Help me plan for planning!
May 12, 2010 8:32 AM   Subscribe

I think urban planning could be my dream profession. I also have no experience whatsoever, all the introductory jobs want experience, and I don't want to go to grad school without KNOWING this is for me.

I am a college senior with one semester left before graduation. I majored in advertising and anthropology. Advertising made me realize I love working on big projects where you have to whittle a ton of data down and then come up with new ideas based on it. Anthropology made me fascinated by how people interact with their built environments, and also made me very aware of social justice issues.

So with only two semesters left to graduate, I took a class in the city planning minor, to see if I would like it. And I loved it! Every week I'd have some cool new fact related to planning and go around telling all my friends about it, but no one was excited as me. Everything we talked about was either something I felt passionate about already, or something that I couldn't believe I'd never heard of before. I deliberately chose a hard-to-research topic for my final paper, which I wouldn't normally do, and found out about the emerging field of food system planning, which I still can't stop daydreaming about working in.

So, I am going to graduate in December, probably with a 3.51 GPA. I am currently studying for the GRE and will probably do well enough on it. And I THINK I would love to go to school for planning.


I only took the one class in planning, and I don't have any related experience- my club/internship experience is all in graphic design and marketing.

I looked into planning tech jobs, which don't require a degree, but all of them wanted a year+ of GIS experience. I've never even used GIS.

I can't take more planning classes because I'm going abroad next semester.

My professor (well, grad student) was no help whatsoever when I asked her about this. She basically said "do more research and then get back to me." So that's what I'm doing now.

My actual question: What can I do to gain relevant experience, if the traditional method of working as a planning tech or doing a planning minor are not options? I want to make myself attractive to grad schools, but I also want to make sure that I really want to do this with my life.
posted by showbiz_liz to Education (10 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
You're reading job descriptions like college prerequisites. They aren't. Employers want to see a set of accomplishments that show your capacity for delivering results that result in corporate profit. This may or may not mean the bullets in the job posting. A good hiring manager will decide to train an excited, motivated person on skills that they're missing over a technically sound candidate that just wants to find any sort of job.

I'd suggest learning some GIS. ESRI is the dominant player, and they have an API for ESRI Maps Online that will let you create your own maps for free using their GIS server, provided you aren't selling the result. You're excited about this stuff and like hard projects? Put together an online GIS app that demonstrates candidacy/feasibility for food system planning.

As an employer, I'll take the person that's done something with GIS and delivered a result 9 times out of 10 over the person that just has coursework. The 1/10 that I don't, the person with the accomplishments is a complete asshole and doesn't fit the team.
posted by bfranklin at 8:44 AM on May 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh, I don't know if this is helpful, but my current tack is I'm looking for work in nonprofits tangentially related to planning (in community/economic development, sustainability/transportation, food production/distribution, etc.) to potentially take advantage of my background in that field in order to get some exposure to planners/ing. Just one idea.
posted by threeants at 9:00 AM on May 12, 2010

What are you doing this summer? Any way you could talk to someone in the planning dept of your city/town and ask if you can volunteer/intern/jobshadow some of their folks? Try nearby suburbs if the first one doesn't work out.

Even if you did this for just a few days or weeks, this might give you enough information to help decide.
posted by CathyG at 9:30 AM on May 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

You don't need a background in planning to go to grad school for it. I'm in grad school for it right now and I had no relevant background whatsoever: I majored in English and Psychology, briefly went to law school, and worked in finance for three years. What you need is an interest in the field and skills that are applicable to it--luckily, it's a really interdisciplinary field that requires kind of an eclectic mix of skills. There are two kinds of students in my class--the kind that knew very early on that they wanted to be planners, and majored in subjects like geography or urban studies and interned as undergrads at city planning offices, and the kind that realized via a more wayward path that planning was the career for them. One is not better than the other. One is not more successful than the other, either in classes or insofar as attaining internships.

My advice to you is to figure out for sure if you really want to be a planner, and then if you do, to write a really good, sincere essay about it, figure out what skills you already have that are applicable to the field, and have your professors or supervisors write your recommendations focused on those skills.
posted by millipede at 9:31 AM on May 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would recommend trying for a non-paid internship in a city/county planning office as a first step. Just two weeks on the job should give you a good idea of what it could be like. Also look at They seem to have a lot of resources for both established planners and students.

