Steph Nelson, a City + Regional Planning graduate from the University of Pennsylvania, School of Design, works with the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments in Monterey, CA.  Located an hour and a half south of San Francisco, Steph talks about accepting a fabulous job in Transportation and Regional Planning while  balancing work with her other life interests.

“Career Focus” is a series of interviews with young professionals exploring different professions and their journey from academia into the working world. Previous interviews have covered Project Management at BACRSports Medicine, and Web Development and Technology Consulting.

Looking North at Pleasure Poin

(Santa Cruz image from Surfing Cal)

What do you do? What is your title and area of profession?

I am an Associate Planner with the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments, the Metropolitan Planning Organization and Council of Governments serving Santa Cruz, San Benito and Monterey Counties, just south of the SF Bay Area.

My focus is on land use and transportation planning at the regional level within the context of SB 375. I have a variety of responsibilities including modeling, GIS work and design work as well as quantitative analysis, project management and grant writing. We are a small agency, so I generally have a wide variety of tasks and projects that I’m involved in.

What is your education and background? What was your area of specialty at school, and how did that take shape over the year(s)?

I have master’s degrees in Government & Political Science as well as City & Regional Planning, the latter earned in 2009 at the University of Pennsylvania. I also have experience in political organizing and non-profit project management.

Initially I was interested in transportation planning. The more I learned about trends in the field, however, the more I became interested in the nexus between land use and transportation planning.   In grad school, I also became increasingly interested in urban design. Ultimately, I sought to weave together a land use, transportation and urban design focus in my program.

Did you do any advanced training or graduate work to prepare yourself for this field? If you went to graduate school, how did you make that decision and what was the transition between undergrad and grad. Did you take time off between schooling?

I remember the transition from undergrad to grad as being particularly satisfying. In the words of one of my political science professors, “As undergraduates, instructors assume you don’t know what you are talking about until you prove yourselves. As graduate students, instructors assume you do know what you are talking about.” I loved the transition into a peer relationship with my instructors, many of whom had been my instructors during undergrad.

After graduating from school the first time around, I worked as a political organizer for four years with a particular focus on education policy. During this time I began exploring the field of city planning. However, I was nervous about making a career change – and worried that I would be entering a new field at an entry level all over again. I wondered if my previous professional experience would be taken into consideration.

How did you decide to get into this field? Is there a pivotal moment during school (undergraduate or graduate studies), during an internship, or during a conversation with someone that led you to this area of work?

I don’t think there was a “silver bullet” kind of moment for me. Rather, there were a series of observations I made that both drew me into the field and made me apprehensive. I was apprehensive because, as a political organizer, my values pivoted around socio-economic and racial justice. The field of planning tends to pivot around a different set of values that could be described as more about efficiency of systems, design of the built environment and environmental sustainability.   While these value systems are certainly not mutually exclusive, they are distinct from one another.  However, the more I’ve learned about the field of planning and urban design, the more I realize that it is an excellent fit for my interests, skills and personality, and am thrilled with my career choice.

(Image from Kite Aerial Photography)

In this economy, how has your job search been? What are the hardest or most unexpected aspects to the job-search? Do you have any recommendations to people looking for employment?

I graduated in the Spring of 2009 – definitely an unnerving time to be searching for a job. My approach was to apply broadly with long term goals in mind. I was willing to move to a number of places depending on the job offer. Ideally, I wanted to find the perfect job in the perfect place – a land use, transportation and urban design position in SF.  The offer I took was a land use/transportation/urban design position near SF, and I hit it off with my interviewers, so I accepted the job.

Think about your long term goals but also be willing to make compromises in the short term – as long as you are moving in the direction you want to go in. Gaining experience doing what you want to do, even if it’s not in the place you want to be (the city or the firm) can be a good decision.

Describe your typical daily schedule: what type of activities are you involved in, how many people do you work with, do you travel a lot, how many hours do you put in, are you your own boss, are you reporting to others, who manages your time?

My typical activities may include creating info-graphics for the Blueprint, prepping TransCad model files for a scenario model run, doing some GIS analyses, or working on a project timeline for our Sustainable Communities Strategy.

