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Thread: Considering a major/career in urban planning: is it right for me?

  1. #1
    Member
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    Chicago Metro
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    Considering a major/career in urban planning: is it right for me?

    Hello. Allow me to introduce myself. I am a sophomore at a small liberal arts college in the Chicago metropolitan area. Right now I am doing a lot of career exploration, and I am considering a career in urban planning. I have gone on a lot of websites about the career, but i think it would be best to talk to people who are actually in the field. I have a few questions:

    1.) From what I've read, urban planning is just a general term for people who can end up doing a lot of different things. The urban studies major at my college includes a few classes in urban design, history of cities, city government, as well as possible courses in economics, sociology, etc. What courses would be beneficial besides the "core" urban history, urban government, and urban planning courses?

    2.) Would this course of study be good for a job?
    Originally I was a double Spanish and English major, and a double French and Business minor. If I do Urban Studies, I would then major in Spanish and Urban Studies, and minor in French, GIS, and English. Would this double major and triple minor be good for the profession? I love languages--right now I speak almost fluent Spanish, am starting French, and do very well in composition classes. I also have a passion for geography--I love looking at maps and seeing how the metropolitan areas radiate out from their cores--SO FASCINATING! I may also spend some time abroad in Valdivia, Chile; Madrid, Spain; and Paris, France (speaking foreign languages and experiencing the cities, of course). Would these skills/interests be applicable?

    3.) How hard is the job?
    I'm not afraid of working, but I don't want a job that would consume my life. There were days in high school that I went to bed at 11 and woke up at 5--not fun. College isn't as bad, but I still have to keep on things or I can easily fall behind. I have a 4.0 GPA and I'm in the honors program, so I excell academically. However, I do like to do non-academic things, too. I go to the gym 4-5 times a week, I like to go out on Friday and Saturday nights, and I would like to get a good 6-8 hours of sleep every night (but that rarely happens, lol). Would I still be able to have fun on the weekends, workout in the morning, and just in general not be exhausted at the end of the day? I've read that urban planners spend a lot of time in community meetings outside of regular work hours. How much time is meant by "a lot"? Do all urban planners do this?

    4.) Pay?
    I do not want to be poor. Will I be poor? Also, I'm not sure where I want to live--either the city (north side of Chicago) or the suburbs. Can I get a job almost anywhere as long as it's not in economic stagnation?


    Thank you,
    Parnell Dean

  2. #2
    Cyburbian
    Registered
    Aug 2007
    Location
    SC
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    133

    Don't Overload Yourself

    It seems that you have a wide variety of interests, which is great. However, remember it is not necessarily wise or even humanly possible to major or minor in all of them. Two majors and a minor is considered aggressive. At the most, I would reccomend limiting yourself to two majors and two minors (unless you have TONS of courses that count for 2+ programs).

    You can take classes in something that interests you without declaring a minor. This can help you fulfill your personal quest for knowledge without overloading yourself. For example: why minor in English if all you want to take is Modern Feminist Literature and 19th century British Lit?

    I think Spanish and Urban Studies with a GIS minor would prepare be a great combination. Urban Studies and GIS would prepare you for an entry level postion in planning and would give you a leg up if you apply to a MUP program. A Spanish major, espectially if you choose electives that focus on Latin American history, politics, and culture, will make it easier for you to work in Latin America. It will also help you understand the growing Hispanic/Latino population here in the United States. Also, there are several graduate programs in the Southwest and on the west coast that offer a dual MUP and a Masters in Latin American Studies - University of Arizona and University of Texas-Austin come to mind.

    Planners in the public sector are expected to attend public meetings. You may have 2-4 meetings a month that would require you to stay until 8-10 pm. Most employers have a program for "comp" time. You keep track of the extra hours you spend in public meetings and you accumulate time off (usually at 1/2 or 3/4 of the time you put in - i.e. you spent 2 hours in a meeting, you get 1-1 1/2 hours off). However, in pretty much any profession, you will be expected to work a little late or come in a little early to finish projects, especially if a major deadline is aproaching. The public sector normally has less of this than business, accounting, law, etc.

    Most entry-level postions pay between 30,000-35,000. Many employeers will say "masters degree preffered". However, it is possible to get an entry level postion with a bachelor's degree, especially if you've had 1 or 2 internships (always work hard at your internship - its the best way to get your foot in the door) and if you show passion in what you do.

