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Thread: Ph.D. and MUP: seeking life advice

  1. #1
    Cyburbian
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    Ph.D. and MUP: seeking life advice

    I'll be applying to graduate schools in the fall. At that time I'll have a BA in Urban Studies and Stats.

    Let me give you a scenario: if I were a physics student, and got a Ph.D. in physics, I would cover all the material I would have learned if I just got an M.S. in physics. But the same isn't the case for Urban Planning. You don't get the MUP skillset -- a somewhat technical skillset -- if you go for a Ph.D. (in either urban planning or some related field, because I know very few urban studies Ph.D. programs take you without the MUP).

    I don't know what to make of that. First off, I'm not sure quite what I want to do with my life. For the longest time, I thought I wanted to just get a MUP, but lately I'm not sure I want to resolve my life to this semi-technical path, since I'm really into policy. I could be stuck at a DOB or DCP (pardon my NYC parlance) job the rest of my life, not doing anything to match my ambitions.

    I've been working in policy in a political office the last few months, and I would certainly love to be the guy "on top" who makes high-level policy decision, but the odds of actually getting there are low for anyone, and I'm not in love with politics. In fact, working in a political office the past few months has made me incredibly jaded. (For example, everything we do must pass the muster of our commucations department, which stifles all our ideas. If you can't market it to some news network in under two sentences, you can basically shoot it down.)

    So, basically, I like policy but I hate working in a political office. At the same time, I find it hard to abandon the MUP path entirely -- I think the MUP skillset is invaluable for someone working in urban policy. How can I make policy if I don't understand the physical/spacial means by which it is enabled?

    (Additionally, I've thought about getting a masters of public policy, but I don't think that's the right degree for me. I already have a good backing in statistics and quantitative methods in the social science, which seems to be the biggest "practical" skill from a MPP.)

    Someone suggested to me once that I may end up working for an urban policy think tank. What do you guys think of that?

    I'm mostly asking for life advice here. I've been lurking here for over two years, and I trust you guys a lot. Last week at work someone mentioned Cyburbia and I got super giddy. I know this was very rambly, but I appreciate anyone who was willing to sit through my stream of consciousness here. Thanks to anyone willing to chip in.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by Josh View post
    Someone suggested to me once that I may end up working for an urban policy think tank. What do you guys think of that?
    .
    I find myself exactly in the same position as you, especially with regards to the future and the think tank option. Personally, I think it is a really exciting option. I really like doing policy and research. I have experience working in government as well and feel the same about politics.

    I just applied and was accepted to different masters programs and did not apply to PhD programs. I do know that a lot of think thanks want PhDs though. I was thinking that if, at the end of 2 years, I do want to continue, having a masters will only be an advantage. I know based on TAs I had in college that went straight into PhD programs that they had to take masters classes in order to keep moving on. I don't know if this is specific to my school or is more of a generalizable thing.

    In addition to applying to masters programs, I also applied to law schools, thinking that if I were interested in policy that could be a good venue to go down. It looks like it is going to be a crazy curriculum if I do both programs, but I'm excited for it and I think that it will help me figure out more what I'm going to do.

    I would totally talk to you more about this because I'm trying to figure it out as well.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by gfg12 View post
    I would totally talk to you more about this because I'm trying to figure it out as well.
    I wanted to PM you, but I think I'm too new of a user so I don't have that feature yet.

    I was actually surprised how fast I got jaded working in government. I thought I loved politics (local and national), but I've realized that "following politics" is far different from being involved in it. The majority of the people in my office were part of "the campaign," and in everything they do, it's pretty apparent that they're thinking about more elections in the back of their minds.

    I've thought about MUP/JD programs a lot. It would give me the technical skills I want, but also diversify me/open up opportunities for land use policy positions. But a lot of people on these forums don't seem to think the MUP/JD is really worth it, except for giving you better odds in a job search. Over time that discouraged me from applying, but my recent revelation that I want to pursue non-politics policy is making me warm up to the MUP/JD idea again.

    Would you mind saying which two masters programs you applied to?

    If you'd rather converse privately you can email me at cyburbiajosh@gmail.com and I'll give you my "real" email.

  4. #4
    Cyburbian
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    Glad to see there's some others out there kicking around the same ideas.
    I talked to a few professors who have worked in think tanks and they said the glass ceiling is low if you only have your masters.
    I'd also be interested in which programs you are shopping. Are you worried about too many courses preparing you to be a practicing planner over the methods and theory courses that will make us good analysts.
    Are you looking for programs with strong
    alumni and internship connections in Washington.

