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Thread: Transitioning out of government, or out of planning?

  1. #1
    Cyburbian
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    Transitioning out of government, or out of planning?

    OK I'm lucky to have a job, right? My question is, has anyone else experienced burnout and considered transitioning out of planning, and what are some successful transitions.

    I began my planning career in my late 20s at a smaller city where I worked several years in long-range planning and became a program manager as well as learning a good bit about zoning, land use, historic preservation, and redevelopment. This town was fairly anti-planning in a state with little planning enabling legislation, and my skills are more of the generalist variety, but I feel like I had decent experience and accomplishments.

    I recently transitioned to a department (not planning but related) in a more "progressive" town where I found I will be mainly handling paperwork, where the political process is so cumbersome that new initiatives are frowned upon, and where the politicians/activists frankly are more than a little loony (and I say this as someone who generally enjoys living in a progressive environment), and where I'll have few opportunities for real project management. It doesn't help that there ahs been high employee turnover. I am mainly in a development review fuction despite expecting the department would be pursuing special projects. After an MA degree and 5 years of experience, I didn't believe I'd be a paper-pusher in a govt. office, and am feeling burnt out. I have an MA and would be reluctant to go into more debt to get another.

    While I used to take things in stride and get interested in new ideas such as form-based codes, urban agriculture, walkable/bikable communities, etc., I find myself tired of the same old arguments and am now am thinking perhaps another line of work would be better, or at least getting out of municipal government. If it's just to earn a salary, there must be other ways, right?

    My options as I see them:
    - Wait for the recovery and try to transition into consulting - what skills will I need?
    - Try to find a non-profit group that works on issues I am interested in - what's the best way to get into this field? I'd rather work on project implementation or consensus building, not activism.
    - Bide my time and try to get a job in a more progressive town / larger city. It seems I stand a good chance getting interviews in college towns, but have had much less success in larger cities.
    - Join the Peace Corps, do a one-year organic farm internship (I am interested in food policy, as well as self-sufficiency ...) or otherwise take some serious time out before regrouping in a hopefully better economy.
    - Look for a new career.

    Besides the standard ideas (informational interviews), has anyone had experience with job burn-out and/or successful transitions that might be enlightening? Also, has anyone had experience with career coaching, etc.?
    Last edited by docwatson; 11 Jul 2010 at 2:43 AM. Reason: clarify

  2. #2
    Cyburbian
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    Start looking for a new job somewhere else, but don't quit your current job. It's going to take some time since the economy is still week and we might be headed back into another recession. Unfortunately there are very few jobs in planning even in good times that include everything you were taught in grad school.
    "This is great, honey. What's the crunchy stuff?"
    "M&Ms. I ran out of paprika."

    Family Guy

  3. #3
    Cyburbian
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    Follow up

    Perhaps I should be a little more clear. I did have an offer to switch jobs but turned it down because it wasn't in the field of planning I have built my experience and am interested in and ws a pay cut. In retrospect, I suppose I should've taken it for sanity's sake and because some organizations are simply disfunctional (no work plan, constant crisis management, high turnover, silo mentality, fear of politics, "loony left" college town, etc.)

    But, I feel it may be time to re-assess what I truly want to do. I do not expect to work on everything glamorous - as I said I worked on zoning code! My grad degree is not in planning but policy; most of what I've learned has been through conferences, training and experience. I fear my job experience may be coloring my perspective (started in a conservative city w/management who had no formal education, moved to said "loony left" college town.)

    I don't simply want to jump from job to job hoping the next one will be better, but rather want to re-assess my career goals and find out how I can deliberately get where I want to be - is it moving to a well-managed bigger city or a more moderate community? moving to a specialized area of planning (i.e. not general long-range/land use)? a switch to consulting? moving to the non-profit world? finding steady part-time planning work balanced with entreprenuership and family time? Is planning more fulfilling in states that have strong planning legislation, such as Oregon or Washington?

    I know there's not a simple answer, but perhaps hearing others' experience and how they moved forward in their career or took other paths would be instructive.

  4. #4
    Cyburbian
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    I wrote this on another thread which sums up my views on politics and planning:

    "Our society is structured so that power does not rest in the hands of one individual with respect to land use issues. Planners contribute to the decision-making process by providing recommendations on land use issues, among other things. Not every group is as welcome to new ideas or change as you would think. If you come in and try to rock the boat you may loose credibility in your community. That doesn't mean you can't try to introduce new methods. Doing it at the right time is part of it. Knowing how to read people is also key. Find those people in position of power/authority (a plan commissioner, an alderwoman) who would support your findings and go from there. Leverage, negotiating, compromise, and consensus building all contribute to the desired result. Even after all of this work, you might still come to an impasse, and you either accept the limitations or you look for work somewhere else. No matter what happens, you can't afford to burn bridges. We are too small of a profession."

