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Thread: Not there, but whether or not to study planning

  1. #1
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    Not there, but whether or not to study planning

    I'm always surprised reading this forum at the number of questions about certain graduate programs, and the few questions from prospective students about whether or not graduate study is even advisable in the first place. I'm afraid, to be honest, that many of you are making the same mistake I made before I decided to get a masters in planning--that is, going into it a bit naive about the true costs and benefits of a masters in planning. Although I think I drew some benefits from my masters degree, and I continue to be interested and engaged in planning, I would NOT recommend a masters degree in planning to anyone.

    I'll offer my experience to those of you still mulling things over. I had worked for various nonprofits and government offices in New York City where I became involved (albeit mostly at an entry level) in the development of many major land use policies and programs. I determined from this experience that to become a serious player, I would need an advanced degree in a field that examined the very issues and topics I wanted to deal with professionally. Planning seemed like a very natural fit for my objectives, and in a bit of haste, I applied and enrolled in a fairly prestigious planning program, with an appropriately prestigious price tag.

    The multidisciplinary nature of planning is what attracts a lot of us to masters programs in planning. It doesn't require specialized knowledge, and generally allows more freedom to a student than a more rigid field of study. The down side of this is that planning programs rarely offer their students solid skills that really sell to prospective employers. If you're expecting a masters in planning will help you land a job you might not be qualified for now, you're likely to be disappointed later.

    To be sure, planning programs differ a great deal from one college to another, but few will equip you with any solid deliverables that you didn't come into the program with already. If you got into a decent program, you're already intelligent, well read, and you've likely already proven to various employers, professors and peers that you have some fairly advanced problem solving and analytical skills. A planning program will help you build on these skills, but you're not likely to graduate with any new knowledge or skills that you wouldn't have gotten in a similar period of time in a professional setting. If you can't get a professor or program director to give you at least 4-6 solid (read: not fuzzy) skills that a planning program will help you develop that you don't already possess, then you should, at a minimum, consider another planning program, if not another course of study altogether.

    Next, think very deeply and seriously about what you want to do when you complete your degree. Look around in job postings at the kinds of jobs you want and what skills you'll need to become a competitive applicant. More often than not, I think you'll find that another masters program will help you achieve your goals more easily than a masters in planning. Make sure you seriously, and without bias, consider MBA, JD and MPA programs with a public policy bent. Planning students that fail to really understand the financial, business and legal underpinnings of their profession are, to put it bluntly, reprehensibly naive and doomed to push paper for those who do get it. Effective, ambitious and successful planners in the real world understand the legal, financial and political frameworks they work within, and are just as adept at manipulating and working within those frameworks as they are with zoning and land use ordinances. And if you should find years later that planning isn't your calling, an MBA or JD will help you transfer into another profession much more easily than a masters in planning.

    Finally, make sure you really find out what kind of salary you can expect when you complete your degree. Masters programs are a lot more expensive than a lot of students realize, and loan payments can truly be debilitating. Before you enroll in a program, find out exactly how much money you'll need to borrow and exactly how much you'll be paying monthly after you graduate. There is no easy way out of student loan debt, and it will profoundly impact your financial and personal goals without very serious and thorough advanced planning. You must treat this process as you would an investment, and fully consider the risks, costs and the return on your investment.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian Masswich's avatar
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    Good points- another way to approach it...

    These are all good points, although I have to say that it would have been much harder for me to make the connections and get my foot in the door without the masters degree (but not impossible).

    I would make the following points in favor of getting the degree (while fully agreeing with the points against getting one):

    1. If you select carefully, by which I mean not only based on reputation but also on financial aid availability, you can get by with little or no debt from a planning degree-the slight drawback of a less high-falutin name on the degree is often made up for by the freedom you get from less debt- you can even go back to school later if you change your mind, since you don't have to worry about two (or three) sets of loans.

    2. Grad school can be a lot of fun if you are the right age and pick a school in a good place- I loved being in school and miss the freedom and socializing as much as the academics.

    3. You can learn a lot in grad school if you do it when you are motivated to learn the right things- and pick the school well.

    For the reasons listed above, I have always advocated the big state schools that are not listed in the top 5 of most planning program lists. They have more aid, more courses and programs, and are often in places where there are other things to do than be in class.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian Planit's avatar
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    I went to grad school right after college, but only for one semster. It seemed to be more of the same from under grad. Went out ang worked for 10 years in the real world then went to grad school while working full time. With the work experience and the grad program I selected (which was more specific and less on general planning), I got so much more out of it and was able to cross relate directly to work projects.
    "Whatever beer I'm drinking, is better than the one I'm not." DMLW
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  4. #4
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    These are good points as well. If you can find a program that will allow you to earn your masters with <$30K of total debt, I wouldn't necessarily advise against going for it as long as your program allows you to take as many courses as possible outside of planning. At a minimum, you should take these courses (titles will vary): Real Estate Finance, Environmental Law, Public Management/Finance, Cost/Benefit Analysis, Real Estate Law, Basic Urban Design, GIS. These are the only kinds of courses that will give you the hard skills you'll need to become an effective, rather than simply a smart, planner.

