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Thread: Should I drop out of planning school?

  1. #1

    Should I drop out of planning school?

    I am a first year student in an Ivy League planning program and I'm seriously considering dropping out. I would really appreciate advice from planners and other students so I can make the right decision.

    I got on the planning track as an idealist and advocate. I want to be an anti-sprawl crusader and a champion of neglected urban centers. I want to help reshape the disastrous development patterns that have ruined much of the American landscape and ravaged our historic built environments. I want to make a difference in the world (as hackneyed and corny as the phrase is) and not just be a cog in the machine that perpetuates business as usual. I realize I'm not special in these desires and that most if not everyone on this site shares them. I just wanted to make clear that I'm passionate about planning and this isn't some random thing I chose to go to school for.

    My reasons for dropping out:
    • With a couple exceptions, the courses and professors are generally mediocre. I don't feel inspired here and the coursework isn't as rigorous as I expected, ie I don't feel like I am learning genuine skills. The workload is tremendous, which would be fine if I was enjoying the work, but a lot of it is drudgery. Second year students I've talked to says it gets better and first semester is difficult, but this sucks. I feel like I'm not getting what I'm paying for, which leads me to...
    • Cost. I will be at least $70k in debt when I graduate. While I would be ok with this if I was loving the program and had more confidence in finding meaningful and rewarding employment upon graduation, neither is looking good right now. Is it worth going into so much debt for this degree? Is the Ivy name worth it on the diploma?
    • Jobs. The Republicans are targeting HUD, cities are scrapping entire planning departments, and many planners are already out of work. Future prospects don't look great for the next five or ten years as far as I can tell. Am I wrong?
    • I'm worried I can do more as an outsider than as a planner in the system. I'm afraid that if I graduate and get that great city planning job, I'll find myself muzzled in order to keep that job, beholden to elected officials and impotent to advocate for the changes I feel are necessary. Planning is, of course, all about compromise, but I don't know if I have thick enough skin for the perennial disappointments that seem the fate of most city planners. As a private citizen, I could run for the planning commission and be that elected official. As a private citizen, I could advocate to save that historic building or revise that element of zoning code without needing to worry about the political BS planners need to constantly keep in mind. Can an outsider in some ways actually do more good than a planner in the system?
    • I don't know if I'm enough of a people person to charm the public and finesse the system.
    • Analyzing data and working with a lot of numbers are not my bag. I can do it all right, but it's not a strength or a real interest.

    This article by Thomas Campanella articulates a lot of my doubts about going into the field: http://places.designobserver.com/fea...lanning/25188/

    What should I do? The deadline to withdraw and get some tuition back is very near. I need to decide right away. I could always finish out the semester so I actually get the credits, but I don't want to throw more money and time at something that isn't right for me. Thanks in advance for your thoughts.

  2. #2
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    Too busy slogging through the bureaucratic maze, issuing permits and enforcing zoning codes, hosting community get-togethers, making sure developers get their submittals in on time and pay their fees. This is what passes for planning today. We have become a caretaker profession

    That's exactly how I feel.

    A master's degree is still impressive, regardless of what degree it's in (one can teach without credentials at community colleges in CA with a master's).

    Can you easily dual degree with something else like business, engineering, architecture/land arch? That way, you can at least pick up some more education/skills and maybe find something interesting.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian
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    You're in a catch-22 situation. Sure, planning may not be the best field to go into at the moment but if that's what you're passionate about, I'd say stick with it. The other question would be what would you be doing if you were not in graduate school now? The only other thing I can really suggest is just try to transfer to another program in the spring that's cheaper.

    Higher education is the epitome of a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation. You're not as competitive for what jobs are available without it but the high debt associated with school has no guarantee of paying off.

    There's really no fields to go into for jobs at the moment. Planning is definitely in bad shape currently but that could change if the political currents shift. More government spending will inevitably mean more work for planners but that definitely won't happen until at least after the next elections.

    As for your concern about being muzzled by politics. Planners are there to give their opinions but there's not a whole they can do if the politicians aren't receptive to the ideas. I think this would apply whether you're an insider or not. There's a chance that your job could be at risk for rocking the boat but the key is to find the right balance so that your job isn't as risk. You could also look at working for a non-profit.

