How do I Earn an Urban Planning PhD?

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  • Written By: Elva K.
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 04 November 2019
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Urban planners are responsible for developing plans pertaining to construction of new buildings in order to meet the specific needs of the population of a city or town. They are experts when it comes to zoning, environmental rules, and building code rules. Also, they are involved in controlling pollution, conservation efforts, or drafting legislation related to the planning of buildings or landmarks. Often, individuals who hope to become urban planners will seek the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree because having a graduate degree makes it more likely they will be considered for employment. Granted, getting an urban planning PhD requires several years of work.

Completing an undergraduate degree with a focus in urban planning can be useful if you aspire to eventually get the urban planning PhD. Of course, not all universities offer an undergraduate major in urban planning. If there is no available urban planning undergraduate major at your university, then majoring in economics, political science, geography, or perhaps environmental design can be helpful.


After completion of an undergraduate degree, you can pursue a Master of Science (MS) degree that focuses on urban planning or public affairs. Also, you can work in an urban planning job for a few years after the master’s degree. Working after the master’s degree can be valuable for you because it will enable you to gain real-world experience while also enabling you to build your portfolio. These samples of your work can be shown to prospective doctoral programs when it is time to apply to an urban planning PhD program.

Application to an urban planning PhD program will require that you gather materials such as your college transcripts, Graduate Records Examination (GRE) scores, recommendation letters from professors and former employers, and samples of your urban planning work. Also, you will need to fill out an application for each school you apply to. Typically required with each application is a purpose statement which highlights your reasons for applying to the doctoral program along with your research interests and professional goals both short term and long term.

If you want to pursue an urban planning PhD, you will need to become very comfortable with using computers. Urban planning professionals often use computers for recording information and data analysis. For example, urban planners often use computers to analyze information, map areas of land, do forecasting, prepare reports, and make recommendations.

Once accepted to an urban planning PhD program, you will have to successfully complete the required courses, which could include courses such as urban theory, urban planning history, and quantitative analysis as it applies to urban planning. Also, you will be required to complete various research projects, possibly a teaching assistantship, an internship, comprehensive written and oral exams, and a final dissertation done under the supervision of a dissertation chairperson or faculty mentor and other committee members. If you can successfully complete these requirements, you will achieve a PhD in urban planning.


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