Urban Planning: MURP or CivE?!
July 26, 2010 12:45 PM   Subscribe

So I think I want to radically change careers and head towards Urban Planning / Civil Engineering. Which degree should I get and how should I go about this?

I've decided that urban planning would be a very interesting career and unlike my current career (ad sales) it could be quite fulfilling.

Now, how to go about this? I currently have a B.S. in Business/Marketing, but it looks like you don't need anything in particular to do a Masters in Urban Planning. I do have some concerns about going for a MURP, though.

-Urban planning as a field seems pretty hard hit right now
-Salaries never seem to get very high even with a masters

I'm not in it for the money, but I've got a good deal of debt as it is and changing careers would likely entail an immediate salary hit from my current sales job.

Those concerns lead me towards Civil Engineering. I actually considered doing engineering because I *loved* physics in high school but decided against it (partially because I didn't want to take the math classes... I never minded doing math in physics, but wasn't a big fan of math classes themselves).

Advantages that I can see with engineering:
-Better pay
-Broader degree that would allow for plenty of jobs outside strict urban planning
-I feel like my business degree and sales experience/people skills would give me a competitive advantage in the engineering field

Problems with engineering:
-I will need a lot of pre-reqs. A lot.
-Therefore it will cost more

So here are my questions:
1. Does civil engineering make sense if I want to do urban planning? Obviously the are related fields, but is it just pointless to go CivE versus MURP?
2. Would I also need (or would it make sense) to get a MURP in addition to CivE?

And the bigger, possibly more complicated question...
3. How do I go back and do engineering? I've found a couple engineering masters programs that will admit students to their masters programs without engineering degrees - some require hard science degrees, some don't - for those that don't (that's me!) they require lots of pre-reqs. I'd need undergrad math and science and then undergrad engineering.

4. If I could do the masters program (with what would likely be a year or two of pre-reqs), would it make more sense than getting a second B.S. in CivE? Could I even get a PE with only a masters?

The engineering path would take significantly longer than a MURP, for sure (although I'd likely do a semester or two of pre-reqs before a MURP to get my GPA up, so assume a MURP with take 3 years instead of 2), but it does hold some appeal to me... but am I crazy?

Thanks in advance for the advice - the other urban planning related posts I've found have been super helpful!
posted by alaijmw to Education (25 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Wow, I re-wrote this and I feel like I left out something crucial: I'm very interested in transit-planning and transit-oriented design as well as sustainable urbanism. I feel that it its the transportation part of my interest that create the greatest overlap between engineering and urban planning.
posted by alaijmw at 12:48 PM on July 26, 2010

If you want to do planning, study planning. Engineers and planners can work together, but they have very, very different functions, foci and perspectives. Think about the type of work you want to do.

I'm about to start my final year getting my MCP (same thing as MUP, but some schools call it MCP) at Penn, focusing on transportation, which is the aspect of planning most tied in with engineering (albeit transportation engineering). MeMail me if you want to talk.
posted by millipede at 12:51 PM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

On the planning side, check out this thread, this thread, and this thread.
posted by futureisunwritten at 12:52 PM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Speaking as a MURP, here who has taken classes with CE's. Civil engineering will give you the engineering side, but unless you go out of your way to take classes outside of engineering, you will not get any sense of how should we use engineering tools to make society better. Just how to best approach the problem at hand.

As for broadness of applicability, you may have a very broad job in either field, urban planning or engineering, that part is job dependent.

Also it's hard enough to get sustainability in Urban Planning, so you should really wonder about your need for sustainability within an engineering course?

A couple other points, do note that "transportation planners" do make more money than other types.
posted by stratastar at 12:58 PM on July 26, 2010

Why are you interested in planning? Without knowing that it's hard to say whether you'd be happy with civil engineering. They're both interested in their own way but vastly different in focus.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 12:58 PM on July 26, 2010

If you want to do civil engineering in the US, you probably want to become a licensed Principal Engineer. Getting PE licensure usually requires a bachelors (not masters!) in engineering. It's also possible to get a PE by planning carefully and taking just the right courses as you do a masters, but that route requires a special credentials evaluation from NCEES, and may not fly in the specific state in which you plan to work.

