AfterMAPH Picking Up the Pieces Part 2

Welcome one and all to the second irregular, post-MAPH Maphmatically Yours installment intended to provide a bit of helpful advice regarding those final issues associated with nine-months in Chicago not yet tied neatly into a bow at graduation.  Yesterday, I introduced an electronic dossier service popular with University of Chicago profs–and soon every other faculty member on the planet–called Interfolio.  As far as I am concerned Interfolio is a distasteful, but necessary evil that was bound to crop up in response to the needs of large educational institutions in this technological age–like previously submerged bodies dislodged by water skiing turbulence.

Clearing up some Misconceptions

I feel it my duty at this point to challenge and overturn some commonly held misconceptions about the process of securing letters of recommendation so as to justify the advice that will follow.  First, there is a common but almost entirely unfounded belief that if a professor awards a student high marks in a class that the professor will necessarily be willing to write a strong letter of recommendation.  This chestnut fails on two fronts: 1) the evaluation process in grad school is highly compressed so that a “B-” in some programs is the equivalent of failing a course.  Thus, the actual level of performance designated by an “A” or an “A-” is actually much broader than the normal scale would dictate and might not necessarily suggest that a student’s work has been judged by a professor to be worthy of a strong letter of recommendation. 2) Faculty don’t ever have to write letters of recommendation.  LoR, despite what you might have heard, are not the obligation entailed by a student showing up to class and earning a passing grade.  Professors have and will continue to deny students letters of recommendation for a whole host of reasons.  Students should not enter into the process of requesting LoR with the sense that they are entitled to them.

Second, some folks are under the impression in the time they spent with a given professor their startling insights, witty bon mots, ground-breaking papers, and overall fashion sense have indelibly branded those student’s identities into the minds of that professor so that for years to come–and in times of deepest depression–that faculty member will return to those memories for solace and comfort.  Hopefully, the preceding hyperbolic restatement of the claim has already made my point–but if not, let me state the facts plainly: at a large institution like UChicago nearly everyone is exceptionally gifted, incredibly witty, and produces strikingly original work in their discipline.  Therefore–and repeat after me–“You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.  You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, and we are all part of the same compost pile.”  So, while you might have a special relationship with this prof or that administrator, it probably has little to do with your actual participation in class or academic output and instead rests on a shared appreciation for the band Nine Inch Nails discovered as both of you wore the same concert t-shirt to an extracurricular function or, as Bill would put it is the result of “face time.”

Third, there is a common misconception that the actual content of LoR are less important than the name in the letterhead.  Now this misconception is not commonly stated as plainly as I have in the previous sentence, but it is the subtext in some contemporary conversations about LoR and LoR writers.  The point to be made for the purpose of this conversation is that a weak letter of recommendation from a Rock Star likely does less good for a candidate than a strong letter from a low-ranking lecturer that no one has ever heard of.

So, in summary: a) Professors have no obligation to write you a strong letter, so make writing a letter as convenient a task as possible, b) You are not nearly as memorable as you think you are, so include samples of your work in your request for a LoR and mention those connections that you did make with the professor or administrator–even if they seem off-topic, and c) The goal is merely to collect strong recommendations, so only solicit letters from people willing to write strong recommendations–even if their names are “up in lights.”

Tomorrow: The One-two Punch: Stage One – Informal requests

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Why This is Here: Thoughts on MAPH & the “Maphmatically Yours” Experiment – Part 1

I’m proud to say that unlike that other Voice, readers of Maphmatically Your’s ‘voice’ have never once been menaced by the possibility that Christina’s breast was about to pop out of her dress during a particularly animated post.  You’re welcome.

A long, long time–almost nine months–ago I wrote the first posts at Maphmatically Yours including a two part “Prologue” explaining how I came to be studying at the University of Chicago and a somewhat provisional piece called “Maphmatics: Cost/Benefit Analysis” that focusing on question of the MAPH program’s value.  Those earliest posts were my first attempts to identify and fill a void in the literature available about UChicago’s highest profile, secret program.  The goal was, first and foremost, to establish myself as a voice–hopefully sufficiently “normal” to allow folks to relate–and second, to use that voice to answer the questions that I, myself, wanted most to know about MAPH in the days and months leading up to the program.

While the fantastically “hedgy” caveat “your mileage may vary” has frequently been attached to various opinions and anecdotes I’ve shared over the MAPH program’s ups and downs, I do still consider my experience to be fairly representative of the stresses, successes, and overall educational contributions of the program.  However, I would caution future MAPHers that my experience of securing a job, in my field, at the institution that I most wanted to teach is not and should not be considered the norm in any sense.  I owe my job to three years of building relationships with the people of that institution and their willingness to go well above and beyond the call of duty to get me a position.  I have been blessed with gifts ways above and beyond anything that the MAPH program might have to bestow upon its students.  But that being said, the program does do its dead-level-best to connect students with internships, externships, community and city college professorships, and at least a handful opportunities to vie for professional positions.

So, looking back at my “Prologue” and ‘Analysis, how do I feel about MAPH & Me now?

