Megan O'Hara

Student spotlight details

The opportunity to continue professional work while exploring the critical urban issues of today attracted Megan to the MSc

‘Prior to taking the MSc in Sustainable Urban Development, I worked at Urban Design Associates in Pittsburgh and John Thompson & Partners in London as an urban designer for four years. I had been involved in international urban development projects in the US, UK, India, Canada, and Russia. My particular interests centered around affordable housing, strategic growth, and transit-oriented development.

‘I was attracted to the MSc because it provided me with a unique opportunity to continue pursuing my professional work, which I am very passionate about, while providing an outlet for critical analysis of the urban issues facing cities today. The ability to work during the MSc was an attractive option because it not only made pursuing an advanced degree financially feasible, but also provided an invigorating balance between practice and theory.

‘I found lectures on economic and planning theory to be stimulating as I learned theoretical constructs for conditions I was observing in practice. I found myself using my research to delve into these relationships deeper, eventually narrowing on the impacts to equity in the built environment. The Oxford approach is one that may feel removed at times, but it encourages the student to explore, think, and formulate original arguments. I was being challenged to write and research in a way that was very different from my design-based architecture and urban design education. It was both engaging and challenging.

‘I also enjoyed the class dynamic. There was an enormous wealth of experience in urban development between the directors, the lecturers, and our 14-student cohort. It was a fascinating process to debate differences in theoretical approaches. Being the first cohort in the program, we were able to evolve with the curriculum.

‘At the onset, I approached the course as a way to bolster my professional work. I expected to approach urban issues from a design perspective, as I had always done. By the midpoint of the course, I found theoretical constructs to challenge many of the deeply held assumptions in the development profession and to bring alternative perspectives to a conversation. The course deepened my sophistication in approaching urban and social geography issues from grounded economic theory.

‘I was also surprised that I found the process of learning academic research methodology in this respected, rigorous environment to be enjoyable. During the dissertation process, I faced tasks and challenges daily that were new learning experiences. I was thankful to have the guidance of lecturers, directors, and my supervisor to provide a solid framework.

‘I am currently a project manager at Urban Design Associates in Pittsburgh. In the past few years, I have taken on more responsibility for the outcome of projects and the mission that motivates myself and others to do this type of work. I am responsible for projects ranging from complicated revitalization plans for low-income neighborhoods, to municipality-lead transit-oriented development projects, to regional growth proposals. Last month, I led a multidisciplinary team in Moscow to produce a proposal for a sustainable centre for the new Moscow, an expansion that will provide new housing, services, and employment for a region that has complicated growth pressures.

'I feel I’m now able to approach my work from strong theoretical framework. I’m also better equipped to separate informed, reliable sources from popular literature and theories about cities and urban development. In such a critical and evolving profession, we can’t stop challenging and analyzing these assumptions. I continue to pursue speaking and lecturing opportunities and hope to remain engaged with academia throughout my career.

‘I would strongly encourage others to explore studying through the Department for Continuing Education. I was skeptical of the level of rigor and looking back, I gained more than I could have anticipated. Oxford’s value is in opening doors to deep knowledge and then providing opportunities for the student to pursue topics in research. The Department courses are also designed to bring classes together from diverse international perspectives, making the conversation, learning possibilities, and relationships that much more meaningful.

‘Studying as a working professional, time management was certainly a challenge. Since our class was scattered around the globe and there were daily pressures diverting my attention from studying, including travel and intensive week-long working sessions with clients, I found it difficult to pace myself. My classmates and I eventually developed methods for keeping in touch between modules that became critical during the dissertation process. We continue to stay in touch years later, and I rely on their perspectives and reactions.'

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