Since you don't have a degree in engineering or hard science, you'd have to do a ton of introductory classes whichever route you take. I'd recommend getting a second bachelors in civil engineering from a good state school with an ABET-accredited program, and you'll be good to go.

(I'm trying to resolve similar questions as the OP, so this is all from my research. If I've gotten anything wrong, feel free to correct me.)
posted by Sfving at 1:06 PM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

I heard about the LEAP program on another thread here awhile ago.
posted by anniecat at 1:12 PM on July 26, 2010

Here is a link to a similar question about Urban Planning. Mr Jadepearl can answer further.
posted by jadepearl at 1:12 PM on July 26, 2010

As someone who went back to school to get bachelor's in mechanical engineering, I will say that yes, having an engineering degree opens up doors in that there are a lot of non-engineering jobs that are open to you (and yes, the sales marketing experience would be an advantage) - but on the other hand, it's a lot of work! Going back to school to do a full four-years after you already have a degree, and after you have already been working is not easy and you should be sure that you want it before you start. I had also wanted to go straight into a master's degree, but was told I would need to do at minimum two and a half years worth of pre-req's before I could even apply to do a master's (and then, no guarantee I get accepted!) - so I did the full bachelor's instead. Are you sure you want to invest over a year of obtaining pre-req's just so you can apply to do a master's?
posted by molecicco at 1:14 PM on July 26, 2010

Response by poster: stratastar:Also it's hard enough to get sustainability in Urban Planning, so you should really wonder about your need for sustainability within an engineering course?

Totally fair, although I wouldn't say that it is something I need - I'm not looking to do environmental science or engineering. To me, transit oriented design IS sustainable. In other words, if I was working on mass transit in some way I'd be happy from the sustainability standpoint.

otherwordlyglowWhy are you interested in planning? Without knowing that it's hard to say whether you'd be happy with civil engineering. They're both interested in their own way but vastly different in focus.

It started a couple months ago when I read some article on new urbanism. It hit me that I have always *loved* cities since I was a kid. How they work culturally, environmentally, design and architecture-wise, and transit - I love mass transit and have long been fascinated by transportation systems. (I also spend many 1000s of hours playing SimCity :) )

Related to the sustainability aspect mentioned above, I do think it is very important for us as a society to move towards more transit, more mixed-use development, and a greater focus on walkability and bikeablility. When I read about places like Portland (my hometown, woo!), Vancouver, Amsterdam, or Copenhagen I not only find them interesting... but I also think more cities should move towards them and away from the sprawl that seems to be happening.

I'd love to be at the broad-level planning stage for an urban area or region. On the other hand, I could see working on a more micro-level on a transit project - and while I have always loved cities, I also *love* physics and have a hunch that engineering could be interesting to me from an applied-physics point of view. I love high speed rail and could see myself being thrilled to work on that.

From an engineering perspective I feel like I'd want to end up in a managerial role. I feel like I have those skills and that overseeing a project would be fulfilling.
posted by alaijmw at 1:14 PM on July 26, 2010

Response by poster: Sfving: Getting a PE with a masters is something I'm trying to figure out and I feel like I've seen conflicting reports. I'm definitely planning to talk to some schools and see what they have to say.

molecicco: You're absolutely right - it'll be a ton of school regardless and I totally agree that I need to be 100% sure before embarking on this path. One good thing, though, is that I'm currently in the DC area where there happen to be tons of evening programs (including planning!) so I'm hoping to take a class or two and see how I like it.

If I choose the engineering path and can get PE with a masters, I feel like that would make more sense even with the obscene amounts of pre-reqs I'd have to do, but you're absolutely right that it is onerous.

jadepearl: I have heard of LEAP, but unfortunately it doesn't offer civil engineering! I'm also looking mostly at public schools because I went to private undergrad and have too many student loans from that!

