPH program, writing my thesis proposal and associated documents, quickly showed me that my proposal was about as sharp and refined as a campfire marshmallow. While I wouldn’t recommend only taking courses in some ultra-narrow field if one wants to pursue a Ph.D., I will say that the process of selecting courses from the vast range available and shopping courses that one doesn’t necessarily take still pays the dividend of allowing one to understand what courses one might take to meet a particular need or for the purposes of a particular project–a very valuable skill for the third, fourth, or fifth year of a Ph.D.. The final benefit I can see to the MAPHer who continues on the academic path–other than the one I’ll be focusing on in two days–is access to the resources of a top-flight school like U of C–including some very helpful insights from faculty deeply imbedded in the highest circles of academia. I benefited greatly from several casual conversations before class with a particular prof and the perspective he was able to supply clarified both my thesis project and my overall trajectory as a philosopher.

For the professional, I’m less certain what benefits the MAPH might have beyond any other comparable quality Masters program. Certainly the MAPH program opened up my eyes to the world of curators and curating–a field that requires both a very broad understanding cultural and historical trends–so as to examine the effect and significance of a work or event–and highly specific knowledge and research skills–used to verify and categorize objects or to accurately represent and interpret historical narratives. However, there are only so many museums, galleries, and collections in need of professional curators. MAPH also seems especially adept at introducing students to is the world of academic publishing. Perhaps the greatest benefit for the MAPHer hoping to find a professional vocation is the network of MAPH alumni positioned all over the world and anxious to introduce new graduates to their pet industry.


I again can’t help but wish I could check in with future-Bill to see how things turn out. I, for one, recognize that while I thought I was ready for graduate school, I was so far from it that it causes me to cringe with embarrassment to remember. I think my anxiety about saying, “Yes! I found my path thanks to the MAPH program,” is that while it’s truth, I’m not yet sure if the path I have found is actually going to let me tread upon it. The next round of applications will answer that question. But I am more certain than I was (which was often quite uncertain in the earliest weeks of the program) that I enjoy doing academic study and am decent enough at it that I remain convinced I should give PhD applications a go. I am less convinced I am ready, but if anything, that verifies to me a dramatic change in my preparedness from when I was sure I was a great candidate.

MAPHman’s comments on focusing research is dead-on. I learned tremendous technical skills in MAPH and how to write in something more closely resembling an academic voice. Nearly every undergraduate college student in this country needs to vastly improve their analytical and synthetic writing abilities to handle MAPH. Instead, MAPHers seem to do it on the run.

As far as MAPH helping to prepare students for a professional life, it’s hard to say. I came out of the professional world, but I still managed to learn quite a lot from the various professional development forums. Some were rudimentary, but necessarily so — MAPH has far more early-to-mid-twenty-somethings than thirty-something former professionals. They seem to be a pretty damn fine resource to me. With A-J in the office this last year, his fervor for helping people prepare was unmatched. Let us hope that next year’s mentors are up to the task. I have a feeling they will be equally as dedicated.


Part of the challenge of deciding whether the MAPH is successful in helping students who intend to apply to future Ph.D. positions is distinguishing between the value of actual improvements the program might foster in a participant’s thinking, writing, and arguing and the value of the program as a indicator to other schools that the MAPH graduate has the intellectual chops to compete with graduates from other more prestigious grad and undergrad programs.  As Bill rightly points out, it is difficult–if not impossible–to speak to the latter question of how well the MAPH program “shows” on a CV.  However, both of us acknowledge that our time in the MAPH program has made us better writers and communicators suggesting that–presuming that we could secure positions in top-shelf grad programs–we would be successful in those Ph.D. programs.  If a person that failed to secure a Ph.D. candidacy in their first year of applying were to ask whether the MAPH program would help to get them into a program in the next season, I’d ask first to read some of their academic writing.  If the writing sample was up to snuff, I would be more likely to tell them to simply wait another year and apply again, but if the sample lacked clarity, strong organizational cues, persuasive logical argumentation, and the other hallmarks of “academic voice” I’d be more likely to suggest the MAPH program.  However, I can also imagine student with great writing skills passed over by Ph.D. committees because of poor undergrad grades from a second or third tier institution that might benefit from the “clout” provided by good transcript from UofC.  In contrast to Bill’s position, I’m not sure that the MAPH program offers professionals any benefit not available from a comparable, and likely cheaper, Masters program–unless that professional needs to have skills in the area of academic-style writing.  This is not an indictment of the program or its staff, but of the incredibly low bar set in business and professional environments.  In support of that claim and to close, here is a sample of the sort of formal communication that occurs between middle and upper level managers in a multi-million dollar company I used to be part of (the speaker was fond of noting that he had an MBA from “name” institution).

“Neither I or you have lots of excess time to waste on these topics because we are busy persons.  Hopefully the issue I’ve discussed to you should necessitate further thinking and action before its too far gone.  We can not lead by example if we remain thinking inside the box.”


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