You might also research conferences, see what types of "courses" they're offering, and contact the presenters/teachers of the ones that sound interesting. Most people are happy to talk to students interested in their career. Talk to professors at your school, too, before you go abroad.

Just a note: a friend of mine is an urban planner (not sure if he has a degree in that or not, just that it's what he does), and he works overseas helping to re-develop war torn areas. He's currently in Afghanistan. He went into the Peace Corps after college, gained international experience, and now either contracts or works directly through the State Department. I mention it because there is more to urban planning than just a city office, in case you find that you don't like that.
posted by wwartorff at 10:06 AM on May 12, 2010

I was going to suggest volunteering or interning over the summer too. If you build a reputation with the organisation by proving you are intelligent and committed it might help you find a job after you graduate even if you don't have all the necessay experience.
posted by Laura_J at 10:10 AM on May 12, 2010

I'm currently in the planning field (county government, "current" planning - reviewing proposals from all sorts of applicants). My undergrad degree was in city and regional planning, but I've worked with a number of interns who didn't major in urban planning.

Currently, jurisdictions in my area (and probably California in general) are strapped for cash, so if you're able to volunteer as an intern, you'll get a lot of experience, and you can really help a community service in want of help. One note: if you go this route and end up being an errand person, ask to get more involved with the planning process.

To be honest, on-the-ground work with a planning department is probably the best way to learn. From my undergrad work, I learned a lot about the history and laws that have lead up to current-day planning, but in the implementation side of planning, this serves only as basis for my day-to-day work. And in this realm of work, GIS knowledge isn't necessary. Interning for a while could get you the experience you'd need to get hired, paired with your college degree (showing that you know how to learn, so to speak).

But from your talk of excitement about the planning process, I'm guessing you want to get involved with the long-range aspect of planning, guiding the shape of a community for the future. While I don't have first-hand experience in this field, I'm sure interns would work the same way as day-to-day planning. You might do well with GIS knowledge, but depending on the size of the jurisdiction, they might have a dedicated GIS team, leaving the decision-making part of planning up to the planners.

Then of course there is the graduate level courses, which as millipede mentioned, don't require any related undergrad work. If you do wish to go this route, it's best to figure out what realm of planning you want to get into. The undergrad experience is nice, because you get exposed to a variety of planning fields and subjects, though interning can do the same in a shorter period of time, with the potential to make money, or at least make contacts.

Good luck! And you can MeMail me if you'd like me to go on.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:37 AM on May 12, 2010

"I also want to make sure that I really want to do this with my life."

Call your city and county governments and find out when the planning committee / commission meets. Go to all their meetings and sit through the whole thing. Read all the reports and plans they publish. Then see if you're still excited about it.
posted by Jacqueline at 11:58 AM on May 12, 2010

Heh, I understand where Jacqueline is coming from, as attending such meetings in whole can suck your will to live, but there's a lot more to the public planning process for planners. That's the final 15 minutes to 4 hours in the life of most projects.

And as wwartorff pointed out, there is more to planning than the local planning process, if you want to expand your options.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:31 PM on May 12, 2010

I'd second what others have said that you don't need planning experience to get into planning grad school, although that isn't exactly your question. I did the UCLA Urban Planning Masters program (feel free to direct message me if you have any direct questions about that) and the experience I had was mainly various kinds of social justice work.

There is a lot of social justice work that has direct connections to planning. This could include environmental justice work (looking at the ways in which environmental pollution is unevenly distributed across space and therefore impacts different communities disproportionately), affordable housing development, working in the labor movement (since unions look at how local economies work, how to impact the labor market as a whole, creative policy solutions to improve the lives of low-wage workers).

I'm not sure if they do still, but when I did the program at UCLA there were a variety of different specializations one could choose. I choose "Regional and International Development" and am now doing work in the labor movement, although I worked in state and local government for awhile too.

Part of the question is just what it is you want to do (or think you do) once you have your degree. Although I enjoy the field of planning, it is very broad and personally would hate having a strict "planner" kind of job that often does involve a lot of minutia and bureaucracy. By contrast, I've tended to lean towards jobs that allow me to connect more to policy solutions and big picture issues. You can certainly pursue internships in a variety of these kinds of fields, whether it be with a social justice organization or a local elected official (just make sure to choose a smart one with good staff).
posted by stewieandthedude at 9:18 PM on August 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

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