May 5, 2014

Advice for Choosing a PhD in Urban Planning

When you enter a new city, do you immediately start deconstruct the environment into use patterns? While driving do you frequently get a thrill from clever interchanges or notice over-engineered drainage with pangs of anger? And perhaps, when you hear about a massive social or economic problem, your mind ignites with strategies to improve the situation?

So now after years of thinking about complex urban problems, working in the field, and reading all the current literature, your mind is suddenly probing the possibility of pursuing a PhD.  Or maybe you were always interested in research?  Or you like the idea of teaching in a university?

I understand all these impulses.  For over a decade my mind has been fixated on building strategies for social change.  Even when I was an art student dreaming of a career as a conceptual performance artist, I sought to do work that could facilitate profound social transformation.  And throughout my entire life, I've been drawn toward the satisfaction of writing and research offset with the engagement of the lecture hall.  I always wanted to be Indian Jones. In my own fashion this led toward the decision to pursue a PhD in Urban and Regional Planning.  

It may then come as a surprise that when I applied for a PhD,  I only applied to four programs, and 3 of them were not in urban planning. Why? The answer is fairly simple.

The compelling aspect of the planning is its interdisciplinary composition.  People come from all backgrounds to study and work in planning.  It is rare that a professional field can consists of engineers, artists, historians, and statisticians all working together, side-by-side, using a shared vocabulary toward a common objective.  Its amazing really. But when we focus this energy through the lends of doctoral study, the tectonics start to shift, and I believe the value of planning education begins to go downhill. I'll explain more about this in the sections below.

Yet perhaps you are considering a PhD in planning.  Where do you go? How do you choose?  And should you make sure it is labeled "Urban Planning" or can it be something else?  Should it? 

Is the PhD useful for you?
Because of the unusual nature of Urban and Community Planning, the pursuit of a PhD is peculiar. For one, among those who are dedicated to practicing planning, a PhD is popularly rumored to reduced employment prospects because it makes one overly academic.  I don't know if this is true, but if it is true, the situation is stupid. People need to stop believing this or the PhD Planning needs to change to become more relevant.

How much time do you have?
I spent several years looking at the curriculums of the worlds top PhD programs in Urban Planning. There are advantages and disadvantages to the US model vs other countries.  First you need to think about time.  How much time do you have to do this?

In the European model, schools such as LSE or UCL feature some decent programs, but only one year is devoted to coursework with 5 to 7 years devoted to research.  The problem with this model is that the research is typically focussed on a very narrow proposal, supplied at the time of the application, limiting options for exploration and experimentation in subject matter.  The resulting dissertations are boorish and that the personal experience of the PhD is rife with depression, cognitive dissonance, and grief.

When a professor at a famous university in the UK expressed interest in working with me about government issues in Somalia, my initial excitement turned dour. I've worked with the government of Somalia and it sounds absurd to spend 7 years proposing policies the government of Somalia will never care about.  They have only marginal support for outsider interest and zero concern for academic arguments, so this will not end well. To do such a project for 7 years of doctoral study would be equivalent to 7 years of lying to myself.

Within the American model, the timelines are shorter, typically under 5 years, so it can be a bit healthier for mental health, yet 3 years are occupied by in-class learning.  That takes us to the next issue.

Most American curriculums require 3 years coursework then 2 to 5 years for dissertation research. Typically one year of the 3 will focus on research methods. This is considered the standard gateway to expertise.

One problem is that hands-on experience is a better way to deepen specialized knowledge than through additional coursework.   For example, I frequently meet people in Washington DC who are experts on Afghanistan.  Those people have a PhD, twice went to Kabul for a week, and read a lot about the country.  They do have a very deep understanding of actors and context, but the reality is that local politics change so rapidly, that anyone not actively living in the country will always be far behind. I mean, I've spent 10 years in developing nations, and that experience has provided a far deeper understanding of planning issues than any class.  So why do I want to spend many years sitting in classes that are disconnected?

