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Thread: Work experience

  1. #1
    Cyburbian
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    Work experience

    I will be graduating and obtaining my bachelor's in December of this year and plan on applying to quite a few master's programs in urban planning, given the current state of the labor market for college graduates. I'm majoring in economics, have a decent GPA, and will be taking the GRE this summer, but what I'm concerned about is the importance of work experience in admission decisions. Granted, I will have an unpaid internship at a regional economic development office this summer, but other than that, I don't have much experience in anything related to urban planning, as I only became seriously interested in urban planning as a career late last year.

    Anyway, I was looking at the admission criteria for U Illinois, and it seemed they place a lot of weight on work experience when judging the qualifications of prospective students. Therefore, i would like to know if I am automatically at a disadvantage because I am applying straight out of undergrad without the same level of working experience as other applicants, as it does seem that most people who apply to these programs are older and much more experienced.

    Thanks for the help.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian
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    you will be fine

  3. #3
    Agreed. While experience will definitely help an application, there are so many other variables that admissions will look at. And they know experience is hard to come by, even in the form of internships, especially at an undergraduate level. Focus more on the things you can control (i.e. grades, getting good references, GRE scores, write-up).

  4. #4
    Just a musing: While there would be no issues with admissions, those who have a year or so of work experience may get more out of grad school than those going directly from undergrad. Also, it may be easier to find employment after grad school.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian
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    My experience in going through the application process has been that it depends on which school you are looking at. For example, in interacting with many students from UPenn it was blatantly obvious that Penn prefers younger, less experienced (<2 years experience, many straight out of undergrad, with only a few exceptions) people. One possible explanation is that maybe they prefer that because it is easier to "mold" them into who Penn wants them to be? Other schools on the other hand place a premium on experience. I would say this describes some of the UC schools for example.

    I'm not making a judgement either way as it is of course the prerogative of the program as to what students they take but I will say you may want to do some visiting and/or communicate with students currently in programs in order to determine what the school's opinion/personality is regarding applicant experience. This can help in 2 ways:

    1)helps you target your applications better to maximize your # of acceptances.
    2)you will be much happier in a program with students in a similar situation as you.

    Good luck!

    p.s.-you can also look at the planetizen guide and it tells the average age for students at many of the schools.

  6. #6
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    I'll echo some of the comments here in saying that work experience is not the end-all-be-all of applying to a graduate level planning program. Of course, having work experience can only help you in applying to these programs and it seems as though you will be showing a good faith effort toward that notion by participating in an internship this summer.

    Prior to my entering a graduate program (I am at VA Tech in Northern Va.) I had absolutely no experience in planning whatsoever. Rather, I had been working in another field for five years. Many other students in my program come from other backgrounds having nothing to do with planning.

    That all being said, there are many students in my program who DO HAVE extensive backgrounds in planning, some of which are going to school part-time while working in the field. Generally, I think graduate level programs look for diversity of backgrounds when compiling an entering class. If they were to accept only students with heavy planning backgrounds they would most likely have a student body with a mode of thinking geared heavily one way or another. Introducing students with backgrounds in economics, political science, or even physical sciences inject more diversity of thought in to a student body; something I think many programs look to do.

  7. #7
    I agree with other posters that work experience can be a huge plus, but it's not a necessity either. It really depends on what schools you're applying to as well.

    However, with that said, I have to admit that my lack of relevant planning experience may have hurt my chances at some places this year. I had a pretty solid app otherwise (3.8+ GPA, 1450+ GRE score, good recs, good statement of purpose), but I got a lot of rejections. At the same time, many schools saw a huge surge in applicants this year (because of the economy, etc), so the competition was very fierce. You have to imagine that some of these applicants have great work experience, which, when compared to mine, may have hurt my chances.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian
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    Hey I applied to 7 programs this year, and I haven't even graduated from undergrad yet--I only got rejected from 2 (Harvard, Berkeley). I've had a solid internship since last June, so you're probably good with yours. To compensate for my lack of experience, I studied a lot for the GRE and edited my statement of purpose a thousand times, until I couldn't stand to read it anymore. I think my rec letters were also pretty solid.

    I'm going to venture to guess that one reason so many planning programs tend to skew towards older, more experienced people is that planning isn't a very well known field. Most people, when I tell them I'm going to school for urban planning, stare at my blankly and ask "what's that?" So, as people work, they probably somehow fall into planning and then decide to go to school for it. Since I knew about it already, and didn't want to switch from a student to working back to student lifestyle, I didn't take time off for work. I've only met a handful of people at each open house that are young like me, but I certainly haven't felt out of place!

    Let me know if you have any other questions!

  9. #9
    Cyburbian
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    I agree that work experience isn't that important. I managed to get through my three years of college without doing a single internship or anything like that (I know -- what was I thinking?), although I did spend two years after high school backpacking and traveling abroad, mostly in East Asia. While in college, I taught for a big test preparation company part time, so that wasn't related to planning either, though it made taking the GRE pretty easy. I applied to planning schools in December of this past year, when I was finishing my last term in college, and in the end I got into all the schools I applied to (LSE, Cornell, Penn, and Columbia), except Harvard, where I was wait-listed. In hindsight I wish I had worried less about the not having experience thing and had been more ambitious about applying to schools. I was completely intimidated by all the students on this board who had a major or minor in planning, internships or current jobs in the field, and I thought I just wouldn't be competitive. But I spent a lot of time on my essays, like one hundred hours total.

