I am currently trying to decide between two very different MLA programs (April 16 deadline!) and was wondering if anyone in the LA community might have some good advice.
My choice is between the University of Michigan and the Harvard GSD. My background is in environmental science and geography and I have a strong interest in pursuing issues in landscape architecture related to the natural sciences and ecology. I am also currently living (and working) in Ann Arbor, MI. Originally, I felt as though the University of Michigan's program, which is through the School of Natural Resources, would be a good fit. I applied to Harvard on a whim, I never expected to get in. I am a cartographer and have a strong interest in design as well. Harvard's program would definitely fulfill this interest and further develop my skills as a designer in this profession. Further, Harvard's program is very well established, world renowned, and would provide access to a million resources that are not available at the University of Michigan. My biggest concern is related to financing this degree. I will take on significantly more debt if I attend Harvard.
Could anyone out there comment on the job market for this profession? Specifically, I am interested in knowing whether or not the Harvard degree makes a significant difference when applying for jobs. I am also interested to hear from practicing LAs about where they see this profession going. Is a strong background in ecologic and environmental issues or a strong design portfolio going to position me better in the job market?
I don't think this profession is worth massive debt. UM is a good school and the job market is still too weak to expect a high enough salary to repay the debt you'd likely have from Harvard. Not to say there aren't benefits to going to the GSD, and it could make a difference when you head off to look for work (depending on a bunch of variables) but I don't think the cost/benefit analysis washes out. You don't want to finish school and be crippled by debt and with limited professional prospects (at least in the short and medium terms).
I have a similar background. While my design training has been beneficial for me in many ways, my current position and the entire range of opportunities I've encountered since I finished my MLA in 2008 have been primarily because of my environmental background. The MLA has been an important piece of my professional "package" but it's that added to the rest of my education, experience, and background that has opened doors for me. I think planning, environmental services, and resource related work has weathered the recession better than the design side of the profession.
Thank you, Chupacabra. This is very good advice. Can I ask what area you are currently working in? Do you work at a design firm or are you working in planning or consulting?
I'm a planner for a large land management agency. My work can probably be grouped into three different areas:
planning - comprehensive land use plans, master plans, facilities plans, site plans, resource plans (I do a tiny bit of designy type stuff for some of these projects)
environmental services - resource assessments, wetlands inventories, visual resource management, NEPA
GIS and graphic design - I haven't hardly touched AutoCAD but I use GIS and Adobe almost daily.
My job doesn't fit nicely into the tradition LA model, although LAs often do this sort of work. But, my state licensing board recognizes what I do as qualifying for experience towards licensure so that's a plus even if I'll probably never work on construction documents. It's a bit of a different track to take professionally but I like it.
edited to add: I also manage contracts for the work done out of house. Quite a bit is done by consultants.
There are a number of recent threads on this topic; I would suggest reading through them.
Thank you, Chris
Both are great schools, but if you want to wind up teaching in academia, there is nothing better on your resume than GSD. I'd love to go there, but as others have mentioned, cost is a huge factor. The ROI for an MLA isn't that great.
Thanks, Jason! Are you trying to decide on schools right now as well?
I was also recently in your shoes choosing between MLA programs, and ended up turning down a full ride to LSU in order to accrue a hefty bill from the GSD.
As you say, UMich and the GSD are very different MLA programs (I'd argue polar opposite in terms of teaching style and emphasis). UMich, being housed in the SNR, has a much stronger emphasis on the technical aspects of ecology, brownfield remediation, etc. And while the program tries to position itself as one that strongly integrates design and the natural sciences, I feel that the design side isn't as strong as other MLA programs (based on seeing their student work, speaking with current students). And then you have the GSD, which really places design as its primary focus. In many regards, programs like the GSD and UPenn don't prepare students to practice, but rather teach them to have a highly developed design and conceptual thinking. The GSD assumes that students will pick up the more technical aspects during summer internships and what not.
So it's really about how you want to position yourself once you graduate. If you want to, say, work for the Forest Service doing design, GIS, and ecology work, then UMich seems like a better fit. If you want to work at Stoss or OLIN and dedicate part of your soul to design, then go to the GSD.
To add to what Brian said, i'd just like to point out that you can look at it both ways. If GSD and UPenn expect you to pick up the more technical aspects when you eventually join an office, other colleges that don't focus too much on design skills will expect you to pick them up in office. The fact is, few design firms will hire an LA grad and immediately give them major design work, regardless of their portfolio. It'll take time and a gradual building up of faith in the individual's abilities before that happens; and so it should be because its one thing to design alone in college and quite another to get something built in the real world. I'm grappling with the same debt issues as you right now and one thing i've discovered is that if you're going to constantly worry about debt while you're in college then you'll not be able to do justice to the course itself.
when you say you " ended up turning down a full ride to LSU in order to accrue a hefty bill from the GSD" do you mean you were offered the 3 year programme at LSU? Just curious because I've been offered the 3 yr programme at LSU too and am currently wondering if i'll be able to justify 3 years of grad school to myself down the line. Costs aside, 3 years is a long time.
@Jaideep, well, it would be 3 years regardless for me, seeing as it's MLA 1. I actually think 3 is a perfect length in order to learn both design, plant ids, theory, history, etc. at all scales and situations.
Thanks, Jaideep! I agree, you can't worry about the debt while you are going through the program. I just want to understand the debt and the future debt management before I make a commitment.
i agree with you completely, 3 years is a fantastic opportunity to acquire all the skills required as a landscape architect and then some. If you're going to be doing something all your life, its important you go through the complete learning curve. In the end , though, its a personal decision as to how much time you're willing to invest in acquiring skills in the academic world versus the professional world because, and here's the beauty of it, you'll never know everything and will always keep learning for the rest of your life.
trust me i wasn't intending to discourage you from going to GSD! Its a great college and everyone who's anyone would give their right arm to go there. And in the end, as Brian said, you should just pick what suits you best in terms of curriculum and course offerings because, debt or no debt, you simply don't want to end up studying things you're not interested in. Recipe for disaster.