Master's Degree in Urban Planning for a JD: now, later, or never?
November 23, 2007 10:29 PM   Subscribe

Master's Degree in Urban Planning: now, later, or never? I'm in my third year of law school, and I've realized (after taking on a pile of debt) that I don't really want to practice law. I think urban planning is the right field for me. Should I rush to get applications in now to start a program next fall, or should I enter the workplace and try to apply next year? Or should I skip the urban planning degree and start applying for planning jobs with my JD?

I think I'm not being naive about the field of urban planning. I'm not interested in it because of any dreams of top-down dictatorial imposition of the "right" planning model. I don't think that's possible, and I'd be more interested in organic-growth planning through economic incentives or zoning. I'd be interested to know if any particular schools' programs emphasize this approach—but maybe that's the standard? I figure schools that offer dual-degree with their own JD program would be a better fit because they'd know what to do with me.

If this is something I could get a career in with just the JD, I'd be glad to be done with school and get going, but I don't have any job prospects at the moment and I'm not sure what kinds of jobs I could get. Can I get a job as a planner without a planning degree?

If I took a year off and applied next year, what should I be doing in the interim? Keep in mind that I'd need a real income because I would have to start making loan payments.
posted by stopgap to Education (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I have a JD and worked in Miami-Dade County in economic development. It required a lot of collaboration with the planning department. There were a few guys there who had nothing more than undegraduate degrees in English. I'm not kidding...Now this was Miami, which is the "what the f$!!" capital of the United States but I suspect that this is true of lots of places.

If I were you and you're serious about looking for jobs straight away, I would look into some management training programs in public administration around the country. These programs are specifically made for people with master's in public administration but I bet if you tailored your resume properly and wrote a compelling purpose statement, you could get in. The salaries are paltry, typically in the 40-50K a year range but it's an awesome way to get a foot in the door in local government and gain lots of experience. I know Miami-Dade County has one ..look on or do a google search for public administration for more info. You'll do a rotation in several department but I'm sure you can state your specific interest in planning.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 11:13 PM on November 23, 2007

If you're interested in seeing if urban planning is right for you, it may be worthwhile to spend a summer at the Harvard Graduate School of Design's summer career discovery program.
posted by bryanboyer at 11:33 PM on November 23, 2007

Finish your law degree and look for urban planning jobs. A good cover letter stating your rationale for applying should do the trick. A JD > than a MURP, so many hiring officials or search committees may actually read your cover letter to see what's up. Speaking as someone still paying for student loans 8 years after grad school (with another 10 to go) you will regret taking on more debt.
posted by Crotalus at 12:03 AM on November 24, 2007

you can do anything with a JD, it always helps.

in fact the JD will be more helpful than a MA for the jobs you are looking at.
posted by Mr_Crazyhorse at 12:25 AM on November 24, 2007

As someone who went to planning grad school and works in the field, I'd say there are a few things you need to know that you probably didn't learn in law school. While a JD may hold more status than a planning degree, it is not the same thing. If I were a potential employer, I'd look closely at your resume -- especially if the job could use someone who knows land use law well -- but I'd wonder if you knew what you needed to know (especially for economic development work). I'd look to see if you might have picked it up through other coursework, previous employment, or internships. I don't think you'll necessarily need the degree to get a job in the field. (You might need it for AICP accreditation -- I'd look that one up). But some of the information would help. Some of the professional connections would also really help.

Let's see. In your shoes, I'd see if I could parlay my knowledge of land use and real estate transaction law (or whatever you've got) to get hired by a consulting firm that writes general plans (eg) or economic development plans (eg) for a lot of different cities. (You could also go for planning jobs with jurisdictions, but particularly in small departments, you might have a harder time.) If a pure-planning job didn't work, you could use your degree at a law firm that works as much as possible with planners and/or doing land use and environmental law (eg: 1, 2). As a fallback plan, I'd try to get a summer internship in planning (which would help you get your foot in the door at jurisdictions and consulting companies).

Over the long run, you really may want to get a masters in planning. You'd learn a few specialized skills (where to find demographic and economic census data, how to read the history of a city by looking at it, how to think through what solutions might fix it), a lot of examples of what has worked other places, plus history and theory classes that let you do what you do intelligently (understand the implications of your actions, understand various critiques and pitfalls of planning). Since planning is very project-based, there's a lot you will never learn on the job -- it's like being an electrician without having heard of Benjamin Franklin, electric chairs, or really understanding what might get you electrocuted.

But since you just got this degree, I'd spend some time before you go right back to school, and use it to figure out exactly what type of planning you'd want to do. You could probably get some experience that gives you a basic understanding, orients you to the field, and helps you decide what exactly you want to do. I've seen people who entered grad school knowing that use it to make themselves a well-connected rising star in their specialization, rather than using it to get a basic education about the field in general. And if in that year, you do happen to land a job you really like, you could skip grad school and pick up the history and theory through side reading. If you do decide to get more schooling, I'd think not only about your specialization, but also about your location (eg, don't go to school in Berkeley to practice in NYC, and vice versa). If you want to move, it'd be worth taking a year to establish in-state residency.

more interested in organic-growth planning through economic incentives or zoning

Comes standard. That stuff you could learn through work.