1) Yeah, people are rarely the candidates they think they are and I was a horrendous risk for any Ph.D. program.  While my research goals might have seemed very specific and nuanced when I wrote them–from the perspective of a undergraduate with only three years of philosophy courses under my belt–in reality they were terrifically broad and undeveloped.  Looking back, from the perspective of an admin board, I’m not even sure if I could have been matched with the doctoral adviser based on the information provided in my proposal.

Coming out on the other end of the MAPH I have a very tightly packaged research proposal for a future Ph.D. candidacy with some great letters of recommendation and a very solid transcript from a top-tier school.  My writing sample sets the stage for the work I propose to do and provides a framework for considering who might best help me write my thesis.

2) Look, it is still almost impossibly difficult to get into a top school’s PhD program and I’m not sure that I’d expect it to become easier anytime soon.  That being said, I’ve learned that in most schools GPA, test scores, and even writing samples are far less significant to who gets a Ph.D. spot than letters of recommendation laser-focused research proposals.  The combination of a letter testifying that you can do the work and a proposal that outlines a very specific set of work you want to do come together powerfully for schools concerned about students taking nine years to get their degree or ultimately dropping out with a Masters as their time for completion runs out.  UChicago is one of the rarer schools that focuses on a student’s writing sample and tries to scoop up the best and the brightest–even when they are still a bit raw and unfocused.

3) I was both right and wrong when I said that U of C’s MAPH program felt like a supportive environment for its Masters students.  The reality is that the program itself–the MAPH Core, the MAPH staff, and the mechanisms therein are very supportive, but that support is meant to shift from the shoulders of the staff to those of your thesis adviser.  As such, some are better than others at being both available and helpful in the latter two-thirds of the course.  I’ve found that many professors are strapped for time and getting help and support is a complex and time-consuming dance of cancelled office visits, ignored emails, and harried moments in the hallways between classes.  Some are amazing and do amazing things with their students, others are simply too busy to take anything like an active interest in their students work.

4) Yeah, MAPH students get what they pay for at least in as much as they are determined  fight for it.  The question of whether the MAPH program is a “piggy bank” program designed to fund Ph.D. candidates is already a non-starter.  Everything that any student pays the institution for could be construed as funding anything that the institution gives toward anything else.  The real question is whether MAPH students receive the education that they pay for.  All things considered, it seems to me that many MAPH students will find that getting their money’s worth necessitates going to lengths to secure the attention and support of faculty and administration far beyond those they pursued in their undergraduate days–at least after the one-third mark of the program.

So, as the “voice” of Maphmatically Yours I’ve had to set myself straight once or twice–and I still have a bit more of that to do before I wrap this blog up.

Tomorrow, thoughts on the blog experiment itself.

A Second Quarter Stretching Part 4: After all this, you want a job, too?

Do as I say, not as I do…

Hello again, all.  We’ve spent a fair amount of time perseverating over how one’s choice of ivy/ivy-plus or smaller private colleges, analytic or continental focus, Rock Star adviser or associate professor might, possibly effect one’s chance finding favor with a graduate admission’s or a search committee.  For those sick to death of all our speculative twattle, this isn’t going to be a post about how to best position oneself to find a position, it’s a post about the job hunt thus far.  Now, for the record we are relatively early in the academic hiring cycle.  Most desirable, top-shelf positions are advertised beginning in August, through November, with the quantity of ads dropping off significantly in December and January. Interviewing for these highly sought after positions typically begins in December and continues for a few months.  The winners of these preliminary interviews will then compete is a second round interviews in February and March with the hopes of securing incoming professors in the spring or early summer for arrival in the fall.  For those counting, that means the whole application and hiring cycle takes not quite a year to complete.  This audacious time table is one of the reasons that MAPH students hoping to secure an academic job after the 9 month program are frequently counseled to take a “gap year” after they graduate during which they will hop into the next season’s cycle.

Now, if this all seems terribly, horribly depressing for graduating MAPH students that really want or need employment over the next year or so–and don’t want to take a position as a Walmart “cart boy”–take heart in the fact that the preceding model is the one favored by colleges for positions they know in advance they need to fill and is desirable enough to warrant a lengthy search process.  City colleges, community colleges, and even private liberal arts schools frequently find themselves suddenly needing fill positions without the massive front-weighted process.  These are the jobs that get advertised in March, April, and May for positions starting in the coming Fall.  Fortunately for MAPH grads, these are the jobs that are more likely to look at a candidate with a Masters, rather than a Ph.D. and are frequently more willing to give a “green” inexperienced candidate a shot.

After all this, you want a job, too?

MAPHman:

Consistent with the academic hiring season, my concentrated job hunt began last October.  I made a trip back to my alma mater and spent three days talking to my former professors, attempting to meet with the provost, and generally trying to get a feel for my chances of returning.  I was straight up with them about why I was there and they were straight up with me that there wasn’t actually an opening in the philosophy department–but they’d see what they could do.  About two weeks ago, I received an email offering me a two year contract to adjunct some upper level philosophy courses, TA some Core philosophy courses, and potentially pick up a few sections of required freshmen orientation type classes.  Now, if all that sounds too magical and amazing to be true–it is–or more specifically that story doesn’t actually start at the beginning.

