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Thread: CRP/urban planning - worth applying to grad school for 2010-2011?

  1. #1
    Cyburbian
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    CRP/urban planning - worth applying to grad school for 2010-2011?

    Hello! I've been lurking on Cyburbia for a while now. Now that I'm finally back in town for the summer, I thought I'd post what I've been thinking about.

    I'm trying to figure out if I should applying to graduate school this year. I have yet to take the GRE, as I've been studying abroad for the last semester, and am wondering if I have a chance.

    Some background: I currently attend the University of Rochester. My academic studies show little to no interest in American/domestic politics; I'm double majoring in International Relations and Religion. I just got back from Cairo, where I studied at the American University in Cairo, taught English to refugees, and wrote a paper on discriminatory urban planning in Jerusalem. My GPA at home is 3.44 cumulative. Fall 2008 I pulled off a 3.8, and in Spring 2009 I maintained a 3.88 at AUC. Extracurricular-wise, I served as co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Undergraduate Research this past academic year. This fall, I'll be serving as president of 'R World 'R Vote, a political awareness and advocacy organization on campus.

    I managed to obtain an internship with the City of Rochester's Bureau of Planning this summer, in order to get some practical experience. So far I'm really enjoying it! The projects I'm currently working are keeping me busy and interested, ranging from refugee resettlement to census preparation to housing development.

    I'm wondering if I should hold off on applying for grad school, since I'm only now getting practical experience in urban planning. Or do you think it's still worth a shot?

    I also have some other questions:
    • Will my lack of academic interest in American politics hurt me? Or rather, will it have any effect at all? I intend to work stateside, not in international planning.
    • What if I don't yet have a specialization in mind? I'm really interested in transportation and land use, but I don't want to limit myself.
    • Does anyone have any experience with the Aga Khan program at Harvard/MIT? I'm not saying I'm a candidate for either school, not by far, but my concentration within Religion is Islam. It might be sort of interesting to blend urban planning with my interest in Islamic architecture as well.

    I know I definitely have other questions, but I'll save them for later. Thanks in advance for your comments! I know many of you spend a lot of time helping out frantic prospective grad students like myself. If you have any other advice or comments, I welcome them.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian beach_bum's avatar
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    Urban planners come from a diverse background of interests from politics, geography, design, sociology...etc. I dont think that your interest in international politics will hinder you, but it would certainly be a nice jumping off point for an international planning-type program. I would apply to grad school for the 2010-2011 school year, and here is why...with a bachelors degree (not in planning) and some planning experience, you can only go so far these days. You will be competing professionally with people who have masters in urban planning and the same experience. I left an entry level planning job to go back for my masters (had a political science degree) and it was the best thing I did for my career.

    On another note, I think your interest in the muslim world combined with Planning is going to be a great combo since there are always looking for planners in Dubai and other places in the region. I have a friend who works for the world bank as a planner and loves it, she is always traveling, but spends a good bit of time state-side. Best of Luck.
    "Never invest in any idea you can't illustrate with a crayon." ~Peter Lynch

  3. #3
    Cyburbian
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    Thanks, beach_bum! That's really helpful. While I know for international relations and Middle East studies, Arabic and experience in the region is useful. It's good to know that it's not completely lost for urban planning either

  4. #4
    Cyburbian
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    Another question: Is there any good way to begin narrowing down schools? And how many schools would you recommend applying to?

    Thanks again!

  5. #5
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    Burningcoin-

    The number of grad schools you apply to should be decided on an individual basis. I started with heavily researching UIC, UW-Madison, FSU,UF, UPENN, Rutgers and UMD about 2 years ago. At this point last year, I narrowed my schools down to UW, UPENN, Rutgers, UMD and USF(alma mater). I then applied for the last four in October. I choose each of these schools based on the compatibility of their program with my personal philosophy of planning. Also location in an urban setting, prestige of school, success of previous graduates and diversity was key in my final decisions. IF there are only two schools that fit your criteria, apply to both of them and then choose a few runner-ups. Four schools seems to be at the lower end of what most grad students apply to, but it was sufficient for me. If you're unsure what you want out of a program, take a tour to several schools and cast a wide application net. Hope this helps

    ~Q

  6. #6
    Cyburbian FueledByRamen's avatar
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    I've said it in other threads, but I think the best preparation for planning is a liberal arts education. I think you've got that covered. I don't see any reason why you wouldn't get into a scool, but getting into Harvard or MIT might prove slightly more difficult (who'd want to waste their time at those places anyway?).

    I specialized in school, but I don't think it really did a whole lot of good. Take the required courses and then take others that interest you. You'll eventually figure out what you like. As I said, I specialized, but my first full-time job doesn't really line up with what my specialization was.

    I say go for it. Based on your interests and GPA, I'm sure you'll get accepted in to several good schools.

    As to how to narrow down schools...think of places you'd like to live, then see if there are any good schools there. I wanted to stay in Austin for school or go to Portland. Both have good schools and in the end I just had to choose which fit me better (and which I could afford )

  7. #7
    Cyburbian
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    Striving4equality, can I ask why you decided against UIC?