    Wish I could be more help but I don't think there's really a good answer here. If you're certain planning is what you want to do, I would say try to make it work but it is ultimately a gamble.

  4. #4
    Cyburbian DetroitPlanner's avatar
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    Ivy League Schools come with big price tags. You should have realized that from the get-go.

    You will not make big bucks being a planner. If your motivation is simply money, the you are in the wrong profession. Your opening paragraph and your bullets show conflict in this thought.

    Analyzing data is a big part of planning. Its a big part of any job where you have to measure successes.

    Planners must remain largely apolitical. I don't understand where you think its heavy into politics. You will have challenges, but this job makes you look at both sides of the coin. If you can see the heads and the tails of an argument, you won't be a good planner.

    You can't blame the Republicans for everything. In fact many of the bread and butter programs that planners have now come from the Nixon and Bush adminstrations.

    You're not the only planner who has come up during bad times. I graduated during a recession too and it took me 2 years to land a full time gig. I kept at it though because I knew that I would not be happy doing anything else. My best advice to you is to get out of the Ivy League. It won't payoff in strictly a dollars to donuts comparison and it is causing you a lot of stress.
    We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes - Fr Gabriel Richard 1805

  5. #5
    Cyburbian btrage's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by jacobite View post
    My reasons for dropping out:
    • With a couple exceptions, the courses and professors are generally mediocre. I don't feel inspired here and the coursework isn't as rigorous as I expected, ie I don't feel like I am learning genuine skills. The workload is tremendous, which would be fine if I was enjoying the work, but a lot of it is drudgery. Second year students I've talked to says it gets better and first semester is difficult, but this sucks. I feel like I'm not getting what I'm paying for, which leads me to...I also felt this way during my graduate coursework. I felt the professors were mediocre. But you have to realize that you'll learn so much more through internships and actual job experience, than you will in the classroom. The classroom teaches you how to think critical - it does not teach you how to create the greatest neighborhood plan ever.
    • Cost. I will be at least $70k in debt when I graduate. While I would be ok with this if I was loving the program and had more confidence in finding meaningful and rewarding employment upon graduation, neither is looking good right now. Is it worth going into so much debt for this degree? Is the Ivy name worth it on the diploma? I think this depends on where you want to work. If you're going to focus on the east cost/large cities, then it may be worth it. But if you're going to be open to working anywhere, then there are plenty of great state colleges that offer planning degrees and are well respected.
    • Jobs. The Republicans are targeting HUD, cities are scrapping entire planning departments, and many planners are already out of work. Future prospects don't look great for the next five or ten years as far as I can tell. Am I wrong? You're not entirely wrong, but there are still jobs out there. You have to be willing to move or settle until times get better.
    • I'm worried I can do more as an outsider than as a planner in the system. I'm afraid that if I graduate and get that great city planning job, I'll find myself muzzled in order to keep that job, beholden to elected officials and impotent to advocate for the changes I feel are necessary. Planning is, of course, all about compromise, but I don't know if I have thick enough skin for the perennial disappointments that seem the fate of most city planners. As a private citizen, I could run for the planning commission and be that elected official. As a private citizen, I could advocate to save that historic building or revise that element of zoning code without needing to worry about the political BS planners need to constantly keep in mind. Can an outsider in some ways actually do more good than a planner in the system? It's true that you may have a larger impact as an outsider. But does this necessarily mean you should turn away from a profession you're passionate about? Even as an employee, you still advocate. You just do it in a different way. Please know that even as an elected/appointed official, you still play the poltical game. You're just a different chess piece.
    • I don't know if I'm enough of a people person to charm the public and finesse the system. It depends on what you're ultimate goal is. If you want to get to the Director level or aspire to government management, this may be a road block. But not all planning positions, even in local government, require round-the-clock interaction with the public, developers, etc.
    • Analyzing data and working with a lot of numbers are not my bag. I can do it all right, but it's not a strength or a real interest. Again, this depends on which niche in the planning profession you aspire too. Some are very technical, some not.
    I would recommend finishing the semester out and then reasses.
    "I'm very important. I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany"

