Old Main, Wayne State University. Photo by John CruzOld Main, Wayne State University. Photograph by John Cruz.

How to choose a graduate school for an Urban Planning degree.

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Lately I’ve been fielding a lot of questions about planning schools from prospective students curious as to how to choose a program, what to look for, what to expect, and all the other odds and ends that come with the decision. It’s not an easy one. The schools, departments, programs, concentrations and approaches taken can be very different depending on where you go.

For the purposes of this article, I’m not going to cover the basic “what should you look for in choosing a college” points. By now you’re well aware of the differences between in state and out of state tuition, developing good study habits, stay home or go elsewhere, etc. Additionally, much of what you may have considered in your hunt for an undergrad school will no longer be a factor, things like campus social life and sports will be pretty much a non-factor. This is about finding the program that is the best fit for you.

So let’s get started.

Arriving at the Planning School decision.

If you are at this stage, you likely have already decided to pursue Urban and Regional Planning as a career as well as potentially looked into other grad school options such as law school, public administration, or architecture. The first thing is to make sure this is something you really want to do. Planning students tend to enter the arena as overly idealistic with delusions of grandeur about saving cities and being able to cure all of society’s ills with the swinging might of Daniel Burnham or Robert Moses. Getting that to that point certainly can happen, but it’s not typical.

Not even close.

It’s the urban planner equivalent of a high school basketball player wanting to be the next Michael Jordan. Planning students need to find that equilibrium between idealism and realism. So while there is great potential to do great things, in order to do those things you need a combination of skills, networking, being in the right place at the right time, and some luck. To paraphrase Ben Tallerico from Ann Arbor based planning firm Beckett and Raeder:

 “I used to be like all of you guys, I wanted to swoop in and save Detroit. But the reality is that not everybody gets to do that, and if you do, it’s not an easy thing to pull off. At the end of the day, odds are you’re not going to end up in a big city working to improve urban life. You’re going to be in the suburbs, sitting behind a desk in a township planning office reviewing laws and zoning codes because somebody wants to put an addition onto their garage or build a gas station. If you can’t accept that as a potential reality you need to seriously consider if this is the right career for you.”

 

That being said, there’s still a lot of good you can do. Just because you don’t get to essentially re-write the master plan for a major city doesn’t mean you can’t fix a plan for a neighborhood pocket park and make it a safer and friendlier place for children to play.

You don’t get to change the world, but odds are good you can help change a small part of it for the better. Let that all sink in for a second. Still on board? Good. Let’s move on.

Approaches to planning: Concentrations and Specializations

Not all planning schools are created equal. The first indicator in what kind of planning school you are looking at is what college it is placed in within the University. This will give you an initial overview of what the program will focus on. For example, here’s a quick chart of a handful of planning schools and the colleges they reside in:

Wayne State UniversityDetroit MichiganCollege of Liberal Arts and Sciences
University of MichiganAnn Arbor, MichiganCollege of Architecture and Urban Planning
University of CaliforniaBerkeley, CaliforniaCollege of Environmental Design
University of MinnesotaMinneapolis, MinnesotaSchool of Public Affairs
Florida State UniversityTallahassee, FloridaCollege of Social Sciences and Public Policy
Harvard UniversityCambridge, MassachusettsGraduate School of Design
Cleveland State UniversityCleveland, OhioCollege of Urban Affairs
McGill UniversityMontreal, QuebecSchool of Urban Planning
Ohio State UniversityColumbus, OhioCollege of Engineering

 

The college, in many ways, sets the tone for how the planning programs approach the subject of urban planning overall. Some have a heavy emphasis on environmental design, others on the engineering side. Some are geared towards traditional planning practice, while others take a more social approach.

It will also influence what kind of concentrations the planning program will offer for your degree. Some schools will make you pick a concentration at a certain point (often before you have hit a certain # of credit hours), others will have a degree program with an option of a concentration and others still will let you do more than one concentration. Depending on the size of the program and the funding, these options, and the number of options, will vary greatly. For example, at Wayne State I took the Urban Economic Development concentration, which is a more policy-oriented approach. My other options were Urban Housing and Community Development as well as Managing Metropolitan Growth. However, a planning student at Ohio State University has the option of not picking a concentration, picking one of eight available concentrations, or creating their own area of concentration.

Overwhelmed by options yet? Well, the list of planning concentrations I’ve seen includes: Environmental Planning; Land Use Planning / Master planning; Geographic Information Systems; Historic Preservation; Housing and Community  / Neighborhood development; International Development Planning; Physical Planning and Design; Metropolitan Growth Management; Urban Design; International Development; Planning Policy and Process; Transportation Planning; Economic Planning / Development; and more.

Some schools will have concentrations that will greatly affect your schedule. For example, take a look at the University of Iowa. Their Transportation Planning degree concentration has a very different list of course offerings than their Economic Development concentration. However at Wayne State, the core classes were the same for everyone and your concentration was only 3 courses.