    Thanks for your responses, Striving4equality and FueledByRamen. I think I'll end up applying this year and seeing what happens!

  8. #8
    Cyburbian
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    The good news?

    As long as you have good GREs (and odds are you will based on your educational experience), you are a very competitive candidate for the better planning schools in the country. I went to Penn and I'll say you look like a shoe-in for Penn and Cornell and Columbia. MIT and Harvard will be more competitive for everyone.

    Going to one of the top planning programs is fun. Great education, great universities, great college towns/cities. For two years it's a ball.

    The bad news? Perhaps not so much bad news but a few questions for you to seriously consider:

    1. What do you want out of planning? You seemed to enjoy Cairo a lot, and that implies some type of international planning (whatever that may be), and you're doing an internship in a city planning agency, which is a very different field from working in refuge camps. Planning is a very varied field and it's very easy to go to planning school with a general idea of what you want to do but end up working in a county planning office in some suburb somewhere and feeling dissatisfied a few years down the road.

    This is how I generally view planning:

    1. County/suburb planning office. Issuing permits, comprehensive plans and rezoning. Lots of community meetings. Very bureaucratic.
    2. Urban center planning office. In addition to the above, there's departments for community oriented planning to draft policies to encourage redevelopment, preservation, and whatever you have it. Very political.
    3. Private planning firm (EDAW, EDSA, WRT). They run the gamut from small time planners doing a community masterplan for a suburban town center to a masterplan for an entire country (such as SOM's plan for Bahrain). Very design oriented and a lot of the planners will actually have MLAs, but planners are still recruited for research and to draft policies.
    4. Transportation planners.
    5. Real estate consultants. This generally means doing fiscal analysis, regional inflow-outflow studies and this is a very dry field reliant on spending 9+hours a day on excel. But the best salaries.


    2. Costs. The top programs are expensive. I graduated from Pen 2005 with minimal debt, which has been paid off. I received a lot of grants, had a RA position that covered most of my living expenses, and lived frugally. But I have classmates who borrowed 100K and are struggling with loans and will be struggling for a long time to come. Planners do not make a lot of money unless you go into real estate consulting, and that field is very quiet at the moment. My advice to you is to go ahead and apply to a wide range of programs and go to the one that allows you to graduate with as little debt as possible, even if it means passing up a bigger name. Fact is, in the real world once you've had your initial post-graduate experience, the name of your school means nothing. I may have a fancy-schmancy Penn degree, but my first boss was a Portland State alum, my second boss a UMass alum and my current one went to Texas A&M for a MLA.

    3. The general downside of graduate school is that it's too easy to come out of a master's program still unsure of what you want to do in planning and with little idea of how to get there. I went straight into real estate consulting and made good money but hated the work. I really wanted to do more design work but I had already set myself down a different path and it's very difficult to move out of your planning "track." I actually managed to lateral into a planning firm in Dubai (British firm's Dubai office) where I was promised the opportunity to work on the design side of masterplanning, but most of what I do is writing proposals for new work and drafting policies for masterplanning report. A bit better and the pay is great (and it's fun living in Dubai). But not what I had in mind when I started graduate school!

  9. #9
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    PennPlanner,
    I noticed you didn't say anything about transportation planners. What is your take on that part of the profession?

  10. #10
    Cyburbian
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    Thanks, PennPlanner. That's helpful information.

    I'm not quite sure what I want to do in urban planning yet, I suppose. (And even if I did, that probably wouldn't help me since it'll most likely change as I take courses and meet professors.) I'm leaning more toward, as you put it, urban center planning office (career-wise). I didn't love being a temporary expat in Cairo, but perhaps it might be different if I were in a city with a focused career; that's why I haven't really considered international urban planning. Also, as a comparative politics type (instead of international development type), I'm slightly wary of international urban planning. EDIT: That being said, I don't want to rule it out either.

    Also, like 1234567890, I'd be interested in hearing a little bit more from you about transportation planning.

    In terms of schools, I only asked about MIT because it has the Aga Khan program. Overall, though, I'm looking at Rutgers, Georgia Tech, Penn, Hunter, UIC, and UNC Chapel Hill. I'm quite concerned about money/financial aid, so I'm leaning more toward public schools, though Penn's location and academic program is intriguing to me.

    Could you speak a bit about your experience at Penn? I'm slightly concerned about it being housed in the School of Design; that's actually one reason why I don't really like Harvard's program, from what I can tell, as it is very design-oriented. I would like to get some design experience, but Penn seems to offer more in terms of a balance (than Harvard).

    Thanks again! I'll keep contemplating these questions as I try to figure out what I want to do about applying this year or not...

  11. #11
    Cyburbian
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    It's a specialist field. You either do it or you don't. Larger planning departments will have transportation divisions, but most people rely on planning firms for transportation studies and plans.

    I could be wrong, but transportation appears to be one of the more stable planning fields there are.