  6. #6
    Cyburbian
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    You are in your first semester of your first year in graduate school correct? Others may place a higher premium on the faculty, facilities, availability of internships, etc. I place a BIG premium on the bottom line: what is your return on investment, opportunity cost, and debt payment, and that goes for ANY type of higher education (college and up) and ANY type of profession. Because you are only starting graduate school and have not vested too much into the program here are a few options:

    1. If you want to do planning, transfer to a cheaper school ASAP. You said you are worried about the price tag and the quality of the Ivy League education. You also want to work as a staff planner. If you wanted to work in a think tank, maybe an Ivy would help you, but since you work as a staff planner, maybe a more affordable school (either a state school or a private institution with better financial options) could be a better option.
    2. Have you considered applying to other programs (even non-planning) within Harvard? Law School, Business School, Medical School, whatever? I don't know how much of a leg up you have since you are already a graduate student but it couldn't hurt. I think other professions, especially business, finance medicine, place a far higher premium on Ivy League credentials than planning.
    3. Whatever you do, don't just drop out without a degree. You will be in hot water explaining to potential employers why you only have HALF of a degree.

    Hope this helps-
    "This is great, honey. What's the crunchy stuff?"
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  7. #7
    Cyburbian TerraSapient's avatar
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    I think you have received some sound advice so far. I wouldn't drop out in the first semester. Instead, transfer to a less expensive school or change your course of study at your current school. Graduate school is different than undergraduate school. You have a lot more freedom over what to study, how to study, etc., but you cannot really take advantage of those freedoms until the program is content that you know what you are doing.

    The problem with "mediocre" faculty and staff is everywhere. Universities so tightly control what professors can and cannot do anymore. There are lawsuits filed against teachers who too heavily push an agenda -- regardless of whether or not they were actually pushing one or just trying to get their students to think. We unfortunately live in an age where information can be viewed as dangerous and thus needing to be controlled. Teaching is a very difficult job with a lot of risk that most people don't understand. If you want to get more out of your program, you are going to have to do the work. Develop relationships with the faculty. Find difficult and challenging topics to push yourself. Find an internship right away. You are going to have to do these things regardless of what program you are enrolled in.
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  8. #8
    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by DetroitPlanner View post
    Ivy League Schools come with big price tags. You should have realized that from the get-go.
    Even in my Ivy League town, it doesn't give you an advantage, except a better shot at an internship that could lead to something should a position open. Around here, Cornell planning grads work in the public sector alongside grads from SUNY-ESF. Buffalo and other schools.

    Ivy schools do often offer financial aid packages that will bring the financial burden down to the level of a mainstream private school, or if you're really smart, a state school. It could give you a better shot in an image-conscious private planning firm. Thing is, everybody is hurting now; local governments, private firms, non-profits, everybody. An Ivy might also give you an edge up on planning jobs in image-conscious cities/emirates like Abu Dhabi or Dubai.

    Have you talked to an advisor and asked about job placement prospects, or long-term salary statistics?
    Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. -- Edward Abbey

  9. #9
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    Hi Jacobite,

    That's one hell of a first post, because you got some heavy hitters to respond. There's a lot of years of experience in them, for sure, and I'm sure you're taking it all in.

    I'm in my first semester too, and I hear you about the academic content. Lots of it, little time spent talking about it with any specificity, and the odd feeling that the most important thing for me to do is be in the room for class and do the readings on my own. But most of the stuff we're doing now is the core curriculum, and until all that passes, we have to find ways to make the work interesting. This coursework certainly isn't the primary interest of any of my professors, so I can't really blame them for their upbeat but somewhat detached attitudes. (That said, I think it's helpful to have your first semester at a school be mostly Hobson's choices: it gives you time to learn the professors, the classmates, the interests of both, the system, all that. That sort of fluency, knowing who to talk to about an idea you had or program you caught wind of, might come in pretty handy for us if we stick around.)

