Career Advice for Planning Students

Insights from planning directors on navigating the road to success.

A group of planning directors from various U.S. cities shared valuable insights into the world of planning careers at a panel discussion held for Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) students. Led and organized by Ann Forsyth, Ph.D., the interim chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design at Harvard and editor of the Journal of the American Planning Association (JAPA), the discussion explored the skills and experiences vital for success in becoming a professional planner. The following is a summary of advice as captured by Harvard GSD student Daniel Montoya.

Skills Needed vs. Skills Used

Planning directors came into the role with a notion of the skills that would be needed; in this discussion, they highlight the skills they use most frequently in their day-to-day work.

Navigating Politics

Planners need to understand the impact of politics on planning work, whether it be local or larger community politics. The majority of your time as a planning director will be spent managing political stakeholders inside the government and with community partners. Connecting with people is part of navigating politics, so you need to be able to connect with all kinds of people, whether they share your values or not. To this end, it's important to prioritize empathy - you will be interacting with a diverse community with a broad range of perspectives. Some ways to develop your skills:

  • Take courses on organizational behavior, and study personality types using tools like the DISC assessment and others.
  • Go to a contentious public meeting, so you can learn to put yourself in the seat of a planner addressing a controversial issue.

Be a Facilitator

While GIS is a technical skill that's necessary in the planning profession, being able to facilitate and translate technical concepts for community members in ways that resonate with them is just as important. Planners must be able to work through adaptive challenges. You will need to facilitate tough conversations.

As a planner, you are responsible to act as a steward of a collaborative process — and help the cities become what the residents want them to be.

being ethical

Planners face many obstacles in their work. As a result, it is crucial to understand how to handle the tension between ethics and achieving a community's goals.

Planners need to have a clear ethical foundation personally. While facilitating plays a big role in planning, delivering results for communities is just as important. Do not become susceptible to situational ethics — where your ethics shift depending on the specific context. Be intentional with what you say, hold onto your moral center, and be consistent in your words and actions - local media and community members will scrutinize your efforts and remind you of what you said and did.

With a strong ethical framework, you can make hard choices about when it makes sense to speak up and go against the flow. Be prepared - doing so sometimes has consequences that you will need to accept.

Working with Disruptive Individuals

While running into challenges as a planner is inevitable, you can learn how to work better with people who are being disruptive in the community.

First, listen and try to understand the motivation for the behavior of disruptive residents. Acknowledge their perspective. There will be times when you need to explain your reasoning in a way that demonstrates you understand the other side.

Be confident that the community you are working in is one you can serve. Develop your situational awareness, as you'll need to ask yourself every time the political landscape changes or new leaders are elected if you can continue to serve this community while staying true to your ethical foundation.

Don't be shy about speaking up in front of decision-makers and influencers. You need to think about why those people are in the room and be confident in identifying the ideas and needs that need to be uplifted for their consideration, in a way that will resonate with them.

Advice for Emerging Professionals

The planning directors shared insights on what you should do as you embark on your planning career.

  • Engage with the community: Understand the community aspect. Do an internship with a city planning director. Get engaged with the city council because they're the ones who put your plans to work.
  • Develop management skills: Study management so you can lead, know how to deal with HR and personnel issues, and effectively manage projects.
  • Be a compelling communicator: Study public communication and take a communications course. In the era of digital communication, responsiveness is important. Turn cameras on and be engaged during video calls. Respond promptly when someone reaches out via email. Those things get noticed!
  • Move outside your comfort zone: Do the things you do not want to do. You learn so much from doing work you would not have chosen for yourself. Commit to learning things outside of your comfort zone, knowing it will make you a better planner.
  • Build your support network: Connect through your university, and also through APA events and conferences. Introduce yourself, make connections, and follow up!
  • Enhance your observation skills: Be an observer in your community — attend different events, in different parts of town, with people you do not normally hang out with. Sit in bars, hair salons, barber shops, PTA meetings, etc., to listen to peoples' opinions about the community. Adjust your ideas to reflect these perspectives in your plans so you can hit the ground running collaboratively with key stakeholders.

Top image: iStock/ Getty Images Plus - Nuthawut Somsuk.

Beatriz Sindac is the American Planning Association's Student Program Associate.

December 4, 2023

By Beatriz Sindac