Career Path(s)

Career Path(s)

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?

I looked to my classmates, friends and former co-workers for answers.  I generated a sort of questionnaire.  Of the people I surveyed, two are in the film industry (one in visual effects and one in set design – no adult film stars that I know of, sorry).  One worked as a product designer for a major ceiling product manufacturer. Two work for the federal government.  One works for a large retirement community and helps new residents layout their new retirement homes and sell their existing ones.  One is a jewelry designer and sculptor who sells her merchandise in museum gift shops and craft shows all over the country.  One person now engineers and builds millwork and cabinetry.  One classmate owns and operates a needlework business.  Last but not least, one colleague now runs a catering business and gourmet shop.  Notice there is not a single stay at home mom or dad listed.  While some may have also done this job IN ADDITION to their other job, it isn’t as if these people have picked up their ball and gone home.  They are contributing to the work place in other ways, some related to architecture, some not so much.
The equal rate of attrition between men and women on the road to achieving their licensure after receiving their degree is in line with a recent NCARB study.  See the link here.
I thought about this and asked each person I know in this position to answer a fourteen question survey.  As to be expected, some surveys took a very long time to get back (architects are notorious procrastinators – no surprise).  Some I am still waiting on.  I hold no ill will, but they are off the Christmas Card list for sure.  Actually our family is so bad at getting Christmas Cards out, we have changed them to New Year’s Cards.  Full disclosure:  I do none of the work on the holiday card front for my own family.  I am the worst.
I tried to get an idea of why each person in the focus group went into the study of architecture, when he/she felt like they might want to change professions, how architecture school may have prepared him/her for other endeavors and if he/she would do it differently or what suggestions might be useful to those pondering the profession.
In terms of when the decision was made to enter architecture school, most of the respondents indicated fairly late in high school.  One person indicated a very young age (before 10 years old), and two actually made that decision after college orientation or after a full year of college.  Our class had a high percentage of students that were older, from 20 to 30 years old, rather than 17 or 18 like the rest of us.  I am not sure of the reason for this but it didn’t really matter other than when it came time to buy beer.  I would guess that the dropout rate for the traditional freshmen was about the same as those entering architecture school with a few years already under their belt.
When asked if there was any point that they felt entering architecture school was the wrong one, answers were all over the board.  Some had doubts in school (of course we all did in some way due to the pressures of studio).  One person actually left a message for their adviser in order to start the process of switching majors.  The adviser never called back and he ended up sticking it out (see above for ‘procrastination’).  One woman kept a pink ‘Change of Major’ slip pinned in their work space all five years.  Another indicates that every semester was plagued with doubts.  Several respondents settled into the program with less tumult that the rest of us.  And lastly, one man didn’t have doubts until he received his first paycheck and saw the amount of overtime he was working.

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 classmate Jake has a very unique resume.  After graduating with us in architecture, he ended up traveling around a bit, trying to decide where to work.  In doing so, he passed through San Francisco and thought how cool it would be to work somewhere like Pixar.  When traditional jobs did not immediately pan out, he found himself working in the video gaming industry, contributing on several games in the Star Wars series for Lucas Arts and Marvel Nemesis for Nihilistic.  Eventually he made his way to the other side of the planet, working for Weta Digital, currently as Layout Head of Department, and has worked on films like Avengers: Infinity War, Avatar, X-Men: First Class, and the Hobbit trilogy.  Oh, just look at his IMDb page.  Jake attributes his current skills like spatial layout, 3-D problem solving, art history and managing stressful deadlines to his architectural training.
In perhaps one of the most unexpected results of my survey, one respondent actually came back to work at an architectural office:  the one I work for.  Jim had worked for us more than ten years ago and eventually found employment with a major manufacturer of ceiling products, where his wife also worked at the time.  He worked in several positions over about a decade from research and development of ceiling products, to working with architects and designers to produce specific solutions for their design needs.  While his positions were maybe more traditionally filled by industrial engineers, the problem solving aspects of working in buildings perhaps benefited him during his time there.  When I contacted Jim to answer my survey and catch up for lunch; I gave him a tour of our new office space.  A few weeks later and Jim rejoined us.  Yes our office is that cool.  Jim has since wondered off into new adventures since.  He went on to join a German building product manufacturer, a commercial case goods manufacturer and now works for a residential home building company as a sales manager, where yet another of our classmates now works as a studio manager.

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.

This post is part of the ArchiTalks series where a group of us (architects who also blog) all post on the same day and promote each other’s blogs. This month’s theme is “Career Path” and was led by Mike LaValley.  A lot of other talented writers who also are architects are listed below and are worth checking out:

–>Jeff Echols – Architect Of The Internet (@Jeff_Echols)
Well, How Did I Get Here (Again)

–>Lee Calisti, AIA – Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
a paved but winding career path

–>Eric T. Faulkner – Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
Career – The News Knows

–>Michele Grace Hottel – Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
#architalks 41 “Career Path”

–>Brian Paletz – The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
A Winding Path

–>Drew Paul Bell – Drew Paul Bell (@DrewPaulBell)
Career Path

–>Jeffrey Pelletier – Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
Career Path of an Architect (And Beyond)

–>Mark Stephens – Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
Career Path

–>Steve Mouzon – The Original Green Blog (@stevemouzon)
A Strange Career Path