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Thread: How to keep from being pigeonholed

  1. #1
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    How to keep from being pigeonholed

    I realize there are a few other similar threads, but I was curious if anyone had any experience with trying to change gears as a planner early/mid career; for instance, switching to land-planning after spending several years in transportation.

    I recently graduated with an MUP, my "focus" was environment, transportation and infrastructure, but I took a wide variety of courses so I wouldnt really call it a focus, more like a glance. I began my graduate work right after getting my undergrad degree in public affairs. In the past six years, I have also had several internships; including work with a land conservation organization, a municipal planning agency, a regional planning agency and most recently a private transportation planning and engineering firm. I have been looking for a full time job for more than a month now, in the NY/NJ region, and have found that a majority of the jobs are in transportation (whoda thunk it?). I found my transportation internship interesting, but I am not sure that I want to spend my career doing that type of work. I enjoy it enough that I would be willing to do it for a few years for the experience if I were to be offered a position. My problem is, would my fairly diverse education and internship background be enough that I could make a switch into another field after working in transportation for three years or so?

    Truth be told, I would really like to try design, specifically TND's and that type of work, but outside of two urban design course (one in theory, the other more hands on) I dont have much experience in that type of thing. I have interviewed with a few local planning departments in development review, but so far nothing.

    Also, as my transportation internship ended upon graduation, I will be starting a new internship with my school's strategic planning and design department for the summer while I try to find more permanent work. My position is more in space planning than design (although as an intern I am not sure how much relevant experience I will be able to get in either during the summer) Although this experience might be beneficial, I feel like after the fruitless job hunt so far I would likely be inclined to take the first position that I am offered.

    One last note, the transportation planning positions seem to pay quite a bit more that a planning department would and, while I am not looking to buy a new car with my first paycheck, I did just finish a VERY expensive education and need to make enough to cover those friggin' loan payments.

    Any advice from a seasoned planning veteran or someone who has gone or is going through the same thing would be greatly appreciated.

  2. #2
    Hmm.. interesting. I got my MCRP from Rutgers in 04, and am in my second job since graduating. Like you, I had a diverse internship background, and diverse interests and coursework while at school.

    In my first post-graduation planning job, which was as a municipal planning consultant, I was able to be a generalist. Development review, ordinance writing, redevelopment plan writing, COAH plan writing, etc.

    Before I took my second job, which is in transportation (transit/bike/ped), I was concerned and cautioned about being pigeonholed as a transportation planner. I would say four things about this general issue:

    1. You can be pigeonholed as a generalist too (jack of all trades, master of none). It may be more possible to advance if you find a niche and build from it, rather than hopping from an entry-level job in transportation, to one in development review, to one in parks/rec, etc.

    2. If you're going to be pigeonholed, make sure it's a hole you really like.

    3. Part of the fascination of planning, to me, is that to do it well, you really have to maintain a broad perspective. It's impossible to be a good transportation planner without engaging with land use, political, and environmental issues. If you keep this attitude as part of your planning worldview, and it's reflected in your projects, you shouldn't have issues changing focus later.

    4. 1 through 3 above may not matter very much, as you'll probably end up taking the first job you're qualified for (which is fine, as long as it interests you).

    Regarding your interest in physical planning/urban design, you may find that the firms hiring people to do that sort of thing full-time may be looking for someone with an urban design degree, certificate, or more concentrated background of coursework. If you decide that's really what you want to pursue, you may want to look into those options, or really try to get demonstrable experience through your internship. You'll want a portfolio!

  3. #3
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    Thanks for the insight. I totally agree with you, especially number 3; I think I have put that same statement, in different forms, on all of my cover letters.

    A follow up question then, would be: Do you think that those looking to hire planners necessarily feel the same way. Would a transportation planning firm appreciate someone whose experience in transportation doesnt really stand out from their total work experience, or would they prefer someone who is totally geared towards transportation.

    Should I be phrasing my cover letters and going into interviews in a way thats says, yeah all that other stuff is ok, but transportation is my true passion, or should I be more honest and let them know that my interests really are varied and my job choice will likely depend more on the circumstances (not just salary though) surrounding each position.


    And ahh yes, the portfolio. Isnt that like the chicken and the egg thing, in order to get a job or get into a design school you need a portfolio, in order to get a portfolio you need to have a job or be in a design school. I think the only other option would be an art class at the local community college, would a portfolio made up of drawings of vases and chairs get me into Pratt?

