Planning school is worth it — for a number of our readers, anyway. Here are their thoughts on what sort of degree to get, the networking opportunities, and the factors to consider before enrolling.
Thanks to everyone who wrote in! If you’d like to continue the discussion, feel free to add comments.
David Heyburn in Cincinnati, OH
I’m currently in a Master’s of Planning program, and I’m going to have to be in the “it IS valuable to go to planning school camp.” And perhaps not for all the reasons you’d expect. in my experience, I know that the quickest route to get into a good and effective work situation is to have a Master’s Degree. But a Master’s Degree is simply a piece of paper, a token attesting to your ability to successfully navigate academia, far from showing your ability to actually work in the real world with real people with real concerns and real disagreements. Education is about putting in what you want to get out of it. If you are going to consume education like a Big Mac, you will have very little to show for it at the end of the day, other than heart-burn and a head-ache. But if you are engaged with the learning process, find a balance between learning and leading, listening and discussing, then you will very likely, as they say “rise to top” or be the “cream of the cream.” And when you have established planning faculty supporting you in your career, job, position searching efforts, you will not only have gotten much more out of your time in school, you will find your self in a much more worthwhile position.
The Overhead Wire in San Francisco
I think for me Grad School was a place for networking. I actually met the head of my future employer who was teaching a class at my school (University of Texas! Hook ‘em) It also gives you a chance to meet colleagues who are interested in the same things and meet another set of different people. Additionally, you can focus on whatever interests you. For me it was transit and I geared every project towards it, much to some of my professors chagrin.
Cade in Flint, MI
Growing up mere miles from the infamous city of Flint, Michigan, it was impossible to escape the stereotypes, and negativity often associated with rust-belt urban culture. However, it was those same stories..the ones told my GM stock family about the grandeur that was the city of Flint that made me nostalgic for an urban experience that I assumed would never actually arrive for me.
Years later, I was lured to the city (much to my parent’s horror) by the promise of an inexpensive and quality degree from the University of Michigan’s Flint campus. When I started, I had no idea that urban planners existed. (If you spend much time in Flint, you would understand why) I did, however, find an incredibly interesting and unique community which offered me an experience which was impossible to find in the suburban development of my early youth. Long story short, I fell in love with the city.
From here, I dedicated myself to a year of community service through the AmeriCorps program, and left it with the absolute certainty that I needed to go into urban planning. I approached my school about implementing an urban planning program, and I haven’t looked back since.
The fact is, the city inspires me, and I want to be able to counter the negativity that has plagued Flint for decades. Although I have a ways to go, I am confident that an education in planning in the heart of a city that may be, more than any other, starving for proper urban understanding, will give me a chance to meet that goal.
Paul in Alexandria, VA
I have an M.A. in geography but my focus has always been related to city planning and its impact on urban sociologies. I hoped to find work in a planning related field, however, I did not have any luck and was “forced” to take another position when the bills started piling up (I say “forced” because I was lucky enough to land a Federal research position; not my dream job but certainly not a bad gig). Anyway, the few planning related jobs that I applied for all dinged me for not having a formal degree in planning. Despite the fact that all of my research experience has been working with planners, managers, developers, and community activists, I guess it just wasn’t enough. As a result of those experiences I am in the “get the degree” camp. I have several friends who have degrees in planning and most of them were lucky to find work as planners, or at least in planning related fields. While I’m happy to have a job that pays the bills I still submit the occasional resume for planning positions, and I have not yet given up hope. However, I do feel that every year I spend as a fed pulls my experience (and therefore my resume) farther and farther away from the job I really want, and I can’t help but wonder if my path would have been different had I had the degree. I have no regrets, and I am sure there are some who are lucky enough to land successful degrees without the degree, but if you know you want to get involved in urban planning why not get the degree that specializes in it?
I just graduated from undergrad, and am planning on taking 2+ years out of school before returning to get my MRCP. I think it’s extremely important to gain some professional experience in the field first—I’m working for a smart growth developer—but ultimately, I know that I’m going to need my Master’s to lead on the projects I’m currently working on, especially since my undergrad degree is English and Sociology. I can’t truly be an Urban Planner without a Master’s at this point—or, at least, although my bosses managed to do it, they came from an era when one could just keep on working, learn as they work, and get promoted. These days, that piece of paper is more important. Plus, even if academic can seem overly esoteric and theoretical, looking at planning from both a practical and an academic perspective is meaningful. I look forward to spending valuable time on planning theory after two years in the work force—and then jumping back in again at a higher level!
Jonah in Oakland
Like many of my colleagues and people I’ve met in the field over the years, I have an undergraduate degree in architecture and had several years of professional experience before embarking on a masters degree in planning. I migrated to planning to broaden the scope of my work making cities more livable, from the scale of a building or group of buildings to the neighborhood, corridor, city as a whole and region. As I clarify to relatives and long lost friends who still think I’m an architect, “I work in urban planning – we redesign cities one little piece or section at a time, but we don’t make buildings, rather we set up the framework that allows good architecture to take root and help shape and give character to the urban environment.”
Planning school at UVa (the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning* within the architecture school) was a great primer of all the issues that can fall within the scope of a planner, and allowed students to explore the profession and discover where their interests and skills meshed with available vocations within the broad field. I think certain schools provide a more directed course of study in more specific sectors of planning, which may be appropriate for potential students with a good idea of what they want to do. I enjoyed the survey and access to classes and professors that had experience with design, as well as ecology, sustainability, media, and theory.
