Pre-meds, pre-laws, and lit geeks: this is your future

By Stephanie Mistretta

For a University of Chicago undergraduate, opportunities abound in both academics and extracurricular activities. Sports teams, student groups for every possible interest, and the carefully designed undergraduate curriculum can make the College students feel as though the University were created solely for them. But while the U of C may feel like a small liberal arts school to undergraduates, where do its 8,900 other students fit in? ?

These students are the other side of the Chicago educational system. They come from six different professional schools and nearly 80 degree-granting programs within the four graduate divisions. They chart business growth and research policy, perform medical examinations, write dissertations, and undertake a myriad of other tasks to achieve their chosen degrees. To these students, the University is not about the Core and a well-rounded liberal education, but about a specific path with a specific goal in mind.

Graduate students and undergrads cross paths every day, yet very few take the time to explore the differences—and similarities—between their experiences. In the first installment of our two-part grad student profiles, you are invited to take a look from a different perspective, as three graduate and professional school students give you their views on what a University of Chicago education means for them.

Vivian Chang

Pritzker School of Medicine

“People here are sincere and friendly in everything they do. They truly want to help both prospective and current students have the best experience possible. Pritzker’s greatest asset is definitely its people. That, and the pass-fail grading system.”

Chang, a second-year at Pritzker, says that even while visiting the school as a prospective student she felt welcome and involved. The University’s supportive environment, top-notch reputation, and exposure to a diverse, urban patient population all clinched her decision to enroll. ?

The Pritzker program is set up in the traditional four-year medical school model. The first two years consist primarily of lecture-based classes graded on a pass-fail system. The second half of the program is based entirely in the hospital, where students are integrated into the doctor and patient populations through a series of rotations and electives in different medical branches. In addition, students have opportunities to perform medical or laboratory research, as many ultimately pursue either academic medicine or a subspecialty field.

The pass-fail system creates very little pressure from grades, says Chang. Less anxiety about attaining a perfect GPA allows students to join the many organizations on campus, giving them a chance to escape from the intense focus of medicine.

“The thing I miss most about my undergraduate experience was the diversity of subjects being studied,” says Chang, who graduated from Wellesley College with a degree in biological chemistry. “Here, everyone around you is studying exactly the same thing as you, so you lose some perspective about non-science subjects and interests. That’s why it’s great to be involved in non-medical school activities because you can get to know people who have very different interests than your own.”

With just over 100 students in each incoming class, Pritzker is a fairly average-sized medical school. But although its size and curriculum are traditional, its admissions procedures are not. Much like prospective undergrads, Pritzker applicants answer a series of additional essay questions that have very little to do with the pursuit of medicine. While this would seem strange or unnecessary to most medical school admissions committees, Chang says she enjoyed that part of the application because she felt as though the school was—and continues to be—interested in the whole person, not just his or her numerical rankings.

David Potterbaum

University of Chicago Law School

“I’ve been especially impressed with how collegial most of my fellow classmates have been and how genuinely interested classmates seem to be in each other. I get the feeling that most classmates genuinely want to see other classmates succeed at the law school and in life.”

Now in his second year, Potterbaum’s original reasons for choosing the University law school—the economics emphasis and the well balanced mix of ideologies among professors—only begin to describe what he has found, including a supportive environment and brilliant student body.

After graduating from the University of Illinois-Springfield with degrees in accountancy and economics, Potterbaum worked for a year as an auditor of Illinois state agencies and not-for-profit companies. There, he became interested in administrative law, and he decided to apply to law schools—his first choice being the University of Chicago—to explore these interests further, complement his financial background, and obtain the abilities to do higher-level work. While he has found that the program offers much in the way of academics and other activities, he says it is not the place for an easy degree.

“Prospective students should realize that this law school is intense, and, according to people I’ve talked to, requires more work than other top-tier law schools,” he says.

Given this intensity, it isn’t surprising that law school students have less time for non-law related activities than undergraduates do. There are, however, plenty of opportunities for graduate students to be involved in student organizations if they choose: Potterbaum himself is treasurer of the Friends of Washington Park Youth Program, a tutoring and mentoring group which has both undergraduate and graduate volunteers.

However, he says he is not surprised that many people are dedicated solely to their academic and professional pursuits.

“This law school has very high standards and the students here tend to be very intelligent and more focused on academic excellence than at some other schools,” Potterbaum said. “Law firms hold U of C graduates with higher regard than the U.S. News and World Report rankings might indicate.”

Elizabeth Ferrari

Master of the Arts Program in the Humanities (MAPH)

“MAPH is a very social department. It has its own distinct place, but we’re still part of the U of C culture. We get the benefit of crossing into any other discipline we choose, so we’re not as limited by one subject.”

MAPH is among the most distinctive programs at the University. A year-long intensive master’s program, MAPH consists of nine courses in three quarters: two required core courses and seven electives chosen from any department in the University, as well as a Master’s thesis. The program’s cross-disciplinary nature, which essentially allows students to create their own Master’s degree, is one of its most attractive features, says Ferrari, a 2003 MAPH graduate. Also, since they have such a variety of interests, it is hard to outline a typical path for MAPH students, either in coursework or in future plans.

There are two types of applicants to the program: those who apply directly to MAPH, and those who apply to a Ph.D. program but are referred to MAPH to strengthen their application. Last year, the program received 755 applications for 110 open spots.

Ferrari graduated from Northwestern University in three years with a major in English and a minor in Italian. After receiving her MAPH degree last year, she stayed on with the one-year MAPH graduate intern program.

“My undergraduate degree allowed me to obtain a high-quality, diverse education in a socially supportive environment, and to learn how to be an adult,” Ferrari says. “In graduate school, I wanted to pursue my interests and gain a more in-depth perspective at the same time. While I still intend to go to law school, this program was great in that it allowed me to keep researching my interests on a higher level.”

The MAPH environment is also very supportive, which is not always true of graduate departments, says Ferrari. She adds that the faculty genuinely seems to care about students’ success, building them up rather than tearing them down through criticism. The faculty and student dedication, as well as that of the academic advisors, is also reflected in the number of graduates who continue to pursue their graduate work at the Ph.D. level.

Now that she has graduated, Ferrari says she sees benefits from her experience every day. While MAPH is not as traditional as other Master’s programs in the University, it may be more valuable for those seeking a true cross-disciplinary experience.