Planning your future

Some of the options available if you are considering a postgraduate planning qualification.

You are approaching the end of your first degree and are unsure about your next career move. You may find that a masters course in town planning will open some doors for you.

Students from a wide variety of first degree backgrounds are discovering that postgraduate courses in spatial planning provide them with a much-needed sense of direction.

If you are graduating in 2007, we hope that this supplement will persuade you to consider following in their footsteps, because there is little doubt that the planning profession will require many able hands for years to come.

"No-one can ever absolutely guarantee anything, but job prospects are looking very healthy," says Ruth Richards, planning subject leader at London South Bank University (LSBU).

"With Thames Gateway, the 2012 Olympics and the sustainable communities plan, demand can only increase," says Tim Edmundson, head of the department of urban development and regeneration of the University of Westminster.

Postgraduate programmes accredited by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) provide a full theoretical and practical grounding in the core aims, objectives, operations and institutions of spatial planning. They allow students to follow up their specialist interests. They link theoretical knowledge with the practical skills needed to find solutions to complex problems.

Graduates can expect to emerge with a breadth of knowledge across a wide range of spatial issues, skills in critical thinking, investigation and analysis, an understanding of how planned intervention influences places for the better and an insight into how the various interests interact. They will also learn transferable skills such as problem-solving, teamwork, negotiation, presentation and time management.

The combination of planning, land management and urban development offered by the University of Reading's four-year accredited programme is proving popular. "Our students are very sought after," says senior lecturer Gavin Parker. "Some make the transition to full-time employment even before they complete their studies. Our product seems to be exactly what employers are looking for."

In 2004 the minimum length - and hence the cost - of RTPI accredited postgraduate courses was trimmed from two years to just one year. Demand for places has been further fuelled by a government-backed bursary scheme that covers course fees and £6,000 towards living costs for selected full-time students at 17 colleges.

Officials indicate that bursaries will again be available in 2007-08 on broadly the same lines. "Bursaries have been useful in attracting higher-calibre students and raising the standard generally. If you have a core of really able students it lifts the whole cohort," says Sue Kidd of the University of Liverpool. "Bursaries have brought an extra quality impetus," agrees John Punter, professor of urban design at Cardiff University.

Planning postgraduates are drawn in from a wide range of backgrounds, although most have first degrees in related subjects such as geography, economics, social or environmental studies. Planning schools are also fielding demand from mature students looking for a change of career and professionals in allied fields looking to secure further qualifications. So competition for places is intense.

Westminster received more than 100 applications this year for 36 places on its MA in urban and regional planning. The 12 full-time students who landed places on the course came from backgrounds in tourism planning, social studies, art history, human and physical geography, politics and economics.

The University of Liverpool's department of civic design has taken on around 50 postgraduates this year, two-thirds of them on the full-time route. "I am impressed by the number of people from Merseyside who have been to Oxbridge, Bristol or Durham and come home looking for further qualifications," says senior lecturer Pete Brown. "They are really good graduates. Employers are happy to take them on and cover their training costs."

Some planning schools are grappling with even larger intakes of students. "We closed entries onto the postgraduate course at LSBU in June or July. About 80 have turned up, including 20 full-time students," says Richards. "We have 72 postgraduates starting this year, more than ever before. The demand is certainly there," says Jeremy Raemaekers at Heriot-Watt University's school of built environment, currently Scotland's only accredited postgraduate planning school.

On most courses, full-time postgraduates work alongside part-time students holding down day jobs in the planning field. Graduates unable to face the thought of paying the fees for a full-time masters may be able to find a local authority or planning consultancy willing to take them on and pay their way through the part-time route to qualification.

Relevant degrees

  • Built environment: Specialising in planning can provide students with a unique insight into how the expertise of other professions is drawn together and put into action in the real world. 
  • Economics: Planning involves knowledge of supply and demand for goods and services, so how finance works is useful when carrying out assessments of project viability and economic benefits for local communities.
  • Engineering: A first degree on how individual buildings and structures are put together can be followed up with further studies into how they fit together to turn locations into attractive places to live.
  • Environmental studies: Specialist knowledge of ecology, biodiversity, environmental management, pollution and geological science helps to ensure that proposals meet sustainability objectives.
  • Geography: From knowing how human and physical geography shape the location, function and evolution of settlements, the next logical step is to learn how places can be formed in a planned fashion.
  • Law: A legal background helps students to get to grips with the regulations and policy that govern decisions on development and environmental protection.
  • Politics: A background in and experience of decision-making and policy formulation is useful in a wide range of planning-related environments, from the European Union down to district councils and local communities.
  • Social studies: Students who graduate in subjects such as sociology or psychology will gain an invaluable insight into what makes individuals and communities tick and their various aspirations for community development or local improvement projects.

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