Deciding if You Want to be a Planner

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.

5 minute read

April 5, 2009, 8:56 AM PDT

By Ann Forsyth


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 http://www.planningaccreditationboard.org/index.php?id=30,
    non-accredited at http://www.acsp.org/CareerInfo/Non-Accredited_ACSP_Member_Schools.html, and
    affiliated schools at http://www.acsp.org/CareerInfo/AffiliateMemberSchools.htm.
    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

Trained in planning and architecture, Ann Forsyth is a professor of urban planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. From 2007-2012 she was a professor of city and regional planning at Cornell. She taught previously at at the University of Minnesota, directing the Metropolitan Design Center (2002-2007), Harvard (1999-2002), and the University of Massachusetts (1993-1999) where she was co-director of a small community design center, the Urban Places Project. She has held short-term positions at Columbia, Macquarie, and Sydney Universities.

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