If old articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education can be trusted, the MAPH program has, since its inception, fought to clarify that the program is in no way a “back door”into the University’s PhD programs and the result has been a real reticence on the part of any and all involved in the MAPH’s administration to allow the claim to stand that a MAPH student’s presence in the program might have any bearing at all on their ability to secure a Ph.D. position in the school later. However, two factors conspire to keep the “back door” fallacy alive. First, despite all the charges that the MAPH program is a “cash cow” for the University with little value, only serving to fund the school more prestigious Ph.D. candidates, every couple years a couple students from the MAPH program go on to secure positions in their respective discipline’s Ph.D. program at the UofC. Second, common sense says that in academia where networking is everything there must be some value to having had “face time” with professors also on admission committees as opposed to just being another stack of papers on a conference table. Like it or not many students [mistakenly} intend the MAPH program to provide a secret entrance into the University of Chicago’s Ph.D. programs. Is there any validity to that use of the MAPH program? Does the program “work” in that way?
Dirty Little–Poorly Kept–Secrets
I heard a professor describe the graduate admissions as a negative process. That is, an admissions committee doesn’t decide who gets to come to their program so much as they eliminate applicants until they have the (ideally) best pool left. They also confess there is a certain amount of arbitrariness to that end process. This is my way of saying that that “YES!,” if you go to MAPH you will improve your chances of getting into UChicago and any other school, so long as you bust your ass and work like the devil is chasing you through the stacks. But as for a secret back door? I don’t think so.
There’s no code word, no handshake, no arcane recitation that will grant one entrance into the hallowed halls. There’s working hard, writing well, and sure, networking plays in there somewhere, but on the whole, the burden is always on us as students to hone our “studenting” skills enough to appear viable candidates.
The perpetual caveat of this endeavor (re: Ph.D programs) is that I don’t know yet. I haven’t done my second round of applications yet. I’m a better candidate, but still not where I’d like to be. I write better, think better, and know more brilliant profs than I did when I started. Those are the things I hope will best equip me for the next round. Meeting professors at UChicago is a mixed bag. My thesis adviser was WONDERFUL. But she also saw my thesis when it was terrible and in its most nascent stages. Trying to impress people like her on an admissions committee is like trying to play it too cool with your parents — they changed your diapers and got chewing gum out of your hair. They KNOW where you started. So do my UChicago profs. They didn’t just see my best work — they saw all of it.
Go to MAPH, improve your chances of getting into grad school. Exercise more, eat less and you’ll lose weight. But a Master’s program that works like some sort of mythical fad diet? Nein, my friends. Nyet.
Not terribly long ago, in this post, I shared my the perspective of a particular University of Chicago Divinity School prof who had suggested that the “secret” to getting into UChicago’s Ph.D. program as a MAPH student wasn’t terribly different from being promoted from within a professional organization. That is, at some point a student becomes conspicuously good at being a junior scholar: they contribute meaningful insights not even imagined by their peers, their papers aren’t just literature surveys but actually argue a persuasive perspective, and in a relatively short time they are recognized not only by the professors that have had them in class but some that haven’t yet. In the post that anecdote was juxtaposed with my own experience in academia to suggest that there is some truth in the claim that everyday is an interview for tomorrow–and no more so than in the academy.
Now the subtext of that “Perpetual Interview” post was also a subtle contradiction of the oft repeated claims that a) the University of Chicago’s selection process is so fully based on the writing samples submitted that virtually no other factors were considered and the twin argument we’ve already discussed that circulates in the world of MAPH that b) getting an MA at Chicago does absolutely nothing positive for one’s chances of being selected for the Ph.D. program and might actually negatively impact one’s chances.
Now, I understand why professors and administrators are quick to deny that the MAPH program is a secret “back door” to the Doctoral programs because, in the most basic way, it simply isn’t. For the vast majority of students, a piece of paper from Chicago with a “Masters” at the top isn’t going to have the slightest impact on the selections committees for Ph.D. candidates and, in fact, if the student pursued that MA within a few years of the application season in which they are applying and the professors don’t remember them, their previous MA really is going to be a black mark on the student’s accounts. (Thus, the reason why having an MA from Chicago can actually negatively impact your chances of securing a Ph.D. slot). This is not a situation where UChicago feels any compunction to select a few from their “farm team” to round out their “professional roster.”
However, as I’ve already suggested, having attended UChicago previously, having learned to be a competent academic writer and thinker, and having made a real “buzz” among the faculty of your discipline for your insights and work will indeed improve your chances of being selected to return to the quads for a Ph.D.. However, that student whose insights are sterling and arguments gold is one in a hundred–a thousand, ten-thousand. Thus, the appropriate answer to the “common” MAPH student that asks if the MA program will allow them an extra-special shot at the Ph.D. is for most intents and purposes the pragmatic “No”–but, as you now know, that is only the short answer.
The goal then is to be extraordinary, to be conspicuously good at being a student, all the while knowing that there is an excellent chance that you will not ever entirely meet your goal. However, whether UChicago picks you up or not, you will have acquired more of the skills necessary to be attractive to other schools and other employers, which at the end of the day, is the point of the MAPH properly pursued.