What’s important? Choosing an MLA program

Landscape Architecture for Landscape Architects Forums EDUCATION What’s important? Choosing an MLA program

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    Diana Harbour

    Hi, I’m new to this site. I’m a sculptor with a background interning at a design firm, and I’m preparing to apply to graduate schools for my first professional MLA. I find myself wondering how far the strengths in a portfolio will take me once I graduate, versus how much the reputation of the graduate program itself will factor into a hiring decision. Does the prestige of a program really count when hiring a landscape architect? It seems reasonable to have brand recognition as a part of my decision making process.

    I was intrigued by the program description at University of Oregon. I like the concept of balancing professionalism with liberal arts, and I am especially intrigued by the focus on sustainable design and interdisciplinary studies. However, I don’t find anything convincing or compelling about the reputation of the school. Should I be worried? Other schools I’m considering: RISD, VCU, Cal Poly.

    My artistic nature attracts me the schools that focus on design theory, but perhaps what I need is to ensure I have a program that will teach me the technical skills so that I can come out of school ready to prepare construction documents?

    If you have advice, I’d like help organizing an outline of whats important to consider in an MLA I program, as well as what the biggest challenges are for new graduates.

    Thank you.

    Mike Metevier

    The way the school descrips itself is not relevent.  They all say they are great.  Harvard is best, that will get ou noticed.  Your portfolio is/will be VERY inprotant.  Also what experience you have is a VERY important.  I dont know about the school in oregon, it may be great, just dont go by what they say about their own school.  They are running a business and want your money.  Ask those who went there and see what they say.  I went to Michigan State University and it was a great school.  I think cal poly might be better then oregon and least that is what i have heard.  I dont know the others that you have listed.   Good luck and expect to be unemployed if all you have is a Landscape architecture degree. 

    Jason T. Radice

    The name can carry a lot of weight and open a lot of doors for you. Obviously, the older more established schools have LOTS of alums in positions of power that are always happy to have another alum on board, and at times seek them out. Also, there are very dicernable differences in programs. All accredited colleges offer a fairly universal set of “exploratory studios” that give you a broad education and expose you to a possible career track, but schools obviously have specialties, and you can find those out by looking at the various degree tracks offered (hint: look at the senior studio offerings), and by what the professor’s research topics are. Some schools are even known for a particular professor or two who is an authority on a particular topic in landscape architecture.


    It depends entirely what you want to do when you get out. What kind of place are you looking to work (public/private: high design/environmental/residential/planning)? What region do you want to work in? Schools in the region you want to go to will often have specialized courses or degree tracks featuring local ecology and plant materials that may not transfer well to a different region of the country. And if you are aiming to live in a particular area, the college close to it will have more alumni than a school across the country would. You also need to be assured that the courses you want will be offered while you are there and lne up with your schedule to take them. Cost is another HUGE factor. Your concerns about a design school vs. a technical school is important, but know that most of that education in detailing and CDs is done once you start actually working somewhere. How much engineering you want to do is also important. I went to a design school, yet I am very engineering minded, so it was a challenge, but it made me a better designer. As a designer already, you may want to seek a more technical school.


    Good luck.   

    Diana Harbour

    I understand that the description is just a selling point, Mike, but it does give an idea of their angle. The idea would be to graduate with more than just an MLA – to also have some experience working on public projects. Can you tell me about your experience at Michigan State? I have heard a few things but would like to know more from someone who went there. (I live in Indiana, fyi)

    Diana Harbour

    Jason, Thanks for taking the time to elaborate on this. Your response is very helpful, especially in pushing me to consider in which sector and region I’d like to work. I figured it would be important to consider the program in regards to environmental/residential/etc, but I hadn’t thought about how the region of my study and hopeful region of work would impact my job prospects.

    I know that much learning happens on the job in regards to detailing and CDs, but I also read that the lack of this knowledge can be an obstacle to even getting your foot in the door. I will keep this in mind as I search through the programs.

    Tosh K

    It may help to look up firms that you’d like to work at and see where their staff graduated from or teach at.  Many practitioners hire out of programs they have close ties with: their alma mater, where they teach, or where their collaborators are at.  While the reputation of a school is important, it’s also important to note that many firms value the culture of the school as well (some schools are known for breeding competitiveness, others academic research, and others are more interdisciplinary; a lot of firms in my area like to recruit from particular schools with good reputations that are not in our region).

    Things I would recommend:

    1. Look up the upper level studios to see what range of focus they offer.

    2. See what faculty members are practitioners in areas you’d like to focus on.

    3. Ask practitioners about their impressions of a program (maybe get informational interview/tours of local offices during your campus visits).

    4. Ask recent alumni (schools should be willing to provide contacts) about finding work/how prepared they felt looking for work and starting work.

    5. Cost – can you afford it? how much in loans? this can be influence your choice of employment; less debt gives you more options.

