I always say I’ve known I wanted to be an architect since the seventh grade, but that doesn’t mean I knew what it meant to be an architect at that time. That didn’t come until much, much later. Even architecture school doesn’t truly prepare one for the path of professional “architect”. It tends to makes sense that, even upon completion of a degree in architecture, many graduates find themselves working outside the field of of architecture eventually (or even immediately).
In my own graduating class of about 25, I estimate that at least one third of said graduates are endeavoring in professions outside of architecture. And of the eight or more “outsiders” I count, gender really has nothing to do with it. And by that I mean: no, it isn’t all the females from our class that dropped out of professional life to raise children. Quite the contrary, actually; as more women from my class are still in architecture and a higher percentage of men have left it.
So where do these people go and why did they leave? Do they do something related to architecture or completely unrelated?
When asked if they intended to seek employment outside of the profession immediately following college, most responded that they first sought traditional work for architectural graduates. Only one intended to pursue work in a related field (architectural preservation). Many found traditional work. Only one person I polled fell into another profession while looking for traditional work; the video gaming industry. In fact when he started in the gaming job, five of the six people on his team were either architecture school graduates or licensed architects.
Only one of the respondents is currently a licensed architect. Having worked for a division of the federal government for several years as their architect, he decided to actually join them as a project manager. As a result, he left the private sector to work for this government agency, running their construction projects as an Owner’s representative.
Another former coworker also got a job with a government agency in a field directly related to architecture. But when it became clear that a transfer from his current city was eminent, he found work in another department in graphics and web design in order to stay put.
My friend Melissa runs a business creating handmade jewelry and other objects made from industrial and recycled materials, see: StubbornStiles. She worked in architectural offices for about ten years before making that move. And if there was anyone I would have expected to do something outside of architecture, it was Mel. Not to say she wasn’t talented and couldn’t have excelled in an office, but I expected her, more than anyone else I knew from college, to create her own professional path. I visited her once in San Francisco many years ago where she was working in a firm, and it was very strange for me to see her step out of the office, dressed the part in every way. What she does now totally fits her. (She was the one with change of major slip at her desk in college). She now works with her super cool and talented family in Portland, Oregon.
My wife worked for a very small architectural firm doing mostly residential work for a short time, but left to work for a nationally known home building company. She liked the residential aspect of the work and she needed to pay off student loans, and this job paid better. She went on to move to where I was living in Lancaster, PA (and we still live there today) and worked for two different regional home builders. She went part time after our first child and eventually quite all together after our second. She never fully intended to leave the work force, and continued to freelance drafting work. Eventually, an opportunity came to her through one of her freelance clients to become what is termed the Transition Specialist for a very large retirement community. She meets with clients who will be moving into the retirement community, measures their furnishings that will be going with them, and lays out the furniture plan for them in their new apartment plan. She also provides tips for selling the home they are leaving.
I know or know of others that have gone into designing and building furniture, culinary and catering endeavors, and even a needlework shop and business. It is clear that all of these changes in profession have one thing in common: there is still an aspect of design and/or art relating to them all. When asked how their architectural education benefited them in their non-traditional professional field, the answer returned was unanimous from the focus group: the ability to problem solve. It is a different kind of problem solving than the engineer or mathematician. The problems presented to architects and even to students in school are open-ended and never only have one answer. We are taught to think in terms of options. The solution that is best for Client A is almost certainly not the best solution for Client B.
The architect must work between what the client thinks they need, what the codes require and what the engineers need to do. I have always thought that being an architect requires, almost above all else, the ability to compromise. The best solutions can answer questions that weren’t even asked. Architecture school teaches creative thinking to spatial problems as well as time management skills. It also teaches how to take criticism. Does it ever…
Most of the people in my limited survey also know others in their fields who studied architecture or were architects. The last couple of decades have seen a few deep recessions. Architecture was one of those majors everyone was warned against very recently, see: Degrees to Avoid. Getting a job in architecture has been difficult at several times over the course of the last 20 years, which can influence some to abandon the traditional route and go into something else. There are also several famous folks who at least started an architectural education before going off to become famous for other things. See: Career Paths. Some actually got their degrees and practiced before going into acting, singing, even royalty…good work if you can find it.
Several respondents suggested they didn’t know what they were getting into. There are a lot of programs today targeting high school students that didn’t exist when I considered a college major. I actually have volunteered for the program at Penn State. See: Career Advice. This would have been extremely helpful to me as a college freshman and would have provided for a good transition from high school to studio. It turns out there are dozens of these programs over the summer from one week to six weeks. See: Summer Programs. I would tend to think that incoming students at least have the opportunity to know what they are getting into.
Most of the people I polled believe that the education of an architect can provide one with a set of skills that is transferable to other undertakings. Of course to be licensed, there is the Architectural Registration Exam to contend with, along with the NCARB internship requirements. But that is a discussion for another time. Architecture school is not for everyone, considering my class barely graduated 25% of the original first year sudents. Even my colleagues who are in fields that have college programs tailored specifically to them (like animation and stage set design) discover aspects of the architectural program that inform their work. Needless to say, a Bachelor of Architecture or Masters of Architecture is the most direct path to becoming a practicing architect. But an architectural course of study is able to translate to a wide variety of career pursuits.
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