To make a long story reasonably short, I decided in the Spring of my Freshman year I wanted to be a philosophy professor.  From that point on I spent much of my time watching my professors to try to discern what techniques and attitudes distinguished the great ones from the merely okay ones.  This lead to many, many hours of talking to my professors about their approaches, their pedagogical influences, and how they envisioned their task.  I learned about how to teach, but I also became deeply invested in who they were as people and–I think–at least some of them became invested in me.   At this point I was still thinking I might want to teach in a prestigious university like the one’s I hope to attend.  I studied at Oxford as part of a study abroad program and by talking with Dons there, I learned about what it was to be a professor at a prestigious research oriented school.  By the time that I graduated from my undergrad institution, I realized that I really only wanted to teach in a place that shared my intellectual, idiological, and faith commitments–in short, I wanted to teach with these folks I’d come to know and love.

Now, one way to read this story is that I somehow ingratiated myself to the professors and administration through carefully calculated, tactical alliances–like an academic version of Survivor.  However, the reality is that I made no bones about the fact that I wanted to teach at this school.  I talked with the school’s provost and its president just prior to graduation and said “Hey, I’m going to Chicago, but I want to come back and teach here.”  Now, they didn’t offer me a job on the spot–in fact they didn’t even appear very interested in the prospect.  But I put all my eggs in their basket and let them know that I’d done so.  I don’t know if I’d recommend following my lead.  My connections with faculty members and deans grew organically, but there was a point where it came down to saying “I really miss all of my friends here, and I’m really enjoying seeing everyone again, but I also need a job!  I could have lost both my connections with those people and–even more significantly–my friendships with them.

My “job hunting” hasn’t interfered with my work in MAPH because the vast majority of it was carried out in the course of the last two years.

Bill:

The good news is that job hunting has not interfered drastically with my thesis, workload, nor personal life. Thus ends the good news. The bad news is that my experience has not been all that wildly successful. I applied to a few high school teaching jobs, and got no takers. In all fairness, I knew no one at the schools, and I have been told time and again by MAPH staff and others, that networking and Knowing Someone is key. If you DON’T know someone, they tell me, go meet them. That’s what I have yet to do. I’ll be expanding my search, and looking closely at (read: hoping desperately for) the various MAPH mentorship/internship/externship/battleship opportunities that are presented in April. Since I hope to be in a PhD program year after next, I only “need” a job for a year, which takes some of the pressure off. If I don’t get into a program, however, well…I’m working really hard not to think about that possibility.Truth be told, I suspect I may be in denial about my future overall. I want to do a PhD, despite the fact that jobs are fewer and further between every year. Maybe I, like MAPHman, will win the job-hunt jackpot if/when I finish a degree, but I’m not really a betting man, especially when the odds are so very much not in my favor. So far, learning to be a better researcher and teacher is the thing I most want to do in all the world, which is why I came back to school after being (reasonably successful) in the professional arena. As they say, if there is ANYTHING else you might want to do outside of academia, you should. Alas, it is foremost for me, despite the fact that it is a career whose future is shrouded in utter bleakness.In fact, I now find myself unreasonably depressed after addressing this question. Thanks a lot, MAPHman. I need to go stand in the sunshine and watch the squirrels frolic until I can again block out harsh reality. Get thee behind me, uncertain future!

Tomorrow – Part 5: Last Words

A Second Quarter Stretching Part 2: Praise, Prejudice and Thesis Advisers

What?  Why would you feel anxious about meeting?  I’m your adviser–step into my office!

Hello MAPHsters, thanks for making the pilgrimage back to Maphmatically Yours!  In this second part of our look at MAPH’s second quarter, Bill Hutchison and I once again attempt to provide some perspective for those in the program as well as suggest that a healthy dose of fear is an entirely appropriate response for those considering MAPH.  As those prowling the halls of MAPHmatically Your’s Tree-top Fortress will know, much of MAPH student’s time effort and energy during the second quarter is focused on the selection, courting, and securing of a thesis adviser and working up an initial pass at writing the thing.  At this point in the school year students are, at least numerically speaking, supposed to be about half done with their thesis or about fifteen pages written.  In honor of the end of the second quarter, part two of this Second Quarter Stretching series will be focused on those folks that contribute most to a successful thesis–other than the person who actually writes it–thesis advisers.

Praise, Prejudice and Thesis Advisers

MAPHman:

I’ve already written extensively about my thoughts on the proper selection and cultivation of a thesis adviser so I’m not going to repeat myself here–anymore than necessary.  I have nothing but praise of the way the MAPH program facilitates the pairing of students and advisers.  It was not until I spent a lot of time speaking to Ph.D. students telling their horror stories about the difficulties of forcing advisers to read drafts, getting answers to emails, and even finding readers willing to schedule final defenses that I began to appreciate how streamlined and easy the MAPH version of this process is.  As philosophers, Bill and I had access to a particular adviser willing to make love connections on our behalf with professors in Chicago’s philosophy department.  While Bill’s adviser was already waiting for him in the English department, I know that having someone already familiar with my work vouching for me was invaluable in securing an adviser of Robert Pippin’s stature.  Also, because of the time frame involved, I get the sense that most Masters students actually have more access to their thesis advisers than even Ph.D. students can expect–as the time frame of a Ph.D. allows professors to put off meetings until weeks more convenient to them.