    6. Visit studios at various schools – studio culture is very different from school to school (and even within schools by year).  You’re going to be spending almost all day every day with your peers for the years you’re in school, it’s vital that you enjoy your environment, faculty and peers.

    7. As with anything in life, get multiple opinions.

    Things are picking up, but having a good network to take advantage of when you graduate is critical.  Go to lectures, talk to the lecturers (lots of schools offer lunch/coffee/dinner opportunities with them), get to know guest critics, meet local practitioners and maintain contact with them – you never know when you’ll be talking to them again.

    Eli Paddle

    The reputation of the school is important to an extent…but what some perceive as a good school can be turn off to others.  In some cases programs built their reputation in the past and are no longer as good as they once were.  This is a time of great turn over in academia with many faculty retiring or about to retire and consequently programs are changing dramatically.  Some programs were built around the strengths of one or two great profs who are no longer there.  New programs are building strength around new faculty.  The focus of the program is also important…if you want to do ecological work and you chose an urban design oriented program you may be in for a frustrating ride.  Some programs are very artsy while others are very science oriented. 

    In deciding where to do an MLA, the major focus is research therefore I think finding faculty whose research interests you, is current and with whom you would like to work with (find out if they can take you on as a student) is most important.  Look at their recent publications, what funding they have recieved recently and the work of the students they have advised.  Most schools list this info for their faculty. 

    I think in most cases finding an advisor who is mid-career is the safest route…they are still enthusiastic but also know who to get a student through their thesis.  Talk to students current and past, talk to profs and do some research regarding who you may want to work with.  Also beware of sabbaticals…ask whether your dream advisor is planning on taking sabbatical or has recently.  They often don’t offer this info up and it can cost you a year of your studies…


    I have worked with some talented, successful people from Oregon. In my opinion, its not the program that will make you marketable upon graduation, but your personal skill set and drive.

    About the ony two schools that might get you a job because of their reputation are Penn and Harvard, but I’ve worked with just as many talented people from both of those schools as I have from lots of different ‘run of the mill’ state schools. This is a profession that demands a high degree of passion and ambition to be successful. Do your homework as to what the average LA does on a daily basis and whether you think you can have a signisicant contribution to the practice or are there other more esoteric motivations driving you?


    And those firms may just continue to fade into insignificance. The good ole boy club is so 1992..There are lots of progressive practices out there working to re-shape and re-invigorate the profession little by little, state grad, by state grad 😉 let the big boys keep hiring smiling faces..

    Jason T. Radice

    Many of the OLDEST and BEST programs ARE state schools (I know, I went to one). I was stating that younger and starter programs have fewer alums high up in the work force and may not have the best reputation, or any reputation for that matter…deserved or not. It is certainly not the “old boys” network anymore. By the prospective employer hiring a fellow alumnus, they are often dealing with a known commodity in the applicant with an understanding of the level and quality of education through their shared experience. By viewing that applicant’s student work, they can immediately tell the quality of the applicant as there is an additional metric when the applicant is compared to the quality of education at the college. That is an unknown metric for an applicant who went to a school unfamiliar to the prospective employer. For instance, is the student a standout at a marginal program, or a marginal student in an excellent program? It is not an immediate disqualifier, but simply another metric in the hiring process. After you’ve been through enough portfolios or jury crits, you can often tell the quality of the student, and the quality of the school once you have familiarity with it.

    That is why I also mentioned regionality. You might find gaining employment difficult in the environmental sector if you want to work in Arizona if you went to school in the northeast, being that firms in the southwest are looking for someone already educated on the local climate, and have local colleges that teach just that. And the firms in the southwest generally know the characteristics of the schools in the region very well. If you are going for straight design or something a bit more universal, the regionality becomes less important, although in this job market, I’ve seen “local applicants only” printed in the posting far too many times for my preference.    

    CJ Cho

    This is a very good question to ask. I’m glad you took the initiative to find a place to ask it. I didn’t know about these websites until after I started my MLA. 

    After going to school for a while, I think I would have liked to know the following:

    – Does the program require you to do a thesis in order to graduate? A thesis can be a semester or a year long project. Or can you take studios all three years? You can go in depth on one topic for a thesis but if you would rather do many shorter different projects, you would pick studio.

    – Faculty backgrounds. This ties in with thesis a bit. Is there someone whose research or built work you are interested in? Chances are the studios and classes taught will be around the professor’s interests.

    – Different areas of the US. If you are interested in arid landscapes, going to an area where it is like that would help a lot or if interested in urban areas, picking a program in urban areas would have more opportunities in urban areas. 

    – If you can talk to current students (via skype or email). Do they seem happy there? What’s the average class size for each graduating class? Retention rate?

    – What part of the college or university is the landscape architecture department located in? Is it in the College of Agriculture or College of Design or College of Natural Resources? Sometimes that shows how the program is more aligned with. Natural Resources probably is a bit more technical or nature oriented than probably an urban focus. 

    I hope you find a program you like. If I think of anything else, I’ll write more later.

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