    Secondly, you said the mediocrity had "a couple exceptions," so those positive exceptions are probably at least 40% of your coursework, right? Maybe even half? I'm glad to hear that it's not all bad, then. And if the second-years have told you that it gets better, well, of course it does! By then, most students are actively pursuing the things that brought them to planning school in the first place, working with the faculty and classmates with whom they share interests and resources. Those are the experiences mentioned on the websites and the in the open houses, not the time spent entering data into spreadsheets. That said, I think we'd all better get pretty good with the spreadsheets.

    As you mentioned, you're paying for all this, so know that it's OK to be a little pushy. If you're actively talking to your professors/department head/visiting lecturers about ways to bring what you discussed in your statement of intent to bear in your four-semester education, then you're getting what you paid for! If not, this is the time to take advantage, because they all OWE IT TO YOU. As students, the gap between academic and professional is of ours to bridge right now, because we're in the position of having access to the former, and in a position well known to the latter. As others have said, some of your interests might be served by cross-disciplinary studies, maybe even a dual-degree. Keeping the boat afloat is probably a good thing, even if you have to take in the sails for a bit, or adjust course.

    None of that has to happen at the school you're currently enrolled in, so if you think you might be interested in continuing the education elsewhere, make the rest of this semester be about blowing the doors off of your schoolwork. Plenty of schools would be happy to have someone with talent and drive. You are already in one of them.

  10. #10
    Cyburbian Masswich's avatar
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    Ummm... well that is a lot of debt. What about taking a semester off? Will your program allow it? I knew some people who did that and it helped clarify their goals.

  11. #11
    Cyburbian
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    I dunno, 17.5K for four semesters apiece, including tuition, in Philly, Cambridge, NYC? That sounds like a pretty standard deal for the current set. Obviously, Ithaca is a different story, but probably not for less than 10K.

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    Plan

    1 in every 3 with a masters in urban planning does something outside of planning. So the way I see it is simple. Just plan. Urban Planners do not have a great job market right now. So involve yourself in something else before graduating. Get a part time job that exposes you individuals who are high up in different fields. Networking is pretty easy when you have the ability to tell people your in grad school. If your not a people person you better work hard at becoming one quick, because your boss will be.

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    Ha!

    This sounds exactly how I was feeling at UMich a month ago. Maybe the first semester at all planning schools just sucks? I was very close to quitting.

    I got into planning for similar reasons, mostly I wanted to make the U.S. more like Asia, but after doing more research I realized the suburbs aren't ALL bad, and I have no right to dictate how people live.

    Most of the people I talk to here don't want to be planners when they're finished. Most of us think it sounds painful. Everyone seems to want a job at a private firm or a non-profit. Me, I'm thinking about a dual degree...

    I think I'm realizing grad school is what you make it, and in the end, it's how you sell yourself to future employers. Hang in there!

  14. #14
    Only 70K? Thats actually not too bad at all for graduate school...

  15. #15
    Cyburbian wahday's avatar
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    I would say definitely finish the semester if not the year and consider transferring to a less expensive school if the price tag is gonna kill you. This is a big challenge for a lot of people at expensive schools right now. Because the economy is so bleak and even if you do get a job, the pay may be less than you need to pay down those loans. That is the reality we are in now and you are in the same boat with a lot of others, so I don't think, going forward, that employers are going to look too hard at the Ivy League part of your resume. Plus, in my experience, planning school is less about the institution's name than the connections you make while there (and a lot of that is based on your own initiative). I don't think for this particular field that "good schools" over others is such a big factor unless you are planning to go on to a PhD program.

    FTR, I attended an Ivy League for both undergrad and grad (but not in planning). Then I moved out West where a large number of people are completely ignorant of the status of such schools. So, it did me little good as far as impressing would-be employers. The nice side of that is that people are more ranked on their ability to perform. I later went back for an MCRP in planning at a state school and got a great education at a fraction of the cost (though to be fair, I did not I got scholarships for the other schooling, so I was fortunate to not be saddled with student loan debt)

    But again, if you love planning but hate the price tag, consider transferring to another more affordable school. There is no shame in that, even if your current insitution would like you to believe so.
    The purpose of life is a life of purpose

  16. #16
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by MitchellGomez View post
    Only 70K? Thats actually not too bad at all for graduate school...
    It's not bad but you can do a lot better. A state school or a school with decent financial aid, you can probably get through school for half that.

