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Thread: Please Be *Brutally Honest*: Should I pursue a Masters planning degree? Will there be jobs?

  1. #1
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    Please Be *Brutally Honest*: Should I pursue a Masters planning degree? Will there be jobs?

    Thank you everyone for taking the time to read this.

    I know that this question has been asked a number of times, but I think it merits new consideration. Both the economy and the planning profession are constantly changing, and the condition of each obviously has a great impact on the utility of a MURP/MCP degree. Advice from even as recently as last year may be out of date, and one of the great benefits of forums such as this is the ability to leverage the incite of knowledgeable audiences who track changes in the profession day-to-day, up close and personal.

    Please be as forthright and honest as you can. I realize that everyone is different - each has his or her own strengths and weaknesses, financial situation, etc. - but would you honestly recommend that the average prospective student pursue a Master's degree in planning? Is there a realistic expectation of finding employment as a planner after graduation?

    My background is mostly in the military, and I am fairly lucky because the GI Bill can pay for most of my tuition (at least at a state school where I can get in-state tuition). My abiding professional interest is in promoting affordable housing, but I would be happy to be a part of the profession in any way I could.

    I have been accepted to a couple of schools in Virginia (VA Tech and UVa) and am very seriously considering both.

    However, I obviously do not want to spend time and money on a degree that will afford me little or no chance of employment after graduation.

    Is the MURP degree still the way to go, or should those who wish to positively influence the built environment look to other endeavors?

    When I first began my research into planning, all the information I found suggested it was a growing field with decent career prospects. But the more I learn - and especially after visiting these boards - the more disillusioned I become. I'm at a point in my life where I can't afford to waste 2 years on a fruitless search for an illusory career. But if there is any hope of supporting myself as a planner after graduation, I would love to pursue it.

    What should I do Cyburbia?!

  2. #2
    Cyburbian kalimotxo's avatar
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    First of all, welcome from a fellow Northern Virginian.

    The short answer to both questions is: maybe.

    Your military background will serve you well. I currently work as a planning consultant for USAF and USMC and there are opportunities out there for folks who have a background in both. VT and UVA are both great schools with high placement rates (full disclosure: I got into both and ultimately got my MURP from VT in Blacksburg). VT has a couple of heavy hitters in the housing realm (Ted Koebel and Robert Lang come to mind) and I'd encourage you to read up on them and see if their interests align with yours. I don't know anyone from my MURP class (Spring '11) that has yet to find a job in an at least semi-related field).

    There's a lot of doom and gloom about the planning profession, and I'm sure you'll hear some in response to this. My perspective is this: you are more employable with a grad degree than without one. If you are interested in affordable housing and your GI Bill will pay for most of your tuition, I would never consider the two years in grad school "wasted time". I had a great time in grad school and I feel like I'm a better person, personally and professionally, than I was when I enrolled.

    Hope this helps. Let me know if you have any specific questions about VT's program or anything else.
    Process and dismissal. Shelter and location. Everybody wants somewhere.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian wahday's avatar
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    That’s a tough question and I don’t purport to have a holistic view of the planning profession and where it is heading. What I will say is this: a Masters in planning is going to serve you better in finding employment in this climate than an undergraduate degree. That’s my opinion and others may not agree. But my reasoning is that with an undergrad degree, you are more likely to be doing things like plan and zoning reviews, front counter work, etc. And this arena of planning is one of the hardest hit now (and generally more a victim of the ebbs and flows of construction). This is because construction starts are way down, so the staff needed to review applications is thinned until things pick up. I think those working in long range planning (also called advanced or future planning) are probably a little more secure. And what they are planning for may actually be a response to changing circumstances which in my mind gives that kind of work a little more personal interest and value – feels like you are actually doing something that matters for the future.

    Another aspect of having a Masters is it qualifies you (or at least gives potential employers that impression!) to do a wider range of work. I live in the city where I got my masters and so I have been able to see over the years where other grads have ended up – people are working in arenas as diverse as the City or County, food security, community organizing/social justice, homeless advocacy and housing – and that’s just my class. As you can see, many are not in areas that are necessarily considered “planning” traditionally, but are still very much informed by and benefit from planning grads’ perspectives, skills and insight. This also requires, however, that you are open minded about what you might do as a job. The graduate school experience is as much about what you learn as it is about getting some professional experiences and exploring the connections and networks you are exposed to. Should you go, I would encourage you to take advantage of project opportunities, internships, professional assistanceships with professors, etc. The more you are a known quantity to people, the more likely you are to rise toward the top of an applicant pool. If you intend to work somewhere other than where you go to school, these folks can still provide strong recommendations based on your experiences.

    By way of example, I have a MCRP degree and at first worked for an arts center doing community planning work using the arts as a catalyst (I had a previous career in the arts, so this was a result of leveraging that experience). Since last summer, I have been working at a non-profit housing developer. Neither job title called me a “planner” but I employ many of the skills I learned in school and very much consider my work to be related to the issues that inspired me in school (including some design work).

