Decision Time for (Prospective) Graduate Students

Ann Forsyth's picture

For those admitted to graduate planning programs in the U.S., March is the season of choices and decisions. Offers appear. Decision deadlines approach. Wait lists are formed. Even those who thought they knew what they wanted may be tempted to change their minds. Having been affiliated with seven vastly different planning programs, and having worked both as a faculty member and practitioner, I can attest that the choices aren't simple.

In general you should go to a graduate program where there are faculty and students whose work really excites you. Read their books and articles. Explore their web sites. Visit their projects. But there are other key issues to consider. Once admitted it is worth talking with faculty, and especially with current students, to figure out the answers to some difficult questions.

Big city or small town? For those settled in a major metropolis, with a partner who won't move and won't live apart, the choice is easy. However, for the rest the decision can be more complicated. Big cities have more of a lot of things: professional jobs so you can both work and study, community groups and cities to do projects with and for, and large scale urban issues to investigate and help solve. But small towns have some advantages too: faculty are typically more present and accessible, students live closer together making group work and even friendships easier, and there are still urban and regional problems to solve.

Big department or small? Big departments have some definite advantages-they provide lots of course options, rich concentrations, and many other students to learn from. However, many smaller departments have terrific links with other programs on campus giving students more choices. In smaller programs faculty are likely to remember student names and interact with them as individuals rather than numbers. However, large departments often break into concentration groups that have this feel. The choice may not be as obvious as it first appears.

Practice or research focus? Some departments pride themselves in producing employable graduates; others emphasize creating bold thinkers. Few are so extreme-accreditation ensures some balance--and what suits you will depend on your background. If your first degree is in accounting, some bold thinking about social and ecological concerns might be great; if it is in poetry, practical skills might help you feel less nervous in your first job. If you want to save the world it is good to do so competently.

Money or prestige? Faced with an offer from somewhere you think has name recognition vs. a less expensive offer from elsewhere? For all but the independently wealthy, money does matter. If the decision is money vs., prestige, then money matters--fewer debts will free you to do good in the world quicker and prestige is not equivalent to quality. But if it is money vs. quality, then the calculus is more difficult and depends on the specific situation. A better education will help you have a more sophisticated sense of how improve the world; but if you are totally weighted down with debt for years that might seem a bit theoretical.

Overall, the decision about a graduate program can be challenging. However, there are other important decisions you will make and opportunities to gain education in planning occur throughout a professional career.

Finally, some other resources: For those interested in doctoral education, Martin Krieger's This Week's Finds in Planning contains much of interest:

The Planners Network Disorientation Guide also provides tips, particularly for those who want to use planning for social and environmental justice: (Disclosures: I have no affiliation with USC or Martin Krieger, but I am a co-editor of Planners Network's Progressive Planning Magazine.)

Ann Forsyth is professor of Urban Planning at Harvard University.


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