  17. #17
    Super Moderator kjel's avatar
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    Stick with it through the end of the semester and then make a decision but only after you've taken some time and opportunity to sit down with some of your more amenable professors and perhaps a real life planner. At least you will have some credits to transfer if you do decide to leave.

    Grad school isn't for the faint of heart, it doesn't matter what you are studying. I went part time for four years and completed two masters degrees, I found that working gave me some much needed space and perspective on my coursework and made me a better student. I think you need to spend some time evaluating what your personal career goals are in the field of planning and explore some of the career opportunities available to someone with a graduate degree in planning. Planning is relevant in many capacities and although the job market is generally craptacular these days there ARE opportunities out there.

    Hang in there.
    "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

  18. #18
    Cyburbian
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    Only 70K? For someone whose starting salary will probably not exceed 50K?

    Look at it this way: 70K is a nice down payment for a decent house. It's a very generous contribution to retirement savings and pension funds.

    People at typical planner positions will be paying off a student loan of 70K for a very long time, and it will hinder your ability to build up savings, vacations, down payments, expenditures on children and so forth.

    Going to a "fancy" planning school such as Harvard or my alma mater, Penn, is like buying a Tag Hueur over a basic Casio watch. It looks better on your wrist but it isn't better at telling time. Only do it it if you can genuinely afford it, whether through generous scholarships/grants or paying out of pocket.

    I walked away from Penn with less than 20K in loans. I would never have darken their doors if I knew I'd have 30+ k in loans.




    Quote Originally posted by MitchellGomez View post
    Only 70K? Thats actually not too bad at all for graduate school...

  19. #19
    Super Moderator kjel's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by PennPlanner View post
    Only 70K? For someone whose starting salary will probably not exceed 50K?

    Look at it this way: 70K is a nice down payment for a decent house. It's a very generous contribution to retirement savings and pension funds.

    People at typical planner positions will be paying off a student loan of 70K for a very long time, and it will hinder your ability to build up savings, vacations, down payments, expenditures on children and so forth.

    Going to a "fancy" planning school such as Harvard or my alma mater, Penn, is like buying a Tag Hueur over a basic Casio watch. It looks better on your wrist but it isn't better at telling time. Only do it it if you can genuinely afford it, whether through generous scholarships/grants or paying out of pocket.

    I walked away from Penn with less than 20K in loans. I would never have darken their doors if I knew I'd have 30+ k in loans.
    If you work 10 years in the public service sector (wide range of options that qualify) you can have the bulk of your federal loans forgiven depending on how you are repaying them. http://studentaid.ed.gov/students/at...givenessv4.pdf
    "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
    Whether the stick price of an Ivy is a valuable premium depends on what you want to do.

    An Ivy (or MIT) MUP/MCP will give you two main advantages over a lesser-known name.

    1) If you want to work outside the US. As someone mentioned, if you want to work in Qatar or Shanghai, Harvard or Columbia beat hands down any average school.
    2) If you want to work in anything not related to planning, an Ivy degree will open you some doors in fields other than planning.

    As Dan says, if you want to work in Ithaca, NY as an urban planner, having Cornell or UPenn will not pay you more than any state school.

  21. #21
    Cyburbian
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    If you want to work in anything not related to planning, an Ivy degree will open you some doors in fields other than planning.

    1. Then why go to an Ivy League school?
    2. Then why go into planning at all?
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  22. #22
    Cyburbian Tarf's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by nrschmid View post
    If you want to work in anything not related to planning, an Ivy degree will open you some doors in fields other than planning.

    1. Then why go to an Ivy League school?
    2. Then why go into planning at all?

    I think #1 is the point. If you want to be a planner, like, a real world planner (and not academic), there is no point to going to an Ivy League school. It won't help get the job, and the job won't help pay off the loans you'll have to take out. I could see the case of an Ivy League school for someone wanting to go into academia though... since it would help you get into the more advanced programs (and since you'll probably rack up so much in loans that you can default in 20 years no problem without harming your credit ).