    I'm also confused about the functional difference in getting a phd in planning over say, geography.
    I think the line going around on this forum that name schools are necessary to
    continue in academia is bunk from looking at the cv's of professors and policy analysts... especially the younger ones.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian
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    I'm not shopping a whole lot of programs right now. For a while I was set on just getting a MUP, and I was thinking I would just go to Hunter -- I know and like the faculty, and the price is fantastic. If I choose the MUP/JD path, that would be in conjunction with Brooklyn Law. But now that I'm possibly reconsidering MUP/JD path a bit more, I'm looking at whoever offers it.

    I'm also semi-interested in a MUP/Masters in Historic Preservation which I see a few places offer, but it seems like a relatively new degree. If I got that degree, it would enable me to stay in the "big cities" but still be able to hold my own and advance in the field perhaps more than someone with just a MUP. I know someone who is doing MUP at NYU with a focus in landmarks, and she seems to love the field.

    I feel the same way about the Ph.D., specifically in geography. Most Ph.D. students I've met who adjuct at my school are getting theirs in geography -- which seems to be an incredibly diverse field.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian
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    Finally, someone else with the same problem!

    I am in the exact same position as you, Josh. I definitely want the technical knowledge that comes with a MUP, but I have been wavering on whether or not to go for the PhD. I am also applying for graduate schools this fall.

    I've sort of garnered different types of responses depending on whose opinions I solicit:

    Professors: Of course, professors want you to get PhD's. However, they want you (or at least, in my case) to get PhD's in order to research and/or teach. My faculty mentor, for instance, was dismayed when I told him that the only reason I would want to get a PhD (remembering that it's not an easy walk in the park) is so that I could work in policy and be the guy "on top", as you said. He, however, is heavily trying to persuade me to jump straight from undergrad to PhD in order to do research.

    Schools: Every graduate program I'm interested in is straightforward the masters/PhD choice: Masters is once again, technical, and PhD is for academia.

    Professionals: The practitioners at "the top". They largely reiterate the same thing, but most of them have said that they got where they are by first getting a MUP and "paying your dues" (as you said, "stuck at a DOB or DCP job") until they built up enough respect that the only thing holding them back was a PhD behind their name.

    I think, at least for me, I'm going to follow what the practicing planning policymakers have suggested. I think that if I jump straight into a PhD, my lack of real technical knowledge will confine me to academia forever. My plan is to get an MUP, work for a while, maybe network with policymakers, and eventually complete a PhD when I'm "seasoned" and "battle-hardened",

    I also briefly considered the dual MUP/JD you were talking about, but again after doing some research it just doesn't seem to be worth it. I don't want to be an attorney, and for me the only reason I considered it was to add "clout" to my skillset that would allow me to be in policy at "the top". I realized that there's other ways of getting such clout that doesn't involve selling your soul.

    In order to keep myself aligned with my eventual career goals, my graduate school search has been focused on finding planning departments with heavy emphasis on policy. Off the top of my head: U of Minnesota, U of Illinois: Chicago, and Rutgers. I'm not limiting myself to those four, but they're definitely at the top of my decision.

    Hope my long rambling was useful to you in some way. I'm just really excited that there's someone out there who has the same goals and interests as I do.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian
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    My only problem with/fear about getting the MUP, then working, then getting the Ph.D., is that it is very hard to complete a Ph.D. once you're a few years removed from school. I don't want to be getting my Ph.D. for a decade.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian
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    I think completion of a PhD program at any time would be challenging, but I do agree that it'd probably be...well, not easier, but more comfortable if it was directly after being in school. However, I don't think that it would be impossible--many people decide to go back to school after years and years of "the real world." They may not be as "fresh" on the theory/concepts and other going-ons in the academic world, but I figure that in their careers they've had to engage the same body of knowledge time and time again, albeit in a more practical manner.

    Not to mention the burnout associated with hopscotching from bachelor's--master's--PhD. So much schooling...

    Definitely something to think about, though!

  9. #9
    Cyburbian
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    I've actually noticed that most of the PhD students are not coming directly from undergrad, and most are coming back from having worked a few years following their masters. I talked with the director of the PhD program at the school I did my undergrad at, and he said most competitive candidates have the masters and some practical experience before applying.

