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Thread: Existential crisis #546 or 'Is planning for me?'

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    Existential crisis #546 or 'Is planning for me?'

    hello! i am new here, having just started to seriously think about urban planning as a course of study/career... and subsequently read so many websites (including this one) that i feel like i might go blind.

    in any case, here is my situation: i work in an admin job at a university with a fairly highly ranked planning program. if i applied and got in, i would be able to attend for free (part time, of course).

    while the program's emphases are not necessarily a perfect match for my interests, my intuition is that it is not even worth applying elsewhere, given the opportunity to get educated for free (while earning a salary) at a decent school. so what i have been focusing on instead is whether the degree is right for me.

    i am drawn to it for its interdisciplinary approach, for the chance to not only think academically about social problems but to approach them with a set of tools (gis, design, program evaluation, etc), and for the possibility of working in a position that urges me to think critically. from the posts i've read on here, this is the typical idealist dreck that starry-eyed would be planners come up with. i've got a cynical side too, though -- it seems like the very interdisciplinary approach that makes the field attractive might doom me to forever compete against more specialized folks (with JDs, MBAs, MPAs, engineering degrees, etc) who'd always wind up landing the job. i'm also afraid of ending up in an entirely technical job, or a soullessly corporate one, or a soul-crushingly bureaucratic one. but, i figure, those possibilities exist within every field, so i must soldier on! right?

    i'm also unsure of what to specialize in -- while i've always been attentive to the feel of different cities (i've lived in quite a few), excited by local revitalization efforts, and fascinated by sticky problems like gentrification, my interest in urban planning as a degree/career path is new. the planning program i'd be applying to recommends that students specialize, but given my broad interests and newness to the field, i'm more inclined to take a bunch of classes in different fields and collect a nice array of skills (gis, design software, stats, eis knowledge, chops in econ and finance) and then kind of see where that takes me. i'm not sure if i'd like to go into city planning or community/economic development or housing or environmental planning or transportation planning or what, nor am i sure what the job market will look like several years down the road once i'd be finished with a degree, so it seems like a good idea to be as well rounded as possible. yet there's that other lurking thought that one must always have a niche to be marketable, and that it isn't for nothing that universities advise students to specialize. but if i must specialize, however shall i pick??

    so, to those of you who have made it this far, here are my actual questions
    1.) based on what i've written, does a masters in urban planning seem like a good choice for me? if you can't tell, how would you recommend i find out?
    2.) is it worth looking into other programs or should i just focus on the one i know i can go to for free (presuming admission)?
    3.) how does a starry eyed planning-to-be-a-planner know if his/her interest and passion about the field will persist even once the harsh realities of any of a variety of planning careers set in?
    4.) is specializing preferable to becoming a generalist with a toolkit? if so, how does one decide what to specialize in?

    so, many many thanks for making it this far! i look forward to hearing what you have to say.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian Masswich's avatar
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    Going to school for free rocks, and lowers the stakes that planning is "the thing" for you forever. I would apply to some other places because sometimes you can get a good scholarship offer. Also, there is a complicated set of issues associated with going from admin staff to student in the same school (I actually rejected that situation, but I was not going to be able to attend the school for free.)

    I'd apply and start and see how it goes. I don't think that you would become a second fiddle if you really plan to do planning, per se. If not, you can always get a second degree.

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    OH....IO Hink's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by tron View post
    if i applied and got in, i would be able to attend for free (part time, of course).
    I think finding the right program is essential. I went to school for free (athletic scholarship) but would have paid if the school wasn't right. I found a masters program that fit what I wanted, and they happened to have internship opportunities that cut the cost in a third. It is the rest of your life.

    Quote Originally posted by tron View post
    1.) based on what i've written, does a masters in urban planning seem like a good choice for me? if you can't tell, how would you recommend i find out? Internships. Volunteer. If you don't love it now, you aren't going to love it in a couple years.
    2.) is it worth looking into other programs or should i just focus on the one i know i can go to for free (presuming admission)? Look around. Find the best school for your likes.
    3.) how does a starry eyed planning-to-be-a-planner know if his/her interest and passion about the field will persist even once the harsh realities of any of a variety of planning careers set in? No one knows that. That is why you must love what you do. I don't enjoy my job every day, but I do enjoy the work most the time. I love what I do.
    4.) is specializing preferable to becoming a generalist with a toolkit? if so, how does one decide what to specialize in?
    You have many options. I personally don't specialize because I like too many random parts of the field. If you love transportation, do that.
    Good luck!~
    A common mistake people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools. -Douglas Adams

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    Cyburbian beach_bum's avatar
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    Coming from a graduate with more than enough student loan debt to work off, the going to school for free is good deal, especially from a well-ranked and respected school. In the end it doesn't really matter that much where you went to school, its what you do with your degree that matters the most.

    I would visit the program, sit in on a class or two this fall and talk to a couple of professors. To find out more about the profession, and the real world we all work in, try attending a local council/commission/planning board meeting. Ask a local planner that works in an area of planning you are interested in for a informational interview.

    I like your attitude...I think you have the right idea about planning...Best of Luck!
    "Never invest in any idea you can't illustrate with a crayon." ~Peter Lynch

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    oh geeze i just wrote a medium-sized response and my computer ate it.
    in any case, i'll try again:
    thank you for all of your input!
    @Masswich- You're right, it's probably a good idea to apply to more than one school. If I get a nice grant or scholarship at a place that's more to my liking, that would be sweet! Would you mind telling me a bit more about the drawbacks of being an admin and a student at the same university?
    @hink_planner- I agree, if I don't like it now I'm not going to like it in a few years. Unfortunately I work full time, so interning is kind of out of the question, but I could certainly look around for some weekend volunteer opportunities. Thanks for the suggestion!
    @beach_bum- Great ideas! I'm so anxious to know what I'm going to do with my life that I've been putting a lot of pressure on myself to just decide already, but you're right -- given that I can't start right away as it is, it's not a bad idea to do some more reflection and research (going to planning meetings, sitting in on classes, talking to professors and planners in the field) before committing to planning. That way I can assure that whatever choice I do end up making is well considered and right for me. It's just so hard to be patient sometimes!
    Last edited by tron; 18 Aug 2010 at 10:08 AM.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian
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    Unfortunately I work full time, so interning is kind of out of the question, but I could certainly look around for some weekend volunteer opportunities.

    Don't be so quick to write off internships. Read many of the other threads on here. The current market is oversaturated with people looking for full time planning jobs (soon-to-be graduates, graduates, entry-level, mid-level, etc.). This trend is going to get worse over the next few years: the nation is pretty much in a double-dip recession that is seeing a very painful recovery for the next few years. The planning industry will take even longer to fully recover and I have serious concerns that the industry is not going to resemble anything we are used to (far less development and fewer planning jobs equate to VERY high competiion at all levels).

    I am extremely skeptical about new people wanting to go to planning school right now. They really need to be 200% convinced that they really want to do planning and are willing to face extreme competiton. No, I am not usually this doubtful, but we are in a prolonged recession far worse than the early 1980s to some degree. I honestly think it's going to be an uphill battle right now and it's only going to worsen over the next few years. No, I don't think the planning profession will be faring better in 1-2 years, but 3-4 at the very least. Regardless of the economy, as a student coming out of school, you need to have work samples that set you apart from the competition. School work is important, and school projects that become actual adopted planning documents are even better. However, you need internship experience as well. I can't tell how many portfolios, resumes, and cover letters I have reviewed from students telling me they can't land one job interview. Many of them worked through school like yourself but did not take the time a land at least one (if not more) internships. Another alternative is an assistantship, but I would still work hard towards landing those positions as soon as possible if you are serious and committed to working as a planner.

    I agree that you should do as many informational interviews as you can. You don't have to be a planner to practice planning either. Our biggest decision makers are plan commissioners and alderman, many of which work full time in other professions.

    Hope this helps-
    "This is great, honey. What's the crunchy stuff?"
    "M&Ms. I ran out of paprika."

    Family Guy

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    Cyburbian The District's avatar
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    get some real world exposure. even if your classes are free, it may be more worthwhile to focus on a different field. get involved at the local level. join a planning board or organization, volunteer to help with local planning activities, talk to and visit planners at their office. like many professions, the academic side is often very different than the workfield side.

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    good, if sobering points, nrschmid. i have heard the market is bleak, and your post certainly reinforces that impression.

    i should have been more clear when i said i don't have time for an internship. what i meant was that i don't have the time or the leverage to do an internship as part of the process to decide whether i want to go to planning school or not. if i do go to school i will have to get professional experience in planning, and i anticipate being able to work with my boss for the flexibility to do that. i lack the justification now to tell him: "i might be interested in this other career, can i take time off work to explore that a bit?" but if i decided to go to planning school part time and could explain to him that it was part of my requirements, well -- he's an understanding person and would work with me to figure something out.

    a follow-up question that comes to mind is this: i've heard a whole bunch of people say that there are no jobs for planners. this makes sense to me if one looks at the position of city planner: the economy is in the pits, there's not a lot of government money right now, there's not a lot of building. it makes sense that city planner would be a highly coveted position even when the economy is healthier than it is now, and it certainly seems logical that in our current straits, city planner jobs are extremely competitive.

    are other positions similar to 'city planner,' but either more specialized or more tied into the private sector, somewhat more available? e.g. environmental planner, transportation planner, or consultant for a private firm? and what about the less urban design-y planning jobs: in economic development, for example?

