Careers: Postgraduate studies - Taking the next step

Graduates with first degrees in a wide range of subjects will find a natural home in the planning sector as they work out their next career move, Paul Carnell finds.

If you are coming to the end of your first degree and are considering the next step, or are looking for a career change to a more rewarding environment, a postgraduate degree in planning may be just up your street.

People from different backgrounds are becoming planners. Undergraduate degrees in geography are a common starting point, but planning course directors are finding students with backgrounds in areas such as law, history, sociology and environmental sciences opting for planning studies.

One reason for this is the opportunity planning provides to find a niche. "The people who thrive in planning are the people who can embed their personal concerns in their career," says Suzanne Speak, programme director at Newcastle University. "Students can carve themselves a CV to brand themselves to employers."

The UK has been grappling with a shortage of planners for several years and job prospects are set to remain strong. Students at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh typically find themselves fielding enquiries from potential employers in the early spring before they graduate, says urban and regional planning course leader Sarah McIntosh.

"I have not heard of any of our students having difficulty finding employment," says Nick Gallent, programme director at University College London. "It is often the case that as they approach the end of their course, students are already in employment or have job offers based on completion of their degrees."

Students who complete courses accredited by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) emerge equipped with a full theoretical grounding. But planning courses also emphasise transferable skills, group activity and project work.

A bursary scheme is run by the Department for Communities and Local Government. In 2007 more than 100 bursaries were awarded to students on one-year courses, covering teaching fees and a stipend of £6,000 for living costs. Officials are working to ensure that the funding continues.

Joe Weston, course director for the MSc in spatial planning at Oxford Brookes University, paints a picture of those likely to succeed in planning. "You need to be a bit of a lawyer, economist, sociologist, and urban designer and a very big bit of a diplomat," he says.

A fast-track full-time masters course meeting RTPI membership requirements can be completed within a year. Part-time courses, typically taking two years on day release, appeal to staff with full-time jobs. RTPI-recognised specialist courses are also available for those wishing to demonstrate their expertise in specific areas.

Joe Doak, director of postgraduate planning programmes at the University of Reading, says that role-playing projects, in which students practise negotiating development schemes, give them a feel for the workplace. Field trips also provide students with the chance to foster a social dynamic, as well as giving insight into real-life planning practice in the UK and further afield.

Alison Parker, a graduate of Newcastle University's town planning masters course, studied planning in developing countries. Her studies featured a trip to India. "The module encouraged me to complete my dissertation on slum upgrading. That involved interviewing academics, government officials and slum communities in Mumbai and Delhi," she says.

Postgraduate planning courses are becoming increasingly popular and competition for places is fierce. "We get roughly five applications for every place on the full-time programme and this level of demand shows no sign of diminishing," says Iain Deas of the University of Manchester.


Built environment Specialising in planning provides an insight into how the construction professions' expertise is drawn together.

Economics Planners assess whether development proposals are viable.

Engineering A first degree tackling individual buildings and structures can be followed by studies on how they fit together.

Environmental studies Good planning decisions rely on expertise in ecology, biodiversity, environmental management, noise and air pollution and geological science.

Geography Human and physical factors shape settlement location, function and change, influencing future development patterns.

Law Development and environmental issues raise a host of legal and procedural challenges.

Politics Knowledge of decision-making and policy formulatio n.

Social studies Techniques in sociology or psychology can help communities with new developments or local improvement projects.


- James Seabury

MSc in Town Planning, Newcastle University

James Seabury's first degree was in geography. During his undergraduate studies he spent two weeks in a planning department. "I discovered I could help to improve and advance the built environment for future generations," he says. At Newcastle he opted for a module on sustainable communities, which included a trip to the Netherlands. He is also interested in community engagement. "It's vital that members of the public gain a better understanding of the planning system and learn how to get involved," he argues. After graduation, James wants to work in the public sector and as a volunteer for Planning Aid, once fully qualified.

- Jet Cameron

MSc in Urban and Regional Planning (part-time),

Heriot-Watt University Jet Cameron is an architect who has worked on the development of large-scale projects in Edinburgh and Dubai. She felt a planning qualification would boost her contribution to projects from various perspectives. Jet has enjoyed her two years of part-time study for an urban and regional planning masters at Heriot-Watt University. She continues to work while attending university once a week. "I enjoyed working in groups with people from different backgrounds, site visits and development evaluation," she says. She aims to work towards RTPI membership with her employer and hopes to have opportunities similar to those in Dubai.

- Peter Blake

MSc in Development Planning, University of Reading

Peter Blake's interest in a planning career was fuelled during his first degree in geography. He found the relationship between the property market and the planning process particularly intriguing. "It affects all types of people across a whole range of geographical and social scales," he explains. This interest was taken further at university. "Reading does not just look at planning but understands the importance of its interaction with property," says Peter. When he graduates he expects to continue working in planning and development consultancy at Savills' Bristol office and secure dual qualifications as a chartered planner and development surveyor.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Sign up now
Already registered?
Sign in

Join the conversation with PlanningResource on social media

Follow Us:
Planning Jobs