    As far as job location - almost every city and county has at least 1 planner on staff, so, technically, you can get a job anywhere. However, the planning market is pretty saturated in some areas, so you may have to move to get that first job. And you'd be surprised - some of the places that pay the best are those experiencing "economic stagnation"...because they want someone who can come in and fix their problems!

    Useful courses: if your school offers a land use law course, by all means, take it! If not, Business Law helps - this focuses mostly on contract law and helps you learn legal language. Economics (macro and micro) - boring as heck, but helps you learn to "think like a developer". It is important to understand how global and regional economic events can affect the city/county you work for. Also, on the micro level, it can help you understand what goes into the funding of different projects, why developers get pissed when you tell them "No", etc. Modern Latin American Literature - the course I took started around 1890 and ran through contemporary times. If you like literature, this is an amazing class - Borges and Cortazar can be a difficult read. I recommend reading the Spanish version, then an English version, and then go back to the Spanish.

    As far as being "poor" be realistic - learn to distinguish between what you NEED and what you want. Don't fall into the trap of credit card debit. Pay off your balance every month. If you can't, pay as much as you can - never pay just the minimum balance. Also, try to complete your degree(s) in 4 years. That extra year in college is a year that you could be earning a salary and starting your career instead of adding to your student loan debt.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian cch's avatar
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    Mar 2006
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    Machesney Park, IL
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    Welcome! These forums are definitely a good place to find out what "planning" actually entails.

    If you think you want a planning job straight after getting your undergrad degree, I would really recommend that you get a Planning degree, rather than just Urban Studies. Better yet would be to enroll in an accredited program. I got my B.S. from Iowa State U., and there were a lot of students in the program from chicagoland. However, if you plan on going for your Master's the Urban Studies degree woudl definitely suffice.

    Good courses to take would be soil science, statistics, land use, zoning and environmental law, any type of planning methods and techniques, and definitely take the GIS courses.

    In areas with high spanish-speaking populations, being able to speak spanish could give you a leg up, as planning professionals spend a ton of time speaking with the general public. But I honestly don't think most employers would care about the French or the traveling abroad.

    There are a fair number of night meetings required for most planning jobs. Zoning board meetings, and other public hearings should be at night so that interested citizens can easily attend. But, most entry-level planning jobs are hourly, and sometimes you get compensatory time equal to time-and-a-half. So, if you have a 3 hour meeting wednesday night, you could leave work 4.5 hours early on friday, for example, or bank all that time and take a long vacation. And trust me, you'll never have a night meeting on a friday night, and weekends should always be free. I think it is safe to say that very few planners have jobs that consume their lives, unless they don't have a life to begin with.

    As for pay, if really depends on where you work. Of course, private firms pay more, but they also have less job security. And some states are known to pay their planners more than others. Usually that coincides with the cost of living, though. In most communities you can work your way up. Some planning jobs are union jobs, so you can't get merit raises. These are things to ask about when you are interviewing for jobs.

    I don't know if you know about the APA Job Board, but you can look at that to see what kinds of jobs are available at any given time, and how much they pay.

  4. #4
    Member
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    Is there anyone else out there who can tell me anything?

    How hard the undergrad/grad classes?

  5. #5
    Cyburbian Signature's avatar
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    Aug 2007
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    California
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    You're awesome for answering so thoroughly. I mentors.

  6. #6
    OH....IO Hink's avatar
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    I think that the classes are what you make from them. Planning classes do not generally take up the time that, say, Architecture students would spend on projects. I can remember maybe two night my entire undergrad in planning that I had to work all night.

    I do think that if you love languages and planning that you could be a great international planner. I think that to really get into that field though you will probably have to get a masters, as it is pretty competitive.

    Good luck!
    A common mistake people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools. -Douglas Adams

  7. #7
    Cyburbian Raf's avatar
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    I tend to disagree with the whole need a master's statement. If you want to do a specialty in planning such as urban design, expect to be in your design labs pretty much all week long. For a good stretch there i remember being on campus from about 9am to attend other classes to about midnight or 1am till Friday rolled around. Did my pin-up and presentation on Friday at 1pm, class got out early (as in 3pm) slept for a few hours and was ready to hit the night scene Friday and Saturday. It got better by my last year as i was able to strictly focus on my planning course and not my gen eds and my senior project.

    I ended up with a BS in city planning after 4 years with a minor in economics and went strait to work. I hate to blow up my ego here, but i sometimes tend to thing that with my work experience, coupled with a really good BS program that i went to, i really don't need a masters. All i recommend is that if there is a certain aspect of planning you want to get into, then chose your school wisely.
    follow me on the twitter @rcplans

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