My particular experience working on my thesis differs markedly from Bill’s.  Bill had an idea when he came into the process and has been working steadily to further refine that idea through the many drafting/workshop days we’ve had scheduled.  In contrast, my first meeting with Dr. Pippin made me consider my topic from a profoundly different perspective than I had originally intended.  As a result I had at least three false starts trying to do a treatment of my thesis in accord with what Pippin wanted to see and really burned through the first half of the allotted thesis writing schedule with very little to show for it.  Now, at the midpoint I finally have thirteen pages that codify what I intend to argue and make the necessary conceptual and terminological distinctions to focus the project.  My relationship with my adviser is really just beginning, because I was too afraid to meet with him when I didn’t have all my ducks in a row–an unintended consequence of having a Rock Star professor for an adviser.

Bill:
I don’t know how it will end up during the last quarter, but the first and second quarters have been markedly different experiences for me. I think that’s likely a result of the difference in the work from one quarter to the next. Because I started my work with my thesis adviser in the first quarter, which I think is a bit unusual, I was transforming a long paper written for that class into an early draft of my thesis while I was still taking a class with my adviser. Last quarter, I wasn’t taking a class with her and was working on my own more. I met with my adviser a couple of times and she gave me some good feedback, but the need to work on my own has definitely increased. That’s my biggest realization about thesis work – an adviser is precisely that. It may sound obvious and naïve, but the thesis writer drives the project. When I have something to talk to my adviser about or need feedback, I get it, often by email. I’ll admit that she hasn’t been as available or responsive this last quarter, but she’s got at least one other MAPH advisee, at least one undergraduate advisee, and likely some PhD students. On top of that, she’s on sabbatical next year, so I expect preparing for that consumes some of her time. As much as I sometimes want a cheerleader, ubiquitous and offering hot cocoa when I’m not sure where the hell to go next, this is far better training for doing the kind of academic work I want to do, which relies precisely on being self-driven. My perception of her hasn’t changed: I still think she’s really, really cool. And smart. And she tells very funny stories, sometimes by accident.
I have supplemented my adviser with, as the MAPH program dictates, working with my small precept group. I have found their comments and those of my preceptor to be invaluable additions to my adviser. Each of them – including MAPHman – offer their thoughts from very different perspectives than the others. Some don’t know my source material, so that gives great help in ensuring my clarity. Others, like MAPHman, do know my source material and come well-armed with all sorts of hole-pokery when we meet.
Also, HALF-done? Are you kidding me? I have been 40 percent done for weeks, and somehow, every time I get a little further, I find that I am still only 40 percent done!
Up tomorrow – Part 3: Men on a Wire.

MAPH Mailbag: Between an MA and a Hard Place

Philosophizing with a hammer…

I will graduate this Spring with a philosophy degree from Colorado State, and recently got an acceptance letter from Chicago’s MAPH program and Boston College’s MA in philosophy. I’ve heard from some people who have gone to Chicago that it is sometimes difficult to study in the areas that you would like there. Are professors willing to work with you in the areas you want to study, or do you have to work on their pet projects? Also, I’ve heard that MA degrees in general aren’t a good idea because you wind up paying for something that PHD students get for free. Should I go to Boston or Chicago or take a year off? I’ve heard mostly negative things on Grad Cafe, but when I talk with folks in the program they seem to disagree. Help!

(name withheld by request)

Thanks very much for your questions! As a fellow philosopher, I hope that this blog can be a real insiders view of the program for you. First, congratulations on being accepted to two great programs. I have two friends who have graduated or are currently working towards degrees from Boston College and I have nothing but respect for Boston’s Ph.D. program.

I would not go so far as to suggest that Chicago philosophy profs are unwilling to work with students on their preferred projects—but I will say that some projects are easier to “sell” than others. First, in all likelihood the research proposal that you crafted for your Ph.D. application probably isn’t very good. Now, before you start spamming the comment box with hate mail, hear me out. I came from a good program, had a lot of help from great professors, and even ran my proposal past a person on a university’s admission board—and looking back on it after having written a thesis proposal for Robert Pippin at UChicago I can honestly say that my earlier effort sucked. Sometimes I think people misinterpret professor’s advice designed to sharpen a proposal as somehow intended to “taking over” a student’s project. Proposals can suffer from too broad a scope or too narrow a scope. They can be concerned with too old a topic or try to make too much of a recent a research fad. Sometimes you can have a wonderful research idea that—for whatever reason—cannot be crafted into a viable research question. In general, my sense is that UChicago profs are pretty open to a wide variety of philosophical areas—but not every prof is willing to take up the questions you have in mind.