    The last thing I will say is to be careful about the debt you take on. Everyone says it, but that’s for a good reason. Even with decent employment opportunities and a strengthening economy, very few people are going to get rich being a planner. That’s a good thing to know going into it and there is nothing wrong with that in my mind – that was never my agenda in going into this field. But it does mean you probably don’t want a hefty debt burden as the cash you have to pay it down will be limited. I went to a state school and was perfectly satisfied with my education. Again, much of the value of my experience came from the connections and opportunities I received as a result of being in school. I do have student loan debt, but not like I would have had had I gone to a pricier school.

    As a general question, recognizing the prevailing sense of concern about the future of planning employment, I wonder how planning fares compared to other fields. Its hard to untangle what is a dim prospect for a particular field and what is just a dim prospect for employment in general. Now if you were to ask me if you should go to Architecture school, I would definitely say no. They have a higher than average unemployment rate currently – something like 14 percent. So, don’t do that…
    The purpose of life is a life of purpose

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    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by wahday View post
    That’s a tough question and I don’t purport to have a holistic view of the planning profession and where it is heading. What I will say is this: a Masters in planning is going to serve you better in finding employment in this climate than an undergraduate degree. That’s my opinion and others may not agree. But my reasoning is that with an undergrad degree, you are more likely to be doing things like plan and zoning reviews, front counter work, etc. And this arena of planning is one of the hardest hit now (and generally more a victim of the ebbs and flows of construction). This is because construction starts are way down, so the staff needed to review applications is thinned until things pick up. I think those working in long range planning (also called advanced or future planning) are probably a little more secure. And what they are planning for may actually be a response to changing circumstances which in my mind gives that kind of work a little more personal interest and value – feels like you are actually doing something that matters for the future.

    ...

    As a general question, recognizing the prevailing sense of concern about the future of planning employment, I wonder how planning fares compared to other fields. Its hard to untangle what is a dim prospect for a particular field and what is just a dim prospect for employment in general. Now if you were to ask me if you should go to Architecture school, I would definitely say no. They have a higher than average unemployment rate currently – something like 14 percent. So, don’t do that…
    This.

    Second, I was in the service. Few care that much. You get some points when applying for the ever-shrinking number of gov't jobs, and maybe a tiny shred of interest on the private side. It only matters if you can show qualities employers want.

    Last, related to austerity and economy and all that and relating that to a job: plenty of threads discussing that. Including some with my glass half-full (of tainted groundwater) view.
    -------
    Give a man a gun, and he can rob a bank. Give a man a bank, and he can rob the world.

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    Options

    First.. A correction. Im about 90 percent sure Robert Lang is no longer at VT. He left the same time Chris Nelson went to the University of Utah (go Utes!).

    As far as the original post goes.. I have a question.. What are your other options? If you dont waste your next 2 years with a planning degree, what will you be wasting it with? Also, what was your undergrad?

  6. #6
    Cyburbian kalimotxo's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by ColoGI View post
    Second, I was in the service. Few care that much. You get some points when applying for the ever-shrinking number of gov't jobs, and maybe a tiny shred of interest on the private side. It only matters if you can show qualities employers want.
    That may be true in your region, but in the DC Metro area there are many job opportunities for folks that have backgrounds in planning and the military. I can point you to several right now if you want to move to the east coast. How those jobs will fare post current budget discussions in DC is unknown, of course, but I think that's more of a cyclical than structural trend.

    Quote Originally posted by fadedevolution View post
    First.. A correction. Im about 90 percent sure Robert Lang is no longer at VT. He left the same time Chris Nelson went to the University of Utah (go Utes!).
    My mistake, Robert Lang has been gone for a few years. Casey Dawkins is the main housing dude at the Northern VA campus these days, and he's well accomplished.
    Process and dismissal. Shelter and location. Everybody wants somewhere.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian
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    I'm not the best person to answer this since I'm deciding between grad schools at the moment and I've been doing the math on debt myself. That said, everyone I know seems to be agonizing about their field. I have lawyer friends who wish they didn't go to law school. Psychologists who wish they chose a different route. Architects in angst about everything. Teachers who can't find a job. Doctoral candidates who have had year after year to stress about their prospects. Looking at my likely debt, I seem to be better off than them and I think I have a very good chance at employment. No one's first job is going to be an easy catch - it does take some grunt work. But planning does seem at least equal to if not better than the next best alternative for me.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by kalimotxo View post
    That may be true in your region, but in the DC Metro area there are many job opportunities for folks that have backgrounds in planning and the military. I can point you to several right now if you want to move to the east coast. How those jobs will fare post current budget discussions in DC is unknown, of course, but I think that's more of a cyclical than structural trend.
    No way I want to live and work there. For 97% of the country, its great if you can match the things you got out of it with something marketable. There is a risk now with f-d in the head with multiple deployments for non-officers/non-COINTEL.
    -------
    Give a man a gun, and he can rob a bank. Give a man a bank, and he can rob the world.

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