Growing up in Dongguan, a manufacturing hub and the center of a megacity in southern China with 45 million residents, Zhicao Fang was always deeply interested in international news and foreign affairs. As he explains, “there was a sort of feeling that the fate of my town, as an industrial town, was intimately related to how much global investment was coming in, and to how products were selling in international markets.” So it was no surprise when Zhicao majored in International Relations at Sun Yat Sen University, named for the revolutionary leader and founding father of modern China.
First he dreamed of a career in diplomacy, or perhaps at a think tank in his home country focused on international policy. But time in the Graham School’s Graduate Student-at-Large program opened his eyes to new approaches to understanding patterns in world events, approaches infused with analytical sophistication and scholarly depth. He was enthralled immediately. Zhicao is now in his second year as a PhD student in Sociology at Johns Hopkins University, studying sociological theories of state formation in modern China.
Zhicao came to the University of Chicago in 2011 to earn a Master’s degree from the pioneering Committee on International Relations, the oldest graduate program in international affairs in the United States. “Many of the IR textbooks and literature that I read in China were written here,” Zhicao recounts, “so I thought, why don’t I come to the place where this all started, and learn from the best?”
When he arrived on campus, Zhicao attended a welcoming address delivered to the new CIR cohort by Political Science Professor Dan Slater. The challenge Dr. Slater posed to his audience resonated with Zhicao. “In other places, they push you outward to go lead the world, go change things, go do whatever you want,” Dr. Slater said. “Here at the University of Chicago, we ask you to take a step back and to think about the world before you act.” Zhicao recalls, “That was the sentence, the punch line, that shocked me!”
Soon after, at a workshop in the Center for East Asian Studies on campus, Zhicao encountered faculty and graduate students from the Sociology Department conducting research on 20th-century China. Their ideas and methods were new and deeply exciting to Zhicao. The more he learned about the theoretical frameworks, intellectual tradition and methodological approaches of Sociology, the more, he says, “I just loved it.”
What he loved most was Sociology’s interest in finding the deepest roots of human relations and community. Zhicao found himself, he recalls, asking “questions I’ve never asked before. One of the most profound and enlightening questions is, why would human beings act in that way, in that situation? Why do they build countries? Why do they engage in wars? Those are the most fundamental issues in human societies that I had never thought about, despite all the courses I had taken.”
He now realized that the courses of study available to him through the Committee on International Relations were not suited to accommodate his new interests. Inspired to push past the boundaries of the discipline in which he had been trained, he sought the freedom to reach for broader questions. He wanted to take courses in Sociology, and perhaps even to pursue a PhD in the field. As Zhicao explains, “that is when I realized that the Graham School’s GSAL program would be a great option for me.”
In June 2012, Zhicao completed his Master’s degree at CIR. At that juncture, he remembers, “I was puzzled and did not know where I should go next. Apply for the PhD? Strive for the job market?” At a meeting with Graham School staff, he says, he found the help he needed. “They encouraged me to continue exploring all the options to find the best solution. When I fixated on applying to Sociology PhD programs, at the Graham School I could take as many Sociology courses as I wanted, and that provided me with the most convenient path.”
The ideas to which Zhicao was exposed in his year at the Graham School, as well as the personal connections with faculty he forged, changed the course of his professional life. “When I got into GSAL,” he remembers, “I finally had the liberty of taking whatever classes I was interested in.” He enrolled in “The Logic of Social Science Inquiry,” taught by Sociology Professor Dingxin Zhao, a scholar specializing in the political and historical sociology of China. It was a seminar of ten students, and the pace of learning was intense.
“We had to read six or seven books each week,” Zhicao recalls. “I just loved it. I didn’t sleep. Sometimes I got so excited I didn’t want to sleep in the first place. I would spend a lot of time in Harper Memorial Library, the 24-hour study area. I would spend days reading.” The campus itself was conducive to his deep exploration of the new subject, Zhicao felt. “Standing in the main quad, and looking around,” he remembers, “I had the feeling of being sheltered in an intellectual haven where I could study as much as I wanted, and get as much knowledge as I wanted.”
The rigorous methods of instruction, and the lively, immersive nature of class discussions, Zhicao remembers, were eye-opening. “The University of Chicago is unique, one-of-a-kind, among American universities,” he says, “in this spirit of speaking to authority, and of not being afraid to raise challenges and questions and problems to even the most classical texts, authoritative persons or writings out there in the field.”
Looking back, Zhicao says he would be hard-pressed “to find one word to describe such rich experience. I would venture to say it is something like seeing how deep you can go in intellectual life, how many questions you can ask, how much of an impact you can make.” For him, “the really elevated and joyful part” of his time as a GSAL student was “finally coming up with new ideas, and seeing a path in front of you where you could find yourself proficient in the established knowledge.”
In consultation with his GSAL advisor and Professor Zhao, Zhicao honed in on an area of specialization in Sociology that was both a coherent fit with his International Relations training and provided a strong basis for applying to Sociology PhD programs.
“The place where I could make the most convenient transformation from IR to Sociology,” he learned, “was Macro Comparative Historical Sociology, where they literally study the same things as in IR but with a different approach and with more empirically-grounded research. That was the help I really got from the Graham School.”
In 2013, Zhicao returned to China to work and to prepare his applications to PhD programs in the United States. During this period, his connection with the intellectual life of the University of Chicago remained active and alive. Every time his mentor from the Sociology Department organized a conference at the University of Chicago’s Beijing Center, Zhicao says, “he took me on board.” Zhicao traveled often to Beijing, he recalls, “to meet with Professor Zhao at the Center, and to talk with other sociologists and sociology graduate students participating in the workshops.” And so a year later, with the logistical support of the Graham School and letters of recommendation from three University of Chicago faculty members, Zhicao won admission to many graduate programs across the country. He chose Johns Hopkins University.
Currently in his second year as a Sociology PhD student, Zhicao says “I have my eyes on getting a job in academia. Now that I’ve experienced PhD level training, I feel like I love this kind of working environment. I am not quite sure about the topic of my dissertation, but I am writing things now on state formation in China and the capacity of the contemporary Chinese state. Basically, I am exploring theoretical issues concerning China and the path of its development in the 20th Century.”
He credits the Graduate-Student-at-Large program for helping him reach this point in his career. “GSAL was an important step in my changing my path,” he explains. “In the first place, it certainly worked to my benefit as a PhD applicant. The courses I took immediately after my transfer to the Graham School helped me better shape my PhD application materials and my background.”
He also sees his GSAL experience as perfect preparation for his current PhD coursework. Zhicao’s classes in the University of Chicago’s Division of Social Sciences were filled with Master’s and PhD students. The model of intensive reading, thinking and writing they followed under faculty direction, is one, Zhicao says, that “approximates, if not supersedes, the most intensive courses to be found anywhere else.”
Zhicao is now in a position to replicate that model, although this time as an instructor. “I’m a teaching assistant for ‘Introduction to Sociology,’” he reports. One of the things he most enjoys, he says, is “talking with my students.”