Our planning staff consists of six people – a Principal Planner, a Senior Transportation Modeler, an Associate Planner and three Planners. We will soon be hiring a GIS Coordinator who will also be a part of our team. We have a couple of other departments as well for a total of 15 or so staff members.

(Image from a recent report by AMBAG)

What are the top 3 things you like or enjoy about your job?

That I get to do both quantitative work and design work, the people I work with, and that I can sit on the beach and eat my lunch.

What are the 3 “lows” of your job – what do you like the least about what you do?

There only two of these, really.

The location, regionally. My personal life roots me in SF, but my office is in Marina (about 2 hours South of SF). I actually live half time in SF and half time in Santa Cruz as a compromise.

Because we have such a new roster of staff (most people at our agency have only been there for several years or less), we are working out some growing pains in terms of roles and responsibilities. As such, we have a pretty fluid work environment which structurally can be challenging to function in at times. It’s a plus in other ways, though, because there are a lot of opportunities to take initiative and work on some exciting projects.

Describe the commute and the amount of time you spend traveling for work (and life):

I drive from my home in SF to my office in Marina on Monday mornings and back on Thursday after work. It’s about an hour and 45 minutes one way.  Monday through Wednesday I commute to my place in Capitola (adjacent to Santa Cruz), which is about a 30 minute drive from my office. Fortunately the drive is gorgeous on both accounts and I can generally get lost in good music along the way.

Let’s talk about transitioning from college to professional work – strategies for success.  When thinking about the transition from Academic/College to Professional/Work life, what took the most getting used to? What strategies did you use to adjust to the differences?

By far, the lack of constant feedback was the most difficult challenge. As a student, everything you produce gets reviewed and graded. That’s what you are paying for–constant attention. As an employee, you may get a review once every 6 months or even once a year. I remember it being very challenging when I first entered the workforce because when I didn’t hear anything from my supervisor I assumed it meant something negative. It required me to become a bit more self-sufficient in evaluating my own work and learning how and when to ask for feedback.

When did you actively begin job searching (while in school or afterwards)? How long did it take to find a job? Did you have a specific direction or area of focus, or did you have a broad search with many possibilities?

I graduated in May of 2009, and began applying in late April shortly before graduation. I was offered and took my current job in June of 2009. I knew to start my job search with a broader approach this time and to not be so quick to dismiss opportunities if they didn’t meet all of my criteria. I figured that I’d rather be working full time moving toward long term goals rather than waiting for the perfect job to come along while not developing my job skills.

How do you define success in the workplace?

Defining success tends to be project specific for me. Most recently, I defined success by the quality of the Blueprint plan I was just working on over the course of the last year and a half.  In terms of modeling or GIS work, if the analytical results provide answers to key questions or help ask even more important questions, I would say that is a success.

For the grants I’ve worked on, success is marked by whether and how much we are awarded. In terms of project management, if we meet deadlines with a quality deliverable, I consider that a success. And if I can tell that my colleagues and superiors respect my work, I take that as a sign of all around success in the work place.


What does “work-life balance” mean to you, and how do you maintain a work-life balance?

I think that having a work-life balance entails a day-to-day and week-to-week balance as well as a “life decision” balance.

For me, I think this means prioritizing relationships over career moves when it makes sense to do so (but never if it will create resentment).

I also have creative pursuits that drive my life decisions. In fact, one of the reasons that city planning was a field of interest to me was that I saw it leading to a career in this region (or the Pacific northwest), which boasts a music scene that I’ve been itching to work my way into.

What kind of music do you do?

Currently I’m playing synth in a new project called Pony Pony Pony! You can find us on facebook or myspace.  Someone described us as Bauhaus with a beat, which I find to be amusing not because of an interest in the band Bauhaus necessarily but because I’ve recently taken a particular interest in the Bauhaus movement.

How does the music scene (and having outside of work interests) make you a better employee?

This is a great question! I wish more people asked this one. Creating music with other people requires me to be able to take creative risks, to put my ideas out there and be willing to hear feedback; to think on the spot and to provide both positive and critical feedback to my band-mates. Also, for a project to be successful, each person has to not only manage their own time and expectations but also communicate expectations to each other and hold each other accountable.

What advice do you have for recent college grads and new employees? Any words of encouragement or advice to offer?

Expect to be surprised by your experiences in the workplace.


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