    secondly, and this gets more to the meat of my question: the skills one learns in an urban planning program seem pretty transferable: statistics, economics, budget oversight, GIS, CAD, maybe other design programs. Is the job shortage for people with MUPs/MCPs/MCRPs mostly felt by people who are looking for a job that is a literal translation of their degree, or is it felt even by folks who are willing to apply the skills learned in an urban planning program to another aligned field?

    i don't mean to challenge your impression of the job market: clearly you know more than i do. you seem like a thoughtful, informed person (as do most of those here on cyburbia) -- hearing your perspective on the urban planning job market, understood in its broadest sense, would be really helpful to my thinking about this.

    Thanks!

  9. #9
    Cyburbian
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    Are other positions similar to 'city planner,' but either more specialized or more tied into the private sector, somewhat more available? e.g. environmental planner, transportation planner, or consultant for a private firm? and what about the less urban design-y planning jobs: in economic development, for example?

    No. Everyone is hurting to a certain degree. Fortunately I personally have enough billable work as a consultant to keep my busy through next year, althlough it's a mixture of both planning and non-planning work. I think I am the exception to the rule though. Even those that are working right now (which is still a sizeable majority) many have faced paycuts, furloughs, heavier workloads (public sector) or increased competition for contracts (private sector). Unless you are absolutely sure you want to work in a planning speciality, I would work towards a more general MUP. Right now, transportation/environmental projects are keeping me billable, but that is not to say that couldn't change in a year or two.

    There are still some muncipal planner positions available. Either they are heavily advertised (and are receiving tons of applications) or they are barely advertised at all, in which case your chances of landing an interview are higher. I think this a trend that will continue for the next few years. The same would go for practically any job.

    Secondly, and this gets more to the meat of my question: the skills one learns in an urban planning program seem pretty transferable: statistics, economics, budget oversight, GIS, CAD, maybe other design programs. Is the job shortage for people with MUPs/MCPs/MCRPs mostly felt by people who are looking for a job that is a literal translation of their degree, or is it felt even by folks who are willing to apply the skills learned in an urban planning program to another aligned field?

    I think it's both. Keep in mind, if you are applying for a non-planning job with your transferrable skills you often have double-duty explaining what planning is to a layperson THEN showing how those skills transfer over. In an employer's market, ANY person in position of hiring can have their pick of the draw. There are plenty of stubborn students, rank and file workers, principals, directors who will keep on pursuing planning jobs or contracts no matter how dire the economy. I was unemployed for 7 months and was already planning to look into another profession before I was offered a mid-level planning job. I didn't give up hope but I had to deal with the realities at the time.
    "This is great, honey. What's the crunchy stuff?"
    "M&Ms. I ran out of paprika."

    Family Guy

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    Thanks for your thoughtful answer. I'll keep doing my research, and try not to jump unawares or ill-equipped (or perhaps at all) into a job market as frightful as that which you describe.

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    Cyburbian
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    Sure, do some more research first, but I'd say go for it. You'll still be keeping your job and it's not costing you anything (other than time).

    Even if the program isn't the exact fit for you, there are often at least one professor doing the type of work/research that interests you. Develop a relationship with him/her and build skills and a portfolio centered around that.

    Best case, you finish, and get a job in planning. More realistic, you get a degree and it takes you a while to get a planning job. But, so what? You'll still (hopefully) have your current job to fall back on. Worst case you either realize you don't love it (in which case you can drop out before you finish) or you end up with a degree but no job -- still no worse off than right now.

    I don't see the point in trying to get an internship first; that'll also cost you time and then you still need to do the schooling. I guess if you really want to be sure ahead of time you could try, but I'd still say go to school and figure it out that way, again since it's free. The advice would be different if you were paying or going full time.

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    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by FuturePlanner View post

    I don't see the point in trying to get an internship first; that'll also cost you time and then you still need to do the schooling. I guess if you really want to be sure ahead of time you could try, but I'd still say go to school and figure it out that way, again since it's free. The advice would be different if you were paying or going full time.
    But how long are you supposed to wait? If you don't know what you want to do in graduate school, you shouldn't be wasting your time or money. I would say the same for college, too, but I think I would get shot down.
    "This is great, honey. What's the crunchy stuff?"
    "M&Ms. I ran out of paprika."

    Family Guy

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    Cyburbian Masswich's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by tron View post
    @Masswich- You're right, it's probably a good idea to apply to more than one school. If I get a nice grant or scholarship at a place that's more to my liking, that would be sweet! Would you mind telling me a bit more about the drawbacks of being an admin and a student at the same university?
    I didn't end up doing it, but I worried that professors and other students might see me as a staff member rather than a student and peer. It was complicated in my case because I was actually working in the actual department that also housed the planning program. But it might have been fine.

