Originally from China, Zhicao Fang came to the University of Chicago to pursue a Master’s degree in CIR (Committee on International Relations).
“I got my bachelor’s in China, and one thing that is quite different between universities in China versus the United States is that Chinese universities let you choose your major as soon as you get in and then you basically stick to that major during the entire four years of your undergraduate studies. It’s possible to switch majors, but it is quite hard. I studied International Relations for four years during undergraduate, and then I was deciding if I should pursue a graduate degree somewhere, which is how I ended up at the University of Chicago and did my Master’s degree in CIR [Committee on International relations].”
Professors had a large impact on Zhicao’s time at U of C
During his time at U of C, Zhicao had a chance to interact with a number of faculty, but there was one professor that seemed to be particularly encouraging. “I came across Professor Zhao in the sociology department in one of my courses and he kind of encouraged me to read stuff in historical and comparative sociology, and I read it and loved it.” As a result of this reading, Zhicao was forced to make a decision on which graduate program he actually wanted to pursue. “I was debating whether to do my PhD in Political Science or Sociology. I asked a couple of Sociology professors for advice and they said it doesn’t matter what your undergraduate background is in because sociology is a diverse department, but I realized I needed more courses and trainings in research methods and fundamental theories of sociology. “
GSAL provided the opportunity to explore and, ultimately, the tools needed to apply for graduate school
The Graduate Student-at-Large program is one that allows students to take advantage of numerous opportunities here at the University, and Zhicao used the program to its fullest potential. “I used the program to take advantage of all of the resources that were available at U of C. I took a couple of Political Science courses but I took mostly sociology courses and got to know a lot of professors and PhD’s and post-docs.” Through this exposure, Zhicao was able to get a good sense of what would be required in PhD programs, as well as what the market for graduates would look like after graduation. “[I learned] more about the situations of sociology PhD’s and what the job market looks like after you graduate and finally I decided that I should just switch to sociology. ”
The nuts and bolts involved in the GSAL program
As Zhicao had come from China, studying at the University of Chicago, let alone at an American University in general, provided some unique obstacles and opportunities that took some getting used to. And, even though “…the University of Chicago is a rather rigorous school and people are very busy doing their research,” Zhicao remained determined to make an impression on the faculty he was working with. He says, “…it can sometimes be hard to meet people, but you need to take the initiative. On the other hand, one of the great things I experience in the GSAL program and at U of C, was that no professors would discriminate against you as long as you had good ideas and could present well in their courses. Professors love to help you in whatever way they can. That’s one of the greatest things I ever experienced at U of C and in the GSAL program.”
If you could do it all again, change the way you did it, or provide any advice to others, what would you say?
“In the end, as long as you are good enough and brave enough and active enough to take the initiative and have a way of presenting your future plans to your professors clearly, I don’t think fitting into the program is a big issue.”
When asked what advice he could offer future GSAL students, Zhicao suggests that”…one quarter is not enough, I can say with confidence. It’s just not enough time. I would say at least two if you had the financial support. And, from a Chinese perspective, a lot of Chinese would love to go to an American university, but I think for someone that is trying to do advanced, graduate level work, you really can’t accomplish much in just one quarter over the summer. I think it takes at least two quarters to really get to know people and to get a basic understanding of what graduate school is like in the United States, especially at a top-tier institution.”
So what are the next steps for Zhicao?
He’ll be starting a PhD program at John’s Hopkins University in late July or early August 2014. “Hofung Hung and Joel Andreas will be my advisors at John’s Hopkins. I’m definitely excited, but nervous, because it will be a great challenge for me.”
So what does Zhicao envision will be the end result of his academic endeavors? “The job market is competitive for social science PhD’s, but I’m definitely sticking to the academic path—if not the US, probably Hong Kong, Singapore, China, but [I’ll] definitely [be pursuing] an academic job.”