MAPSS matters
Two alumni remember their time as UChicago master's students. Plus: the formation of the MAPSS Alumni Association.
Martin Salvucci, AB'10, AM'11, and Sam Mitrani, AB'98, AM'00, came to the Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences (MAPSS) in different ways: Salvucci, like 40 percent of current MAPSS students, applied directly to the program. Mitrani, on the other hand, applied to the Department of History's PhD program, which was unable to offer him admission, but forwarded his application to MAPSS. Both graduates of the College were accepted to the Social Sciences Division's one-year master's program, designed so that students can create individualized study programs to fit their career and research goals. Mitrani, for example, went on to a PhD at the University of Illinois at Chicago and is an assistant professor of history at the College of DuPage. His first book, Discipline and Disorder: The Rise of the Chicago Police Department, 1850–1890, is forthcoming from the University of Illinois Press. Salvucci, who worked in UChicago's Alumni Relations and Development office while in MAPSS, now has a permanent position as a development officer soliciting major gifts for schools and units across the University. The two spoke with Dialogo contributor Ruth E. Kott, AM'07—also a MAPSS alum—about their experiences in the program.  

Why did you decide to apply to MAPSS after graduating from the College?

Salvucci: I was not ready to leave the University after four years. My adviser suggested that MAPSS might be an ideal situation for someone looking to put a coda on his time at the U of C. Luckily, things worked out. I was never given financial aid in the College, and I was given a very generous tuition-aid award for MAPSS. Mitrani: I didn't have a real major as an undergrad. It was Tutorial Studies—a design-your-own-major kind of thing. I learned a lot in it, but I was interested in going on to grad school, and I did not want to leave Chicago. Also, after I graduated from the College, I had a couple of jobs that I sort of liked. I really didn't want to go into the corporate world or something like law school, and I applied for the history program and didn't get in. They offered me MAPSS with a generous financial-aid package.

What were some of those post-College jobs?

Mitrani: I had a job for six weeks as an auto mechanic, which I was horrible at, and I got fired. I then had a job doing research at the Midwest Center for Labor Research, now the Center for Labor and Community Research. That was interesting, but it was not exactly leading anywhere. And I waited tables a lot, which I had done throughout college and I actually really enjoyed. I kind of miss it, though.

How did being in the College prepare you for MAPSS?

Salvucci: On the whole, I was well prepared, or at least was as well prepared as anyone could be for graduate school. I think the one interesting contrast between the College experience and the MAPSS experience is that in the College, very specific classes are offered, classes on one book or one section of one book, or on everything that one person has written, and in MAPSS, there are many survey courses. [The required Perspectives in Social Science Analysis course, for example, provides an overview of the major theoretical approaches used by professional social scientists.] Mitrani: I went from a nonfocused undergraduate study where I took some of this and some of that, to a very focused, discipline-oriented study where I took a lot of history classes. My experience was sort of the classical difficulty of transitioning from undergrad to graduate school, where what you're learning is the basis of knowledge. It's much more that you have to learn all the literature so you can find what is real somewhere in there. 

Each MAPSS student is required to submit a master's paper in his chosen field of study. What was your research project?

Mitrani: Mine wasn't that good. But it made me want to write something good in the future. My MAPSS research was on employment discrimination in the Second World War, and I looked at FEPC [Fair Employment Practices Commission] records. I learned a lot from the experience. I learned what research is, and I also learned about the kinds of claims that you can back up given a small amount of space. What I wanted to explore were broader issues that the sources I had in front of me actually didn't address very well. I made very unbold claims—I had to retreat from the bold claims that I was more interested in. But, later, when I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the origin of the Chicago Police Department, I knew how to set up a project that would allow me to make those bolder claims. Salvucci: I had written an undergrad thesis on Edmund Burke and the French Revolution, which was a fitting capstone on my four years in the College. I decided that I wanted to do something radically different as a graduate student. My first inclination was to write on the financial crisis, and specifically to offer a normative account that went beyond blaming the corporate "fat cats." I ended up reading a lot of economics books that detailed the positive features of the financial crisis, but eventually settled into a book that ostensibly had nothing to do with the financial crisis, Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition. And I examined, in a hopefully somewhat serious way, the categories of labor and work, and how she deployed them vis-à-vis contemporary postindustrial capitalism—and what the problems may be and what the applicability may be to our present discontents. It was a wonderful experience.

One feature of MAPSS is that every student is assigned a preceptor, current PhD candidates who guide students in their research and coursework. How did you work with your preceptor?