    It's interesting you listed Minnesota, UIC, and Rutgers... they're the three programs I'm choosing from right now.

    I'm kind of regretting not trying for Berkeley Geography now that I know most of the PhDs with an urban focus work with the planning school.

    Are you guys also looking for schools that require a thesis, or have a student journal? I know Berkeley has a well respected planning journal. I saw that UIC had an interdisciplinary publication AREA, and have heard rumors that RAPPS at Rutgers is trying to do something similar to Berkeley.

  10. #10
    Cyburbian
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    Its really exciting to hear about more people who are in the same place. One of the reasons I have been so disenchanted about the whole process of applying for masters programs is that they are all so technical. I went to a few open houses and people were talking about how they wanted to go somewhere that would give them technical skills to do things that I just was not interested in. I felt like I had better conversations with the prospective PhD students because they were interested in more than just EIRs and CEQA. Some people think its really weird that I like theory, but I do. To each his own, right?

    I don't want to defend it and say that a masters/jd is the right choice for everyone. For me, it seemed to be like the best choice given my current circumstances. I know that I don't want to be a practicing lawyer, and a lot of people think that not wanting to be a lawyer, I shouldn't go to law school at all. I have some reasons that I would be willing to share in a much less public forum, if anyone is interested.

    In the future, I can definitely see myself going back (staying in?) to school and getting a PhD, but I knew that I didn't want to jump straight into the PhD after undergrad. A 23 year old PhD student is pretty uncommon for some good reasons. Also, when I was applying, I was having a hard time deciding between geography and planning. I figured that some more time to think about what I actually want from my degree would be imminently helpful and make me a more competitive candidate.

    @Josh, I'll send you an email later on in the day!

  11. #11
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by jersbanks View post
    I've actually noticed that most of the PhD students are not coming directly from undergrad, and most are coming back from having worked a few years following their masters. I talked with the director of the PhD program at the school I did my undergrad at, and he said most competitive candidates have the masters and some practical experience before applying.

    It's interesting you listed Minnesota, UIC, and Rutgers... they're the three programs I'm choosing from right now.

    I'm kind of regretting not trying for Berkeley Geography now that I know most of the PhDs with an urban focus work with the planning school.

    Are you guys also looking for schools that require a thesis, or have a student journal? I know Berkeley has a well respected planning journal. I saw that UIC had an interdisciplinary publication AREA, and have heard rumors that RAPPS at Rutgers is trying to do something similar to Berkeley.
    I've actually heard also that the most competitive PhD students have masters and also practical experience. Like gfg12 said, there's a reason why 23 year old PhDs are uncommon.

    I still haven't decided which one out of Minnesota/UIC/Rutgers I like better (at least, until things like funding come into the equation). Right now I'm leaning towards Minnesota, primarily because their program is excellent and I have contacts with the school already. Which one are you leaning towards?

    Also, I am keeping an eye out for thesis requirements in curricula. I don't know whether or not it would be the appropriate choice for me just yet, but it's nice to have that option (a capstone project sounds neat too, though...). I'm also looking for a program that has an internship requirement--I'm planning on doing one whether or not it is required, but having it be an established part of the curriculum is comforting in terms of networking and job prospects.

  12. #12
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by quietsilver View post
    I've actually heard also that the most competitive PhD students have masters and also practical experience. Like gfg12 said, there's a reason why 23 year old PhDs are uncommon.
    Still, I wonder if those people who are coming back to get a Ph.D. on top of their MUP do so because they're unsatisfied with their professional lives, or feel unfulfilled in some way.

    I think it's a good thing that we have all realized our love of urban planning/policy at a young age. Some people may not realize it's what they like until later in their life. Because of that I'm a little hesitant to possibly lose some years of my life in my post-MUP/pre-Ph.D. job, and this makes me want to possibly go right into a Ph.D. or MUP/JD program.

  13. #13
    Cyburbian
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    As someone who is just completing a two-year masters program with going into Ph.D on the distant horizon, a few words of caution: there is indeed a very good reason why there are so few 23-year-old Ph.Ds. Speaking purely from the practical point of gaining entry, it's very difficult in the environmental design professions to be admitted to a good Ph.D program without a prior Masters degree and/or a few years of professional experience to bolster your credibility (a professor recently told me that the average age of entry for planning Ph.D. is close to 29).

