I wanted to share my experience with the University of Chicago’s MAPSS program. I know that when I applied to the program, and when I was deciding whether to enroll, I found it difficult to find reviews online. I’m hoping this post will be of use to others.
I was excited by the program because of its claims of offering a flexible curriculum and strong access to UChicago’s resources. I also was excited because the program bills itself as both a degree to prepare for a PhD, and, if students change their mind, as a versatile credential of employability.
However, I was extremely disappointed with this program. What was told to me by faculty members and by MAPSS staff during my April visit day, and what is advertised on the website (at least as of Nov. 2018), does not hold up in reality.
Indeed, I made the challenging—but correct—decision of withdrawing during the 3rd week of the first quarter. Why exactly?
INABILITY TO ENROLL IN CROSS-SCHOOL COURSES:
One of the appealing aspects of MAPSS is the purported ability to design a customized course of study. Indeed, UChicago bills itself as an interdisciplinary university that encourages cross-pollination among disciplines. One lecturer described the university to me as “America’s original think tank.” On the MAPSS website, the FAQ reads:
However, as I learned, UChicago is unique in that there is no centralized university administrative structure; each school only reports to itself. That has its benefits. It results in a degree of intellectual independence, and perhaps contributes to the university’s heterodox atmosphere.
But it also means that each school has its own unique and distinctive policies. Indeed, because each school reports to itself, there is no incentive for schools to communicate with each other about these differences. I learned this the hard way—twice.
For instance, I tried to enroll in a business school economics course at Booth, given that my research interests center on industrial organization. However, it was never communicated to me that the deadline for Booth registration was a week before classes—despite preemptively e-mailing MAPSS in September, two weeks before orientation, asking how I could enroll.
After attending the second course and submitting the assignment, I then went to the Social Sciences Dean responsible for registration. (Business school courses required in-person registration, and cannot be completed on the online student portal.)
The Dean then told me that registration was closed. I asked why this wasn’t communicated to me. Surprisingly—and I’m unclear why he shared this—he noted that MAPSS administrators intentionally decided not to share the deadline with students, because there was an “internal discussion” that students would be unable to enroll at all in Booth courses during the first quarter.
Naturally outraged at this, I then escalated this issue to the Dean of Students. I first told him that the course had 33 open seats and that I had since gotten the business school professor to petition on my behalf to the Booth registrar. However, whereas other schools assign more power to faculty than to administrators, at Booth, administrators manage faculty, to such a degree that they direct them in what courses to teach.
While the Dean heard my frustrations and was helpful, he suggested the only course of action would be to petition the Booth registrar, using his influence to try to sway the Booth Dean. When I asked for a timeline, he said it could take 3-5 days! I was thankful, but I shared this would leave me in a hard and unsustainable position. Was I to complete assignments for a course I may ultimately not gain admission to, while also shopping for courses in their second-week, trying to catch up on their assignments?
He advised I speak with the MAPSS Director (more on that later.) And sadly, this was only one course…
I also enrolled in a public policy statistics course, as was suggested to me by my preceptor (an advisor to MAPSS students, who is either a current PhD student or postdoc.) The course was billed as being open to any student, regardless of division. But as I learned at the end of the first week of classes, Harris (School of Public Policy) students were required to complete a 2-3 month summer module on R, a programming language.
Again, I was frustrated this was never communicated to me. And frankly upset at the position I now found myself in—two courses I would be unable to enroll in, and two-weeks behind in all other classes. I tried to see if I could make the best of the stats course by trying to gain access to the R module. I wanted to have, at the very least, all the necessary resources so I could try as hard as possible to succeed.
Understandably, but disappointingly, Harris did not grant me access to this online module as I wasn’t a Harris student. When I asked the MAPSS director to subsidize the $300 cost, I was told I could attend a weekly R course in the computer science division. Again, this was a deflection that didn’t address my issue. I was then advised to consider enrolling in an undergraduate statistics course.
I was shocked that a school as reputable and as esteemed as the University of Chicago oversold the ability of MAPSS students to enroll in professional school courses, nor was willing to work with me to find worthy substitutes.
INFERIOR PERCEPTION OF STUDENTS:
I also was disappointed that some faculty and many students from professional degree programs perceive MAPSS students as inferior. This creates a strange dynamic between UChicago graduate students, and limits the ability of MAPSS students to partake in UChicago programs, find a research advisor, and seek out extracurricular opportunities.
This perception, justified or not, traces to the belief that MAPSS students are either (1) not smart enough to have gotten into PhD programs or are (2) wealthy students with the money to ‘buy’ the UChicago name. This was not something I would have known until I was on campus, but it quickly became apparent that saying I was in MAPSS made me a less appealing candidate to thesis advisors.
In some respects this makes sense. Faculty have limited time and are more likely to benefit by taking on a PhD student, who is more accomplished and less ‘risky.’ Regardless, these perceptions add an additional obstacle for MAPSS students trying to take advantage of UChicago's resources and opportunities; there is additional energy necessary to "earn respect" as a MAPSS student.
MAPSS’s tendency to pigeon-hole students into pursuing one means of study, or to focus in one discipline, also was disheartening. When I expressed the above concerns to three deans from separate schools and to an ombudsman, I received some advice and tools to help me get back on track—despite it now being near the end of the second week of classes.
But the Director of MAPSS suggested to me I was “doing the degree wrong—that MAPSS was not a professional degree.” He suggested I pivot my interests to Political Science, even though that was adjacent to my research interests. The lack of support in helping me achieve my academic and professional goals was disappointing, especially when I had proactively sought help and advocated for myself.
If the program had been upfront in saying social science courses are encouraged, that there are limited options for cross-school enrollment, and that the degree is largely and exclusively an academic research degree—which does not double as a fall-back professional credential—I would have understood. And I would have known the program wasn’t for me.
However, this is not how the program is advertised—currently, at least.
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My advice is to stay away if you have a career, live in a different city, and believe the degree can be leveraged to advance beyond an entry-level position and/or lay the groundwork for a career-change. The website uses a lot of embellished marketing to convince students of the degree's value, and it is very much geared toward attracting students who have an unclear sense of their next steps. I admit I myself sat a bit in this latter camp.
On the other hand, if you’re a recent college graduate (1-2 years out), 100% committed to academia (and, seriously, I mean 100%), are looking to gain ‘basic research’ experience, or come from a ‘non-brand’ school, the degree I think could serve its purposes. Whether it's worth 30k to 50k, is a personal decision.
I do disagree with the conventional critique about the program: it’s a cash cow that offers sub-par learning. Even if it may be a cash cow for the Division of Social Sciences, the academics at UChicago are strong. And the amount of resources the university wields is impressive. It’s just hard to access those resources as a MAPSS student.
The MAPSS Career Office is growing, I believe, but was constantly overbooked. Two staff members are responsible not only for the 200+ students in MAPSS, but also for students in a program called CIR and for another Master’s program whose name I forget. Appointments starting from mid-October 2018 were booked one month in advance.
The quality of preceptors varies. They have a huge caseload of advisees and also are responsible for teaching a mandatory 2-hour section of the “Perspectives” class each week. My preceptor had limited English abilities and did not drive strong conversation among students. I have heard students who were satisfied with their sections (even if from 5:30-7:30 on Friday!), so I think this varies preceptor by preceptor.