That being said, there are some ground rules worth knowing. First, if you want to work with a Rock Star you’ll probably have to be more flexible with your project. Second, you will need to look in the right places to find thesis advisers interested in your preferred area. In general, the divinity school is the place to go for Continental interests and the philosophy department harbors those with an analytical bent—read the professor’s bios online to see who fits into which camp, though. Since MAPH students can work with any professor at the school who is willing to take them on, it is just a matter of barking up the right trees. Third, presumably you applied to UChicago with a certain philosopher in mind for your future Ph.D. adviser—that person who does just exactly the sort of work you are interested in. However, there are some folks who apply to Chicago just based on its prestige or location or for other reasons and who might discover that no one at UChicago does their flavor of work. For example, I have a friend who is a committed Thomist and was completely unable to find a thesis adviser more knowledgable on the subject of the Good Doctor than himself. Similarly, another of my acquaintance is deeply into the moral and political philosophy of Ayn Rand and had to expand her topic to secure a knowledgable adviser. To be honest, if one doesn’t know of someone working in a particular school who has written on the sorts of subjects they are interested in–or at least works in the same tradition– that person should probably avoid applying to that school in the first place.

With regard to MA programs verses Ph.D. programs, the plain and simple reality is that more competition for fewer funded Ph.D. slots means that more students are going to have to settle for a Masters degree even when they really wanted a shot at the Ph.D. That being said, there is nothing wrong with waiting another year and re-rolling. If you take the time to strengthen your writing sample and other application materials and are more fortunate the second time than you were the first, you will be glad you waited. However, the nice thing about a rigorous program like MAPH is that it quickly dispells any lingering pollyannaish views of grad school. Most of the incoming MAPH philosophers this past year came in with every intention of going on to a Ph.D. As of one quarter in, the vast majority have decided to go the professional route—at least for the time being. (Myself included). If things continue as they seem to be, in a few years all but the absolutely jaw-droppingly brilliant and well-connected will need to pay their dues in a masters program before receiving serious attention from a Ph.D. admissions committee.

I don’t know why so many malcontents seem to lurk around Grad Cafe. I sometimes wonder if there aren’t a few folks who get a charge out of flaunting fictional admissions to top-tier schools and disparaging every one—in the real world–who failed to secure one of those prestigious candidacies. Many top-shelf schools don’t have terminal masters programs currently. I think this is a hold-over from the halcyon days when most people of even average qualifications could manage to go straight from their bachelors degree to a Ph.D. The prestigious schools that still offer masters degrees tend to get the “piggy bank” label and, to some extent, the label is appropriate. There is no doubt that I am funding Ph.D. students with my 42k, but that’s how it works—if I had been a better candidate with better application materials and credentials I would have been one of those being funded instead of doing the funding. However, it is not as though I’m not getting anything for my money. I have access to the best and the brightest in the field—philosophers like James Conant, Jean-Luc Marion, Robert Pippin, and many, many others—and I have nine-months to soak up all I can. While a degree from UChicago isn’t going to magically get you into any Ph.D. program if your grades are so-so and your thinking is sloppy, a well written thesis and letters of recommendation from “name” professors are going to at least get some attention.

So, Boston or Chicago or a year to re-roll? I guess you need to ask yourself whether your application materials were really representative of who you are as a candidate. If you really believe that you are capable of securing a top-tier Ph.D. slot, then perhaps it would be worth polishing up your application materials and saving some money. If, however, you recognize that the folks getting those positions have something a little extra that you don’t, you might want to apply to a masters program to give yourself a leg up.

If you have a question about MAPH, Hyde Park, or University of Chicago graduate studies in general, I invite you to email us here at maphmaticallyyours@hotmail.com and see your questions get the “insider” treatment.

Mr. Mennella’s Guide: Advisers and Adviser Selecting Apparatuses

I believe that our guest-blogger today truly believes that I have never once said anything positive about anything–ever.  Perhaps it was the way that we first met, when I shared the lofty qualifications of friends of mine who had secured Ph.D. candidacies–and failed to secure candidacies despite their impressive and singular talents. Perhaps it is because he holds me up as a paragon of ivory tower academic snobbery–one of those who would not be expected to deign to discuss the affairs of the homeless after a screening of The Interrupters and who have no love in their souls.  Perhaps, it is merely because I do not drink beer, and as such, how could I possibly hope to be happy or satisfied with anything in life sans the libation that is the root of happiness?  For whatever reason Vincent Mennella has decided that I spend most of my life complaining–and perhaps he is right.  However, I hope that just this once he will not believe that I am complaining when I say that this post could not have been more timely or more appreciated.

…..

At the request of the mighty MAPHman, I am offering my unique account of selecting a thesis adviser. The title I have selected denotes two distinctive themes—however, neither of them is in homage to Louis Althusser and French social thought. Advisers are people and, therefore, possess a number of distinctive qualities that may or may not be beneficial in constructing an impressive thesis. Adviser selecting apparatuses are unique systems imposed by the UChicago philosophy department to guide, coerce, and complete the adviser selection process for students working with a member of the philosophy faculty.

