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Thread: Help with school choices

  1. #1

    Help with school choices

    Hello...I have applied to the follow schools for a Master of Urban Planning degree...Rutgers, Columbia, Florida State, Clemson, Virginia Tech, and the University of Maryland. I would really appreciate any insights into the strengths and weaknesses of both these MUP programs and the schools themselves. I welcome completely biased opinions from current students at these schools, but anyone in the field of planning who can give me advice, would be a great help. Thanks.

  2. #2
    Hi, notsure...I am currently a student in my second year at Virginia Tech. As someone primarily interested in city/regional planning with a development orientation in the U.S., I have found my experiences here rewarding yet somewhat frustrating. While I can't really complain about the "big picture" outcome of my education (I was able to get a job offer by February 19 of my last semester), it often seems like "planning with a capital p" is fairly low on the radar screen in this department. Resultantly, certain topical areas many professionals might consider vital for inclusion in one's planning education are largely ignored in this department. Examples of such areas are transportation, site planning and GIS. Often I wonder if I am developing the proper skill set to be an effective planner in a traditional context.

    Instead of traditional planning areas, it seems that environmental policy and international development are the real areas of faculty strength and student interest. Some students even deride "planning" as lame while working towards an accredited planning degree in order to parctice a specialty largely outside of mainstream planning. Many of these students would rather take some purely theoretical course, barely related to "real" planning issues, instead of suffering through learning something useful. It is also apparent that many of our students are on the way to academia, considering planning beneath their aspirations or an activity to "fall back on."

    Despite these flaws, there are some very positive aspects to the VT program as well. The department is blessed to have about 5-6 professors who largely are interested in practice and issues related to domestic planning. Housing, economic development, land use and planning/growth management law are all well-taught by professors who have extensive real-world experience. Many of these professors are bright or strongly emerging names in their respective specialties (as are many of the department's other professors). It is also worth noting that the number of professors who teach "pure planning" at VT is greater than or equal to the total number of professors in many other departments. Additionally, some of the University's other departments (geography, public administration) are good sources to find classes to strengthen a student's planning education.

    In short, the planning program at Virginia Tech can provide students with a sound planning education--the real challenge is to remain committed to planning when many other students and professors believe they have bigger fish to fry.

    By the way, my decision came down to Clemson or VT. From my perspective, I would say there are aspects of each progrram that might recommend each in certain situations. Clemson is definitely more real world-oriented, provides its students with experience and is decidedly dedicated to the practice of local planning. VT is more academic, less overtly planning-oriented, but is also housed at a superior university with many more "cognate" opprtunities for enrichment than Clemson. In retrospect, I think you should add Georgia Tech and UNC to your list, as they both seem to have the best possible combinations of real world expertise and intellectual innovations within the field.

  3. #3
    Notusre...The issue is not really whether or not you would be "treated well," it is how central to the intersests of the department your focus would be. No one will mistreat you because of your interests, you just may feel out of the mainstream of what the majority of the deparment is intersted in. Becuause the department has so much strength in global and environmental issues, it tends to attract an overwhelming number of students who wish to specialize in those areas (especially both of them at once). Because the department is medium in size, the concentration of interest in those areas often overwhelms many of the more "traditional" planning interests, which are less well represented. I personally think that students who specialize in a sub-field that is a key strength of that department often can get a richer education and build a stronger network than those who study in a maore peripheral area. This should be taken as an important factor when chosing departments. As far as the "PhD in waiting" phenomenon, from what I am told that goes in cycles, with some classes more real-world oriented than others. At this time, it just doesn't seem like many of the students have planning as their main career choice.

    Incidentally, I don't think transportation is all that strong at Clemson either. At either VT or Clemson you would have to be willing to take Civil Engineering courses to get access to in-depth treatment of transportation issues, something many planning students are not prepared for.

    If FSU or Rutgers are affordable in your eyes, from what I can tell, they may have the best combinations of resources for your interests. I don't think Maryland is all that strong for transportation either.

  4. #4
    Wow, thank you so much for your input. I am giving VT some serious consideration. I wonder, given what you have said, if it is the best school for me. I am currently working as a transportation planner at a consulting firm...and I have a Bachelor's Degree in Geography. So trans and GIS are my strengths....although they are not taught as specializations at VT, do you think that I would be treated poorly or unfairly by focusing on them anyway? I know already that my thesis and major papers would be on transportation topics. How would that be looked upon? And how would my prior "real-world" experience be looked upon?

    Are that many of the current master's students PhD student's in waiting? Do you think that is why the program's focus leans toward theory instead of practice?

    Sorry so many questions, I really appreciate the information. Incidently, Georgia Tech and UNC were on my list, but I had to scratch them because they are too expensive. (Did I mention money is an issue?) One other good point about VT (and Clemson, too) is they are relatively cheap. Thanks again so much,

  5. #5
    Cyburbian Dharmster's avatar
    Oct 2001
    Arlington, Virginia
    notsure, are you from or have you lived in the South? If not, cross out Clemson and Florida State from the list.

