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My Experience as a MAPSS (UChicago) Anthro Student: Review


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Hey all, 

It has been a long time since I've been to this forum, but I thought I would write this post to share my experiences as an anthro major in undergrad to getting my MA through the MAPSS program at UChicago, and where I am now, in case any of you are wondering if it's worth it, or are just looking for some perspective in a field that is only getting more difficult to make something of, both academically and professionally. Please note that this review/perspective is from someone who decided *NOT* to pursue a PhD, but instead chose a non-academic career path.

Maybe you can relate to this feeling, but when I was in undergrad, friends and family smirked when I told them I was pursuing anthropology. "What will you do with it?" and all other questions ensued. I myself wasn't too sure what I was going to "do" with it; I believed college was for pursuing what made you feel whole, and the "job" aspect of it was only an afterthought. Immature and naive, especially for a student going some $25,000 into debt at an unremarkable California State University. I did it, and considered going into the Peace Corps and made it through the final interviews, but ultimately didn't go. I was working in customer service at a tech company, answering phones all day. Personal things in my life made me move from NorCal to SoCal and I was in my second round of applying to graduate school after being rejected by the seven programs I had applied to the year prior. That second cycle I was only admitted to UChicago's MAPSS program and after a month of anguish over whether I should take out more debt (I had 50% funding), I decided to do it. 

I'm not really a strong proponent for MAPSS.  I had spent hours and hours researching the program, talking to professors before I accepted, to educate myself on what my day-to-day would be like there. I found that the experience did differ pretty significantly from what I was told. It really was a grueling time, but that isn't to say it wasn't worth it.

Lowlights / Highlights of the Experience

-While I wouldn't call the program a "Cash Cow" program like so many LOVE to quip, there were aspects that made it feel that way, like the forced "Perspectives" course. That was far and away the most useless university course I've ever taken. It is a surface-level course that goes over different major concepts/canonical works of the various social sciences. It's bad enough we had to waste 2.5 hours of our lives once a week in the dreadfully boring lectures, but to make it worse, the grading for the midterm/final is so severe that it is set up for students to fail. Out of my cohort of about 240 people who were forced to take the class, only 17 people received an A or A- on their midterm, and the figure was lower for the final. I was told that anything less than a B+/B in graduate school is considered to be failing, so a B+/B is considered a C or C- in terms of GPA. I have no idea what the program's logic is to forcing you to take a class and then taking a blow to your GPA right out the gate. Seriously. ????? The fact that students are forced to take this course makes it feel like the program does it just to make more money off the enrollment or something and then kicks you while you're down on top it all.

-The MAPSS cohort is sadly what many have described. Most MAPSS students are not very intellectual--that's not to say they weren't "smart" in their own right, but they did not compare to the level of the other graduate students in terms of how intellectual they were. You could tell right away who was a MAPSS student in your classes versus PhD students. MAPSS students weirdly tend to have a sort of braggart, or pretentious, way about them when the things they would drivel on about were inane topics that you might find a newly-minted freshman undergraduate might talk about. I knew many MAPSS students who thought they were just so smart and would constantly, CONSTANTLY whine about the workload and how everything was so 'unfair'. It was insufferable to listen to because no one forced them to do the program, and the workload, while difficult, was not impossible (and, I had a part time job!). This being said, I made no friends at MAPSS. They lacked the maturity that I seem to find in PhD candidates or even some undergraduates.

-I did very well academically only because I lived and breathed the program. I had a part time job, but I was able to work from home which was a huge part in why I could dedicate myself wholly to the program. I spent almost all of my free time in the Regenstein library and it got to be depressing sometimes, but I found ways to make it somewhat positive (like always treating myself to hot tea or coffee and taking little breaks to draw). I think to be successful in MAPSS you have to be very independent and self-motivating; otherwise, it will be easy to lose sight of what you're doing/why. I think others have mentioned this, but do make it a priority to go downtown and explore the other neighborhoods of Chicago. I would "treat" myself to a bus/El ride and just go anywhere, to see something new, to see something that wasn't UChicago. It helped immensely. 

-I had read about the difficulties of finding an adviser/establishing a relationship early on with a potential adviser, so in my first quarter I zeroed in on the faculty member I really wanted to work with. I made sure to take at least one class of his every quarter, participated in all discussions, did all the readings, and did very well when it came to group projects. He would take smoking breaks and I would join him, or I would walk with him to his office after class. I didn't ask him to be my adviser until much later; I just built a relationship with him and got to know him and his work, and allowed him to get to know me. If you aren't a go-getter in this way like I was, I think finding an adviser is very difficult. I knew many people who had to have preceptors assigned as their advisers because they couldn't find anyone willing. 

-One of the saddest moments I had in the program was during the office hours with said adviser of mine. He told me that he didn't expect much in terms of quality from MAPSS students, but was sympathetic to their plight (earning a master's and doing fieldwork//research/composing a thesis in 9 months) and sort of graded based on that, which was very disappointing to hear. I had hoped I would be treated like any other PhD student who was completing the MA portion of their candidacy, but that's not the case. He also revealed to me that he knows of some professors who ban MAPSS students from taking their courses because of the inferior quality of discussion that MAPSS students bring to the table, which was heartbreaking to hear as well. 