    I also think it's important for any good Ph.D. candidate, as critical thinkers and as urbanists, to have somewhat developed intellectual positions/attitudes towards urban issues they'd like to tackle; this can only come from long and thoughtful engagement with said issues--i.e. reading, interacting with other academic disciplines, working "in the real world", nuts-and-bolts semi-technical jobs etc. Not to belabor the point, but I don't think a bachelor's degree is sufficient preparation in that regard--not even a master's degree, frankly.

    I wouldn't worry too much about not being able to come back to school after a few years in the workplace as long as you are intellectually committed; you'll only be a much stronger candidate for that.

  14. #14
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by quietsilver View post
    Which one are you leaning towards?
    UIC

    I have a lot to say about each program, probably too much for this forum



    Regarding the age and experience of PhDs.... it's going to be different for all of us, and I think the candidates tend to vary much more than the masters students (age, experience, gap between master and PhD, masters at all etc...)

  15. #15
    Cyburbian
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    I'm a first-year Ph.D. student in an urban planning who went straight from a master's degree. I just wanted to offer a few thoughts.

    - Unlike, say, English Ph.D. programs, urban planning Ph.D. programs rarely admit students without a master's degree. Everyone I know in my program has a master's, and if you look at the list of Ph.D. students at Berkeley, all of them have master's degrees as well.

    - Since master's degrees in urban planning are professional degrees, they offer only a brief introduction to planning theory. Therefore, students returning to academia after working for a while really aren't at a disadvantage on that front.

    - What torontoplan's professor said about age sounds exactly right to me. The youngest people in my cohort are in their late twenties, and most people in the program are in their thirties.

    - In retrospect, working for a year or two between my master's and my Ph.D. would have been a good idea. Unfortunately, 2009 wasn't exactly a great year for new graduates to find planning jobs...

  16. #16
    Cyburbian
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    I want to reiterate the point about the state school not hurting your chances (and not just for the sake of self validation)

    I briefly fed into the argument going on in another thread on this forum on name recognition, and looked a little more deeply into the backgrounds of some professors. I met two professors one from a name school (masters and PhD), one from two state schools. Both received professorships within the past three years in well respected programs. For other potential PhD students it seems much more about finding the program/people in the area you're interested in, and being recognized for your own work and compatibility. Also the name school professor went straight from masters to PhD, and one of my favorite professors at Rutgers went straight from undergrad to PhD.

    I will say that a professor has told me for hiring purposes, having work experience is helpful because you are going to be teaching many people that treat the masters as a terminal degree. I kind of look at any work in between masters and PhD all part of the same lifelong career in research and planning. But for those worried about the time commitment, the London School of Economics has a 1+3 year program that is probably the fastest I've ever seen.
    http://www2.lse.ac.uk/geographyAndEn...ngStudies.aspx

  17. #17
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by Domo-kun View post
    In retrospect, working for a year or two between my master's and my Ph.D. would have been a good idea.
    Why do you feel this way? Do you feel disadvantaged as compared to other students entering the Ph.D. program alongside you?

  18. #18
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by Josh View post
    Why do you feel this way? Do you feel disadvantaged as compared to other students entering the Ph.D. program alongside you?
    No, but I would have liked a break in my graduate school experience. Keep in mind that the doctoral program is three to five years in addition to the two you spend getting your master's degree. Also, working a year or two would have given me a better understanding of practice-related issues -- not to mention extra money

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    Super Moderator kjel's avatar
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    I was encouraged to apply to a PhD program by some of my mentors last year but after a little soul searching I opted into one of the dual programs which extended my studies a year. I will walk out with a MCRP and a Masters of Public Policy in May. Part of the driving decision is that I have been a non-traditional student and my daughter will start college herself in two years. Also I would like to have some good work experience in the field before I would do a PhD. I feel that the dual degree program has expanded my work arena to have multiple but related options. Perhaps some day I will return to do a PhD, but at that point it will be a labor of love.

    As far as being older or having a break in school when it comes to being a PhD student, I don't think there is any significant disadvantage. Most of the doctoral students I know are in the 30-50 year old range. Having a body of work experience to draw upon makes you a better researcher and teacher in my opinion.
    "He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?" Jeremiah 22:16

  20. #20
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by kjelsadek View post
    I was encouraged to apply to a PhD program by some of my mentors last year but after a little soul searching I opted into one of the dual programs which extended my studies a year.
    What arguments were your mentors using to try to persuade you?

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