The Best Reasons to Go to Grad School in Planning

As the 2016 admission season winds down, thoughts turn to the 2017 application process. For students considering the idea, there are several good reasons to attend graduate school in 2017, and a few that may cause problems later.

April 13, 2016, 10:00 AM PDT

By Ann Forsyth


Robert Asento / Shutterstock

As the 2016 admission season winds down thoughts turn to the 2017 application process. For students wanting to go to planning school in the fall of 2017 the process can take nearly a year—investigating programs, compiling applications, waiting for admission decisions, choosing the best offer, and preparing for program. Why would you want to do this? There are several good reasons to go to graduate school, and a few that may cause problems later.

  • You have hit a point in your career where you have substantial questions that you need time to answer. Graduate school can give you a structured way to explore topics from the political strategies and ethical approaches to technical tools and participatory processes. I went back to graduate school in the 1980s in part to understand the newish processes of globalization and also to learn how to use a number of statistical methods that had seemed important in projects I had worked on.
  • You want to understand the profession of planning better, including its general approach and specialties. Graduate school can provide a structured way to understand planning’s breadth as well as to delve more deeply into one of its specialties.

These are good reasons and the structure of planning programs is meant to help answer questions and foster understanding of the field and its context. Having a cohort of peers to do this with can being a variety of perspectives and also create a network to draw on over the years.

There are other reasons people contemplate going to graduate school, as well. When the job market is difficult applications go up. People applying before they graduate from their undergraduate program may see graduate school as more familiar than the work world. Still others are working and see the need for a credential to confirm their existing skills. For those looking for credentials, statements of purpose may sound like job letters where the applicant already knows everything about planning.

These are not impossible reasons to go to planning school, though if admitted such students are likely to be less satisfied with the experience. These are the ones who may question why they are studying and not maximize the value they might get if fully ready. Part of the role of admissions committees is to try to make sure—from statements of purpose, resumes, and letters of reference—that applicants really are at a stage where they are eager to engage with important issues. Overall, having good reasons for contemplating grad school is a productive place to start.

Over the years, I have provided substantial advice about various phases of the admissions process. Many topics are linked to the bullets on the top of this page

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.

Indian Trail, North Carolina

Four ‘Low-Hanging Fruit’ Zoning Reforms

An excerpt from the latest book on zoning argues for four approaches to reform that can immediately improve land use regulation in the United States.

June 26, 2022 - M. Nolan Gray

Car Traffic

San Francisco Just Ended Single-Family Zoning

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to Tuesday to eliminate single-family zoning, but pro-development advocates say additional changes are needed to unleash a wave of construction.

June 29, 2022 - San Francisco Chronicle

A Gold Line AnsaldoBreda P2550 train enters Mission Station in South Pasadena on February 25, 2012.

Land Banking to Prevent Transit-Oriented Displacement in Los Angeles

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) will implement a new land banking program to mitigate gentrification and displacement around future transit lines.

June 28, 2022 - Los Angeles Daily News

Colorado Homes

Something Old, Something New: Biden’s Housing Plan

President Biden’s Housing Supply Action Plan is a catchall of existing proposals, tiny tweaks, and things Congress would have to fund—plus a few genuinely interesting administrative moves. Here’s the rundown.

38 minutes ago - Shelterforce Magazine

Rendering of inflatable floating water park in Long Beach, California.

Long Beach Opens New Water Playground

The coastal city just celebrated the grand opening of its newest beach attraction, an inflatable aquatic playground called the “Wibit.”

1 hour ago - Signal Tribune

View south along Interstate 45 (North Freeway) from the ramp between westbound Interstate 10 and southbound Interstate 45 in Houston, Harris County, Texas

Houston Apartments To Be Demolished for Freeway Widening

Despite a federal hold on the controversial freeway widening project, the Texas Department of Transportation is pushing ahead with the demolition of an apartment complex in downtown Houston.

2 hours ago - Houston Chronicle

New Updates on The Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

International Real Estate Strategies and Deal Negotiation

Harvard Graduate School of Design Executive Education

Affordable Housing: Principles for Changing Domestic and Global Markets

Harvard Graduate School of Design Executive Education

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.