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>

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.

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