August 3, 2014

Choosing Graduate Schools for a Masters in Urban Planning (City, Town, Regional etc)

Oxford University is beautiful but is it the best context for innovation?  Photo: Sutika Sipus 2013

About once a week I receive an email from an urban planning student interested in working in international development, or post-conflict reconstruction, or sometimes even just traditional town planning.  They all ask me the same question,  "where to attend graduate school? " I try to be helpful, but my best answer is somewhat longwinded and disappointing.

I have two major thoughts on the matter. First, it just depends on what you specifically hope to accomplish in your life many years after graduate school.  Second, I doubt where you go to school really matters that much.  I say this because my entire adult life has been a process of building something from nothing.  I didn't start off in fancy schools and I definitely didn't have any sort of social network or money.  I went to the schools that were nearby, pursued every chance for something better, and eventually built the career I wanted.

When I attended graduate school, it was not a deep decision process, but a rather a sudden thing.  I decided that I wanted to go back to school and found a backdoor into a local program within 48 hours. At the time I lived in Cincinnati, Ohio and the University of Cincinnati has one of the top ranking Architecture and design schools in the world.  So I enrolled in a few classes on a student a loan via a certificate program. Then in the mid-term I applied to the program with an established reputation among faculty.  I received a significant scholarship and the path was set.

That was in 2005.  Now, nearly 10 years later, I have a few thoughts on how to do it better.  I was able to apply these toward a PhD in Transition Design at Carnegie Mellon. You can read about that in Advice For Choosing a PhD in Urban Planning, but for a masters - I have some other ideas as well.

Q: So where should you attend graduate school?  
A: Attend the program that is thinking about the problems of the future.  Attend the program that has the resources and tools to facilitate the vision you have.  Attend the program that is flexible when you realize your vision needs to change.  Attend the program that has a clear technical focus to give you the tools you need to manage life after graduate school, but cares sufficiently about theory to give you the range to use those tools. The only factors that matter are the decisions you make and the relationships you create to go beyond program, not those that are situated within the program.

Five Urban Planning Priorities for Graduate School
1. Focus on technical skills.  Most people who study international relations, international development, or political and social science lack technical skills.  You can read 1,000 books on development issues, but it is very difficult to learn econometric analysis, site planning, GIS, statistics, or computer programming outside the classroom.  The skill will get you the job.  I've never been hired because I understand sociology, but I've been hired for several jobs because I can calculate the economic impact of a project in a community.  So what skills can they teach you?

2. Examine curriculums.  I believe many graduate Urban Planning curriculums are heavily outdated. Progressive curriculums can be easily overlooked - for example, I think Ohio State has a far more compelling program than the top ranking programs at USC and Berkley. Many of the programs also have an underlying thematic focus tied to the location of the school and the strength of the university at large.  UVA, for example, is heavily focussed on environmental issues.  University of Cincinnati is strongest within economic development for rust belt cities.  Rutgers is exceptional concerning public health.  Is the curriculum tied to a place you want to be, and to problems you want to solve?  Is it tied to the urban planning problems of the future or of the past?

3. Location is premium.  Where do you want to live after grad school?  I believe location is the biggest element of consideration.  If you do an MCP in Boston, you will be immediately predisposed toward a career in Boston.  Same with Hawaii. You can build significant relationships during your MCP with local businesses and create a network to propel you forward.  This was great at UC for the people who wanted to be in Cincinnati.  For someone with an international focus, it did little.  I know people who went to grad school in Egypt because they wanted to work in the Middle East. That was more effective than going to any school in America.  Where do you want to live?

4. Theory?  Yes.  In addition to planning, I pursued an MS in Architectural Theory and Criticism.  At the time I did it because they gave me a fellowship and - admittedly - while doing the program I thought it was a waste of time.  But the truth is, those 2 intense years of studying phenomenology, critical theory, and marxist social theory, are the key to my ability to fuse the creativity of art and design with the precision of statistics and GIS.  The theory is the reason I work differently from other urban planners.  If you want your work to be different from the mainstream, then your thinking needs to be outside the mainstream. Learn to think different.

