Deciding if You Want to be a Planner

Ann Forsyth's picture

Not sure if you want to be a planner? Recently my colleagues and I have received a spate of emails from prospective students around the world wanting to know whether planning is a field they should pursue. Their extensive lists of questions show that this is a pressing issue for them. This entry answers some of the more common questions and aims to help prospective students come to programs with a shorter and more focused set of topics to explore.

  • Is Planning for Me?
  • Will there be Jobs for Planners in the Future?
  • Where do Planners Work?
  • How do I Know which Programs are Good for What?
  • What if I Have a Really Specific Interest?

Is Planning for Me?

Finding out if planning is for you involves looking at what planners do.

Will there be Jobs for Planners in the Future?

Yes there will be jobs for planners. The world is urbanizing creating issues that need to be solved in cities and regions. The importance of natural systems becoming more and more apparent, but many environmental fields are becoming highly specialized, leaving a gap that planners can fill.

Where do Planners Work?

Planners may do this work in government, for the private sector that is often working for government, or in nonprofit groups. There are lots of different locations for planning work.

How Do I Choose a Planning Program?

Read my earlier column on finding the right program and applying to graduate school (scroll down to find my advice about how to investigate graduate schools).

In that entry I give the following tips:

  • In the United States find planning programs at, non-accredited at, and affiliated schools at Other countries have similar lists,
  • Then, as I said in my earlier post: "to make a short list the first things to do are to read and listen." Look at web sites, read the program materials, look at what faculty have done (it is typically listed on the school web sites or can be Googled) and read their work. Do the classes offered interest you? What about research centers and outreach projects? Did some of the faculty write articles you found interesting when doing your initial reading (above)? Does student work on the web sites look relevant? My rule of thumb is to go somewhere where at least two faculty members do work that really interests you and where the students look interesting too.
  • You can also visit schools for open houses and look on campus. However, as I said in my earlier post on applying to graduate school: "in my experience it does not help your chances of admission to visit a school before being admitted. Some schools receive hundreds of applicants. Don't expect faculty to put aside their other tasks to meet or answer detailed email questions before you have been admitted-their priority is students already in the program and doing the work that makes you interested in studying with them."
    Sure you can visit. It can help you decide if you want to apply. I meet with dozens of such students each year. But you can find out a lot without burning fossil fuel to get to a distant campus.

How do I Know which Programs are Good for What?

If you have done all the investigation I suggest above you should know which programs have interesting classes, students, projects, and faculty. While Planetizen does have its ranking there is really no substitute for this work.

What if I Have a Really Specific Interest?

There are two options for those with specific interests.

  • If it is some common area like urban design or transportation then pick programs that have that emphasis (faculty, courses, projects). However, don't forget that many people evolve new interests in graduate school so its risky to go to a place with just one focus.
  • If your area is not a typical subfield of planning or is at the intersection of planning and other areas--planning for food systems, universal design and planning-you need a more complicated approach. Pick a place with some combination of the following:
    • At least one faculty member with a minor or major interest in the topic and a few more who might have overlapping concerns.
    • Classes across campus and a planning program with plenty of electives so that you can do those classes.
    • Dual degrees in place that will allow you to explore your interests.
In general, there is no substitute for reading, going to conferences, attending planning meetings-all part of a thorough investigation into topics that presumably interest you and a field that may be your future.


This is the March blog entry delayed. Other earlier blogs may be of interest including several on getting into graduate school in planning: how to find the right program, apply, and decide which offer to take up. In addition I have written about how to make the most of being a student and when (not) to email experts.
Ann Forsyth is professor of Urban Planning at Harvard University.



Consider civil engineering as your route into planning

If people are interested in planning, they should also consider another way into the profession: a civil engineering degree. I am a transportation engineer whose work straddles the divide between engineering and planning, and I'm very happy that I have a technical background for my planning work.

I fully realise that traffic engineers have done a lot to royally screw up urban development in North America, but that is precisely the reason to become an engineer! We need more people who approach transportation engineering from the perspective of a planner, and we also need more planners who can help address the concerns of engineers.

A traffic engineer's goal is usually to maintain as high a Level of Service (LOS) as possible on a roadway, and to reduce delay and congestion, but these goals often directly conflict with a planner's goals of creating walkable transit-friendly neighbourhoods with a good quality of life. This engineer v. planner conflict is exactly why we need more people with a background in both fields, who can speak the language of both fields, and who have the respect of practitioners in both fields. All too often engineers write off planners as being flighty glorified landscape architects who understand nothing about the "real world", while planners write off engineers as being number-obsessed geeks who care only about keeping cars moving. This tension does nothing to further our actual goal, which should be to help shape livable cities.

If you can stomach a rather long and arduous technical civil engineering education as your route into the planning profession, I highly recommend it! You'll carve out a very unique and useful role for yourself.

professions can and do blur....

Thank you ConcernedAboutWinnipeg in regards to your perspective!!

I've been researching a MS Transportation (dual masters degree w/ Planning) degree for only 6 months now.
This is most definitely the better quality info./advise I have read/ heard, etc. since that time.

I'm working through my math courses I still need(had a very fun time in Trigonometry/Geometry, its greatly changed my perspective everyday how I now relate to different situations), and at least one physics course. I'm on the ropes about going for a second B.S. , since I already have a B.S. in Social Sciences(not so technical, but it was an excellent foundation to build upon, as I always knew I'd go back for at least a Masters or additional college of some sort). Here in Cali. , there are some CSU's that do not allow in students that want to pursue a second Bachlors degree! However if I was to go for a second B.S. it would most likely be in CE.

The vibe I've been getting in regards to the planning profession is a fairly high level of "secondary" political "fall-out" (sorry for the abstract terms as I am fairly new to this study), influencing potential planning decisions in dealing with problems associated with new plans a city is morphing into. In the end, the political powers that have their own agenda of certain objectives they want to have happen while in office (a wide range of reasons for these objectives, hopefully none that involve greed considering this is a civil service field). I also recognize the high level of influence local business have on how a city shapes itself through time (there are positives and negatives associated with small or big business have in relation to the town in question).

I was considering a MBA; however the business skills I have attained over the years(work experience and college courses) is enough for my interests at my stage in life. Every profession is a "business" to one extent or another, so a certain set of business related skills is definitly desirable (and I'll have earned two associates degrees in business); but I feel as though any further business would be over-kill, and I most likely would not benifit (thus the organization/workplace would not benifit much either.. I suppose its a matter of perspective here), much from the time/experience of doing an MBA degree(much theory related tasks/info, as I am of the mindset=perspective of wanting to learn more pragmatic-real life hardened knowledge/skills that I can directly transfer to a particluar job task(s) ).

I do prefer to learn / and earn a degree that is as highly technical as possible! That is my main objective right now; however keeping in mind many professions do blur (morph) into a related arena / field/ profession of practice. So I do not exactly intend to get too narrow sighted on what degree I "ought" to pursue, but I suppose what is the best path - route to take in regards to the course work I'd like to learn ( its too bad all coursework in a particular program is not 100% fun-fun-fun) ,so the skills and knowledge I do aquire are easily transferable to a related profession that interests me. The grick is there is no prescription/ recipet for the "right way" to go about pursuing a desired "profession" ;-)

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