    Of the schools you listed, Rutgers is the best planning program with the largest faculty and biggest student body. The University of Maryland recently established a "Smart Growth Center" and has a excellent location just 3 miles from the District of Columbia/Maryland border.

    As for transportation/GIS you should be applying to Georgia Tech and MIT if thats really what you want to do. Barring the two aforementioned schools Rutgers is very good. Maryland has a an adjunct teach an elective in transportation, your other courses would be from civil engineering or geography. The GIS concentration in the goegraphy department at Maryland is top flight...

    Finally, make sure you VISIT all the schools you are seriously considering.

  6. #6
    Thank you for your advice...I am not from the south nor have I lived there. Why should I cross off Clemson and Florida State because of this? Is it because of the programs or the schools? Why not Florida St? It seems they have the best transportation program among the schools I have listed. Unfortuneatly, Georgia Tech and MIT, fine schools both, are far out of my price range. So is UNC and many others I had originally looked at. That doesn't really matter because it is too late to apply to any other schools. I must choose from among the 6 I have listed. Rutgers is pretty expensive as well -- although that is where I went for undergrad and I know it is a great place...but money is a big issue.

  7. #7
    Here's a pitch for Clemson (besides great weather). All MCRP students are guaranteed financial assistance, either as a departmental aide (research, no teaching) or a REAL JOB in an ACTUAL PLANNING AGENCY. Plus the profs are totally dedicated and even SOCIALIZE with students. Plus, interaction with professionals and professional development seminars are the rule versus the exception.

  8. #8
    Hey, this is a question for VT student. Where are all your classmates who'd rather focus on development and environmental issues going when they graduate? What sort of work is out there for them, assuming they don't shift into academia?

    I'm seriously considering a career in planning, and I must confess that my interests tend to run along the same lines as your classmates. But there is also a realist somewhere inside me who already has an interesting, highly theoretical degree (BA Cultural Anthropolgy) that hasn't shone the light on many career paths out here in the real world. Will your classmates find work?

    I guess an approach that is able to blend the nuts and bolts of real world planning with the theoretical issues and concerns that capture my attention is what I'm really looking for. However, I'm a little concerned. I find that sites like this one, while packed full of great information and opinions, are pretty sketchy on the kinds of things I think I'd like to be doing. Maybe this isn't the place to be looking. Heck, I'm not even sure those kinds of jobs exist. I've found a number of programs that offer the education I'm interested in, but I've come to a point in my life where that interesting education has to lead to some sort of livelihood. Any comments?

  9. #9

    Interestingly enough, I also received a cultural anthropology B.A. (my department actually called it "social" due to the predominance of British-trained scholars). I slowly had to wean myself off the habit of looking at everything in the detached academic-analaytical manner when I went to planning school. However, that doesn't mean that your planning education needs to be theory-free.

    As I have stated earlier many students here and elsewhere are interested in the "cooler" areas of study (theoretical, prescient and high-profile) rather than facing the reality that much of planning work, rooted in local contexts and issues may be more "mundane" than the recruiting bulletin ideal. I think the key step one must make is not to think of normal jobs in unexotic locales as boring, but to realize the same theoretical issues you have studied are present everywhere. Even in the development review process in a small, seemingly-remote city. My guess is that people realize this more as time passes.

    As far as the enviro-international students, I think many of them, upon finding that market is relatively tight, many of these graduates end up in pooh-poohed "American Planning" after a search for the dream job doesn't pan out. This is more true for the international people. The environmental students are very well-trained and marketable. However, many of the students in both of these areas seem to me to be very picky with their job searches.

    From what I can tell, everybody in this department has very strong job prospects. The interesting issue is how different the jobs the students receive are from the expectations they had during their first three or so semesters of study. I guess it goes without saying that highly idealistic people are prone to have high ideal for where and for whom they will work.

  10. #10
    Cyburbian Dharmster's avatar
    Oct 2001
    Arlington, Virginia
    Notsure in response to your questions:

    COST - MIT is expensive and you pay for what you get. Georgia Tech offers a lot of financial aid, and even if you have to pay for your first couple of quarters, you can pick up a assistantship. I attended Georgia Tech for 3 years and got 2 masters degrees and never paid tuition.

    SOUTH - Clemson is in Clemson, SC. The planning school is not that good and neither is the university. Florida State is in Talahassee not quite as bad a backwater, but pretty bad.

    FSU - they do have some good transportation faculty, but they are not in the same league as the top tier planning schools in the area (Rutgers, MIT, Harvard, Georgia Tech, UCLA, and Berekely). For better or worse graduates of the aformentioned programs will be your colleagues and possibly even a supervisor and TRUST ME they know which schools rank where.

    Finally, don't let cost deter where you go! Except for MIT, if you are a good student you will in all liklihood get funding in the form of a research/teaching assistantship that covers tuition plus a small stipend.

    Finally, just so you know my biases here is my background.

    B.A. Urban Planning, University of Maryland 1994
    M.C.P. Georgia Tech, 1997
    M.S. (Transportation) Georgia Tech 1998

    1997-1999 - Associate, Apogee Research/Hagler Bailly (Bethesda, MD/Arlington, VA)
    1999 -Present - Consulant, Inter-American Development Bank, Washington, DC

    AICP since 1999.

