Planning for Planning School

Jeffrey Barg's picture

I used to have interns. Probably hundreds of them, if you add them up over the years. I lorded over them all-benevolently, of course-while they, with doe eyes and studied eagerness, did whatever they could to impress me and my colleagues.

Then this week, at orientation for the University of Pennsylvania's master of city planning program, I sat in the crowd, one face out of about 70. A plebe once again.

Talk about humbling.

The interns were sometimes infuriating, sometimes hilarious, but always good for cocktail party conversation. There was Steven-the-child-pornographer-intern (a whiz on the Internet!). Cara-the-unstable-intern, who wrote a rambling, pathos-laden two-page screed that she forced me to recite aloud during her interview. Lana-the-overenthusiastic-Russian-intern, who propositioned me during her interview. (All names have been changed to protect the unpaid.)

Now, though, all that you're-hired-or-fired power is gone. I'm back in the cheap seats, getting ordered around and assigned homework, and needing to impress professors from the jump.

On one hand, the bottom-rung camaraderie is nice to have again. I'm on the older side of my class-I'm 28, while the average age is probably 24 or 25-but everyone feels very much in the same boat, regardless of past work experience. We old-heads aren't particularly looked down upon, and college campuses have a youthful energy that benefits everyone.

On the other hand, when the cops showed up at our too-loud class party late last Friday night, I felt pretty damn old.

Our distance from legal drinking age notwithstanding, most of these planners-to-be seem to have the same overarching goal: to get a job that will make a difference in cities around the world, and one that will pay off our student loans (not necessarily in that order). People are here to learn, yes, but in choosing classes, finding internships and preparing work, the ultimate question everyone asks is: How employable will this make me?

Much of that, I think, is at Penn's urging. They continually emphasize the fact that ours is a terminal degree program, and they encourage us to do whatever we can to make ourselves more marketable as planners. Plus, they know how much they're charging for tuition, and so know just how serious our debt is going to be.

But while nearly all of us have our soon-to-be professional planning careers on the brain, the faculty don't quite know how to gauge our cohort. In both pre-semester bootcamp and orientation, some of our department chair's references (The Sopranos went off the air just more than a year ago) have been less dated than others (who exactly is Gomer Pyle?). But this week, in speaking to our entire class, he questioned if we knew who John freaking Lennon was in telling us one of his favorite quotations: "Life is what happens while you are making other plans."

Not sure which is worse: that he questioned whether we knew John Lennon, or what that quotation might connote about plans to a room full of future planners.

Maybe if I aim really high, and follow all of the school's instructions on how to make myself more employable after graduation, I'll end up in a position where I have interns again. Hopefully, this time, without indecent proposals attached.

Jeffrey Barg is an urban planner at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. He can be reached at



The Non-Traditional Student


I feel your pain about being an, ahem, older student. UC Denver refers to us as 'Non-Traditional'. With the grace & dignity that befits my age (I'm only 30, for pity's sake!), I do my best to smile and ignore the title. But not too big of a smile, lest I encourage a wrinkle.
My question to you is this; what is Penn telling you to do to make yourself more employable? Although the future of planning looks bright, it's hard to ignore the present conditions. Like you, I want to maximize the return on my investment in school.

Thanks for sharing and keep up the good blogging!

Jeffrey Barg's picture


I hear you about economic conditions, but honestly, no one seems that concerned. Our program is two years--as I think most probably are--and the general consensus seems to be that by then, the economy will hopefully have turned a corner, particularly in housing and development.

As for employability, there's nothing systematic about the advice we're receiving; it more seems to come up in little tidbits each day: Take enough GIS classes so you know a little more than the next guy. Know how to discount a loan rate. Get good at presenting your ideas graphically. Stuff like that.

Let me think a little more on it, and I'll devote a longer blog post to the topic soon (also once I've learned more about making myself employable). Thanks for the great question.

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