I’m someone who really thought twice about attending UChicago’s MAPH program. If you are a philosophy student who has recently asked about graduate study in philosophy, then you have probably been asked the question: “is there anything other than philosophy that will make you happy?” and “if so, why not do that instead?” I have never managed to make it to the second-half of the question, because I’ve always answered the first “no.” In fact, after logging ever more hours at OfficeMax last summer, I returned to that perennial gut-check only to discover that my response had matured from “no” to “NO!” Do I have interests other than philosophy that make me happy? Sure I do. I love playing with my metal band, drinking fine, dry, and aggressively hopped or strong Belgian-style ales with my droogs, and trekking across the golf course. I had to think twice about attending Uchicago, because I knew that pursuing the work here would require doing all those other things I love differently than I had back home. Further, I knew that the friends and fellow musicians I’d be leaving are some of the best people the world has to offer and accepting Uchicago’s offer would be—hopefully—the first step in a long process that would end in having uprooted myself to pursue philosophy. So I had to put the question to myself again: did my love of philosophy really trump all other consideration, did I think anything else could make me happy? I’m in the program so you can guess my answer, but my words of wisdom for any potential MAPH philosophy students is that your answer to that infamous question needs to be a resounding “NO!” before you take the plunge.

I finished my undergraduate studies at University of Denver. You won’t find it on the Leiter Report (Philosophical Gourmet), because they don’t offer graduate studies in philosophy. What they do is educate undergraduates, and if you ask me, they do it very well. Jere Surber, Naomi Reshotko, and Bill Anderson might publish some good work, but their legacy has little to do with the publishing recorded in their Cvs. Their real legacies are the students they’ve had such an impact on. Part of that impact was to impress upon me the importance of having any future adviser take an active role in my thesis project. I know that my MAPH thesis has to be my best work to date, and I also know that my best work in the past has always come about through connections with faculty members. This cooperative process of discovering my argument is a distinctive method—quite different from the method employed by individuals who create their arguments hermetically.

Some of you may want to ask me “if you were educated by such great people at such a great school, then why aren’t you working on that doctorate now?” and that is a fair question. For clarity’s stake, I did only finish my degree at DU, after I had spent my first years at a State College in Colorado. The impact of that composite transcript and my abysmal GRE scores have helped lead me here to UChicago, or rather, I’m here despite those issues. That is to say, I’m convinced the reason why I was denied doctoral positions wasn’t because my writing sample didn’t make it far enough down the stairs in the admissions building, but because my philosophical skills do still need sharpening. My hope is that a year at this place will provide all I need to secure one of those coveted funded Ph.D. positions.

After explaining the nature of my project I’ll explain my adviser selection process. I’m a Kantinental philosopher. That’s right I’m not an analytic philosopher clad in a sport coat and wingtips, and I’m not an artist from the continent trying to paint reason with words. I’m a Kantinental philosopher, so my philosophical interests attempt to solve problems by “bringing reason to its full satisfaction” and are firmly entrenched in the history of philosophy. My thesis project concerns Kant, Davidson, McDowell, and responses to skepticism. Given my background and given my project, I was able to form of list of what I needed in a thesis adviser.

1) I need someone who will give me the time I need to help me discover how to say what I want to say about a body of literature.

2) I need someone who has expertise in Kant and exegetical issues related to using Kant’s work in ways that might be contentious.

3) I need someone who has a firm grip on contemporary philosophy.

4) I need a significant, or preeminent, philosopher who will attract the attention of admissions committees so I can keep doing philosophy.

The fourth need is not really a need. It’s what you would call a need surd. It can’t be properly expressed as a need. What matters in selecting a thesis adviser is that you find someone who will help you develop the best product, because if you don’t have a good project, then admissions committees won’t let you keep doing philosophy in the ivory tower. My belief is that while a student with a great project who lacks a preeminent adviser can get into doctoral program and a student with a great project and a great adviser can get into a program, a student with a snoozer of a project and a great adviser won’t find a program. Do these propositions differ in respect of their sense or in respect of their form? Was Russell right or was Frege right? Having said that, doctoral admissions are a crap-shoot, and if it puts a smile on your face to tell your friends back home “I worked with professor big shot such-and-such”, then by all means: do it.

So who did I select to be my adviser? I selected Professor S. He’s a good friend of the MAPH program co-director Ben Callard, and Ben is part of the Adviser Selection Apparatuses that guides, coerces, and completes the process of selecting a thesis adviser. When I met with Ben we went through an exhaustive list of faculty members who could have interests that intersect with my own.

Professor P possesses a work ethic and a personality I could really enjoy working with. He can offer me the time I need to do my best work, but his interests are in a different direction. (Bad choice)

Professor Q is teaching course material I’m interested in right now, and can offer me the time I need to do my best work, but his expertise is truly in other areas. (Bad choice)

Professor R and I have a great number of intersecting interests, but after taking a course with him in the Fall I know there is no way he could find the time I need to help me do my best work. (Bad choice)

Professor S and I have some intersecting interests. He really cares about his students. He is an experienced, but not overworked, emeritus professor. (Good choice)

Ben and I settled on Professor S. He lacked some expertise in a particular area that is really important to my project, but Ben told me “You know, there are a lot of people who have jobs in this department, and one of those jobs is talking to you, during office hours, about this project, so if you would like to see them, don’t be afraid to do so” then he added “and that includes me”. I doubt dropping that line will supplant “can we discuss my term paper” the next time I approach Professor R, but Ben’s a good guy and I’ll certainly be going to see him. He’s someone worth learning from. After my meeting with Ben, I spoke with my preceptor, another figure in the adviser selection apparatuses. I told him that Ben and I were convinced we should pursue Professor S” and my preceptor agreed—as Professor S is the only person who meets all four of my criteria.