    My personal statements were focused on seeing a big Asian city come up and change all around me, with a big dose of family history (relevant to the city) tossed in, and ultimately the schools thought that was as important as having some real work experience in the field.

    Edit: Something else to think about, maybe, is how your work experience factors into your chances for financial aid. It's possible that people who have scanty work experience (in some cases, none at all) are getting less in scholarship money.
    Last edited by judyblume; 11 Apr 2010 at 10:53 PM.

  10. #10
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    I dunno if work experience is "necessary" but it seems helpful on a few levels. Seems like you have to be more impressive in terms of grades/test scores if you do not have work experience, and I personally would have had a difficult time writing a personal statement that wasn't all "la la la, I like maps" without my brief experience in the planning field.

    Unrelated to admissions, I feel like I have a much better grasp on what I want to do career-wise after working in all three (if you count nonprofit) sectors and in different subfields of planning. I think it will help me get more out of my grad school experience. And I know that it is easier to find a job as a graduate with work experience than as one without. I have heard from multiple sources that, when hiring, they would take someone with a BA and two years of work experience over someone with an MCP and no experience.

  11. #11
    Cyburbian
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    Thanks everyone, these responses have been very helpful for me. I now have a better idea of what to expect with work experience as part of the admission criteria, but I was wondering if anyone could address a few other issues that I'm concerned about.

    I talked about applying to planning programs with my urban economics professor today, and gave him an overview of my situation, and he suggested that if I wanted to do planning, I have to get into a "top" planning program, and usually planners who get degrees from "so-so" programs have difficulty finding jobs.

    First, how accurate is this statement? Based on what I've read on this site and elsewhere, job prospects right now for planners seem pretty bleak.

    Also, how am I supposed to determine what counts as a "top" planning program? The Planetizen rankings? Reputation? Having read people's opinions on here for a while, I'm sure it's more nuanced than that, and I get the sense that location plays a big role. I also don't want to overpay for a MUP because I don't want to be mired in debt postgrad with a meager entry level salary.

    Lastly, how important are quantitative/statistical skills? I'm studying statistics as an academic minor along with economics, will that help me in any way? I'm interested in the policy aspects of planning (econ dev, international dev, transportation, etc.)...not so much on design.

    If it sounds like I'm stressing out about grad school, I am! I'm kind of stuck in a grey area as a B+ type student whose chances at grad school seem neither hopeful nor hopeless. Anyway, I'd like to thank everyone again for their feedback...I'd be completely lost right now without Cyburbia.

  12. #12
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by Cij View post
    I dunno if work experience is "necessary" but it seems helpful on a few levels. Seems like you have to be more impressive in terms of grades/test scores if you do not have work experience, and I personally would have had a difficult time writing a personal statement that wasn't all "la la la, I like maps" without my brief experience in the planning field.

    Unrelated to admissions, I feel like I have a much better grasp on what I want to do career-wise after working in all three (if you count nonprofit) sectors and in different subfields of planning. I think it will help me get more out of my grad school experience. And I know that it is easier to find a job as a graduate with work experience than as one without. I have heard from multiple sources that, when hiring, they would take someone with a BA and two years of work experience over someone with an MCP and no experience.
    My objective in pursuing an MCP though is to break into the planning field, and if I were to work before enrolling in graduate school, I'd like to do it in something related to planning. Unfortunately, the job market right now is so awful that I'm increasingly pessimistic about my chances to secure a full time job post-grad in a timely fashion. I'm sure work experience would help me greatly in my application, but I still think that going straight into grad school might be the safer option right now...although I think that's not a guarantee either, depending on where I apply. A lot of tough choices ahead, that's for sure.
    Last edited by cyq8891; 12 Apr 2010 at 6:41 PM.

  13. #13
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    Quote Originally posted by cyq8891 View post
    My objective in pursuing an MCP though is to break into the planning field, and if I were to work before enrolling in graduate school, I'd like to do it in something related to planning. Unfortunately, the job market right now is so awful that I'm increasingly pessimistic about my chances to secure a full time job post-grad in a timely fashion. I'm sure work experience would help me greatly in my application, but I still think that going straight into grad school might be the safer option right now...although I think that's not a guarantee either, depending on where I apply. A lot of tough choices ahead, that's for sure.
    Oh yeah, I hear you. I probably spent like 40 percent of the last two years wishing I'd just gone straight to grad school instead of holding out in the hopes that work experience would help me get into a better school. Especially since most good internships are only open to students.

    Plus you can also try both - apply and also look for jobs. It's not impossible to find some kind of employment, especially if you're ok with being paid a small amount of money or working in a tangentially related field (housing/ec dev/env) - which I personally found more interesting than land use.

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