Master's Degree

Dear Management Doctor:

I’d like some advice on obtaining a Master’s Degree at this stage in my career. I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Planning from an accredited university and 19 years of planning experience. I’ve moved up the ladder using my abilities and am currently the Community Development Director for a suburban community of 25,000 persons, managing a staff of 10. I’ve been in my current position for 8 years and while I am not planning a job change in the near term, I would like to be prepared for the future. My wife has encouraged me to obtain a Master’s Degree in Planning, but I’ve been hesitant to pursue it. Other than the personal satisfaction, I’m not sure how much of a career benefit it would be. To broaden my knowledge base, I thought that a Master’s in Public Administration would be more useful, although I have no desire to be a City Manager. My other thought was Landscape Architecture, since the two fields are closely related and I enjoy gardening and outdoor spaces. What are your thoughts on this?


Joe Napolitano
McHenry, Illinois

Dear Joe:

This is a highly personal question and depends on your interests. Given your experience, I would not suggest a Master’s Degree in Planning. I do believe in life, continuing education and getting another degree can be part of that.

If you are interested in design, landscape architecture could be a good choice. But, I would only pursue this if you want to add a specialty to your background and/or just want to do it. If you are interested in organization and management issues and want to continue to be a Community Development Director, a Master’s in Public Administration or Organizational Development could be a good choice.

Another choice is just to find courses you are interested in and not worry about the degree. However, in some areas these may be hard to find unless you enroll in a degree program.

With 19 years experience, I don’t think adding a degree will necessarily make you more marketable. If I were interviewing you, I would be more interested in what kind of a person you are and what you did in your various jobs. However, a recent degree or enrollment in classes would be a positive indicator that you are a vital person who wants to continue to grow.

Jon Gardner, author of Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society* captured the spirit of the learning person with this admonition: “Don’t set out in life to be an interesting person; set out to be an interested person.” Gardner once said that one of his goals was to learn as much between ages 70 and 88 as he learned between birth and age 18. Learning people, of which Gardner is a prime example, learn until the day they die – not because learning will “get them somewhere,” but because they see learning as part of the reason for living. When asked for an economic justification for learning, they find the question as odd as if they’d been asked to give a financial rationale for breathing.

*from March 1999 Training Magazine

Learn, Learn, Learn

The Management Doctor

Reader Responses

I agree with Paul’s response to Joe Napolitano, but have some additional comments about going “back to school.” The motto of Walters State Community College, where I serve as Dean of Workforce Development, is “Invest in Yourself.” In today’s world, lifelong learning is a necessity as well as being personally and professionally rewarding. If you listen to futurists like Ed Barlow, we’re going to be working longer and having numerous careers. Our grandchildren will be working at jobs that are not even invented yet.

While many planners have secure employment, we deal with “dislocated workers,” every day. Very, very few dislocated workers expected to ever lose their jobs. Unfortunately, many have outdated skills that do not translate easily into the available jobs. Degrees, like any credential, can make the difference when job applicants have similar backgrounds and experiences.

Continuing education also can be a very rewarding personal growth experience and provide a whole new perspective on life and work. If you’re unsure of whether you want a degree or whether it would be useful, test the water by taking a single class. If you’re not able to fit a traditional program into your schedule, there are many options to sitting in a classroom three times a week.

By way of an advertisement, the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) provides training through area career centers in every state. If your employer does not provide reimbursement for training expenses, you may want to check your local career center, which can be located online at With recent changes in WIA performance goals, professionals are receiving training assistance in some WIA areas. Policies in specific local areas are governed by local boards, so your area may not support this type of training. Our local area has recently begun approving training for some advanced degree programs, such as the M.S. in Nursing.

I’ve walked this talk. When planning function was downsized at the large agency I worked, I chose early retirement instead of staying with my employer at another job. However, before I “retired,” I began a doctoral program by taking one course in higher education administration, a growth occupation, to see if I liked it and if I could hack it. Four years later, I had a Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration. When I went looking for a job after receiving my degree, I found that my planning background was a plus. After six years and four promotions, I’m sure of it.

Paul said it – “Learn, Learn, Learn.”

Good luck!

“Dr. Fellow” Nancy Brown

I agree that a MPA would be the more useful degree. I'm surprised that you (of all people!) didn't also note that an AICP certificate might be just as useful as a MCP.

Katherine Hess
City of Davis, CA

I received my Master's Degree in Public Administration 30 years ago, without the intent of working as a city manager. I’ve always worked as a professional planner in the public arena – I think it’s a misnomer that MPAs only work as city administrators. The MPA has assisted me in better understanding the workings of government and how the planning department, of which I have been a director and senior administrator, interacts with the rest of the local government services provided in my area. I suspect the person inquiring about this has the skills to be a planner and guide the department for which he is responsible; an MPA might broaden that aspect of his job where the interaction of his department is important. As one moves up the administration ladder, one becomes more of a generalist. Your advice about being a constantly learning person is right-on!

Mike Harper
Washoe County, NV

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