Grad School: Like a Conference, but With Less Sex

<p> 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. </p> <p> More similarities: None of our classrooms would be mistaken for hotel conference centers, but a bunch of them <em>are</em> windowless and characterless. People are cordial, but also kind of angling for a job. Everybody’s friendly, and sometimes, people hook up. </p> <p> Then reality comes crashing down like a pile of books: oh yeah. Exams. We have to take those. </p>

Read Time: 3 minutes

December 1, 2008, 7:51 PM PST

By Jeffrey Barg


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

Jeffrey Barg is an urban planner at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, and received his master's in city planning from the University of Pennsylvania School of Design.

BART Train

Inclusive Prosperity: No Displacement Necessary

Recent analysis identifies nearly 200 U.S. neighborhoods that have achieved the highly-sought-after goal of increasing the prosperity of residents without displacing the existing community.

September 15, 2022 - Brookings

Green Healthy Community

Making Healthy Places

The editors of the book "Making Healthy Places," recently published in a second edition by Island Press, discuss the intersections of public health and planning, including key concepts such as green gentrification, health impact assessments, and AI.

September 18, 2022 - Laurie Mazur

Aerial view of homes west of downtown Chicago, Illinois

Chicago ADUs Concentrated in More Affluent Neighborhoods

An analysis of city-issued permits shows that homeowners in gentrified wards are building accessory dwelling units at much higher rates than those in less well-off communities.

September 18, 2022 - Chicago Sun-Times

Portland Transit

Promoting Diversity in Transit Leadership

Latinos in Transit works to connect and empower people of color to increase diversity in management roles at transit agencies.

September 25 - Smart Cities Dive

Screenshot of gameplay window with popup: "Error. Can't build in NIMBYville!"

A NIMBY Simulator Pokes Fun at All-Too-Real Issues

A classic game gets a sardonic update for the modern world.

September 25 - Bloomberg Culture

A rendering of a proposed development, with apartment buildings and neighborhood-serving retail.

Tempe’s Car-Free Developers Headed to Atlanta

Culdesac, developer of a massive no-parking multi-family development in Arizona, is headed to Georgia.

September 25 - Reporter Newspapers

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Hand Drawing Master Plans

This course aims to provide an introduction into Urban Design Sketching focused on how to hand draw master plans using a mix of colored markers.