P.S. What you don't want to try to do is work your way up through the zoning counter. I'm pretty sure that's not the fastest way to the planning job you're describing. If you're in a small place, there's fluidity, but in a big city or a county, "Long-Range" and "Current" Planning are probably somewhat segregated from each other.
posted by salvia at 1:02 AM on November 24, 2007 [2 favorites]

Definitely complete the JD. I'm in planning and if there's one thing we need, its more and better legal advice. The tools of planning are often legal and are almost always legally challenged by pro- and anti-planning advocates.

Ideally, you should get the law degree and then apply for planning jobs in a place that is near to, and has a working relationship with, a University with a Planning program or a Public Administration program. That way you can put your legal training to use immediately and fill-in the planing concepts and techniques as you go.

But you don't necessarily have to have a Planning degree.
posted by mmahaffie at 6:09 AM on November 24, 2007

I have my Master's in Urban Planning. If I were as far along in a JD degree as you were, I wouldn't think twice about finishing it.
posted by desjardins at 6:37 AM on November 24, 2007

One thing that might be overlooked is networking. i studied planning at a top notch program, and the contacts i made while learning were as important as the classes i took. networking will get your foot in the door, and having an excuse to network is worth the cost of tuition.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 9:04 AM on November 24, 2007

It sounds like s/he's definitely planning to finish the JD -- the question is "should I look for planning jobs when I graduate from law school (and would that even work?), or should I go directly into a MUP program?"
posted by salvia at 11:15 AM on November 24, 2007

DEFINITELY FINISH SCHOOL AND TAKE THE BAR!! At this point, it'll provide the greatest return on your investment (student loans). If you haven't taken a real estate transaction/finance class yet in law school, I would definitely do that before accepting a spot in an urban planning degree program. If your school doesn't offer it, I'd order a book on amazon and read it on your own time. Construction lending can be pretty complicated, so it'll help you later on if you do decide to do it.

I know that USC does a dual degree program in urban planning/real estate development. Although it's too late to transfer, at least they'll know how to implement your knowledge of the law.

Hope this helps. Good luck.
posted by dannon205 at 11:46 AM on November 24, 2007

I'm not sure what kinds of jobs I could get

The kind of jobs you could probably get:
* land use law
* environmental law
* city attorney (?? they might want someone with some experience ?)
* working in a pool of consultants where your legal knowledge would be your strength and others could supply some of the planning stuff you don't know -- find out what groups work as consultants to cities
* non-profit / advocacy groups that pressure cities to plan certain ways, particularly ones that use legal strategies like lawsuits or community benefits contracts with developers (eg, in this program about community benefits agreements, or for a group that tries to get cities to obey the law around affordable housing, or for an environmental group) -- especially if you're willing to work with them on their legal strategy and either oversee or actually do some of the legal work
* a job helping with environmental reviews (I'm thinking about CEQA here in California. What state are you in?). For example, if a city or county is finishing a general plan or specific plan and wants help overseeing the environmental review for it, someone with a law degree would be a big help (jurisdictions often get sued over environmental review). Since they usually outsource it, you could either help oversee it or work for one of the consulting groups that actually do the work like EDAW.
* any other planning job where your legal knowledge would be a huge plus. Maybe a job involving real estate transactions, like one with a redevelopment agency or land trust?
* a general planning job at a large jurisdiction where they have a couple dozen planners (maybe)

The kind of jobs you'd have a harder time getting:
* a long-range planner for a small or medium-sized jurisdiction (they probably have too few people to afford someone with a specialized skill but not the wide-ranging background to be a generalist)
* a consulting job where your role would be to know a lot about what other places have done on a particular topic ("best practices in green building")
* any job where your focus would be largely urban form and design (they'd like someone with an architecture background)
* transportation planning (they'd like someone with an engineering background)
posted by salvia at 11:54 AM on November 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

I just love the phrase "Gibsonian Arcologies."
posted by mecran01 at 3:42 PM on November 24, 2007

I don't mean to sound like a condescending jerk, but are you sure you want to go into urban planning? Do you know what an entry level urban planner type does on a daily basis? Or are you scared of what being a lawyer might be like?

Mostly just curious. Ignore me if the way I phrased my question sounds stupid.
posted by onepapertiger at 7:53 PM on November 24, 2007

Yet another holder of a masters degree in planning. I guess I'm unclear what you want to do as a planner. In my experience, there is a huge range of things that people do with a planning degree and a huge range of job descriptions that are called Planner but if your goal is to work as a public sector planner in something like a city or county government, entry level positions are often filled by a very wide range of people will lots of different backgrounds. If you wanted to come in at a higher level, it would definitely be advantageous to have a masters degree. I would bet that there's lots of opportunity for you with just your JD at nonprofit agencies like the Natural Resources Defense Council or The Trust for Public Land but that's just a guess. I got my Masters in City Planning at Penn and they have a dual degree program. I'm sure there are more. But my advice: stick with the JD and pass the bar. It's a useful degree that has lots of application in the planning world, even if you don't get the coveted Planner title.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 9:27 PM on November 24, 2007

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