    If you are having difficulty keeping those passions alive while working as a professional planner, don't be afraid to take on new tasks, even if they are unfamiliar or don't fit the traditional mode of a planner. I am very fortunate to have worked in almost every branch of planning (except international planning) and I have only five years of full time experience and 2 1/2 years of internships. I have never once in my life said no to anything that was required or asked of me, no matter how difficult or unrelated the task. Right now, I am learning Microstation, a CAD program used heavily in my engineering company to help redline construction documents for the engineers. How many planners do this? Part of it is simply luck and being in the right place and the right time. Part of it is a willingness to step outside of one's comfort level.

    There are also many other ways to earn satisfaction in the planning profession. I have an obligation to give back to my profession and serve as an officer in my APA chapter. I also do pro-bono work outside of APA as well. Apart from preparing 3 presentations at the state conference in October, I will also speak to high school foster children about the planning profession in November, and possibly to my college ROTC unit about contingency planning in September. If you are daring, get appointed to a plan commission in a neighboring town. Run for office yourself! Hopefully I have given you some encouragement
    Last edited by nrschmid; 12 Jul 2010 at 12:30 AM.
    "This is great, honey. What's the crunchy stuff?"
    "M&Ms. I ran out of paprika."

    Family Guy

  5. #5
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    If I can read into your post, I hear you saying that you enjoyed the diversity of activities in your first position, that the "progressive" community is bureaucratic and boring, that you want to be able to explore new ideas and feel like you are accomplishing something, and that you perhaps want a role where you can do some advocacy.

    Firts of all, don't think that so-called progressive places are actually where you can do exciting planning. I worked in one of the alleged "planning utopias" which gets a lot of coverage. What I found is that they have done a good job of boasting, and a far poorer job of actually delivering. They get so caught up in their ideas that they fail to see where they do not work, causing problems just as bad or worse than if they had done nothing. And it was intensely bureaucratic. On the other hand, I worked in a small college town (university with the largest business college enrollment in the state) where new ideas were considered and if they looked good, had a chance to be acted upon. What you want are intelligent, open-minded people. Zealots are as bad as NIMBYs and reactionaries.

    I made the switch from government to consulting for many of the same reasons. Even with consulting there is a good deal of administrative work, but I feel that I can work on a project for anywhere from a couple weeks to a couple years, and then move on to new projects and new clients. I can also choose to focus on where my talents, interests, and experience lie, instead of having to do development review or similar work that I do not find rewarding. Getting started in consulting is not easy. It will certainly help if you are perceived as somebody who may help bring in clients. Be active in state planning and related organizations. Attend events and network. Consider volunteering on committees or running for a state chapter office. When it comes time to prepare a resume, use a project-based format. Create a bullet list of every plan or project you have worked on, showing the depth of your experience.

    With regard to non-profits, they can be very rewarding. I worked for two years as director of a CDC focused 50% on downtown revitalization, 25% on planning, and 25% on economic development. The downside is that I also had to do the grant writing and fundraising. That is a piece of the non-profit sector you better be willing to take on if you go that route. In the meantime, though, you can always volunteer your skills to help their work.

    By the way, Mrs. Cardinal is a career and entrepreneurial/small business coach. She has done some amazing things with her clients, focused on helping them to understand what it is they really want to be doing, and figuring out how to get it. She has clients all over the country. Let me know if you'd like to talk with her.
    Anyone want to adopt a dog?

  6. #6
    Cyburbian
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    That's right!

    Quote Originally posted by Cardinal View post
    If I can read into your post, I hear you saying that you enjoyed the diversity of activities in your first position, that the "progressive" community is bureaucratic and boring, that you want to be able to explore new ideas and feel like you are accomplishing something, and that you perhaps want a role where you can do some advocacy.
    Cardinal, you've hit the nail on the head here. Although I am more interested in consensus building and honest and professional presentation of alternatives and their consequences than a confrontational version of "activism". Certainly my end-goal is sustainability and fostering communities that are good places to live, to the extent that will be viewed as an agenda (freely admitting my bias to moderate college towns and the safer pre-war cities as preferred environments. I am now in the type of "planning utopia" you are talking about! On the other hand, that first community had major ethical lapses and sustainability was a dirty word.)

    Realizing this, I would love to connect with a career coach, particularly one who understands our small and unique field. It's a testament to my social networking skills that I don't know how to send a private message but would be happy to hear from you or Mrs. Cardinal.

    Thanks for the words of encouragement and advice, all.

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