-While all of these things are really disappointing about MAPSS, I will say that the academics of UChicago seriously changed my life. I am also someone who takes academic matters seriously, so maybe this isn't saying all that much, but the classes I took were some of the most amazing and beautifully taught courses I've ever taken. I was exposed to wonderful academic literature that will stay with me forever. If you are someone who appreciates knowledge and academic inquiry for its own sake, I think you will be hard-pressed to find a more rigorous university than UChicago. If MAPSS is the only option you have at this moment to experience that, I would say it's worth it for that alone.

Where I'm at Now

All this being said, I did well and graduated in Spring with only 20% of my cohort (the rest graduated in August). I earned an A on my thesis, but it likely was inflated because of my adviser's sympathies to the MAPSS program, which I struggle with when listing that as an "accomplishment". After graduating, I worked full time for a bit for the company I had been working for during the program, and took 3 months off to live in Hungary. While abroad I interviewed for market research positions/firms and landed a position at a very prominent global market research firm, I'm 25 years old and my starting pay is 75k which exceeded my hopes and expectations for earning potential as someone with a "useless" undergraduate and graduate degree in anthropology. I will be able to pay off my student debt and live decently on that income, which is what I personally could only have hoped for in taking such a huge risk to pursue what I loved, anthropology.

This is just one experience among many. I'm nothing/no one special, but I did work very hard in the program and I worked hard to secure a job that is related to my degrees and research interests. I did not "like" the program in the least, but I don't regret doing it. It was the most difficult academic year of my life and I did have to seek counseling in the Winter quarter which helped a lot- the student mental health services are very easy to access, so please avail yourself of that if you need it. 

 

I hope this review helped! 

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  • 4 weeks later...

My experience with MAPSS was somewhat similar (2011/12). I found the academic experience to be lacking, coming from a very strong anthro undergrad program and having done ethnographic research for my undergrad thesis and having already been published in a major journal. I spent much of my time in MAPSS by myself, studying and wishing for the program to be over and to be far far away from my cohort, many of whom did a lot of complaining and seemed arrogant for no reason. It's just not possible for most people to accomplish much in terms of research in nine months, and most of the UChicago professors know this. My advisor was mostly a joke and clearly didn't care about his MA students (really the feeling was mutual), though my preceptor was very helpful. I did graduate with an "A" on my thesis and with a 3.9 GPA after doing what felt like little new academic work (most of what we did in classes, except for 500 level, I had already read/analyzed as an undergrad). MAPSS was very much a tick in the box for my resume and a tick in the financial box for UChicago (read: cash cow), though I was on a partial scholarship. I went on to work in international development abroad and now hold a senior position at a U.S.-based organization which I enjoy. However I am waiting on PhD apps for Fall 2019 after six years of relevant work experience outside of academia, so we'll see about that.

I'd say if you're considering MAPSS, go in knowing that it's a short program and that it is what you make of it. It's more difficult to make professors take notice of you because they know you'll be gone in less than a year. Much of what you study might be repeat from undergrad, and your thesis will likely not be taken seriously (and why should it after two to three months of research?).

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  • 4 weeks later...

I created an account just to give my review of MAPSS, because I wanted to present a different and more positive perspective of the program. I just graduated as part of the 2017/18 cohort, and I am extremely thankful for the opportunities that the program has given me, and I can see that the program will be suitable for certain types of students. MAPSS is great for people who are serious about academia, and for those who aren't sure, the program is still great for you to decide whether academia is right for you. As many of MAPSS alumni will tell you, MAPSS will show you the worst of academia, and if you go through the program still having an interest in academia, then you know that academia is right for you 😃

For background purposes, I entered the program straight from undergrad after failing to get into any PhD programs I applied for. I managed to complete the program in nine months, wrote a thesis which I was proud of and that I got an A+ for (my advisor encouraged me to publish it), and so far have heard back from two of top choices in this Fall 2019 PhD application cycle.

The Lows of the Program

- The program is extremely compressed, and it consists of three quarters plus a summer. This means that you have a month to do fieldwork of any kind during winter break, and you pretty much need to have an achievable project in mind when you enter the program. Writing thesis and doing coursework at the same time is not easy, but there are ways around it, including using coursework for research and as fodder for your thesis. I asked my professors for some of my classes if I could use the final papers to flesh out sections of my final thesis, so in the end I did not have to write out a completely separate thesis and received very helpful, timely feedback from the professors at the same time.

- People here have mentioned that some faculty members do not look kindly on MAPSS students. That is true, and you need to learn to avoid them by speaking to other graduate and PhD students in the department to figure out who you can best work with. Even after finding an advisor, you will have to manage the advisor's schedule in relation to yours, i.e. they will not spoon-feed you and treat you like an independent, adult graduate student. You will have to take the initiative to set up meetings with advisors, tell advisors specifically what you need, when you need it by, and remind them of the deadlines of your program.