  4. #4
    Cyburbian
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    You don't need to be in school to create a portfolio. Heck, I have dozens of architectural plans, sections, and elevations that did before I was even a teenager, since I loved to draw. You don't even need to have coursework to know how to use Illustrator, Photoshop and CAD (it HELPS but it is not "required").

  5. #5
    Quote Originally posted by nyuhokie View post
    A follow up question then, would be: Do you think that those looking to hire planners necessarily feel the same way. Would a transportation planning firm appreciate someone whose experience in transportation doesnt really stand out from their total work experience, or would they prefer someone who is totally geared towards transportation.
    I would say that it depends on the position you'd be applying for. Some transportation planning jobs are very quantitatively-based, in which case I would emphasize (in your cover letter and interview) an interest in transportation topics generally, documented by internships/coursework where possible, along with any quantitative analysis experience (whether transportation-related or not). Given that you're a recent graduate and will be applying for entry-level PLANNING (rather than engineering) positions, you won't be expected to be a complete transportation nerd going in - you would just need to demonstrate an interest. Your broad interests can be a selling point, as they may separate you from those with an exclusively transportation focus depending on how you present yourself.

    Quote Originally posted by nyuhokie View post
    Should I be phrasing my cover letters and going into interviews in a way thats says, yeah all that other stuff is ok, but transportation is my true passion, or should I be more honest and let them know that my interests really are varied and my job choice will likely depend more on the circumstances (not just salary though) surrounding each position.
    I would suggest something in between. My style was to describe my passion for planning and my specific interests in the organization/position to which I was applying, and to relate my interest in the position/topic (in the cover letter) to its broader effects on other planning topics. Don't go as far as to imply, 'your job is no more or less interesting than any other'.

    Quote Originally posted by nyuhokie View post
    And ahh yes, the portfolio. Isnt that like the chicken and the egg thing, in order to get a job or get into a design school you need a portfolio, in order to get a portfolio you need to have a job or be in a design school. I think the only other option would be an art class at the local community college, would a portfolio made up of drawings of vases and chairs get me into Pratt?
    I would agree with nrschmid. You shouldn't have any issues getting into a design program with your planning degree, strong interest, and even a basic proficiency at drawing/sketching/visualization, but you may have less luck with design jobs absent the degree/certificate unless you have a really strong self-taught portfolio. A strategy might be to look for small firms, who will be looking less for 'designers' than planners who can competently present visualizations/sketches/etc. I admit this is not my area of expertise.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian The District's avatar
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    architecture schools do NOT want to see any architectural design in your portfolio unless you already have a previous design degree. they do, in fact, want to see your sketches of vases from pratt. they want to see your present ability to present something in a visual manner. this may not apply to LA, never really looked into it.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian
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    I would go one step further with design. Although not always stated in the admissions booklets, I think architecture and landscape architecture schools would not want to see plans, sections, and elevations unless it has been part of (1) coursework from a previous degree or (2) previous professional experience. I think this helps the admissions people to separate candidates: people who like to draw cute pictures of buildings, plants, maps versus people who really have already applied design prinicples and standards in the classroom or on the job. People in group #2 are more likely to stick with the program rather than drop out due to burn-out.

    There is nothing wrong with drawing for fun: I think this leads to great creativity and should be continually practiced throughout life. But when you have hundreds of portfolios to review in a short time, how can you really tell a good egg from a bad egg without cracking the surface?

    I think the exception to this rule would be renderings and isometric drawings in a variety of media (air brush, charcoals, oils, pastels, pastel-oils, watercolors, markers, inks, etc.). You can demonstrate both your ability to portray a scene in a 3D view as well as your artistic side. These types of samples, especially with a landscape architecture or architecture bent, REALLY stand out from the competition. I only know a handful of practicing landscape architects who can air brush or apply watercolors and washes over a rendering, and it really makes a difference. Since I am planning on double-majoring in LA and a design heavy planning program, I have to submit two separate portfolios for each program. As a hobby I do realistic paintings of landscapes in oils (I might move to acryllics one day since oils take forever to dry). I would like to take a course at the local arborteum in botannical sketches for my portfolio for grad school (we'll see how that goes).

    Bottom line, use your best judgement. If you are unclear or lack confidence, I would recommend you either make a personal visit with the admissions staff prior to submitting your portfolio (like when you visit the campus) and explaining your situation as well as your desire to be apart of their program. At least you will have face to face contact, and they might consider your unique situation later on.

    Hope this helps-

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