Don’t wrap your brain around these options too hard. Try to figure out what you want to do, and do some reading up on it to help you decide. If you’re interested in community development, think about what kind of career path that will take you down. Read up some books, talk to some people. Do you have to decide on a concentration before you pick a school? Of course not. But it’s good to have some ideas in your head for when you do decide just to make sure that the options you want are on the table. Also look at the other course listings. Even though you can’t have a GIS concentration at Wayne State, you can fill up your electives with GIS courses, so make sure you consider all scheduling and course options and not just a broad look at “what’s offered”.

Don’t try to do everything, and say that you want to have 4 concentrations without even deciding what you like studying first. You weren’t born with a cape, and you can’t save the world, so focus on what part you might want to try and save and go from there.

It is also useful to take a look at some online materials for urban planning such as MIT’s OpenCourseware in order to get an idea of what materials and reading will be like. Many universities offer these materials and lectures free online and they are especially helpful in playing catch-up if you are a student who isn’t coming from a planning undergraduate degree.

APA Certification for schools and the AICP cert for Planners.

If you’re a planning student there’s really no reason why you shouldn’t be a member of the American Planning Association. The first year is free (for students) and after that the student rate is something in the neighborhood of $60. And they can just deduct the money out monthly from your checking account. This is solid for no other reason than it gives you access to more resources; which will be useful in your graduate research and help you get a better feel of what the problems professional planners are facing via their monthly Magazine.

But the APA also offers more to both prospective planners as well as their schools. Many schools offer degrees that are certified by the Planning Accreditation Board. The board’s website which lists all accredited schools says that there are 73 masters programs and 15 bachelors programs accredited at 77 universities in North America.

Why do you care? Well, maybe you don’t.

If your goals are to work in a more traditional planning role, doing master planning or working for local government or a planning firm, an APA accredited school allows you to get your AICP accreditation faster. I’m not going to go into the merits of if the AICP is worth it or not, that’s for you to decide. If you do decide that you may want to pursue it, then it could be worth looking into.

Like any other kind of accreditation process, there are certain standards and benchmarks that must be met, which may affect the course offerings as well. Basically, if you don’t care about being accredited, then you aren’t worried about what courses and concentrations you offer, but if you do care then you will likely have to keep your curriculum in a place where you can keep your accreditation. That’s not the only criteria of course, but it is something to consider.
Of course you do not need to go to an accredited school to get your AICP later on down the line in your career, but it will make things faster. Here’s a handy dandy chart from the APA about the certification eligibility requirements and here is a list of how many students from accredited schools take and pass the AICP exam.

The staff and the students.

The staff of an institution can make all the difference. Once you have your list of schools cut down to a short few, I always recommend that prospective students make contact with the head of the planning department. In person if at all possible, but if not an appointment for a phone call or skype conversation is the way to go. This will not only show the department head that you are a serious student and helps you to build rapport (if you need a favor, the department head is the person you want on your side), but it also gives you some good insight into the program, it’s history, and what the staff and faculty are like. You may find that everyone in the department has a teaching style which conflicts with your learning style. It may be that the teachers are in an academic bubble and detached from reality, or the there are too many adjuncts that work and aren’t interested in educating as much as they should be. Whatever the situation is, it’s best to find out when you’re making your decision and not afterwards. The key decision in where I decided to go to school was made after talking with a lot of people from different departments in different schools.

As for the students, this will also factor into the weight of the “how plausible is it that I am going to get in to this school?” question. Some schools attract talent from all over the country, and will pick the best and brightest from the Urban Planning and Urban Studies undergrads. Others are not hard to get in to at all. With that aside, there is also a student culture that you may or may not fit in with. Some schools are very informal, a lot of students coming from varied economic backgrounds and lifestyles. Others may have a large percentage of students whose parents basically pay for everything. Planning students overall have been very cool people, but some folks I’ve talked to said they wished they knew what they were getting into a bit before they dived right in. The best advice I can give here is to find a student organization at that school and get in touch with someone who runs it. Failing that, hit Facebook and see if you can track down some students to get their perspective on things. They will also be helpful in assessing the quality of the staff in a way that Rate my Professor can’t really do.

Full Time, Part time. Day school, night school.

Now is the time to ask yourself how you picture life during graduate school. The biggest question is full time or part time schooling. The part time degree will take longer, but it gives you the opportunity to potentially work or take internships while working on your degree. Your degree may even at a certain point require you to take an internship in order to graduate (although many offer a choice in options or an internship may not be an option at all. If you will be surviving off loans or some other means of income (maybe a parent or spouse) you might be thinking “I want this done as soon as possible”, or you might want the flexibility to take your time and gain experience while in school. The big reason why you want to think about this now is that some planning schools are very demanding – mandatory full time along with big capstone projects that will take 5+ hours a day to complete while you’re working on it. Others will be more flexible, but at a cost. Wayne State was geared towards working professionals. As such, almost all the courses are offered at night and almost all the students are part time. Your own needs or resources will be your guides here to see what your options are and to decide how much you want to have on your plate.

Let’s Review

Ok, now that we’ve gone over all the big points, here’s a quick recap.