- Some of the MAPSS courses are terrible and substandard. I actually liked Perspectives and found it useful, but the few data/methodology courses that I took were mostly garbage (why did I sign up for more than one I seriously have no idea), and you can avoid them by just signing up for courses by actual professors beyond the MAPSS department itself. 

- As OP mentioned, the grading system of Perspectives is weird, because they gave out many Bs in general to "scare" students into performing and working harder during the midterms, and then usually recalibrate after the finals. Don't be too frightened about Perspectives in general.

The Highs of the Program

- I actually really liked the people in my preceptor group. I found them very perspective, friendly, and hardworking. So I beg to differ from the general view that MAPSS students are inferior; far from it. MAPSS is an extremely large program comprising diverse people of different majors and expertise, so I don't think it is very fair to say "MAPSS students are X" when really there are so many people of different backgrounds in there. 

- If you know what you are doing and have an idea of what you plan to get out of a one year's master's program, MAPSS is great for you, and you can even save more money and time by completing your thesis and graduating earlier than 90% of the cohort in June, which is what I did. A master's degree in 9 months from an accredited institution, is simply just crazy.

- MAPSS also writes a glowing letter from the department which can take the place of a letter recommender when applying for PhD programs, which is immensely helpful because you then only really need to look for two more letters for your applications.

- MAPSS has its own fantastic career services office that give loads of personalized advice and workshops right from the start of the program, and you can still contact them for their help in job search after graduating. 

- Being given many opportunities to participate in academic conferences and engage with people within the department. The amount of exposure you get in MAPSS is actually pretty good, but you need to be able to source those opportunities out and also talk to people within the department. The PhD students are always your best resource, and I made a few great friends in the department who were able to help me revise my master's thesis and also help me edit my PhD application proposals. IMHO, they are better resources than the professors themselves, and I would not have done so well without all the relationships that I have forged in UChicago. For perspective, I only met my advisor in person twice outside of class for my thesis and had two email exchanges with him before I submitted my thesis, and most of the help I got was from the PhD students and other students in the MAPSS program.

- You get to take life-changing, mind-blowing classes taught by established professors in their fields. 'Nuff said.

***You should only apply to/accept an offer to MAPSS if you have:

i. Enough funds or funding. Financing a master's education, even for a year and partially funded, is very expensive. You will also need to have enough funds to last you through a gap year after MAPSS if you are set on academia (see point three below).

ii. You are interested in academia or pursuing academia. MAPSS is not designed to be a professional or a terminal degree, so it will be a waste of your time if you are simply planning to enter industry right after graduation. 

iii. You can afford the gap year after MAPSS. MAPSS is only one year, but you cannot apply for a PhD program (I mean you can, but the department will not support you when you are applying just months into MAPSS) during MAPSS, which means that you can only apply for the following cycle of PhD programs. This means that you WILL have a gap year after MAPSS, and you need to plan that into your schedule, such as taking up part-time or full time work to tide you through. 

Hope this helps!

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  • 4 weeks later...

Thank you everyone for your thoughts. I have an undergrad from abroad. It's one of the leading universities in my country, but does not amount to much for me to enter the job market in the US (where I plan on working in the long term since I am a citizen). Is it really bad if I'm entering for: 1) the UofC label to help get me decent jobs after grad 2) to enter a professional field of communications or policy research after completing MAPSS? I plan on taking courses which are more quantitative to help achieve these goals.

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@purpleatheart1994 MAPSS is really what you make of it. I had a not so great experience with the MAPSS career department when I was there and looking for jobs in 2012 (they were basically useless for my line of work), but I'm sure other people had better experiences. There is absolutely no guarantee you'll land a job after a liberal arts M.A., so if that's your goal I'd think hard about it. Since you're a U.S. citizen, though, you won't have any time constraints, which is positive.

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11 hours ago, kandai said:

@purpleatheart1994 MAPSS is really what you make of it. I had a not so great experience with the MAPSS career department when I was there and looking for jobs in 2012 (they were basically useless for my line of work), but I'm sure other people had better experiences. There is absolutely no guarantee you'll land a job after a liberal arts M.A., so if that's your goal I'd think hard about it. Since you're a U.S. citizen, though, you won't have any time constraints, which is positive.

Yikes. I assumed an American degree would help me enter the job market. I have a friend who did MAPSS just for this, but that was a few years ago. Things may have changed.

I don't mind other issues that others have flagged, like the program being repetitive of undergrad coursework. I don't think my undergrad abroad is comparable. Fingers crossed. I've gotten into a public policy program at a state college which is very reasonable and can definitely help me land a job. But UChicago has been my dream school. It's hard to wrap my head around the idea of choosing not to go. 

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Don't take my word for it! There are many experiences out there. Just, getting a Master's in liberal arts doesn't really train you for any field in particular and employers know this for sure, and MAPSS is just 9 months. I'd suggest doing a two year program that will allow you to network more deeply, which is really how most people find jobs out of grad school as far as I can see. Just one person's opinion!

 

And if it's your dream school then go for it!

Edited by kandai
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