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The short answer to the question about whether someone needs professional or activist planning experience before graduate school is yes! You will have a clearer sense of the important questions you have about planning and your peers will have more to learn from your experiences. For this reason admissions committees favor students who have some employment and/or activist history. (With a few years of work experience you'll also likely have more money, which is handy in terms of paying for things like heat).
The current job market can seem very frightening to undergraduates, of course. But graduate school is not a refuge. Graduate school applications were way up last year and are likely to be that way again. Those who have not yet graduated will find it very difficult to gain admission, let alone substantial funding. Committees looking for ways to narrow the field will often put all those in the not-yet-graduated group straight in the "B," "C," or "D" pile of applications. In this blog I describe how to navigate the current internship and job markets so current undergraduates can gain enough experience to make it into the applicant "A" list for your preferred graduate school offering reasonable funding, in a few years.
First it needs to be said that this is not the first time that job markets have been tight. There are periodic recessions that limit options-I was an undergraduate in the downturn of the early 1980s for example and entered academic life in the early-to-mid-1990s when there was little hiring. Experiences of many planners in those numerous earlier downturns show it is possible to make enough money to support oneself and prepare for a career in planning. The path, however, may be a little different when compared with the easy job market of recent years.
Getting a Job vs. Getting into Graduate School: Employers of beginning planners-to-be and graduate schools look for slightly different things as I have noted in earlier blogs.
Coursework, Internships, Employment, then Grad School: So for undergraduates, doing planning related coursework while a student, doing some planning related volunteering, and subsequently holding down a job involving some teamwork are all good preparation for going to graduate school.
The Internship Edge: Internships while still an undergraduate can help build skills so you can have a better chance of getting into graduate school after two years of work experience rather than four.
In Summary: Do good courses, do internships, graduate and hold down a job that is planning related or lets you volunteer in planning. Then in a few years you can get a great place in a planning masters program.