Help with MLA Decision (GSD-Penn-UC Berkeley)


I am currently deciding between Master of Landscape Architecture programs. I know this decision is ultimately up to me, but I am conflicted about these programs and hoping for any feedback or suggestions (decisions are due by next week).

About me: I have out of school for 9 years (so would be an older student). I have a non-design background but have working in local government in a planning-related role. I am passionate about open spaces and have an informal art background.

My interests: I am interested in how human-dominated landscapes might be re-oriented around natural systems (so landscape at a more “plannerly” or infrastructural level). I am also interested in how “wildness” (spaces where nature might operate with some autonomy) can be incorporated into landscapes. At this point, I think I would like to work at a private firm that carries out or designs for this type of work.

The programs I’m deciding between: I am deciding between the following MLA programs (all 3-year programs). I was lucky enough to receive money from all three, such that the amount I would pay would be comparable between all three (though UC Berkeley does have the option for teaching assistance positions that could cover tuition in some additional semesters):

  • Harvard GSD: I am attracted by the GSD’s legacy and reputation. It generally seems to be the highest-ranked MLA program with perhaps the farthest reach. When I look into firms behind landscape architecture projects that I particularly like, there seems to be a 50% chance that the founders or principals went through the GSD’s program. That said, the faculty does not seem as cohesive as other programs and there seems to be less of a singular vision or ideology within the department (which could be a good or bad thing, depending on how you look at it). Also, it’s unclear how strong the ecological education is, though I know they’re planning to bring on new courses in climate change.
  • Penn: I like the direction that Richard Weller seems to be taking the department. He presents a strong vision and I am very interested in his research (related to conflicts between biodiversity and urbanization). I am also attracted by the McHarg Center (though I wonder if they are placing took much stock in the Green New Deal). The chair and faculty seem to be the most cohesive and accessible of the programs I’m looking at, and it seems the students may be happier. That said, I am not sure that Penn’s program has the same reach as Harvard’s, and, despite the talk of ecological processes, it is not clear that I would gain much of a true understanding of those processes, vs. how to represent them graphically (which may be all that really matters). I know I’ll need to learn it, but the seemingly stronger emphasis on digital design software is less attractive to me.
  • UC Berkeley: Berkeley’s program was “my first love,” what compelled me to start applying for MLA programs. I like their much heavier integration of environmental sciences into the program. Students seem to gain an understanding of these systems in a way that may be the case at Penn or Harvard (at the same time, I know I’m training to be a designer, not an environmental scientist). I am also more attracted by the idea of engaging in sites in California than sites around Philadelphia or Boston (partly because of the diversity of landscapes in California, partly because I’m from the Bay Area, though have been living in Detroit for many years). That said, I’m not sure that UC Berkeley has the same reach as Penn or the GSD, and perhaps the design skills I’d pick up at those schools would be stronger.

Then throw COVID-19 into the mix (will classes even be starting in-person in the fall?) and things seem to get more complicated.

I’ve been told I “can’t go wrong” with any of these programs, but I obviously want to make the best decision. Again, I know it’s ultimately up to me, but any input from anyone here would be greatly appreciated!

Apr 8, 20 2:12 pm

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Hey KRob88!

For future reference, you'll likely get more responses if your post is a bit shorter. But thanks for posting! If I could offer some help, I think you have a good problem here. These are all great schools, and you're right, you can't really go wrong. In the end, you're going to have to make a decision and run with it.

You'll grow as a designer at any one of these programs and your success will ultimately be up to you. You might ask yourself if you'd want to have a future at any of these instutions. For example, you might be interested in the resources Harvard offers you as a student and alumni as opposed to the other schools. That could help inform your thinking beyond the program. 

Or maybe, you'd prefer to be connected to one of these schools more so than another. Are there any particular firms you'd like to work at after school? Maybe some people from the leadership teach at one of these school or attended one of them. These are all some additional factors that may help in your decision. 

Apr 10, 20 3:58 pm  · 

I was concerned it was a bit long... thank you for taking the time to read it and respond! I appreciate your suggestion to take a look the firms whose work I particularly like. I've done a little research in that regard, but I'll continue digging into it. I do think it will help me finalize the decision. It's also helpful to know that I can't really go wrong with any of these programs. Thanks again.

Apr 11, 20 12:20 pm  · 

Hi @KRobb88 I am in the same boat for MLA, with very similar insights! Any new leanings?

In response to some of your thoughts. I think GSD, Penn, and Berkeley are very equal in their weight and reach within landscape. Harvard has the edge as an overall recognizable name though. During the open house you could really sense the cohesion of the faculty at Penn which was exciting. Berkeley hasn't impressed me, there outreach and stories of students feeling isolated makes me nervous, but it is a renowned program with plenty of talented people teaching. Oh and on the digital focus, even if you're not interested in it, as an architect I know it is super important to have digital skills, and just being around that may be more exciting than you think now.

Anyways keep me updated on what you decide!

Apr 12, 20 11:16 am  · 

which one is the least expensive

go there

sorry for the glib response, but this is the most germane issue in your decision making process

Apr 13, 20 10:17 am  · 
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The GSD and Penn produce branded professionals for good or for bad (your mileage may vary). The work is interesting and can be highly theoretical. You'll also have access to some very well known east coast practitioners- in addition to theoreticians. In contrast Berkeley is a program, meaning it is not a deeply entrenched or branded as the other two.

All of them have some interesting people teaching. I think you'd be well served thinking about what interests you in landscape (ecology, politics, social justice, etc.) and at what level (on the ground or in the books). Then you'll have a lens to look at the programs to determine if the curriculum and faculty will meet your needs, and if you're willing/able to cough up the cash.

Apr 13, 20 1:34 pm  · 

Thanks everyone for your comments. I decided to go with the GSD. Taking into account cost of living, all were comparable, but the GSD turned out be the least expensive (granted that's not counting potential GSI opportunities at Berkeley, but those aren't guaranteed)

Apr 14, 20 5:56 pm  · 

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