    The point about state schools is especially well taken. My sense is that employers in the field of planning aren't blown away by fancy masters degrees, and in few cases even scoff a bit at applicants who graduate from Prestige U with the same skillsets as others who attended less fancy, if nevertheless quality colleges. There's really no good reason to overfinance yourself for a planning degree, least of all just to get it from a big name school.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian Wannaplan?'s avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by rs695
    To be sure, planning programs differ a great deal from one college to another, but few will equip you with any solid deliverables that you didn't come into the program with already.

    A planning program will help you build on these skills, but you're not likely to graduate with any new knowledge or skills that you wouldn't have gotten in a similar period of time in a professional setting.
    I disagree. My planning program provided me with many marketable skills.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian hilldweller's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by rs695
    The down side of this is that planning programs rarely offer their students solid skills that really sell to prospective employers. If you're expecting a masters in planning will help you land a job you might not be qualified for now, you're likely to be disappointed later.

    To be sure, planning programs differ a great deal from one college to another, but few will equip you with any solid deliverables that you didn't come into the program with already. If you got into a decent program, you're already intelligent, well read, and you've likely already proven to various employers, professors and peers that you have some fairly advanced problem solving and analytical skills. A planning program will help you build on these skills, but you're not likely to graduate with any new knowledge or skills that you wouldn't have gotten in a similar period of time in a professional setting. If you can't get a professor or program director to give you at least 4-6 solid (read: not fuzzy) skills that a planning program will help you develop that you don't already possess, then you should, at a minimum, consider another planning program, if not another course of study altogether.

    Next, think very deeply and seriously about what you want to do when you complete your degree. Look around in job postings at the kinds of jobs you want and what skills you'll need to become a competitive applicant. More often than not, I think you'll find that another masters program will help you achieve your goals more easily than a masters in planning. Make sure you seriously, and without bias, consider MBA, JD and MPA programs with a public policy bent. Planning students that fail to really understand the financial, business and legal underpinnings of their profession are, to put it bluntly, reprehensibly naive and doomed to push paper for those who do get it. Effective, ambitious and successful planners in the real world understand the legal, financial and political frameworks they work within, and are just as adept at manipulating and working within those frameworks as they are with zoning and land use ordinances. And if you should find years later that planning isn't your calling, an MBA or JD will help you transfer into another profession much more easily than a masters in planning.
    From my experience, I would argue that an accredited graduate planning degree offers more marketable skills than most other degree programs. The topics I was exposed to- urban design, GIS, land use law, environmental planning- were practical and tangible. Had I gone on to obtain a Master's in Public Policy, Business, Law, or Public Administration it is doubtful that I would have learned about these crucial aspects of the field.

    I don't think we should expect a Master's in Planning to teach us everything about the urban development process, which is highly complex and involves many different interests. Surely if you want to make better money or work on the corporate side an MBA, Real Estate, or even JD degree may be a better option. But I think it's unfair and misleading to suggest that these degrees could effectively substitute for a planning degree.

  7. #7
         
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    I think you also have to consider why you are going to school in the first place? Is it simply because you want to get a job?? Or is it because you actually want to learn and value education?? Frankly, if my objective in higher education was simply to be churned out to the highest bidder or the "best" job I would not be very happy going thru the experience, but viewing academia as a quest for knowledge, now that is rewarding and worthwhile, regardless of job prospects afterwards.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian The One's avatar
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    Good one....

    Quote Originally posted by timbucktwo
    I think you also have to consider why you are going to school in the first place? Is it simply because you want to get a job?? Or is it because you actually want to learn and value education?? Frankly, if my objective in higher education was simply to be churned out to the highest bidder or the "best" job I would not be very happy going thru the experience, but viewing academia as a quest for knowledge, now that is rewarding and worthwhile, regardless of job prospects afterwards.
    Well said......but I also agree with point that a Planning degree is sadly, not as marketable outside the field.....even though one of its fundamental teachings is to consider the BIG PICTURE
    Skilled Adoxographer

  9. #9
    Cyburbian H's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by timbucktwo
    I think you also have to consider why you are going to school in the first place? Is it simply because you want to get a job?? Or is it because you actually want to learn and value education?? Frankly, if my objective in higher education was simply to be churned out to the highest bidder or the "best" job I would not be very happy going thru the experience, but viewing academia as a quest for knowledge, now that is rewarding and worthwhile, regardless of job prospects afterwards.
    I think both reasons are good ones.

    While I know many excellent non-degreed planners in the working scene, I feel my planning grad education has personally benefited me leaps and bounds when it comes to thinking theoretically about planning actions…things I didnt see before. Not to mention my starting salary (with a masters) was higher than the folks they were hiring right out of undergrad (and many places here are trying to move away from hiring undergrads at all). With 2 years of grad school, you find yourself starting much higher up the ladder, saving yourself several years of time in the ‘self-taught’ learning curve. So you reach higher positions, faster… which is good because then you can contribute more of your planning knowledge to the world.
    "Those who plan do better than those who do not plan, even though they rarely stick to their plan." - Winston Churchill

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