Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Bill Hutchison, MAPH ’12, who is a now a PhD candidate in English at the University of Chicago. Bill will be on Sunday’s alumni panel.
Hello, potential MAPH students! I’m an alumnus of the program from 2011-2012, and worked in the program as a mentor the following year. Now I’m a second-year PhD student in the English department at University of Chicago. I want to get one thing out on the table between us before you read this. I want you to know where I’m coming from. I’m a big, big fan of the program. I’m neither apologist nor evangelist, but definitely a proponent. If you want skepticism, seek elsewhere. Do MAPH right and it will change your life, or so say I.
1. Do a Thing Because You Want to Do That Thing, Not Because You Want to Do Something Else
Come to MAPH because you want to sharpen your mind and learn to be a better human, not because you want to “be a professor.” And let’s be honest about that, too. Some of the best advice I got from an advanced PhD student working as one of MAPH’s astonishingly bright instructors was: “Get a PhD because you want to write a dissertation, not because you want to be a professor.” It’s smart advice. The American Association of University Professors says that 76 percent of university staff appointments are for non-tenure track positions. The nature of academia is in flux, and romantic notions of academia and “being a professor” can blur the realities of the world so many of us want to be a part of. If you come to MAPH, come because you think it’s awesome (you’re right). Instrumentalizing the program as a way to do something else is a good way to miss big and important chunks of MAPH. Come to this program if you want to do something amazing while you are in the program. That seems like the best way to do amazing things later, too.
2. You Will Change Your Mind About a Lot of Things a Lot of Times: Go With It
I was totally, totally sure what I was going to write my thesis on. I was going to write about the industrialization of animals, and was going to do it in the Philosophy department. I actually ended up writing my thesis on animality and The Island of Doctor Moreau in the English department. Yeah, there’s a bit of conceptual overlap in my actual thesis and lumpy mass of ideas I originally thought I wanted to write about.
But I found a set of ideas in MAPH that were totally unexpected, and I found them in a class I would have had no intention of taking when I started the program. This is not a unique experience. Don’t resist these experiences. Ideas like to be alive and jump around and do unexpected things. Professors here frequently talk about “the graduate student imagination,” and part of that imagination is learning how to interact with those ideas in a way that doesn’t involve cooping them up and contorting them into unnatural shapes. Follow your ideas around; they go such interesting places.
3. I Don’t Know How One Does This, But Try to Let Go of Your Ego
I’m realizing now that all the things I have to say are basically the same pieces of advice said in different ways. Nevertheless, MAPH is an intense experience. I like to say that it’s impossible. But that’s one of the amazing things about it. By the end, you have accomplished something impossible. It’s impossible to take 150% of the PhD student workload and write a high-quality thesis in a year. It can’t be done. And yet with the enthusiastic and effective support of the staff and instructors, you do it. And then even more impossible things become possible. But it requires a lowering of defenses that can be tough. Come into MAPH with an open head and open heart, and it will alter you in very real and direction-changing ways. It’s a good place to come and dismantle yourself and build an even better version. Sure, it’s a little painful at times, but it’s transformative. You don’t come out the same as when you went in, and ego makes the process more difficult than it needs to be.
4. Here Is the Secret to Getting Into Any PhD Program You Want
Be lucky. Really, really lucky. And, to quote my MAPH thesis advisor, “work your bloody ass off.” But ninety percent of it is just to be really, really lucky. That is to say, MAPH Central will tell you lots of things about why it’s important to not just do PhD prep stuff while you’re here, and why you should meet with the career people and come to the events with non-academic alumni. Listen to them! Go to those things! Just like it’s really hard to get a tenure-track job, it’s really hard to get into a top-notch PhD program. It’s hard to get into PhD programs of any notch! If you want to get a PhD, go for it, but don’t bet the the whole farm on it. Have a contingency plan. MAPH Central is the very best place to plan your plan. It doesn’t take much effort, but it can come in surprisingly handy. Yes, MAPH is a great place to hone the skills you need to be a good PhD student. Yes, lots of MAPH alumni get into great PhD programs all over the place. But sometimes it takes another couple of rounds of applications. Sometimes people don’t want to do a PhD anymore. Sometimes people just don’t have the luck when they need it. However it’s going to go down, MAPH will help you prepare for it. Use what they have to offer. Work hard in lots of different ways.
MAPH is a great place to (more really good advice I got) “put yourself in the path of opportunity.” Come and visit, ask lots of questions, and listen to the answers. Question marks and and open minds lead to revelatory experiences in MAPH. That’s my experience, anyway. And I think it’s available to anyone.
PS: One last note—
MAPH is expensive. There’s not much aid available to Master’s students. You’re likely to go into a fair amount of debt to do it. You may want to ask people if it’s “worth it.” It’s an impossible question to answer, not least because it asks for a false equivalence between knowledge and debt. Whether to take on the debt, if that is your lot, is a personal decision.
I’ll say this about my decision: What if I hadn’t gotten into a PhD program? Would it have been “worth it?” I wouldn’t regret it, that’s for sure. I don’t regret it, even though I’m ostensibly training for a job in a mostly low-paying and disappearing profession. But I’m interested as a general state of being, and that doesn’t change whether I’m in a PhD program or not. And if you’re out there looking at this program and eyeing higher education, you’re probably interested, too. So maybe a better question is—how much do I want to get even better at being interested?