Should You Become An Architect?

I speak with aspiring architects of all levels of experience. From high school students thinking about studying architecture to people that have been working in the profession for 10+ years. Interestingly their question is often the same. "Should I become an architect?" Let's break down several of the common reasons students or professionals get cold feet when it comes to an architecture career. 

If you are thinking about a new architecture job, I've created a mega-pack of free resources that includes architecture resumes, cover letters, and an extensive collection of application documents. Click for a free download:

I consider myself exclusively a non-fiction author but I am going to dip my toes into the fiction genre for this post. To help you visualize my points below I have created a fictional person that represents the typical candidate I help with their job search or architecture career goals. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental (unless this is you then it isn't a coincidence).

Meet Chris. Chris is 27 years old, lives in a major city, studied architecture, has been working at an architecture office for a few years and isn't licensed yet. Chris is debating whether or not to stay in the architecture profession. 

Let's imagine Chris and I are discussing his current architecture job in the coffee shop I am writing this post. It is a somewhat cloudy day in San Francisco, the coffee shop is about half full and the music is a little too loud for a Sunday morning. 

Brandon: "So how are things with your job?"

Chris: "Ok, I guess. Do you know that all of my friends from school that are working manual labor jobs, some requiring no degree are making more money than I am! They work less hours too! They don't have student loans! They don't have to take a bunch of tests and be called an intern for years!"

Brandon: "Are they architects?"

Chris: "No"

Brandon: "So do you want to be an architect?"

Chris: "Yes. No. I'm not sure."

I have had countless conversations just like this. 

This self-questioning has become so common that it has coined the term "quarter life crisis". This refers to someone just starting their career and questioning the choices they have made and wonder if they are even on the right path. This crossroad can be very frustrating for some.

The pressure to decide what you want to do for the rest of your life is daunting. One way to take the pressure off is to think of your career in terms of seasons. The first season might be architecture school and working in an architecture office. The next season might be similar or completely different. 

Many people feel that if they don't work in the field they studied they are somehow a failure. However, it is common to follow a completely different path than your degree of study. According to a November 2013 study by website CareerBuilder, about one-third (31 percent) of college-educated American workers age 35 and older are never employed within their degree field.

If you are in a similar situation here are several things to consider if you are on the fence with a career in architecture. 

1. Long hours

Architecture as a profession is well known for having long hours. The design process is never "finished" so it leads to a culture that rewards working late. All-nighters are the norm in architecture school which ultimately transfers to the workplace. That being said not all firms follow this level of rigor.

Depending on the firm, projects, clients and countless other variables the hours you will be expected to work vary greatly. Having worked at a "starchitect" office it was an unwritten rule that I was expected to be there from sunup to sundown including weekends if needed. Obviously not everyone wants to work this kind of grueling schedule so many firms stick to a standard 40 hour week with overtime if only absolutely necessary.

Don't be afraid to bring up the typical workday at your job interview. Many people are worried it will make them sound lazy or just looking to leave as soon as possible. Just be sure to phase it correctly and it will not come across in a negative way.

"What is a typical workweek look like for someone at my level?"

If you are open and honest with them in what you are looking for there will be less conflict down the road. Better to get everything out on the table sooner than later.

2. Salary versus the cost of living

The idea of a lifetime of meager salaries is definitely cause for concern. However, as I covered in "How To Earn A Six Figure Architecture Salary" it doesn't have to be that way. The majority of the concerns I receive are from aspiring architects just like my hypothetical example, who are just starting out on their careers. As a result they likely have student loans and are living in an expensive city. 

An interesting article in Forbes, Why Millennials Are About to Leave Cities in Droves, explains the future exodus of young professionals from the urban centers. 

"It’s about more than aging, though. Demographer William Frey has been arguing for years that millennials have become ‘stuck’ in cities by the 2008 downturn and the following slow recovery, with poor job prospects and declining wages making it harder for them to afford to buy homes in suburbia. (That’s compounded by higher student debt loads among millennials.)"

If you really love the city you are living in then great, by all means stick around. However if the quality of your life could be improved by merely making a move to a less expensive environment it is worth considering. 

3. A lot of school 

Yes, there is a lot of school involved in becoming an architect.

In addition, many people choose to pursue graduate degrees in architecture which extend the years in school to 7+. Unfortunately this amount of education does not immediately translate into a high salary. This can be quite discouraging for some, especially those who didn't do their research beforehand.

To minimize your time in school, in the U.S. be sure to select a NAAB accredited school and enroll in a professional degree program. This is a requirement in most states to become a licensed architect and is the fastest route to a higher income.

If you have already completed your degree, get on track to finish your experience requirements and become licensed.

4. A lot of tests and internship requirements

As mentioned above there are extensive experience and testing requirements to become an architect. For U.S. aspiring architects, visit the NCARB site for more information.

There isn't a shortcut to completing these prerequisites, however it is best if you can complete them as soon as possible. Life will get in the way as you get older and will make it more difficult to find the time to study.

Check the specific requirements of the region you are working and studying. For example, some jurisdictions allow you to record your experience while in school, cutting down the total length of time. This "double dipping" can speed up your career track. 

I also understand the process is expensive, especially if you are already living on a limited income. However, you have to invest in yourself. The return on your investment will be huge over your lifetime. Be sure to check with the firm you are working with to see if they offer any assistance. 

5. No design responsibilities

Another common complaint is that when "Chris" finished architecture school he didn't get any design work at his office. 

"In school I was able to focus on design almost 100% of the time, now I am just a CAD monkey"

As with everything we have discussed here, the experience you have in the early years of your career will vary greatly by where the firm(s) you choose to work. Depending on the size of the office and project typology you will be given more of less responsibility.

This being said, responsibility is not something that is just handed over. You have to earn it. This is done one step at a time. If you did well on laying out the reflected ceiling plan then you will be given a more challenging task, carrying more responsibility. Become a dependable and thoughtful member of the team and everyone will want you to take the lead. 

Remember that even the most mundane tasks in architecture have a design aspect. You many not be coming up with the concept design for that new tower but you can design the lobby, for example. Make it the best lobby your boss has ever seen and the more demanding tasks will come your way.

Thanks for reading. If you are considering a career move in architecture and would like to work with me, I offer detailed application editing and one-on-one coaching services. Learn more here >>.

See also my posts on:

5 Architecture Career Success Tips For Millennials

10 Tips To Get An Architect Salary Raise

25 Things To Consider When Choosing An Architecture Job Offer

Good luck!

Brandon Hubbard, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C

Have a suggestion for a future blog post? Please let me know in the comments below.