Another issue is that while a PhD is about deep expertise and slow learning, the motivation to pursue additional schooling is also based on the desire to learn new things.  I want to study new ideas to inform my thinking and reshape the way I structure information.  I want to experiment with my brain. I want to pursue some electives.  PhD programs typically do not support such divergence because they are designed for a deeper study of a small thing.

So look closely at the curriculum of each school... is that what you want to do?  For example, University of Wisconsin Maddison is a great school, but I found its curriculum to be outdated and traditional to issues like transportation and housing. In contrast, Ohio State features coursework on new technology and urban development. Super cool.  But if you want to build technologies, it doesn't give the flexibility to do that - not as part of the core curriculum anyway - you can only study their impact.  Same situation with Columbia University.

It is important you evaluate your need and interest for coursework.  Will one year suffice?  Two or three?  Are you jumping into new territory and require many foundation courses is a new skill?  Will the program facilitate flexibility?

Outcome Projections
Most of us know to ignore the rankings and focus on the specific industry reputation of the program. But there is more to the selection process.  For example, many schools in California have stunning reputations for Urban Planning, but none of them were churning out students that I saw as a model for my own career.  Rather than look at the rankings, I advise you look at the dissertations coming out of each program.  Do you want to spend 5 years writing the same kind of work?

Rather than looking at rankings, ask, what kind of funding does this department have?  Is it getting federal or corporate research grants?  Are the professors actively publishing groundbreaking work or running audacious companies? If you choose to teach afterward, what kinds of schools and programs would want to hire you?  Where are the recent graduates teaching? Will you be qualified to only teach in one department (planning) or several (design, social science, business, planning)?  Personally, I want options.

Changing Times
This part is really important. Realize that programs are constantly changing.  Are you applying to a program based on its history, its present configuration, or on its future?  What kind of faculty are they hiring?  What are the department goals?

For several years I was convinced that the only program for me was at MIT.  The DUSP program for international development (IDG) was inspiring.  Diane E. Davis was generating work about conflict cities, other professors were looking at technology,education, and humanitarian work.  Some of the students who came out of that program like Topher McDougal were rockstars to me.  

Then just before I sent PhD applications, everything changed. Dr. Davis went to Harvard GSD and many of the other faculty rotated as well.  I like some of the professors there very much, but I could not see myself working with them. In the meanwhile, I do not like Harvard's program at all, so I would never follow Davis there.  After years of preparing for one program, it changed so dramatically that I never bothered to apply.

Where do you want to live and work?
Four years will go by fast but of course you must consider the reality of living there.  Case in point, the University of Umea in Sweden is amazing and has sufficient doctoral funding - but it is nearly the north pole. Ouch.  They were interested in my work, and I was interested in their program, but after 3 winters in Afghanistan, my wife and I were not willing to move to the Arctic circle.

Also consider, will living there advance your career goals?  When my wife did her masters, she went to the American University of Cairo, Egypt because she wanted to work in the middle east.  That gave her far more advantage than any graduate program in America or Europe.  Likewise, after graduating you might continue to live in the same city for awhile, so make sure you like it enough.

Look Outward
As I mentioned before, I only applied to one PhD program in Urban Planning.  But I also applied to 3 programs in political science, sociology, and design.  I received 2 full fellowship offers from among the four programs.

If the interdisciplinary nature of Urban Planning is its strength, we should leverage this strength to break away from the limited vision of the profession. Consequently, I encourage planners to do their PhD in anything but urban planning. Computer Science, Economics, Geography, Political Science, and any technical discipline are valid options.  

Personal Outcome
Final decision? I am pursuing a PhD in Design at Carnegie Mellon University.  CMU has the technological focus I desire, but more importantly, the new PhD Design is focussed on transition design.  This concept is akin to my own methodology, wherein it embraces turbulence of complex systems to advance scaled instances of social chanee.  As this approach is based in the field of UX Design, rather than planning, it also introduces new perspectives, vocabularies, and breaks away from the historical inheritance of the planning profession.

The curriculum and leadership are flexible, and as a new program, it is future-focussed with a zeal for creating new opportunities and ideas. Consequently, this PhD has the resources I need to create whatever future I want to create.  For my goals, there is no better option in the world.