Harris' MACRM offers the level of rigor of a PhD program, but is also attractive for individuals seeking tools to apply outside academia.

As competition to get into elite PhD programs began to intensify, Professor Dan A. Black noticed a problem.

Students who hadn’t attended top-tier universities often were getting muscled aside, no matter how talented they were. And the master’s programs that were popping up at other universities with a promise to prepare students to pursue a doctorate were not, he said, “really providing the level of training that one needed to be able to succeed in a PhD program.”

Harris Public Policy Professor Dan Black
Harris Public Policy Professor Dan Black

In response, Black led a Harris-wide push to create the Master of Arts in Public Policy with Certificate in Research Methods (MACRM), a 15-month program that is “part public policy degree, part research apprenticeship, and part intensive research methods training.”

With a MACRM degree, students have gone on to PhD programs that launch them into a range of careers, from academia to working for a tech company willing to pay a “through-the-roof” salary for their economics or quantitative research skills, Black said. Some opt to go straight to work for organizations including think tanks and government agencies.

Previously, Black said, it was difficult for some students to prove to a prestigious university or employer that they were “ready for the big time.” By enrolling in Harris and performing extremely well in the MACRM program, he said, they are able to demonstrate exactly what they are capable of doing.

“If people want to show that they are prepared for a PhD program, they should take some PhD courses,” Black said of his and fellow faculty members’ philosophy as they devised the MACRM program. To accomplish that, Harris expanded its PhD classes to accommodate the master’s students, exposing MACRM students to Harris’ rigorous PhD Core classes and having them do research with and for faculty members, who also serve as mentors.

“I think the big advantage of this program is we’re putting you in PhD classes and you’re getting to interact with faculty,” Black said. Plus, he said, students get to see how their new skills are applied in actual research projects.

That was the experience of Junlong Zhou, who earned his MACRM in 2017 and is now in the PhD program at New York University studying political methodology and comparative politics.

“The MACRM program helped me a lot,” said Zhou, who aims long term to become a computational social scientist. “There is a huge overlap between the PhD courses at Harris and the PhD courses at NYU. So during my first year at NYU, I felt relieved.”

“Due to the small MACRM class size, you have better interaction with professors so you have more time to discuss your ideas or problems with them. It not only helps with the coursework but also develops one’s interest in research.” - Junlong Zhou

It’s very important for students to understand what it means to do research, said Black, something that’s often difficult to figure out even for first- or second-year PhD students.

“When The New York Times breaks a story and they’re telling you about this really cool finding someone had, it seems all very exciting,” he said. “But of course that’s the result of a lot of hard work that isn’t all that glamorous.”

Research may not be sexy, but it’s crucial, he said, and students need to experience it before they land in a PhD class requiring 40 hours of research homework each week. Harris students work on a variety of research projects. It was one such project that was a bridge to a career path for Rob Ross, MACRM’16.

During his MACRM studies, Ross participated in a research project as part of a Harris Policy Lab led by Professor Christopher Berry through the Center for Municipal Finance which Berry leads. In partnership with the Chicago Tribune, students set out to determine how appeals affected residential tax assessments in Cook County. The Harris study found that assessment appeal inequities put the biggest financial burden on property owners who could least afford to pay and led to a shakeup in the Assessor’s Office, toppling the incumbent who was the boss of the dominant political party. Ross now works for that office, and the new assessor, as deputy assessor/chief data officer.

Cook County Assessors Office
Cook County Assessor's Office

“I’ve always been interested in making a positive impact on society,” said Ross, who first went to work after graduation as a data analyst for Chicago Public Schools.

Ross enrolled in the MACRM program after earning a master’s degree in economics and taking PhD courses at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His strategy, he said, was to burnish his credentials — particularly with the name recognition that comes with the University of Chicago — to be able to work in public policy in a more sophisticated capacity.

His goal was always to work for a government agency and the MACRM degree, he said, is helping him make an impact.

“I think that its real value is offering the level of rigor of a PhD program but offering career paths that lie outside of academia." - Rob Ross

Rigor and flexibility have been hallmarks since the start of the MACRM program, which Black said hasn’t changed much since its inception. One unforeseen surprise, though, has been how some students want to stay beyond the 15 months to take other courses at the University or continue working on a research project, delaying graduation.

“We didn’t think that was going to happen but I’m quite pleased about it,” Black said, noting that this gives students a chance to pick up even more skills at the best time of their lives to do so.

Another benefit of the program, he said, is that all of the one-on-one work between students and faculty members allows professors to get a fuller picture of each student’s strengths.  That leads to better reference letters and more honest appraisals of where each student would next fit best.

That next step could be continuing on to a first-rate PhD program or, Ross said, “you could do what I’m doing and go into any field you want really with a much higher level of rigor.”

The MACRM, Ross added, “is a really great program.”