*Then UVa professor (in planning, arch and landscape), urban megamind William Morrish once remarked: “one problem with the planning department is the name; it should be the Department of Urban Environmental Planning. Get rid of the ‘and’,” which very much explains my experience and the desire of the school to explore the relationships and potential for collaboration that exist among the planning and design disciplines.
In short, I recommend a 2 year masters program to anyone interested in the field – particularly if you know where you want to work after school, the program will likely be worth it just for the local professional connections alone!
A Planning degree is an experience in academia and should be a great one… however, since it is 2 years of your life and a lot of cash I think career prospects should be part of the decision.
I have a Masters in Planning, and it has worked for me – but I would primarily recommend it to people who want to work in the public sector or in one of the small niches tightly tied to it like procuring entitlements for developers. I think that a masters in real estate or an MBA with a focus on real estate might be more useful to those that want to work in the private sector especially if the person has an urban studies centric undergrad in geography or the like.
Deborah Seaton in Toronto
As I have always had a difficult time determining whether or not planning school was a good or even necessary means to achieve my career goals, I realize (post 3 years) that it was. In general, further education can make you more confident in the work force. School is only what you make it.
I studied my Master of Planning through Toronto’s York University’s Environmental Studies Faculty. It was through the school’s interdisciplinary study format that I learned a range of planning theories, including those of the infamous Jane Jacobs ( a Toronto resident at one point), grappled to understand master planning cases like the positions cities must take if they choose to bid on events like the World Expo or Pan Am Games and became familiar with planning regulations such as zoning and official plans. For my thesis, I spent my last semester in Mexico City. In Mexico City, I interviewed men and women involved in the redevelopment of Mexico City’s Cultural Corridor. In one interview, I questionned the developer of a new hotel. It was in that interview where I became fascinated with the development side of planning and seeing both the micro and macro side of how cities are built. After Mexico, I knew that I wanted to use my education and background in planning to help new residential and retail developments comply with cities’ regulatory processes, adhere to the public’s concerns during any consultation framework and develop or redevelop areas in a more sustainable, holistic manner. Without planning school, I wouldn’t be where I am today, doing what I’m doing, with the understanding of how planning frames, fits and relates to the way cities are built.
Brian in Omaha
I think there’s still a lot of upper managers and directors that would value a Planning degree and an AICP certification. For that reason I believe the 2-year grad degree is important. I have one and I would agree with an earlier post that it’s almost a requirement to obtain work in the Public Sector (almost.) You certainly can apply less traditional education and experience backgrounds to your work in public planning and design, but sometimes the right combination of degrees and letters after your name will get your foot in the door. My best advice is to find out early on which educators (inside or outside the planning school) are the most aligned with your interests and focus your coursework on those individuals. However, by that point in your life you ought to be learning outside the classroom as well – keeping up on research journals, following the work of leaders in your specialty, and reading the salient work from past pioneers in Planning. In short, yes I believe it worth while to attend planning graduate school, so long as you are selective in your class scheduling and supplementing your formal work with individual research.
Gildardo Ramirez Jr.
This is actually a very interesting topic. I’m at a point in my life where I have to look in the mirror and decide once and for all if I’m going back to school to get a Master’s in Planning.
Over 5 years ago, when I was graduating college, my original plan was to have a cool and fun summer job to give my brain a rest after years of non-stop studying. Once the fall would arrive, I planned on focusing on researching Master’s programs for planning. During my time in college, I became involved with my school’s student run radio station where I had my own show for a couple of years. As my graduation date approached, I decided to find a job in radio. I was very lucky to find a position a month before I got my Bachelors degree. My cool summer job became a 5+ year career in radio broadcasting.
As it turned out, to my surprise, I was promoted by the station’s management within a couple of months working for them. I couldn’t say no to an opportunity like that. It was a great working atmosphere and I enjoyed what I was doing. However, in the back of my mind I wondered what would have happened if I stuck with my original plan of going back to school. That bug in my mind kept on growing and after a couple of years working in radio, I decided to intern for a regional planning firm. I don’t know how I talked my way into that position considering that their internship program was designed only for students currently enrolled in a planning program. You can imagine how busy I was during this period in my life considering I had a full-time job and an internship to squeeze in during the week. I managed it somehow for an entire summer when the internship ended. It was a very eye opening experience.
I am very fascinated with urbanism and planning issues. It’s a topic I follow closely everyday on various websites including Next American City. I’ve wanted to be involved with this field for the better part of 10 years. After I finished my internship, I became very disillusioned. I’m not sure if it was the idea of working in a cubicle for the rest of my life or the fact that my personality didn’t fit in with the planning firm that I was working for. One thing I definitely did not like was the fact that a planner could be working for years on a particular project when all of a sudden some sort of political red tape derails the whole thing. After the internship, I realized that actual hands-on planning work was not in my future.
I don’t want to give up just yet. In my time working in broadcasting, I have learned the value of mass communication. I see how one’s perception can be affected by what you read, watch, and hear. I feel there are many misconceptions people have in regards to urbanism issues. It appears that the basic concepts of planning are alien to most as well. Some of my most educated well-off friends have given me blank stares when I tell them that I’m interested in urban planning issues. “What’s urban planning?” is the question I would frequently get. That can be a very frustrating feeling. Somehow I need to bridge the gap between my broadcasting experience and the planning/urbanism field. In what capacity exactly is the tricky part. Should I go back to school knowing very well that I don’t actually want to practice planning? Perhaps not, but I sometimes feel a Master’s degree would enhance my overall understanding of most urban planning theories.