To all that posted links to other MeFi posts - thanks, I'll take a look at each of them!
posted by alaijmw at 1:26 PM on July 26, 2010

Best answer: It hit me that I have always *loved* cities since I was a kid. How they work culturally, environmentally, design and architecture-wise, and transit - I love mass transit and have long been fascinated by transportation systems. (I also spend many 1000s of hours playing SimCity :) )

I may be the only planner in the world who has never played Sim City but I hear this all the time. Anyway, it sounds much more like you want to be planner than you want to be a civil engineer. However, as you suggest, Urban planning as a field is pretty hard hit right now and
salaries never seem to get very high even with a masters (Yay, me!). I agree that transportation planners are in higher demand and usually command higher salaries.

Your idea to take a few evening classes and see how you like it sounds very reasonable.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 1:39 PM on July 26, 2010

Best answer: Speaking as a civil engineer doing transportation but not unfamiliar with the fine folks in the planning field, here.

For the flip side of stratastar's point:
...unless you go out of your way to take classes outside of engineering, you will not get any sense of how should we use engineering tools to make society better. Just how to best approach the problem at hand.

Many planners seem to find a lot of the technical tools and design requirements from the engineering side inaccessible. Which means, depending on the relative power levels of the groups, the planners either wind up with solutions that look great on paper but don't work, or they wind up in a process driven by engineers, and their role is limited to figuring out what colour of banner to put on Main Street.

The work I do could reasonably be considered part of urban planning (macro level transportation and land use simulation), but it's a very rare fraction of planners who have the maths to interpret the results, much less contribute more actively.

Most undergrad civil engineering programs I'm familar with are about 2/3 common core and 1/3 electives, which means you may not be quite as broad as you expect; you'll have passing familiarity with all of the subdisciplines, but only any real knowledge of two or three; say, transportation, geotechnical and environmental. Structural tends to be the mathiest of the subdisciplines, but in any case, you'd need a handful of math courses and another handful of applied science with advanced math courses (thermo, mechanics of materials).

The other thing to keep in mind with civil is that some of the "broader" set of jobs you'd have access to may be just as soul-sucking as what you are doing right now; my previous job included going to public meetings to defend a 16 lane freeway project. Through a wetland.

That said, it's always a leg up in the engineering world to have people skills.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 1:40 PM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Speaking as someone who graduated with an undergrad degree in City/Regional Planning and is now working in that field, Urban Planning is an interesting field, and depending on how you get involved, it could be really fulfilling. Or it could be bureaucratic and slow, repetitive and not what you're thinking it might be. In more detail:

There are many kinds of urban planning. long-term planning is the big-view government side of things, where cities and regions are (re)designed for future (re)development. In most cases, you'll be looking at ways to make cities and regions slowly change, as they are already developed to some degree. The roads are already there, as are buildings with businesses and people living. But things can chance, and you could be part of that change. Then there's the implementation side, making sure buildings fit their zoning and other small standards, which is where the long-term plans become real. Then there is the development side, where you get a building or development to fit into a city / region based on the set standards and what could make money. Then there's traffic planning, health planning, advocacy planning, and others I can't remember (I took a whole class on the various types of planning jobs, which was a pretty interesting class).

None of that requires any understanding for how to actually build the buildings - that's what designers, architects and engineers are for. Government folk will work with building officials, who make sure the building meets all building codes that keep buildings standing upright. Also, you can get into planning without a masters in planning, depending on what you want to do and where you'd like to work. One of my classmates went on to become the sole city planner for a tiny town, so she'd review building plans and write the long-range zoning documents for her town. Other places have a hierarchy and division of roles.

CivE would give you a lot more flexibility, even internationally. Planning laws and regulations change from state to state, and even moreso country to country. Engineering has different standards in different places, but there is the solid science behind it all. I'd think it would be good to understand the day-to-day of working with structural plans before becoming a project manager, but that's my idea as someone who cringes at the idea of working below a manager who doesn't know the work involved.

As for the interface between civil engineering and planning: there are usually architects, designers, or even broader Project Managers who handle the workload for all the design professionals and talk with the planning staff who would apply the city / regional standards. Engineers talk with the building officials more than the planning folks, from what I've seen. And those who do work with planners don't need a planning background, because the big fuzzy basics of the planning standards are really things the public should be able to understand, as planning gets involved with people on a more personal basis than engineering does.