    As for #2, just because you shouldn't go to an Ivy League school to get into the planning profession doesn't mean you shouldn't get into the planning profession at all, if that's what interests you.
    In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move. (Douglas Adams)

  23. #23
    Cyburbian
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    doesn't mean you shouldn't get into the planning profession at all, if that's what interests you

    There are no planning jobs, so yes it DOES matter.
    "This is great, honey. What's the crunchy stuff?"
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  24. #24
    Cyburbian Tarf's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by nrschmid View post
    doesn't mean you shouldn't get into the planning profession at all, if that's what interests you

    There are no planning jobs, so yes it DOES matter.
    They're rare at the moment, sure. But that won't last forever - population isn't declining after all.

    If someone is interested in the profession, they should pursue it. That's all.

    If they're looking for a quick new career to find an easy job in this economy, look elsewhere, I agree.
    In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move. (Douglas Adams)

  25. #25
    Cyburbian
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    I'm worried I can do more as an outsider than as a planner in the system. I'm afraid that if I graduate and get that great city planning job, I'll find myself muzzled in order to keep that job, beholden to elected officials and impotent to advocate for the changes I feel are necessary. Planning is, of course, all about compromise, but I don't know if I have thick enough skin for the perennial disappointments that seem the fate of most city planners. As a private citizen, I could run for the planning commission and be that elected official. As a private citizen, I could advocate to save that historic building or revise that element of zoning code without needing to worry about the political BS planners need to constantly keep in mind. Can an outsider in some ways actually do more good than a planner in the system? It's true that you may have a larger impact as an outsider.
    I think you can consider where in the broader planning world you fit in. I've decided I do not simply want to do planning for the process of it - if I wasn't promoting sustainability, I wouldn't want to keep working for a given city. Its also a bigger world than being a public-sector "current planner"/"long range planner" if that's not your cup of tea. Grad school, your thesis or project work, and your internships can help you go in the right direction and meet people. But whatever you choose, understanding how planning works (technically and politically) can be a benefit.

    One option is the non-profit world and related agencies, universities, etc. I know people who work in the non-profit sector promoting smart growth, or provide technical assistance (as I do) thru state government or a university. But to do so they need to understand how planning works (what is smart) and how to engage the public (because as an advocate you're engaging the public as much as any municipal planner.) And accept that you win some and lose some, and that people you think should be allies (like "environmentalists") may not be. Or, you can do something sort of planning related, like establishing community gardens, building affordable housing, promoting local food systems (from production to processing to sale), promoting transit use in a downtown, helping communities mitigate brownfields or revitalize downtowns, etc. You can also focus on a "green" areas of planning, such as bike/ped transit. Its a niche, but if its what you really want to do, the way to get there is to go for it. Maybe try to do some projects in these areas during your studies.

    There are also cities out there that are committed to sustainability, and it may behoove you to work your way into connections there. These places consider multi-modal transportation, infill, urban design and appropriate density. Big cities often do this as a matter of course. Places like Portland are obvious, but many cities think along these lines (Denver, or Arlington, VA, for example, or probably better-run east coast cities). And some states have quality state planning laws that provide a framework. These places aren't always the "usual suspects" - for example, if you really care about sustainability, "liberal college towns" like Boulder may be frustrating because they tend to devolve into NIMBYism. On the other hand, I've had good experiences in Eugene, OR. There are also consultants who focus in these areas - but you'll need the technical skills and political skills, developed over time.

    As a planner, you could also go right into an activist position like the PIRG fellowship program, although it may be hard to get into a more routine city position after this.

    Regarding school, I can't really advise; my Ivy-League planning degree was undergrad 13 years ago, so I can't compare, but I have heard some Ivy League programs are very academic and I certainly got my share of neo-Marxism in the 100 and 101s (so much so I switched out of the major for a year!) Then again, I met some students from Penn working on applied food systems research. I've been impressed with UO, Portland State and U Washington for having a strong sustainability focus, but that is probably more common throughout planning programs today than in the 90s? What options does your school offer to get into what you want to do?

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