    Quote Originally posted by 1234567890 View post
    PennPlanner,
    I noticed you didn't say anything about transportation planners. What is your take on that part of the profession?

  12. #12
    Cyburbian
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    Penn Planning can be as design intensive as you want it to be, or as policy-oriented as you want it to be. It's probably a bit harder to find all the design classes you want than vice versa.

    I took only one design class while at Penn: site planning. But the school does offer urban design classes and last I heard, was beefing up its offerings. The other strengths are real estate, transportation, and community planning (particularly neighborhood redevelopment). In addition to the core classes and specialist electives, you take a large studio each year, in which you do prepare a masterplan for a real-life planning situation. It could be a plan for a decaying neighborhood commercial center, or it could be a regional transportation plan for a large Florida county, or it could be a land preservation plan on Cape Cod. The studios were useful, more so than any class I took.

    Overall the program is no better or no worse than any of the top planning programs. Philadelphia is a wonderful city to explore the urban experience in all its glories (and negatives as well).

    But as with any master's program in planning, it pays to know exactly what you want to do before you go into the program, so you know what to get out of it and how to use its resources to launch your career. And I will reemphasize this: it's a bloody damn expensive degree to waste. If you get a full-ride offer at a decent planning program at say, UMass, and nothing from Penn, or only half tuition at Penn, take the full ride.

    Quote Originally posted by burningcoin View post
    Thanks, PennPlanner. That's helpful information.

    I'm not quite sure what I want to do in urban planning yet, I suppose. (And even if I did, that probably wouldn't help me since it'll most likely change as I take courses and meet professors.) I'm leaning more toward, as you put it, urban center planning office (career-wise). I didn't love being a temporary expat in Cairo, but perhaps it might be different if I were in a city with a focused career; that's why I haven't really considered international urban planning. Also, as a comparative politics type (instead of international development type), I'm slightly wary of international urban planning. EDIT: That being said, I don't want to rule it out either.

    Also, like 1234567890, I'd be interested in hearing a little bit more from you about transportation planning.

    In terms of schools, I only asked about MIT because it has the Aga Khan program. Overall, though, I'm looking at Rutgers, Georgia Tech, Penn, Hunter, UIC, and UNC Chapel Hill. I'm quite concerned about money/financial aid, so I'm leaning more toward public schools, though Penn's location and academic program is intriguing to me.

    Could you speak a bit about your experience at Penn? I'm slightly concerned about it being housed in the School of Design; that's actually one reason why I don't really like Harvard's program, from what I can tell, as it is very design-oriented. I would like to get some design experience, but Penn seems to offer more in terms of a balance (than Harvard).

    Thanks again! I'll keep contemplating these questions as I try to figure out what I want to do about applying this year or not...

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    Hey burningcoin, I'm a kindred spirit here. I was a Middle Eastern Studies major who spent some time in Yemen, came back, finished my degree and then got really interested in planning and found myself wondering: "Shoot, why didn't I study THAT in college." A million people have already assured me that my background is just fine for planning, so I'm not expecting all that many problems getting into schools, and you probably shouldn't either.

  14. #14
    Cyburbian
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    PennPlanner, thanks again for all of your input. It's been helpful!

    thiqued, are you also applying to grad school this fall? It's great to hear of someone with a similar situation!

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    Quote Originally posted by burningcoin View post
    thiqued, are you also applying to grad school this fall? It's great to hear of someone with a similar situation!
    Indeed I am. Best of luck! Keep me posted as you get deeper into the application process.

  16. #16
    Cyburbian
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    You survived Yemen. Didn't get kidnapped or killed. That alone deserves merit.

    What was your secret?

    Quote Originally posted by thiqued View post
    Hey burningcoin, I'm a kindred spirit here. I was a Middle Eastern Studies major who spent some time in Yemen, came back, finished my degree and then got really interested in planning and found myself wondering: "Shoot, why didn't I study THAT in college." A million people have already assured me that my background is just fine for planning, so I'm not expecting all that many problems getting into schools, and you probably shouldn't either.

  17. #17
    Cyburbian Masswich's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by PennPlanner View post
    It's a specialist field. You either do it or you don't. Larger planning departments will have transportation divisions, but most people rely on planning firms for transportation studies and plans.

    I could be wrong, but transportation appears to be one of the more stable planning fields there are.
    Transportation planning is a tough field if you don't have some significant civil engineering background - preferably a degree. Even though a lot of it is not engineering, there is a bias among many in the field against "soft" transportation planning. I was told in no uncertain terms in an informational interview while in grad school not to bother to go into transportation planning since I didn't have an engineering background. Now, I did so anyway, and did fine (until I switched specialties into the community development/land use planning world) - but that's in part because I never met a spreadsheet or computer program that scared me.

    So in summary, transportation planning is an important field and can do a lot of good, but you should be prepared for the naysayers.

  18. #18
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    Quote Originally posted by PennPlanner View post
    What was your secret?
    Good luck.

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