On preview: seconding Homeboy Trouble on the lack of technical knowledge in most planners. Ideally they'd work with engineers and architects in the process, but that's not always the case. But that unfortunate end product being designed by uninformed but well-meaning individuals is the case in so many professions. Not blowing it off, but saying this is not a unique problem.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:45 PM on July 26, 2010

Response by poster: otherwordlyglow: I can at least say it wasn't the SimCity that lead me to planning... it wasn't until I was engrossed in learning about it and seriously thinking about it as a career that I said to myself "Doh! Thousands of hours of playing SimCity should have given me a hint!"

I also totally see why it looks like I'm more interested in urban planning... and that may even be correct, but part of it is that the idea of engineering has only come around in the last few days. That said, I am trying to take a hard look at why I want to do this and hopefully that'll push me towards one or the other!
posted by alaijmw at 1:54 PM on July 26, 2010

I'm not sure you can get a P.E. with a Masters in Engineering and a B.S. in a non-engineering field. Usually the Masters just counts as 1 year towards the work experience requirement.

I have known people that have done this, get a degree in Civil and then become planners. Some have been very (very) successful at it. However, most offices love to compartmentalize people based on their skills and experience.

If I was heading into the planning side, I'd get the Masters in Planning. If you're going to do planning anyway, you'll get paid as a planner regardless of whether you have a degree in engineering or not.
posted by hwyengr at 2:39 PM on July 26, 2010

-Urban planning as a field seems pretty hard hit right now
-Salaries never seem to get very high even with a masters

Do you want to spend months, if not years looking for a job in your field? Are you willing to move anywhere in the country? Do you mind starting out in a small, sleepy town or a boring suburb? Do you not care very much about your standard of living, or do you have a partner who earns higher wages? Then planning may be for you!

I am all rah rah New Urbanism too, but if I could do it all over again, I'd go back and get an engineering degree, because I like having a paycheck. One poor soul in my class has been working as a bartender for the last 3 years.

P.S. The master's program has almost nothing to do with actually designing cities, a la SimCity. It's much, much more geared towards zoning law, social research, statistics, and history. Seriously, if you're all "yay! cool street layout!" don't go into planning.
posted by desjardins at 3:36 PM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Human Transit (a fantastic blog) has a post on "How do I become a transit planner?".
posted by parudox at 5:57 PM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Transit planning can be a very frustrating job. I spend a lot of my day either begging for money or getting yelled at by the public, usually for something that an engineer was actually responsible for (kidding! sort of!). And no, I don't make a whole hell of a lot of money, but that's not why I got the degree.

I get to make maps, conduct rider surveys, demographic studies, land use/corridor studies, research on peer cities, play with computer models, work one on one with advocacy groups, and facilitate public meetings. For all my bitching, it's not a bad gig. But it sure isn't simcity. These are real people and many of them are not well off and you are trying to help them with one of modern life's most basic necessities, and it is hard. I love riding the bus. For a lot of people I work with, that's all they have and it better work.

If that is the path you follow, make sure you go to a school with a good transportation planning focus, not just planning. Get some experience with transcad and GIS. Especially GIS. Or get the CE degree, and forever be the secret object of every planners' derision and envy.

(And not to further muddy the waters, but Andres Duany, founding member of the CNU and phenomenal ego has a background in architecture, not planning. No actual planner is that rich or well groomed.)
posted by gordie at 7:11 PM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: homeboy trouble: I definitely appreciate the advice from the transportation engineering side of things - I also am impressed that you deduced that I consider my job soul-sucking! I've had much worse than my current job, but it also has cemented my opinion that this isn't what I want to be doing.

filthy light thief: Excellent advice, thanks! I appreciate that planning can be, well, less than glamorous - I think that is part of what is driving the engineering idea as well (not that engineering is all going to be fulfilling either). Like you say, I get the impression that CivE would be the broader, more flexible path. I also think my business/sales/marketing background will be more unique on the engineering side and therefore a bigger advantage. Your point about it being more flexible on the international level is also interesting to me. While I see myself ending up in either SF, PDX, Seattle, or Vancouver, I'd love to spend some time abroad as well.

hwyengr: Thanks for the info regarding PE - the masters counting towards the work experience makes intuitive sense to me and it does seem that while it is possible to get it with only a masters it is a pain.

