What is a scholar-practitioner in urban planning? And what does it take to become one? Essentially, scholar-practitioners bridge the gap between academia and the real world, combining scholarly research with practical application of theories and knowledge to solve complex problems in our profession. Two obvious ways for planners to become scholar-practitioners are to continue our formal education/training, and share our knowledge and ideas with others. It has now been over ten years since I decided to return to school to pursue a professional doctorate in urban planning. I must say that it was actually a rather difficult decision because enrolling in the degree program required substantial investment in time and money. What also made it challenging was that I did not and do not need a doctorate degree to advance or further my career as a planner because a master’s degree is the typical educational requirement for planning positions. So why did I do it? The best explanation I can offer is that I simply love to learn and in retrospect, I would say that I was driven in large part by a desire to become a scholar-practitioner.
What is a Scholar-Practitioner?
Within the context of planning, is a scholar-practitioner just a super plannerd? Well, if we define a plannerd simply as someone who is passionate about all things planning-related, then I would have to say that a scholar-practitioner is actually more than that. This is because the latter not only has the passion, s/he also actively seeks to address planning problems by applying theories and knowledge gained through academia. Walden University, an institution that focuses on serving the higher education needs of adult learners via online degrees, outlines the following qualities of scholar-practitioners which I wholeheartedly agree with:
- Are passionate lifelong learners who wish to gain an intimate understanding of their specialty and their profession.
- Have a deep curiosity, drive, and commitment to solve pressing problems in their field.
- Desire to improve the human condition. They are inspired by core values such as social justice, equity, or environmental sustainability.
- Share their knowledge and original ideas with others through open dialogue, publishing their work, and presenting at academic and professional events.
- Are constantly evolving in their careers as they research, learn, teach, and grow.
Doctor of Policy, Planning, and Development
I previously wrote an article about the University of Southern California (USC)’s Doctor of Policy, Planning, and Development (DPPD) program, a professional doctorate degree that I earned in 2011. I chose to spotlight the program because it was at risk of being eliminated back in 2013. By way of background, the DPPD is unique in that it prepares professionals for leadership in planning and development positions in public agencies, private firms, and nonprofit organizations. Specifically, the DPPD offers an opportunity for working individuals like me to expand and deepen our professional abilities and achievements without leaving our jobs. The program had a profound impact on me and I would have been very disappointed had it been discontinued. To its credit, the USC Price School of Public Policy ultimately relaunched the program in the fall of 2016 after undergoing a review process that included interviews and focus groups with the current students, surveys of alumni, meetings with students and leadership of similar programs at other universities and faculty committees to revise and update the program. While few people may have heard of DPPD or know what the acronym stands for, I am immensely proud to be a holder of the degree and know that I am a better person and planner today because of my participation in the program.
Professional Doctorate vs. PhD
When people find out that I have a doctorate degree, they automatically assume that I have a PhD or a doctor of philosophy. Not wanting to misrepresent my credentials, my instinctive reaction is to explain and clarify that I have a professional doctorate, not a PhD. However, I have discovered that most folks do not really care nor have the time to fully understand the differences between the two types of degrees. Generally speaking, those with PhDs typically pursue careers in academia, i.e. becoming full-time professors or researchers, while professional doctorates work in non-academic settings, seeking to apply existing theories and knowledge to solve real world problems. (There are, of course, some exceptions. For example, I have friends who are working planners AND hold PhDs.) Dr. Deborah Natoli, the director of USC’s professional doctorate program, explains that in contrast to PhD programs which prepare students for university tenure-track positions, “our DPPD degree primarily focuses on bridging the theory-practice divide and sends senior managers in public, private and nonprofit sectors back into the world with deeper knowledge and skills for problem-solving to be more effective in their jobs and with stakeholders in the community” (see this article). I also suggest reviewing the explanations of differences between professional doctorates and PhDs offered by Capella University and Walden University.
What Programs are Out There?
Does one need a PhD or professional doctorate to become a scholar-practitioner? No, not necessarily. But I do think that being in a formal education program at a research university certainly helps one to engage with the academic world. For example, as a student and a graduate of the DPPD program at USC, I had and still have access to scholarly work online and in libraries as well as opportunities to interact and learn from renowned professors and researchers. While there are wonderful resources covering master’s and PhD programs in urban planning like Planetizen’s Guide to Graduate Urban Planning Programs, there is limited information about professional doctorate programs. The reason for this is simple: there are very few such programs and USC’s DPPD is definitely very unique. Other than the DPPD, the only other program I was able to identify in the Los Angeles area is the University of La Verne’s Doctor of Public Administration (DPA). This program prepares students to assume vital roles as contributors to the public and service sectors, and offers a curriculum consisting of management courses that stress creativity, responsible leadership, values, and the essential abilities to anticipate, interpret, and manage change in the workplace of today and tomorrow. For those who are not in Southern California or prefer online learning, you may consider DPA programs offered by universities like Walden, Capella, or California Baptist University.
As I learned years ago, deciding whether to further one’s formal education can be very difficult, especially when sacrifices, and/or significant time and financial resources are required. It is also a highly personal decision that involves one considering and weighing a variety of factors. Regardless of whether you decide to pursue a master’s, PhD, or professional doctorate in planning, public administration or a related field, I want to encourage you to always be humble, never stop learning, and continue sharing your knowledge and experience. As renown physicist Albert Einstein once said, “once you stop learning, you start dying.” It is only through continuous learning and sharing that we may become scholar-practitioners who are able to effectively connect academia and the real world, and apply theories and knowledge to solve complex planning problems.
Photos: Photo of dissertation by author. Screenshot of USC DPPD program website.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone.