Photo by Paul B. (Halifax) on Flickr.

Are you looking to get into the planning field in the Washington region? In this week’s AskGGW, our contributors suggest three ways to make it happen: meet as many people in the field as possible and do lots of networking, look for internships or volunteer opportunities (like writing for GGW!) that let you delve into a topic of interest and gets your name out into the world, and get a master’s degree.

Reader Colin Brown asked,

How can recent graduates find foot-in-the-door opportunities in this field? Are there best practices for young people looking to find that first work opportunity in the area?

Dan Malouff gives advice based on his personal experience:

The hardest part of any new career path is getting your foot in the door. You’ve got to know people in the industry, and you’ve got to have produced work somewhere that people can look at, to get a sense of what kind of work you’ll do for them.

The traditional way for new people to accomplish that is via an internship, often unpaid. And yeah, that works. Do that if you can.

But anything you can do that both gets your name out there and produces planning-related work is good for your job-seeking cause. And there’s no easier way to do both those things simultaneously than to blog. And there’s no better way to make sure a lot of people in the DC planning field see your blogging than to get it published on GGW.

This is no mere theory. It’s exactly the path that several of us on the GGW team have taken. At least three or four of us, and maybe more.

Adam Lind shares his story:

I had no background in planning before going to grad school at Virginia Tech in 2010. I went to planning school after a personal interest in sustainability started to grow at the end of my undergrad business school life in 2008. From there, I went into transportation planning as I figured that was the best way to make an impact on sustainability and improving the environment by promoting alternative transportation.

I got an internship the summer after I graduated with my masters and ended up getting a job offer in Chapel Hill, but wanted to live in a “real” city. I just kept applying and got an interview with Fairfax County for a Planning Tech II job.

I thought I was overqualified but figured it was a good career move to get into the area, and eventually an opening above me in the bike planning department opened up and now I’m doing my dream job. Sometimes it’s better to just be in the right place at the right time.

Aimee Custis, who constantly screens job applications at work, suggests the following three steps:

1. Have the necessary technical credentials. That’s a prerequisite. So all that stuff about “get a planning degree” and “suck it up and take an internship” are true. And a bare minimum. Until you have done these things, full stop: nothing else I have to say will get you past this step.

2. Get to know EVERYONE you possibly can in the field, and demonstrate to them how amazing you are. Most job openings I hear about come by word-of-mouth, so making sure people think of you when they hear about a job opening is key. Call and email people, tell them you’re interested in a planning/transportation career, and ask if you can pick their brain over coffee.

Come prepared with a thoughtful list of questions to ask them, and be sure to have your pitch about who you are and what you’re looking for polished. Ask those people to introduce or refer you to other people. Leave them with an awesome impression of you. Rinse and repeat.

3. When a job opening does come your way, apply promptly, completely, and put your best foot forward. If writing isn’t your strong point, have someone help you with your cover letter and resume. For Pete’s sake, CUSTOMIZE your cover letter (and preferably your resume) to the position you’re applying for. If you don’t have the attention to detail and thoughtfulness to do that well, what would make me as a prospective employer think you’d do your job thoughtfully?

Whether in your cover letter or in your interview, be ready with a polished, well-considered answer about what you bring to the position that makes you a better candidate than the dozens of similar candidates who are applying?

Oh, and last thing: remember those people who you got to know in step 2? Reach out to them. Tell them you’re applying, and thank them for their good advice. If you can, gently drop that if they know anyone at the employer, you’d love if they’d put in a good word for you.

Associate Editor Jonathan Neeley heartily seconds Aimee’s recommendation to “ask to pick their brain over coffee,” adding “If someone is in a position you’re in, you should ask them if you can have a conversation with them, and then you should ask them all about what they do and the path they took to get there. If someone loves their job, they’ll also love to talk about it.”

And Abigail Zenner adds:

I would add that it is important to follow up with your contacts. Don’t just send one email, but check in again to see if the person saw it. People get a lot of email and sometimes they intend to write back but it gets lost in the shuffle. Don’t read too much into that. Don’t be shy and don’t be afraid to contact people who are agency department heads or other “important people.”

Another important piece is to try your best to figure out what it is you want to do. Do you want to be a planner? An advocate? A policy analyst? Do you want to work in communications or politics? What policy area would you like to focus on? Take the time to find yourself so you know what kinds of jobs you are looking for. That self searching will also help inform a decision about graduate school.

Payton Chung, who has also reviewed thousands of resumes, says “it’s amazing how many boring candidates are out there.” He has the following advice:

Your portfolio should describe and show off achievements, not tasks, in a way that’s relevant to the challenges and concerns that people are hiring for. Your cover letter should be grouped around your skills, not chronology. Your interactions with potential employers should be about them and their needs, not yours; everyone loves talking about themselves. When you do get a chance to talk, personal convictions and interests always make for more fascinating (and memorable!) conversations than shop talk. Share your opinions, and be prepared to back them up.

And that brings me to another point: whenever I’ve hired people, I’ve always looked for people whose own initiatives demonstrate a genuine fascination with, and understanding of, the cities and communities they’ll be serving. For someone at the entry level, that’s not always paid. But it can be illustrated through volunteer or academic or travel experience. Choose interesting and timely topics for your class papers — or for posts you submit to GGW!

Especially in the DC market, you will need an MA pretty soon. In many other cities, 30% of people have college degrees; here, 30% of people have graduate degrees. Most of the local programs are available part-time, and they’re a great way to get some self-directed experience in the topic.

Claire Jaffe asked a follow-up question about what to look for in a master’s program, and Adam Lind responded:

From my point of view, from being a recent master’s graduate and doing the job search, you’re going to need a master’s degree at some point, so the sooner the better. The bigger question in my opinion is to do it full time, or do it while working. If you can get a planning job and do grad school at the same time, that would be my recommendation.

If you can find an arrangement where you get a job, conditioned on taking classes, then yes, go for that too. I just know when I was looking to get in the field almost every job ad said master’s degree required or highly recommended, and if you have no experience and no master’s degree, you’re starting way behind the rest of the field. The past few years there have been A LOT of planners looking for a few jobs. I know job ads that regularly receive 100+ candidates, many of whom are well overqualified.

Tracy Loh comments on the specific dynamics of the planning profession:

Within the planning sector, I think it’s important to distinguish between agencies and nonprofits. Understand the different roles each play and think about which is a better fit for your personality and perspective.

In the DC area especially, I think many agencies have a strongly technocratic bent, where it’s about skills, experience, jargon fluency, etc, and Payton’s advice about being expert enough to have opinions and back them up is right on the money. I would perhaps rephrase it as “being able to express opinions without making them sound like opinions.”

I want to second another thing Payton said, about volunteering. I work at a nonprofit. I see job applications from people all the time where they swear up and down in their cover letter that they love our mission and are personally committed to it… and then there is no volunteer experience on the resume. I’m not even talking about working for free, like with internships; that is a privilege that not all people have. But planning is all about being engaged with a community— when I was in grad school, I waited tables some nights and went to community meetings other nights. I learned a lot about how the development process works and I showed my seriousness about the issues. You need to engage, even if it’s just when you’re done making rent.

A lot of planning is really about people, even when superficially we are talking about transit, or stormwater management, or whatever. What are your people skills and how do you want to put them to work? What kinds of situations energize you, and what drains you (or would you rather avoid)? Seek out positions that are a good fit and make the case for that fit in your cover letter— show that you really understand what the role requires.

This is hard only inasmuch as many organizations (whatever the sector!) do not know what they actually need when they are hiring. You’re not going to find a dream job, but you might be able to make one. Look for openings and opportunities to do so and see the cover letter and interview as your chance to make a pitch about what you would turn the job into.

Dan Reed offers a reminder that those looking for planning jobs should brush up on skills that are useful in any sector:

Whether you’re in the public or private sector, good planners generally know how to:

  • Express ideas clearly and succinctly through writing.

  • Speak to particular audiences (whether it’s an agency, a community group, businesses, etc.).

  • Craft a narrative (about a community’s past, present, and future).

  • Work with many different people (often across different agencies, companies, and also the general public).

  • See things for what they can be, not just what they are (have a vision!).

There are other more specific disciplines, like graphic design or engineering or public policy, that relate to planning and often come up in a planner’s work. But I think they all go back to those general ideas.

The final thought comes from a contributor who asked to remain anonymous:

I’ll give anecdotal evidence as to the power of contributing to GGW. I had an interview a few weeks ago for a planning position. I don’t have GGW listed in my resume, but it was literally the first thing that the interviewer brought up, either because he reads GGW or because my GGW bio is the first thing that pops up if you Google me. Either way, it was definitely seen as valuable experience. I’m still waiting to hear back, but fingers crossed.

If you do want to write for Greater Greater Washington, check out our contributor guidelines for information on what to think about and how to get started.

Do you have a question? Each week, we’ll post a question to the Greater Greater Washington contributors and post appropriate parts of the discussion. You can suggest questions by emailing Questions about factual topics are most likely to be chosen. Thanks!

Malcolm Kenton lives in the DC’s NoMa neighborhood. Hailing from Greensboro, NC and a graduate of Guilford College (BA) and George Mason University (MA, Transportation Policy), he is a consultant and writer on transportation, travel, and sustainability topics and a passionate advocate for world-class passenger rail and other forms of sustainable mobility and for incorporating nature and low-impact design into the urban fabric. The views he expresses on GGWash are his own.