The Non-traditional Route

Being an architect, I have a lot of architect friends.  I don’t think this is atypical.  My wife and I went through architecture school together in the same class.  In fact, in our class of 22 graduates, there are 3 couples who got married.  25% of the people in our class married other people in our class.  And they/we are all still married!  And, except for my wife and me, both of the other couples have an architecture business with their spouse.  The relationship percentage from our class is even more perverse if you counted all the relationships that started between classmates that didn’t end in marriage – but that is a totally different story (and one that has to be much more delicately told).

Where luckier kids than us now go to architecture school at PSU.

But then I started to think about all of my former classmates, co-workers and colleagues who finished their degree and either immediately or eventually left the profession.  Or those who still practice architecture but have a significant foothold in other professions.  Again, from my class of 22, I could immediately think of more than a handful of people who now make a living doing something other than architecture.  When I think about the investment we all made to graduate from architecture school, and some of us the further investment to pass the Architect Registration Examination (ARE) tests (9 of them when I took them), I began to wonder if it was the profession itself that spurned recent graduates and forced them to consider other professions.  Or is that architecture school has the ability to produce people who are capable of doing more than just architecture?

I am sure that all professions have their share of ‘defectors’, but I would think they are the exception rather than a full third of a graduating class as was the case in ours.  And it has nothing to do with gender, really.  As much as the architectural profession laments about attracting women to the profession, the genders in our class were split nearly 50/50.  Of the eight people that I can count from my original graduating class who have left architecture, only 3 are women, so from my graduating class, there are more women still in the profession than men.

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.  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 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 no 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.

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).  Some I am still waiting on.  I hold no ill will, but they are off the Christmas Card list for sure.  Actually we are so bad at getting Christmas Cards out, we have changed them to New Year’s Cards.  Also, I do none of the work on the holiday card front for my own family.

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.  I don’t know if that is unusual.  My own answer to this question is 7th grade or so. 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 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 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 every year.  Another indicates that every semester was plagued with doubts.  Several respondents settled into the program as we all did, perhaps after the first couple of years of indoctrination.  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 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, he states 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.  He left the traditional office job based on having positive relationships with those in the government he worked with while completing projects with or for them.  As a result, he left the private sector to work for the government agencies he had worked with in the past, more in an Owner’s representative position for construction projects.

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 looking for someone in graphics and web design.

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 as a Layout Technical Director on films like Avatar, X-Men: First Class, and the Hobbit trilogy.  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 unique 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 a little over 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.  It happened that 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.

My friend Melissa runs a business creating handmade jewelry and other objects made from industrial and recycled materials, see:  StubbornStiles.  She worked in an office for about ten years before making that move.  And if there were 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 where I met her, 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).

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 was better than where she was.  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 work on some drafting work freelance.  Eventually, an opportunity arose to work 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.  It is still a profession very related to architecture.

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.  Which solution 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 others, 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.  SeeCareer 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.  SeeCareer 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.  SeeSummer 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, while certainly not completed with a degree, 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 year barely graduated 25% of the original first year class.  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.