A few words about my experience at MAPSS, UChicago

Someone approached me on Twitter a few days ago with some questions about MAPSS. We had a short email exchange recently that I thought I'd share on here in case other incoming MAPSS students are interested in learning about my experience there. This is, obviously, just one anecdote about what MAPSS is like, but hopefully readers can gather some insights to inform their decisions or expectations.

Hi [redacted], 

 
Happy to help answer questions. I'll take them in turn, below.
 
Firstly, regarding cost: I totally agree with you. It's an, almost prohibitively, expensive program. I was very naive at the time of application and didn't really consider that too much. Now I'm glad I went forward with it because my life wouldn't be the same without the training I received at MAPSS. But if I were faced with the same decision again, and I soberly assessed my probabilities of success, I don't know if I could make the same call as a rational man. I'm glad I got lucky and fell at the tail end of that probability of success and can now afford to pay my student loans :-).
 
1. If you don't mind being frank, when and why did you decide not to pursue a PhD? 
 
 I took a couple of the first year PhD courses along with the first year PhD students who were starting in poli sci. It was clear to me right away that these students were better theorists, writers, thinkers than me. They came to MAPSS with better training, had written better undergraduate theses and were way better read than me. I knew I would have to play a lot of catch-up to get to their level, all the while they would be getting even sharper with access to tenured advisors, reading and writing just like I was.
 
One of the first year requirements for poli sci PhDs was a course called "Data Analysis," which was basically an intro into empirical reasoning. I found myself really enjoying discussions in that class, and we got a quick taste for statistical data analysis. I also talked a lot with my preceptor at that time about taking methods courses. My preceptor was honest about the positive experiences she had in methods courses and about how she was seeing her colleagues who were methodologists really succeed in the field. Combined with seeing what kinds of papers were making it into top journals, being a middle east studies student and not really finding [redacted] or [redacted] that impressive (Lisa Wedeen, unfortunately, was away that semester) and not really being super enthusiastic about writing about civil war and terrorism (that's what other ME poli sci people were writing about) - I pivoted to methods work.
 
I still ended up writing my thesis about middle east topics, but with more emphasis on statistical methods I used to push forward my argument.
 
2. Did you have a significant quant background before attending MAPSS? I also come from a Poli Sci/Poli Theory background...I was wondering how abrupt and difficult the transition was to more quant-oriented courses. 
 
I had no quantitative background before coming in to MAPSS. I, like a lot of people in the social sciences, never considered myself a "math person." I attended math camp before classes started and realized that I actually was better at remembering and applying concepts from high school than most of my peers. That was a heartening step, and boosted my confidence to take methods courses. 
 
While taking methods courses I frequented office hours (TA's and professor's) often. I also, almost always, completed problem sets as part of a group. I found it really frustrating to run into walls by myself and not know how to move on. But in groups, running into walls seemed less daunting. I'm certain I wouldn't have been as successful at those problem sets or methods work in general if it wasn't for classmate, TA and professor support.
 
I also found programing in R and Latex to be a fun exercise. It was my first time working with a low level programming language like R and the syntactical sugar of Latex was a fun challenge to work at. A few of my classmates hated coding, so they had a much harder time finishing problem sets and getting the most out of the course.
 
3. What is your experience of U Chicago's career services and alumni network? Did you avail yourself of those connections? 
 
I tried to use career services often, especially at the beginning of my time at MAPSS. The designated MAPSS career counselor, [redacted], was helpful but quickly directed me toward the larger career center. They basically sent me off to job fairs, and directed me to job sites like Idealist. Partially my own fault for not being more clear, but I never found career services (at UChicago or my undergraduate institution) to be very helpful. I think if you have a clear idea of what you want ("I want to go to law school" or "I want to be a management consultant"), these types of services can be more useful. 
 
Since I graduated, it seems to me that MAPSS has really gone much further in this area. [Redacted] (current MAPSS career counselor) has organized a lot successful programs (including the one where you caught my talk) and seems to have a much better approach to answering these questions, from what I can gather. 
 
4. What was your time at MAPSS like? Did you involve yourself in extracurriculars at all? Did you socialize a great deal with your MAPSS Cohort?
 
My time at MAPSS was very stressful, but overall the best intellectual growth opportunity I could've asked for. I lived in Wicker Park, away from campus, which was hugely helpful. An hour commute separating me from the stress and tension of coursework, writing a thesis, intense classroom debate, etc was very necessary. It allowed me to carve a life outside of MAPSS, spend time with people who knew nothing about my graduate work and didn't care about it and give my brain a break every night for a couple of hours. My peers at MAPSS, who lived in Hyde Park, all hung out with each other, all complained and gossiped about the same coursework, long hours, professors, etc. I think this had deleterious effects on their ability to perform at a high level and keep a clear mind about their goals.
 
I sang with the University choir a few nights a week, which was a nice break from course/thesis work as well. I spent many hours in the libraries, like others, but I tried to treat it like a job. I would arrive early in the morning and work as much as possible before, between and after courses, but I would wrap up and go home for dinner. I have some close friends from my MAPSS cohort, although they represent many disciplines beyond poli sci. I mostly spent time with them grabbing a drink after an evening class, or attending workshops together, or seeing a talk on campus. Oddly enough, most of the people I spent many hours in the library with, working on problem sets, I'm not close with anymore. Take that however you will, ha.
 
5. Do you have any tips or recommendations regarding the MAPSS experience that you would impart to someone beginning the program?
 
I think it's really important to set goals for yourself and keep yourself oriented toward those goals. That's not to say goals can't change, or that you need to know what you're doing on day 1, but 9-12 months is a very short time and UChicago is an immense place. Your intellectual curiosity can last you forever, but that won't help you figure out what you want to do once the program ends. I was lucky to figure out that I didn't want to apply to PhD programs after, so I focused on finding employment. I decided that I didn't want to let my thesis bleed over into the summer, that I wanted to take that time to find a job, so I worked to finish my thesis by March. I wouldn't have been able to do that if I didn't know way back in September that that was a goal for me. My preceptor, advisors and peers were able to help keep me on track because I made it clear from the onset that I wanted to meet every deadline and stay on track to finish my thesis by March. I also picked courses accordingly so the work I was doing for those courses could help me advance my thesis. Almost every chapter of my thesis came from papers I wrote for other classes. This was crucial in helping me workshop each part with a different scholar, and not double my work at the end. 
 
Although it's very important to stay focused on your ultimate goal, you'd be remiss to miss opportunities that UChicago has to offer that are basically only available at UChicago. I saw many amazing speakers, attended lots of great workshops, spent time in office hours with great scholars and got to know a lot of peers. These are things, I believe, you can do without straying from your own goals. They enhance the experience so much more than a 80 or 90 page thesis that shows the sum total of your knowledge about one topic.  
 
Sorry if I rambled on a bit here, I mostly meant to say everything that was on my mind without filtering too much. I imagine you have lots of ideas about these things yourself, so you can take or leave as much or as little as you'd like from this.
 
All the best as you prepare for the busy year ahead! I'm sure you'll have a great experience!