So at this point, given the careful consideration that I’d given the question, the meetings with Ben, the liason between the MAPH program and the Philosophy department, and my preceptor, you’re probably thinking that my adviser is Professor S, right? Nope, you’re wrong. I met Professor S, and while it is true that he agreed to be my adviser, using the power-vested-in-him by the adviser selection apparatuses, Professor S claimed he had overextended himself, and could not meet my needs.

The adviser I have selected is Michael Kremer. He is an emeritus professor, has expertise in Kant and McDowell, and has deeply entrenched interests in the history of philosophy and contemporary philosophical problems. He even received his doctorate from a clique I wouldn’t mind joining in the near future. Given what I’ve said about my need for a cooperative advisory experience, I’m sure you can understand the reluctance I felt when considering working with an emeritus professor, but Michael is different. After talking to other students I heard things like: “He’ll do whatever he agrees to do, just out of obligation, but the cost of his time is doing lots of hard work in order to make productive use of that time” and “he’s great, he cares about your development as a student unlike other big shot faculty members who just don’t care”. I’m not trying to say that there aren’t other emeritus faculty members who care about their students, but I’m certainly pleased to have found one.

I have had my first meeting with Michael and it went very well. We are planning to meet every two to three weeks, and given what I have learned about Michael, there is no reason why I can’t expect that plan to work. Have you noticed that I’ve been calling Professor Kremer: “Michael?” Well, that’s another refreshing thing. I was surprised and pleased when a professor, especially one the quality of Michael Kremer, says “I’m Michael.” What do you go by?” While this move might not seem very important, if your outlook is as egalitarian as mine, and you’re in an environment like UChicago where you know people refer to Professor So-and-So as Professor So-and-So, even when Professor so-and-so isn’t around, and there is a certain lack of respect for students, it feels quite satisfying to learn that not everyone buys into the elitist attitude of the environment just because they have the right to do so. We’re all equally people, so why don’t we just drop the use of titles?

Walking out of the meeting I’ve got a solid signed proposal, with some lines of thought that have been referred to as “interesting”, and a positive outlook that didn’t exist after the fall-quarter. I expect my important, but perhaps short, relationship with Michael Kremer will be a rewarding one. However, I’m left with a real question: “Why didn’t the adviser selecting apparatuses match Michael and I up in the beginning?” This is where someone who knows more about the faculty, like the program’s co-director and my preceptor, could have made a valuable contribution. However, in the end, it all turned out the right way, and the adviser selecting apparatuses did give me the next few months to study with Michael.

What I hope future students will take away from my chronicle of advisers and adviser selecting apparatuses is 1) don’t accept the first adviser you meet with because you feel like you have to and 2) when you meet with your adviser for the first time I hope your fortunate enough to feel like myself or Alissa and Bill who also seems quite pleased with their selections. If you don’t feel optimistic, hopeful, or satisfied, then you’re probably feeling indifferent or disappointed, and I doubt that kind of relationship will help meet the daunting challenges posed by UChicago.

Miss Smith’s Thesis Adviser Selection Survival Guide

I am pleased to introduce yet another distinguished guest-blogger to all of you.  Alissa Smith is a fellow philosopher pursuing topics in logic and linguistic theory and shocked all of us in precept group when shared her hobbies includes building race cars–not just because she doesn’t look like someone you’d call to bore and stroke your V8, but because even philosophers believe that their ranks are filled with philatelists (stamp collectors) or numismatists (coin collectors) rather than people who do truly awesome things in their spare time.  In between attempts to convince the landlord to allow her to do oil changes in the parking lot, Alissa balances her course load, thesis research, job working with preschooler’s in Jump Start, and–I hope–sleep.

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Hello all! I hope you’ll welcome a new, and admittedly undeserving, voice to the MAPHmatically Yours blog domain. It’s hard to compete with the wit and prowess of prose of MAPHman and Mr. Hutchinson, but I’ll do my best and wish for your grace regarding my less-than-inspired offerings.