Salvucci: My preceptor was Marissa Guerrero, AM'05, PhD'11, and she was helpful when I needed her help. I work in a very independent manner. I also had a good relationship with my faculty adviser, [political-science professor] Gary Herrigel—we think about the world in very different ways. He had been my SOSC teacher my first year in the College, and we hadn't had a class together since, until I realized that he might be an interesting person to work with on this project. I took a class about social theory and the economy in the winter quarter, and we used to have these wonderful, free-ranging, and really formative debates about books like The Road to Serfdom and The Great Transformation. He used me as a teaching tool in his class—for what he thought was exactly the wrong way to think about things, which I took at the time to be a bit of a slight, but which I realized shortly thereafter was actually a fairly immense compliment. Mitrani: I found my preceptor, Dorothee Brantz, AM'95, PhD'03, very helpful because she would talk to me about broader issues. Dorothee suggested I go to UIC for grad school, which was exactly the right advice. I actually ran into her at the American Historical Association conference in New York two years ago. I was happy to see her.

If you were recommending the program to someone, what would you say?

Salvucci: The opportunity to build your own program of study is really valuable and really underrated, at least for someone who has a vague notion of what it is that he wants to learn and how it is that he wants to learn it. And in my case, that was very much appreciated. Mitrani: I kind of did that as an undergrad, and I found the opposite—MAPSS had structure, which sometimes is a little overbearing but also could be quite liberating. I think there is real value in learning a discipline and being pushed to look at things from a particular perspective. Even if you don't agree with everything, really pushing yourself to understand, "how does this discipline work?" That's an opportunity that you can't quite get as an undergrad. With MAPSS, there was the opportunity to experience the grad-student lifestyle for half a block, but not have to go, say, ten blocks by committing to a seven-year program. My initial reaction after MAPSS was to say, "OK, I tried it out, I'm glad I tried it, and I don't want to do it." Then I came back to academia on my own terms. If I had gotten into the PhD program in history coming out of undergrad, I probably would have really hated it. And I don't know if I would have finished the program because I wasn't truly ready to do it intellectually. MAPSS prepared me to enter a history PhD program and approach it in a serious way on its own terms.
Brand new board
When the Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences began in the late 1930s, the classes were tiny, with fewer than ten students. In 1985, however, when current faculty director John MacAloon, AM'74, PhD'80, came on board, he began to grow the one-year master's degree graduate program, which now accommodates 150-some students per year.
The larger classes equal a larger alumni base, and this year, the MAPSS Alumni Association was formed to create a sustainable alumni network, led by a governing board of almost 20 members. "Now alumni are in the few thousands," says the board's inaugural president, Margaret Mueller, AM'97, "so there's enough of a critical mass that people are asking for activities." Two of those people were Monika Collins and Courtney Roberts, both AM'10. In early 2011, they approached MacAloon about MAPSS alumni events, and he suggested they talk with Mueller, who'd been trying for the past ten years to start up various iterations of an alumni board. The three worked together to recruit members, and in August they launched the board, which now includes members from most class years between 1986 and 2011, including membership chair Garrick Bradley, AM'99; mentorship cochairs Beth (Friedman) and Matt Spurgeon, both AM'04; MAPSS senior program development officer Will Gossin, AM'08; and board member at large Doug Mirsky, AM'97, PhD'01, who will develop alumni networks in major cities outside of Chicago. Collins is the events chair, and Roberts chairs the social-media committee. "We are just in our infancy," says Mueller, managing director of health care at Chicago strategic research firm Leo J. Shapiro & Associates. "The goal is to have one board member representing each cohort." Serving two-year terms, the board members have several overarching goals, Mueller explains. They want to create a solid networking base for alumni, through events such as an October cocktail reception at wine bar DiSotto Enoteca and an inaugural gala, planned for early February. "We have probably the most varied postgraduate alumni at the U of C," Mueller says. "People working in investment banking to documentary filmmaking, all over the world." Another goal for the association is mentoring current students, to expose them to alumni doing "unique and creative things with their lives." The board will take over responsibility for planning the annual Marketing Your MAPSS Degree event, an afternoon of panel discussions where alumni in fields from education to finance speak to current students about how they launched a career by leveraging their degree. Over the long term, the association hopes to strengthen the MAPSS brand and heighten the profile of the degree. Mueller describes MAPSS as a distinctive degree program that modestly "hides its light under a bushel." She and the rest of the board hope to see that change. For those who want to get involved with the MAPSS Alumni Association, contact