Finding a First Job in Planning

Ann Forsyth's picture
Finding a first full-time "real" job in planning seems a daunting task at present. However, cities are growing, infrastructure is being funded, and there will be jobs for planners. The following tips can help one navigate the market.

Be prepared to go to Kansas. By this I mean that there are certain places much loved by young planners-New York, Boston, San Francisco-and these are not the best places to start looking for early planning jobs. Sure they have them. For low pay. Where you'll find yourself at the very bottom of the totem pole with years of photocopying ahead of you before you make it to the zoning counter. If, however, you are prepared to move somewhere more out of the way you can get terrific experience far faster and rise up the planning ranks. You can also make a difference in the lives of people who need planners more than the over-supplied planning markets. The APA conference job fair is a good source for such jobs each year. Remember, you don't have to stay in your first job, or even your first job location, forever. Though you just might find you quite like Kansas.

Use your ordinary work experience to get a leg up. I have recently had a stream of undergraduates through my doors concerned that they won't be able to get the perfect, resume-building internship in an exotic foreign country doing high level work. The good news is that employers of entry-level plannners are typically looking for something much simpler. Combined with your planning coursework, a summer job in a factory or on a farm may build those skills better than a "make work" internship, no matter how high-powered the letterhead of the organization. Employers for first real jobs want to know if you will turn up at work on time, focus your attention on what you are being paid to do, show flexibility in what you are willing to take on, demonstrate good judgment about how you spend your day, get on with co-workers, share credit, learn from mistakes, and be basically honest. These might not be evident in an internship where the supervision is loose and your work is largely alone-you may be better off with paid work and some evidence of planning interest from your activism and coursework. For graduate students, work in planning shows commitment to the field. Undergraduates, however, need to show they have basic office skills and a job in the campus coffee shop can be a big advantage in doing that.

Look to alumni networks in related fields. Planning occurs in public, nonprofit, and private settings. Many of the biggest private firms employing planners are headed by folks from related fields such as engineering and architecture. You may not think of the engineers on campus as your greatest allies but from off-campus they may well see you as a fellow alumnus first. In big design schools, like mine, commercially successful architecture alumni may have received insufficient recognition from their own home departments; as a planner you can help them feel appreciated for their large impact on the world.

Remember, a first job is just a starting point. Certainly as a planner you will hope to make the world a better place with everything you do but even the most high-powered planners start somewhere.

This is my February post delayed by illness. Upcoming posts will look at the planning internships and planning careers more generally.

Ann Forsyth is professor of Urban Planning at Harvard University.



Entry-level professionals moving to Kansas?

While this post is months old, I keep thinking about it. The post suggests entry-level professionals move to a new, undesirable American city in order to start one’s urban planning career. My curiosity stems from my own situation as a female in my early twenties struggling to find employment.

First, while it might have been good advice in an era of cheap energy, it seems foolish now. It’s simply too expensive for young professionals to drive cars in American automobile-dependent cities.

Second, now that financial risks are elevated, what is the degree to which young professional women are willing to forgo familial relationships in their native city for a career opportunity?

Third, in the urban planning/design field it seems that social capital is inherently built in the concept. In this case it seems paradoxical that a non-native female move to an unfamiliar place where she aids urban planning efforts.

Or are these frustrations just some major cultural shift in the US?

Getting a planning gig


These are great questions and are the ones that you should be asking. There is indeed a certain amount of cognitive dissonance involved coming in as an outsider to a small community to work as a planner. I experienced this myself after moving a couple of hundred miles to a town where I knew not a single soul for my current position. I lived in the town for a year until moving into the nearest major city and reverse commuting out to the office. A small town is really no place for a young planning professional and I got out of dodge as soon as my lease was up. Still have the same job, but the city life beckoned.

I graduated a few years ago and managed to get this position before the arrival of these rough times. My advice to you would be to swallow your pride and your ideals and just get a position wherever you can if you want to work in the field. There is nothing easy about it uprooting your life like this, but if you go into it knowing that it's just a temporary gig, you can do it. It's all about getting your sea legs for the first 1-2 years. Even if you get laid off and have to return home, it's better for the resume than, say, a gig at Starbucks. Lots of us are in this boat and I'm dreading budgets this fall.

And re: car ownership, I was actually expected to have a car to be hired for the position in order to allow me to make site visits within the community (no access to a municipal vehicle for junior staff, sadly). As junior staff, you may be as well. I wanted a car free lifestyle, but I was forced to compromise. I make up for this by splitting the commute between biking a couple of days a week to work and driving the rest of the time. Helps out with that cognitive dissonance a bit. It's real tough to hold on to those grad school ideals in the fangs to the jugular world of municipal planning - the day to day reality of the field is different than what you may think it is and I could go on with this topic for a while. However, without those "planner ideals" one may as well go find a better paying gig in another, less stressful field, as a planner without any vision or ideals is really just a paper pushing bureaucrat. HTH.

Go Where Planners Are Needed!

Ann has hit upon an issue that many of my fellow planning students do not like to think about: living and working somewhere *not* in the inner core of a major metropolitan area (especially the chic cities of SF, PDX, NYC, or CHI.)

Some of the regions in the US that desperately need planners the most (whether or not they realize it) are the rural communities in rapidly growing states, or the suburbs of major Sunbelt cities where sprawl is a way of life.

As a planning student, I personally have no inherent desire to live in any of the over-supplied planning markets mentioned in the article. Instead, I challenge myself and others like to me to take our profession to the field and help all communities because great places to live -- no matter how big (or small) the city or whether or not they have a current comprehensive bicycle plan and community garden on every block.

jwitness, I, too was once a


I, too was once a "planning evangelist". If you go into an entry level position thinking of you can bring light to the heathens, you are in for a very rude shock at your first board meeting. A low level government official who is also an outsider to that particular community has very little influence and capital to spend on big, sweeping visions. You will most likely just be put in the position of processing applications and enforcing the regs at first. You will put your ideals aside somewhat if you wish to survive in this field, because real-world planning is more like making sausage than any kind of high moralistic pursuit. I'm not saying it's that it isn't a worthwhile line of work, but you have to go into it with clear eyes or you will put yourself on the fast track to burnout.

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