 I’ve been asked to relate my own experience in the thesis-adviser hunt, and while I’m grateful for the easy road my search has taken, my story doesn’t offer itself to compelling admonitions of angst or internal struggle in the dark of evening. I do feel, however, that it may have something to say on the way you choose to tackle the thesis-adviser choice (that is, if you’re considering or have decided to take on the delight that is MAPH). The philosophy cohort of MAPH has a pretty broad range in background; we all come from very different undergraduate (and for that, life) experiences. We all seem to have one thing in common, though – we know why we’re here, and most of us are intentional about just what it is we want to get out of MAPH. The majority of us want to supplement or stabilize our feeble or meandering philosophy backgrounds to make us viable candidates for PhD programs. From what I understand, this sort of pointedness about just what we’re paying our money for is a characteristic unique to the “philosophers” (I use scare quotes because that sort of label still carries with it far more responsibility than I’m willing to claim for myself). The English, Art History, Classics, etc. folk all seem to, by and large, be using this year to figure out just what it is they want to do with their interest in the humanities. That being said, I believe that the different experiences Bill and MAPHman have had in searching for a thesis adviser reflect exactly their respective missions to get the most “PhD fodder” they can out of the thesis experience. As does mine.

 It was a long line of detours and scenic stops that brought me to my place here at MAPH, experiences that involved a stint in the middle east, a brief foray into publishing, and a discovery that what I loved most to do, and had been so misguidedly trying to find a home for elsewhere, was philosophical investigation. I, like Mr. Hutchinson, tend to trust my intuition. I have what I call “God Moments,” in which I’m overwhelmed with a sense of certainty that I’m doing what I should be doing, that I’m where I’m meant to be. These sorts of moments have guided me to some of the most amazing experiences, those that I count to mark the timeline of my life. I don’t think you need to have had such striking revelations, however, to know what it is to feel at home in something. I believe anyone with a real love of learning, and an intuitive understanding of themselves, knows what it is to feel as though your skills and interests have found a place where they’re somehow fulfilling a need of larger humanity, that they’re being put to some sort of functional use and at the same time challenging you in a way that’s exciting and inspiring. You know what I mean, right? No?…

 I found this intersection of usefulness and inspiration in philosophy of language. I couldn’t get enough of the stuff. It blended my love of the beauty of words and story with my natural bent for logical analysis and mathematical precision. I love standing at the intersection of two domains of understanding which seem incompatible, and philosophy of language lets me do that. Trusting my interest and passion led me right into a thesis topic, one I was excited about and started piecing together and mulling over before I ever even considered a thesis adviser.

 This, I believe, is the key. When you trust your interests and your passions to choose a project for you, you can in turn trust your project to choose a thesis adviser for you. For me, my interests in the way the mechanics of language determine ethical considerations found a home in my project on evaluative terms, and my project on evaluative terms found a home with Prof. Malte Willer. It was an obvious choice. Prof. Willer is the “in-house specialist” on philosophy of language here at University of Chicago, with a particular interest in logical philosophy and semantics. It would simply be silly to choose any other adviser – there’s no one but Prof. Willer who could offer me the sort of critical eye and proficiency with the material essential to a finely-tuned and sophisticated thesis paper.

 Granted, there are “Rock Star” professors (as MAPHman refers to them) who I could have proposed my project to, ones who have tangential interests in philosophy of language, or who work on the topic but with a perspective entirely opposite my own. And, I’m sure their name on that signature line at the bottom of my thesis project would have been impressive. But, here’s what I know. I’m here at University of Chicago with a humble heart – I came from a small liberal arts college where there was ONE philosophy professor on staff… while he was fantastic and is a dear friend and mentor even today, there is no world in which I can claim a commanding proficiency in philosophical studies. I love to read, to learn, to explore, and I believe I know the merit, and the boundaries, of my own “smartness.” In no way, however, can I claim to not need the wealth of knowledge, experience, and perspective available to me in a perceptive, committed thesis adviser. A sophisticated thesis advances an idea or thought that hasn’t been addressed before in literature debating the topic in question, and that’s a risky business. Any sort of entrepreneurship in ideas should be guided by an expert who has spent some time in the business, who knows the pitfalls and the successes and can challenge you to an evolved and defensible argument. The point of the thesis, at least for me, is to assure the selection committees of prospective graduate programs that I’m entirely capable of graduate level thought and writing, and I don’t want to take chances on that. It won’t matter how big the name is on that adviser signature line if the thesis itself is less than stellar.

 Prof. Willer isn’t one of those Rock Star profs, sure. But he’s as excited about the aims of my project as I am… not because he’s young and has nothing better to do, but because he’s the right choice for my project. My project directly aligns with his own work, and we are two academics, sharing our passions for a subject few find as compelling as we do. In my opinion, that’s all that should matter in your thesis choice – that your adviser’s interests and abilities lend themselves to the project you’ve chosen, and that your project aligns with your own interests and abilities. This is where the most comprehensive and deeply satisfying critiques will be born, and where the most exciting refinement and development of your work will find its place. At the root of it, I believe (hear it now, in my most convincing preschool teacher voice) that there are no small advisers, only small projects. We’re all, professors and students alike, in a mutual search for knowledge, directed by our interests and passions, and there’s too little time to waste it struggling to work with people who’ve lost sight of the beauty and excitement of academic work. If you’ve found a Rock Star prof who finds your project captivating, all the better for you…you’ll have the dedicated critique and the fancy name. I believe it would be a mistake, however, to allow the advisor signature line to speak for you when your own interests and capabilities are much better spokesmen.