  11. #11
    I too am a recently accepted prospective planning student. In this case, I have been accepted into UNC. I am still waiting to hear on their business school as I am interested in a joint MRP-MBA. Although I am applying to two programs, my heart is in the planning field and my hope with an MBA is just to become a specialist in economic development and finance issues related to planning.

    One of the areas that interests me is international planning, particularly in Latin America. Following some of the comments from earlier in this string, I get a sense that international and or environmental jobs are "dream jobs." I am led to believe that this means that I might go in to school hoping to work in Latin American city building, but probably graduate focused on filling up the industrial park in rural Georgia. OK, I know that maybe that is a bit extreme, but how much of planning work is actually in traditional municipal planning. How much is in alternative and perhaps more narrow work such as international consulting or think tank work? What direction will they take me to at UNC?

  12. #12
    Hello everyone! I'm researching planning programs and have really enjoyed your comments. One school I've looked at that hasn't been mentioned is McGill (Montreal). Do you have any insight on the academics, strengths, weaknesses etc?

    Also, I'd be starting a program in the fall of 2002 (most likely) and have been looking for a job/internship/project to make use of the intermediate (exposure to the field would also go a long way). Are these opportunities out there? Would you recommend any specific resource? I'll be relocating back to the D.C. area this summer. Any advice and/or information is much appreciated.

  13. #13
    It was helpful to get some review of planning schools and make me decide about where to apply for. If anyone could let me know about SUNY, Buffalo where I am planning for environment and GIS specialisation in SUNY, Buffalo.


  14. #14

    Glad to see this forum because I need help trying to solve a problem! I work as an assistant planner in Charleston, WV, with an architecture, engineering and planning firm based out of Baltimore. (By the way, we are looking for a project manager and pay very well. The trick is being based in WV and working in a five state area!!) (Email asirk @ wbcm.com if interested!)

    Anyway, I would like to pursue my master's in planning. However, I cannot find a school within 3 hours from Charleston that offers a planning degree! Does anyone know of any online courses I can take just to get myself started on this process? I could transfer to Baltimore or DC later to finish.


  15. #15
    Cyburbian Dharmster's avatar
    Oct 2001
    Arlington, Virginia
    In response to adamrust's question. Your perception is that:

    "I am led to believe that this means that I might go in to school hoping to work in Latin American city building, but probably graduate focused on filling up the industrial park in rural Georgia."

    It is somewhat true. If you want to work for a development bank then go to MIT, Harvard, Berkely, or Penn. It's not so much that they hire only big name school alumni, but that it makes your resume stand out from the 100 others you are competing agains.

    Finally, if you do want to get into the area start networking and attending conferences and publishing WHILE YOU ARE IN SCHOOL! The more contacts you know the easier it will be to get a job in the area you are interested in.

  16. #16

    Isn't Virginia Tech less than 3 hours from Charleston? I recently graduated from the program (see above) and as long as you are not interested in focusing primarily on transportation, it is a strong department that is drawing increasingly well-qualified students. I personally fared pretty well in the job market, especially for someone with no experience outside of planning-related graduate assistant employment.

  17. #17
    It's great to have discovered this board -

    I'm looking into the MUP program at NYU specifically - I don't have any specific background in planning, but am interested in sprawl, sense of place, and environmental issues as related to planning. Does anyone have a sense of NYU's planning program?

  18. #18
    I am interested in M.A. programs in planning at Buffalo, Cleveland State University, Wayne State University, University of Illinois, University of Maryland. I am mostly interested in American urban planning, making cities better for people, urban sprawl, public transportation and housing. Does any one have any opinions about these schools? I would like to work part-time "in the field" and am interested in a program that facilitates that and also that is not costly.

  19. #19
    Perhaps CSU is a great choice, and maybe UIUC. I'm in the Detroit metro region, and Wayne State University is mostly a commuter school. I don't know too much about their program, but I know it's not that big. Last I checked, in 1999, it isn't certified by the ACSP (I think that's the right acronym), but that could have changed and may not matter to you. The question is: which school can give you funding? I know at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (45 minutes west of WSU) they are big on design (Doug Kelbaugh, formerly of Washington State University and author of "The Pedestrian Pocket Book" is the dean and is part of the new urbanism contingency of Duany, Calthorpe, et al) and just recently hired Professor Robert Fishman of Rutgers. He teaches a class on urban history and another called "Suburbia." Perhaps a bit too much theory in their program, but definitely have some good names for faculty. So, my point is this: find funding and figure out who teaches what and balance that with your own interests. Ultimately, it may not make a difference on where you study. What matters is finding a place that interests you, has the classes you want, and has connections with the local communities to help you with an internship. Big name universities may not have the funding you want (however, if you have relevant work experience and high GREs, I'm sure you'd have no problem funding some kind of departmental funding) but have the resources (knowledgeable professors, placement staff, dual degree programs, top-notch libraries, computers and GIS, adequate studio space, etc.) to make your academic experience great (and the name recognition helps, too). Smaller schools can offer extensive local connections and resources which may be relevant if you plan to stay in the community or state where you are studying.

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