Grad School: Like a Conference, but With Less Sex

Jeffrey Barg's picture

Most of the time it's not that hard to kind of forget that I'm a grad student. It often feels like a long, ongoing conference, but without nametags: We hear speakers (sometimes known as professors), have long lunch breaks, do exercises, then retire to the bar at night to talk about all of it.

More similarities: None of our classrooms would be mistaken for hotel conference centers, but a bunch of them are windowless and characterless. People are cordial, but also kind of angling for a job. Everybody's friendly, and sometimes, people hook up.

Then reality comes crashing down like a pile of books: oh yeah. Exams. We have to take those.

Okay, maybe "reality" is the wrong word for it. It seems unlikely that, in my professional life, someone will show me a random page from the 1909 Plan of Chicago and demand that I tell them what it is and why it's significant. (Daniel Burnham! City Beautiful! "Make no little plans"! Do I get an A, professor?)

A few years ago, Penn's planning program was rapped pretty hard for being too theoretical and not enough hands-on. So they overhauled the joint and brought in a slew of professors who were also (in some cases, primarily) practitioners. By all accounts, it's much better now, but we still don't really get our hands dirty until next semester, when we take on clients in the Philadelphia region. And at the moment, I can't wait: Studying for exams feels about as theoretical as you can get.

There are exceptions, of course. For one class, in lieu of a final exam, we're building a pro forma. The development in question might never be built, but we can take that pro forma to our first jobs out of grad school and use it to rule the universe and stamp out all the other miserable, puny plans. (That's what pro formas do-right, professor?)

Another class has us generating a design for a long-empty site in Philadelphia's Society Hill. (When our class visited, it was an empty lot, where just one homeless person was sleeping late on a Sunday morning.) Sounds good, but this plan won't ever actually come to fruition either-a full plan for the site was finally unveiled just two weeks ago. But at least we now know how to use Adobe Illustrator.

So it's not all fun and games, but even the semi-theoretical exercises are useful. And like in any job with a deadline (most planning jobs, I would imagine), there will be some stretches where you're up late working, just waiting for the next break. Until then, it kind of sucks.

So if you're looking for me for the next two weeks, you can find me huddled under a pile of books. Or at the hotel bar, cruising for some action.

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



Right there with you


I'm right there with you, only I'm at Ohio State University's City and Regional Planning Program.

Like you said - these stretches of intense work and late nights don't just apply to grad school. I've got an internship to go along with school, but it never keeps me up late at night. The truth is: I would much rather be up late working on work for, well, work, rather than for hypothetical class projects.

For now that's just the nature of the game in these first-year, first-quarter courses. Hopefully, by the end of all of this, I'll at least be able show potential employers a good balance of "Look at what I did at my real job!" and "Look at what I imagined in grad school!"

Good luck on exams, and keep up the great posts. It's great to hear from other graduate planning students on Planetizen like you and Tamika.

Keep it up


I am enjoying reading your blog posts, especially since they are from the point of view of a planning student. I am hoping to enter graduate school in city planning at my alma mater, Georgia Tech, next year. Keep up the good work.

Chris Eaker

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