The Guide to Careers in Planning 2008-09 - Open the right door

Graduates in many disciplines are finding that a masters course in planning opens the gateway to a wide range of job opportunities in a subject that lives in the real world.

For students approaching the end of their first degree and wondering where to go next, postgraduate studies in planning could be the next step in the search for a fulfilling career path with healthy job prospects for years ahead.

People come to planning masters courses from many different backgrounds and find an equally wide range of opportunities available to them when they complete their studies. "This rich variety greatly enhances the experience they have on the course because they can learn so much from each other," says Gavin Parker, course director for the University of Reading's masters course in development planning.

Reading is one of around two dozen universities in the UK that offers fast-track one-year postgraduate courses accredited by the Royal Town Planning Institute. Most run "combined" courses which meet the institute's educational requirements in one go. The alternative is to take a combination of "spatial" and "specialist" courses in smaller bites.

Students can expect to acquire a thorough understanding of the factors that shape places, the tools available to guide change, the legal and political background and the principles of professional practice. "Planning is such a broad-brush discipline that it touches on sociology, economics, politics and design," says Georgia Butina Watson, head of planning at Oxford Brookes University.

It is not only recent graduates taking up these opportunities. Most courses also cater for staff already working in planning offices and completing their professional education, usually as part-time students on day release. "We have a nice blend of full-time and part-time students, so they can bring different knowledge to teamwork situations. Both sets gain a great deal from that," says Parker.

It all helps with networking and negotiation, key elements of the planner's skills set. Professionals deal with a wide range of interested parties, so the ability to listen and get your views across is essential. "To thrive in planning you need to be confident in meetings, visually aware and good at communicating graphically through maps, drawings and photos as well as verbally," says Michael Leary, course director at London South Bank University.

Planning courses emphasise group work and role play. "We run a project where groups have to negotiate over a major development proposal and students play the roles of stakeholders such as members of the public or environmental groups," says Parker. "They have to research the roles so in effect they actually live the project. When they act out the meeting it's recorded and they get a copy of the DVD as a memento."

Field trips to sites that illustrate planning issues or results on the ground are popular course elements. "Students enjoy study visits in the UK or Europe and the opportunities to socialise that these provide, as well as presentations after the event," says Leary.

Reading has introduced a pathway on international development planning in which students undertake a week-long field trip in a European city and hear first-hand from invited speakers about what is happening in planning in other countries around the world.

Theory is a necessary part of any postgraduate course but in planning it is tied in to practical applications in the workplace. "Students need a solid understanding of why things change in order to be part of that change in the future. We bring in guest speakers to tell them what the hot topics are on the more intricate aspects of the subject," Parker explains.


Built environment: Knowledge of how construction expertise is drawn together.

Business studies: Insights into commercial practice, management and viability.

Economics: Forces that shape growth or decline across districts, cities and regions.

Environmental studies: Grounding in ecology, biodiversity, environmental management and pollution control.

Geography: Human and physical factors influence settlement location, function and future development patterns.

Law: Development and environmental issues raise legal and procedural complexities.

Politics: Decision-making structures and the factors that influence them.

Social studies: Techniques for unlocking what communities need from development projects.

Surveying: Development viability and land management knowledge are relevant.

Urban studies: Background in the factors influencing urban communities.


Elaine Fotheringham - MSc in Urban and Regional Planning, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh

After graduating this summer, Elaine Fotheringham has begun working life as a planning officer at Stirling Council. "I am pleased to be involved in policy work, especially as we are now starting on our local development plan," she says. In her first degree Elaine specialised in political and urban geography and realised how planning shapes the built environment. On her planning masters course a design and development module required her to produce a development brief for a site in Edinburgh. "The course involved a lot of teamwork, which taught me skills that I can put to use in the work environment," she believes.

Rob Krzyszowski - MPlan in Urban Studies and Planning, University of Sheffield

Rob Krzyszowski started work as a planning assistant at Birmingham City Council in June, shortly after completing the masters year of Sheffield's four- year accredited route. "As well as explaining the structure and nuts and bolts of the planning system, the course looked at the bigger picture and questioned the wider values that underpin planning," he says. Rob appreciated the variety of modules, from property market analysis to public participation. Highlights included group work as part of a made-up planning consultancy and preparing an inner city area action plan. "Planning captured my imagination due to its inherent political and economic dimensions," he adds.

Peter Maxwell - MA in Urban and Regional Planning, University of Westminster

Peter Maxwell, who completed his masters in planning this summer, advises the government on major public building programmes at the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment. "Having a planner's understanding of development issues alongside my previous training as an architect is incredibly useful," he finds. The course gave him more insight into development decisions. "The focus on creating development proposals and assessing their economic viability gave me a practical understanding of the subject," he says. "I enjoyed learning about theories of regional planning and how this influences practice."

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