What Happens After School?

Emerging Designers Transitioning from School to Work

By Bea Spolidoro, AIA Posted on March 19, 2018

Recently, the Carnegie Mellon University’s AIAS chapter invited the Young Architects Forum to discuss ‘the aftermath’ of studying architecture. What happens once University is over? Should you accept your first offer or keep searching for the perfect job? What about teaching and researching? Eight panelists, with different backgrounds and work experiences, gave thoughtful answers to the good questions the students asked.

Pursuing licensure is a fundamental step for people wanting to practice architecture. Getting registered involves studying with dedication, patience in gaining AXP hours, and a substantial budget. Students that find themselves unsure about what to do after earning their degree in architecture might postpone becoming licensed until they feel sure about their choice. After all, almost every architecture school offers more than traditional architecture, and such a rich didactic portfolio shows many possible routes through design, but usually, no “GPS” to navigate them.

Finding a job that involves creativity and learning of new skills is the priority of every student. This can easily become a chicken and egg situation: it is easier to get better opportunities if you are a licensed architect, but having an architecture license doesn’t automatically give you a good job. Moreover, not every student wants to become an architect in the traditional way. Thus, where to start?

Many questions from the students were about finding a job in a traditional firm and sending successful portfolios and resumes. Then, the audience was interested in hearing how long to wait for a response from potential employers, and how to address your salary. In order to obtain good answers, many panelists recommended finding a mentor in the city where one wants to live and work.

Mentors are a precious resource for emerging professionals. To find one, students should network, attend professional events, and reach out to people they find interesting. Another way to find a mentor, successfully tested by many of the panelists, is to connect with alumni from the same school one attended. Everybody has been helped before and the majority of people are willing to give back to future generations. Students shouldn’t be afraid to look for mentors. The goal is to have one at every stage of the professional life: it can be the same person, but it is okay to keep looking for more points of view.

The longest portion of the discussion was concerned with how to negotiate a decent salary, without “getting stuck” in boring tasks. Students were also concerned with the risk of accepting a job that doesn’t allow professional growth. Their question started a thoughtful conversation on typical architecture tasks perceived as boring. Scrambling with building codes, permits and accessibility guidelines were the most mentioned, but every architect has to deal with such constraints. A good architect is able to integrate good design while following the applicable laws and regulations. Similar situations happen in every profession, proving the rule that no job is completely free of constraints. The task is to understand what you really want to do with your life and not to give up in front of the first difficulties, or boring duties.

In addition, it is also important to keep a critical point of view, never forgetting why and for whom one is ultimately working. Architects are serving not only their employer but also society at large.

Lastly, it is important to learn from every task one has to perform, even when it is not very attractive. Like one panelist said, every experience is useful when you work in architecture.

Many of the panelists spoke about their personal experiences changing paths along the way, coming back to old ones or breaking new ground. Some spoke about the challenges of starting their own firm with no business skills. Others touched on the difficulties of staying fresh over time, and the advantages of both teaching and working at the same time. Once more, role models are a fundamental resource for every architect: it is important to look at who is doing a good job and how they do it. Emerging professionals should first honestly focus on what they like to do, then searching for appropriate models to follow.

Setting career goals and finding a strategy to achieve those are the next steps. Studying to become a registered architect is a smart move for young designers since the AREs expose candidates to the full range of architecture tasks. This might help in selecting one’s interests and professional inclination. Focusing on only one aspect of the profession can be a solution for people who get overwhelmed by too many possibilities. For others, the opposite could be true: by having the full range of possibilities under their eyes, they can even feel more efficient by tackling tasks in an organized sequence.

Students in the audience came away with a new understanding that they should be ready to explore the profession with no fear. They should also rely on the many resources available online and in the real world. Despite they might feel alone in making career decisions, there is actually a great community ready to help. Professional organizations, mentors in local firms, or career development groups are great places to ask work-related questions. The NCARB, for example, offers precious professional resources, plus volunteering and networking opportunities where one can meet mentors.

There is indeed life after architecture school and, by getting active and curious about the world, it can be truly exciting!


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