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

MAPHmatics: Cost/ Benefit Annalysis

The cost of an education is staggering. Undergrad tuition for an in-state student costs an average of $7,605, while a year at a private college costs an average of $27,293. University of Chicago’s MAPH program will set a grad back $14,856 (tuition only) per quarter or in excess of $45,000 for the year once student life, transcript access, and insurance fees are added.

The easy answer, then, is to declare one’s self a Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg and eschew the academic life in favor of the “American Dream/ By Your Bootstraps” model. The problem remains that for the vast majority, education–or the lack of an education–is the single biggest indicator of future financial success. Check out this article if you don’t believe me. But what about graduate education? Does an advanced degree pay for itself in a few short years? What about a terminal Masters in the Humanities–that is, what about the MAPH?

One of the biggest questions associated with accepting U of C’s MAPH admissions offer for me can be summarized in a thread at Grad Cafe I found while researching the program. I won’t link to it–for reasons I hope will become obvious–but in it the MAPH program’s legitimacy is questioned on the grounds that it is a “piggy bank” program that exists only to pay for the generous stipends given to the PhD candidates. Some MAPH graduates argue that their time in the program was the key to their future success, whether in academics or the job market, while others argue that the program is a waste of time and money.

However, there is something inherently reductionistic about equating education and income or even education and appointments. What that thread does not acknowledge is that MAPH students are given access to the best and brightest in their respective fields, individualized programs to explore their unique interests, and the company of peers all engaged in those dialogues at the highest levels. Unlike many schools’ programs, the limiting factor to individual success is no longer external, but internal.

Now, all that being said, I understand the perspective that screams “fie on your high-minded theoretical pontificating, I just spent a Porsche Cayman and can’t find a job or grad appointment!” (They say “fie” because they are U of C alums). There is something soul-crushingly frightening about spending more money in one year than I am likely to make in one year IF all my plans for the future were to work out. However, there is also something soul-crushing about a lifetime trying to imagine what insights and ideas I missed out on because I chose to stay on the safer path.

Is the MAPH program a” piggy bank” that U of C uses to fund other students?  Well, yes, technically speaking anybody who pays for any program subsidizes anyone who receives any sort of financial assistance.  However, there is nothing inherently unfair about such an arrangement unless the Masters students are not receiving what they are paying for.  To argue otherwise would seem to be giving into unnecessarily classist thinking–something like “Who are PhD students that they don’t have to pay while I do?”  So the question becomes, are MAPH students getting what they think they are paying for?