  1. Make sure this is something you really want to move forward with. Ask yourself why you read all this to begin with.
  2. Examine the different schools and their concentrations. See what approach they take, think about what concentrations appeal to you.
  3. Think about your career and if you care about the AICP.
  4. Figure out the faculty and your peers once you have a short list. See where you think you would fit in. Meet with department heads.
  5. Make sure the course offerings will fit in with your lifestyle choice.

Still have questions? Think I missed something? Add it in the comments and good luck with your decision!

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John Cruz

Editor-In-Chief at The Urbanist Dispatch
John Cruz, MUP, is an urbanist, photographer, and city planner. Originally from Detroit, he now lives in Montreal.
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John Cruz

John Cruz, MUP, is an urbanist, photographer, and city planner. Originally from Detroit, he now lives in Montreal.

  • Chris

    Could you possibly expand on what classes one should take as an undergrad if they are considering Planning Graduate school? Especially if they are not a Planning Undergrad.

    • http://urbanistdispatch.com John Cruz

      I was a Web Development undergrad, so I understand first hand where you’re coming from except that I didn’t decide on planning school until I was out of my undergrad a year. If your school has an urban studies department, I would check that first. If there is any kind of course on the history of your city, that could also be very helpful. Many students make the transition from Geography to Urban Planning and those courses could be helpful as well. Since we deal with a lot of the ills of society as planners there may also be some courses in the sociology department: demographics or anything that teaches you to use census data and quantifying it would be helpful (especially a statistics course. You don’t want to be taking stats for the first time in grad school), as well as social problems courses. I’m seeing more and more social workers going into community development so there’s some things to consider there. Likewise, you can get a little more specific if you say, felt that you wanted to do economic development instead and took some intro finance courses (many economic development concentrations have course offering for local government / nonprofit financing).

      I’d recommend reading at the minimal Jane Jacobs’ “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” and if you have the time, Lewis Mumford’s “The City in History” which is a fantastic read. After that, take whatever time you have off between when your undergrad ends and grad school begins, give yourself a crash course in planning. I went through a bunch of materials on the MIT opencourseware site, lectures, saw what the assignments were like, and it shows you what books to get so if you see something that’s interesting, you can pick it up. Some of the good planning books used aren’t recent and can be picked up for a very minimal cost. Throughout grad school I spend more less money than one year’s worth of books in undergrad. But you want to familiarize yourself with the concepts and learn the names of people like Daniel Burnham, Robert Moses, Ebenezer Howard, Le Corbusier, etc. You’re going to start off grad school with groups of people who have been planning undergrads. Some of them might already hold an advanced degree or a JD. Don’t be intimidated, show up ready to impress people. Your peers and your instructors will respect and value your opinion because of it. Plus it will just make your work better overall.

  • montusama

    I thought this was a good read. Though on a personal note the line between idealism and realism is difficult but if its idealism that pulls realism along with it. Onto my question: I’m looking into several grad schools and know where I don’t want to go and where I will go is limited in par due to the history of the particular cities. Essentially any former industrial city is where I’m looking at going as I want my concentration to be de-industrial redevelopment. Cleveland State and Rutgers offer several concentrations that effectively make up a concentration that I would consider de-industrial redevelopment. However not a single school offers that as a real concentration, I take it I should be emailing department heads about exactly what I want to do? I know what I want my thesis to be already as long as “theory” thesis are allowed.

    ~ Aaron

  • Caleb Ernest

    Thank you for the wonderful article, this helped bring a lot of things to attention. I am currently a junior at Ball State University, studying Urban Planning as my major. I am already thinking of graduate schools and have been narrowing down them by doing my own research. A lot of what you said I will take into account, but I was wondering if you had any additional feedback on some of my top choices as of right now. I am leaning towards Community Development (housing/neighborhood) or one of the sustainability fields. Please let me know what you think from this list:
    -Cleveland State University
    -University of Cincinnati
    -University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
    -University of Louisville
    -University of Michigan
    -Wayne State University
    -Michigan State University

  • Stephanie B

    This was a very helpful article. Thank you for sharing.
    I am a civil engineer and am planning on applying to grad schools to pursue a masters in planning in fall 2015. I have spoken with a few planners around Chicago and one stated that I really don’t need to get my masters in planning and that grad school would be a waste of my time and money. I have been very excited at the thought of going to grad school for
    planning, so her statement was sort of a discouraging bit of
    information.
    She did not go to grad school for planning, so i’m wondering what your thoughts are on that statement. Thank you!

  • David

    Hi everyone, I’m currently a senior Urban Studies and Political Science major at the University of Pittsburgh in the process of applying to graduate schools for Urban Planning and Policy. I’ve pretty much finalized my list of schools, and wanted to get a second opinion from people. I intend on focusing on community/economic development in urban neighborhoods. Here’s my list:

    -Georgia Tech
    -University of Cincinnati
    -Rutgers University
    -Tufts University
    -San Jose State University
    -Florida State University
    -University of Maryland–College Park
    -University of Illinois–Chicago
    -Arizona State University

    What do you all think? Any suggestions from people who are perhaps currently in/alumni of these programs?

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