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    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by nrschmid View post
    If you don't know what you want to do in graduate school, you shouldn't be wasting your time or money. I would say the same for college, too, but I think I would get shot down.
    The original poster seems to have a pretty good grasp on his/her interests; if he/she is too vague or off the mark for the school that'll come through on the statement of purpose. I don't believe it's necessary to know exactly what you want to do before enrolling in school; I've spoken to many former students who didn't know going in and were fine. Also, many students came in on one direction but switched their specializations.

    I'd also say that beginning the degree is no more a waste of time than getting an internship (which I'd assume would be unpaid if he/she could even get one, given that even students are having trouble with paid internships).

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    Quote Originally posted by nrschmid View post
    Are other positions similar to 'city planner,' but either more specialized or more tied into the private sector, somewhat more available? e.g. environmental planner, transportation planner, or consultant for a private firm? and what about the less urban design-y planning jobs: in economic development, for example?

    No. Everyone is hurting to a certain degree. Fortunately I personally have enough billable work as a consultant to keep my busy through next year, althlough it's a mixture of both planning and non-planning work. I think I am the exception to the rule though. Even those that are working right now (which is still a sizeable majority) many have faced paycuts, furloughs, heavier workloads (public sector) or increased competition for contracts (private sector). Unless you are absolutely sure you want to work in a planning speciality, I would work towards a more general MUP. Right now, transportation/environmental projects are keeping me billable, but that is not to say that couldn't change in a year or two.
    If you don't mind me asking, what sort of consulting do you do and how do you "get there?" I'm also interested in going into consulting with a specialization in planning. I only have a BA and am lost about whether or not to get a MA in urban planning or public policy since I want to do consulting for a private firm.
    Thank you in advance.

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    Cyburbian Raf's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by jchanrnr View post
    If you don't mind me asking, what sort of consulting do you do and how do you "get there?" I'm also interested in going into consulting with a specialization in planning. I only have a BA and am lost about whether or not to get a MA in urban planning or public policy since I want to do consulting for a private firm.
    Thank you in advance.
    you need to be more specific on the type of "consultanting" you want to do. Consultants come in all forms from environmental, transportation, land use planning and design, economic development and general "contract" planners. When you say you want to do consultanting for a private firm, you really need to be more specific. Getting there is easy (networking, connections, interviewing, etc.) it is getting hired is the hard part. Right now the world of consultaning has a lot of "sharks" in field that smell blood in the water (which is any project they can get the hands on) and hiring is very competitive. Even during good times, private firms are looking to hire folks that either a) capable of bring in work or b) bring in skills that the firm needs to be competitive when going after projects.
    follow me on the twitter @rcplans

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    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by jchanrnr View post
    If you don't mind me asking, what sort of consulting do you do and how do you "get there?" I'm also interested in going into consulting with a specialization in planning. I only have a BA and am lost about whether or not to get a MA in urban planning or public policy since I want to do consulting for a private firm.
    Thank you in advance.
    I do a mixture of different types of planning. Right now, I am writing an environmental assessment for a 20 mile long road realignment. Earlier this year I worked on a transportation access plan, streetscape design guidelines, and GIS mapping for bridge inspections. My BUP from UIUC is a generalized non-design planning degree and I have had coursework in every planning specialization including long-range, ED, HP, international, statistics, environmental, transportation, law, etc, so I have the training to do heavy analysis and research.

    I was an architecture student for 2 years before I switched to my BUP so I also have a good grasp on design, although I tend to focus more on site design, conceptual floorplans, hardscapes etc than structural design. I also worked closely with LAs for 7 years, starting with a few different internships, contract work, and my first full time job (planner at a firm headed by LAs) so I learned more about plant material, stormwater, tree inspections, tree preservation, landscpe plan review, etc.). I also learned a ton about graphics communication from the LAs.

    Being in the right place at the right time certainly helped. I also never say no to any project that is asked of me, no matter how complicating or challenging the task. Over time, I add more and more projects to the portfolio, whether they are class projects, internships, contract work, pro-bono work, or full time work, and frequently draw connections with my current work and previous experience. However, I have several projects that are not directly related to planning at all, including gasline GPS work for an engineering contract, GIS work for a state geological survey, etc, and will be learning Microstation to help with redlining for engineers. I think too many students and planners get wrapped up into one or two specializations and they are pigeonholed.

    If you want to work in consulting, start building up a portfolio, or even a collection of writing samples, that demonstrates your skill sets. This is ongoing throughout your career, not just when you graduate school. See previous posts.
    "This is great, honey. What's the crunchy stuff?"
    "M&Ms. I ran out of paprika."

    Family Guy

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