5. Research Methods. Does the program only require you take one course in research methods? Thats not enough.  Learn all the different kinds of methods possible.  My program required three research method courses and I ultimately took five, which was perhaps the best decision I made during that time. Make sure to be open minded about this too... I consider computer programming, data base design, graphic design tools, and courses in archaeology or linguistics as research methods. Anything that will teach you how to abstract a given scenario so as to make new sense of it. Learn how to learn.

Why The School and Program Does Not Matter
1. The Lower-Level Content is the Same.  When I was in my early 20s, I was intimidated by people who attended Ivy league schools or famous institutions like Georgetown.  I thought they must be geniuses and their education was superior.  Eventually I realized the error of these perceptions.  Often those students had better social assets when they were younger and often those schools had more resources to offer the students.  As for the material in the classroom - its the same. 

For example, if you take a computer  programming class at Harvard (CS50) vs any other school, the material is identical - (variables, strings, lists, tuples, functions, objects in Python or Java). At the generic school your resources consist of a library, some office hours and an overworked teaching assistant.  At Harvard you have tons of videos, networks, workshops, demos and tutors for the exact same class.  The coursework will be harder but there are more resources, so if you use them, arguably it is easier to learn at Harvard than at EKU. It just depends on your commitment.

2. The Quality of Higher Level Content is Self-Determined.  As an MCP graduate student, you are expected to use existing methods to identify a new piece of knowledge.  The methods are fairly universal.  How you apply them is up to you.  A school might have resources to help your investigation, but if it doesn't, then you need to find them - and you can.

Obviously there are advantages at an expensive school because you can more easily create opportunities to apply the methods.  For example, if you walk down "The Infinite Corridor" at MIT, there are posters advertising opportunities to work all over Africa, paid positions with companies and lab research internships.  The majority of schools can't offer these resources like MIT.  However, while I was at the University of Cincinnati, I managed to work at the United Nations Headquarters, design refugee camps with NGOs, and get a Fulbright grant to Egypt.  All of this was tied to my research and not the university.  It wasn't easy but it was possible.  Where you do your research and how it unfolds is up to you.

Looking Beyond Grad School
Rather than asking "where should I go to grad school" it is important to take the question a step forward and ask "where do I want to live after grad school?" and "in what form?" Look at the LinkedIn profiles of people working in the places you want to be, get an idea of what their life is like, and research their background.  Is that what you want? 

If you look at this quick visualization of my own LinkedIn network, you will see that all my relationships are more tightly clustered around places I've worked than actual institutions or jobs. The far right, orange and green cluster are indeed my connections from the University of Cincinnati.  But this is only a fraction of the total professional network.  The majority is rooted in the 2 years I lived in Egypt, the 3 years in Afghanistan, and then a sprinkling of connections obtained from my time in Washington DC and New York City.   If I was seeking a professional opportunity, these are the groups I would contact rather than the grad school people. 

Once You are In the Program
In the program, the most important thing is that you establish a strong relationship with one or two faculty members who can mentor you and will also work for you. Most people want to work with the foremost expert on his/her topic... but that is less significant at the Masters level.  I was fortunate to have Johanna Looye and Adrian Parr at my side. Johanna is a Latin America development specialist and Adrian is a sustainability philosopher.  I know little about either topic, but I could rely on them since sometimes you might need to bend the rules or need someone to go above and beyond. Ultimately, it is more important to have a mentor who answers email than is an expert in your particular research interest.  I had that person too... and he wasted all my time because he was too busy with his research to arrive at appointments, respond to questions, or assist with hard problems.

Final Outcome
If you pursue your vision and are a creative and capable individual, its going to be really hard to find a job.  Especially if you want to work in conflict.  So the concern is not - where do you go to graduate school.  The critical question is "how do you survive and thrive after?"