When you say most offices tend to compartmentalize are you referring to public sector, private, or both? Your point about pay being the same for planners regardless of credential is a great point and something that I hadn't really thought of. That said, I was thinking that if I ended up with a CivE degree in a solidly planning-based job, the degree/experience on the engineering side would help me move upwards... does that make any sense at all?

desjardins: I appreciate the cynics view :) Your comments are similar to what I've heard elsewhere and are definitely part of the reason I'm thinking of CivE. As for it not being like SimCity, I totally get that and am fine with it.

parudox: Thank you for the link! I've actually been reading Human Transit and it is my favorite blog on the topic, that post is quite helpful!

Thanks to everyone for the responses. I can't say that it has really pushed me completely towards one or the other, but it is fantastic information that'll help me decide. I'm definitely going to try and talk to some planners and some engineers as well as take a few classes.

Chances are that I'll be back with more questions at some point... luckily it seems MeFi is filled with planners!
posted by alaijmw at 7:24 PM on July 26, 2010

Response by poster: gordie: I appreciate the day-in-the-life info, it is quite helpful (and I can see myself enjoying and excelling at certain aspects and frustrated by others!)

I am curious though about "Or get the CE degree, and forever be the secret object of every planners' derision and envy." - why, exactly? What is it that makes you envious of CEs? Would you go back and do that instead? Do you think it would help you in your current role or do you think it would have led you to a different facet of planning?

posted by alaijmw at 7:36 PM on July 26, 2010

Yeah, that was a bit of a joke. Paycheck envy. Don't even get me started on architects. But in all seriousness, I have worked with engineers a lot, and we rag on them (robots) and they rag on us (socialists) but they are great men and women, we couldn't do what we do without them, and they deserve every penny they make.

But sometimes it seems like there is something fundamentally different about the way a planner and an engineer's brain works. The way they approach a problem. The way they define a solution. Again, this isn't anything against either, but I'm not so sure they are entirely interchangeable types of people.

No, I wouldn't go back and do it over differently. When things get technical they are there to do their thing. When there is a crowd of of angry elderly riders, we do our thing. I know I'm being vague here, and I'm probably over thinking it, but perhaps you're just going to have to figure out which type you are.
posted by gordie at 7:46 PM on July 26, 2010

Response by poster: Ha, yeah... the problem is that I've been trying to figure that out for a while! When I was looking at colleges I could decide between engineering or international relations/or international business. Couldn't really get much more different.
posted by alaijmw at 4:13 AM on July 27, 2010

Again speaking only with knowledge of working in a a mid-sized jurisdiction on the public planning side, work is segregated into planning (neighborhood standards, environmental review), building (nuts and bolts, compliance with state and federal regulations) and public works (infrastructure and public/private interfaces of the sort). I could see mid- to large-sized private offices working the same way, dividing planners and engineers up for certain aspects. I'd guess Smaller firms, and smaller jurisdictions, would involve more cooperation and more job diversity, but probably more stress in getting a constant flow of work.

If you'd like to get a better feel of things, I'd suggest you try to shadow in a variety of work settings. Spend a few hours watching what people do, having them explain why they're doing what they do, and how they feel about it, and you'll get a better feel of what it means to be a planner or civil engineer on the day-to-day basis that is reality. Don't forget to ask about highlights and nightmares of the job, as you might see why people do things that seem tedious or dull. Sometimes the payout requires patience. Also, visit a variety of offices, if you have the chance. I've heard horror stories about the offices of neighboring jurisdictions, and I often realize my situation is pretty good, if leaning towards repetitive at times.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:30 PM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yes, I should clarify, I don't work for a city planning department, where the experience is probably quite different from my own. As filthy light thief says, your best bet is to find a way to see what really goes on at different levels and different types of agencies (city, transit, MPO, consulting, etc.).
posted by gordie at 3:04 PM on July 27, 2010

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