11 Things You Learn at Your First “Real” Architecture Job (Lessons from a Recent Graduate)


© Megan Fowler

© Megan Fowler

You did it! You finished those grueling years of architecture school, perfected your portfolio and your interview pitch, and you landed your first job with an architecture firm. Everyone told you that working in a firm would be lightyears different from what you were used to doing in school, but until you get out there yourself, there is really no way to know just what that might entail. Once you’ve tackled life’s bigger questions about surviving outside of architecture school, you still have to learn to function in a day-to-day job. The learning curve is steep and it can certainly be overwhelming, but you’ve made it this far and there are a few lessons and skills you are sure to gain quickly as you start your career.

1. You might not do much designing.

We might as well get this one out of the way. We’ve all heard the horror stories of new employees becoming nothing more than Revit-monkeys and slowly wasting away in front of their computers working on toilet partition details. While it’s not necessarily going to be that bleak, don’t expect to be given a big design assignment on your first day at the office. This, of course, depends on the type and size of firm you work for. A smaller firm is often more likely to give you experience on a wide variety of tasks, including some design work, while larger firms often have their employees take on more specialized roles. Under what conditions you work best is up to you to figure out, and you may not always get it right the first time. If you’re not happy with the kind of tasks you are given, you can always ask your supervisor about taking on different responsibilities, but it may help you to expand your mental definition of “designing.” Even the more mundane-seeming assignments you may be given still require careful thought and decision-making and you can really “design” all the work you do by applying the design thinking you have developed to the task in front of you.

2. Communication really is key.

It sounds like a cliché, but one thing it can be difficult to simulate in school is the role of communication between multiple parties that is always involved in the design and construction of a building. While by this point most of us have been disabused of the idea of the lone wolf architect/genius, the extent to which coordination and communication become a part of your work day may be surprising to new hires. Architects are not expected to have all the knowledge and expertise necessary to put a building together from start to finish, but we are expected to orchestrate, coordinate, and facilitate communication between all the people who do make up that collective knowledge base. The quality of that communication can make or break a project perhaps even more easily than the quality of the building design. Don’t be embarrassed if you don’t know something, just find the person who does.

3. Ask questions.


© Megan Fowler

© Megan Fowler

No, really. Ask ALL the questions. It may sound obvious, but this is one of the most important things you can do when you are just starting out in the field. Some may be hesitant to show a lack of knowledge in a certain area to their project managers, or may be uncomfortable interrupting someone time and again to ask for help, but trust me. They would much rather take the time to explain it to you than to have you guess and make a mistake. Because unlike in school, a mistake here can cost someone real money and time. Will you still make some mistakes? Sure, it happens. But the best way you can minimize that risk and coincidentally the best way to learn and show your supervisors that you’re interested and engaged in your job is to ask every question you can think of.

4. Keep learning.

On a related note, it is important to never stop learning and never lose the curiosity you had in school. Architecture school creates a great foundation, but once you get out and into the real world, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed by all that you still don’t know. Instead, try to see that missing knowledge as an opportunity. There is no better way to learn than by doing, and you’ll likely learn something new every day when you start working at a firm. Be open to it, be excited, and you’ll find yourself climbing the learning curve in no time.

5. Take an interest in your coworkers.

If you can become friends with your coworkers, you’ll have a more enjoyable time coming to the office every day. In addition to the social benefits, you can learn a lot from people who have been in the field longer than you. Your coworkers will likely have diverse backgrounds that give them a particular perspective, or they’ll have something they’re especially passionate about or a unique skill that sets them apart in the office. People usually like to talk about themselves if you can get them started, and if you ask them what they’re interested in, chances are they’ll tell you all about it and maybe you’ll learn something new along the way. This can be especially true if your firm also employs interior designers, planners, engineers, or really anyone else. It can be helpful and interesting to look at a project from their different perspectives to learn more about the design process.

6. Go to as many meetings and site visits as you can.


© Megan Fowler

© Megan Fowler

If you get the opportunity, a great way to learn about the design and construction process is to sit in and tag along at site visits and other meetings. Plus, what could be more exciting than seeing a building you’ve worked on or helped to draw start to become a physical space? Seeing something firsthand make the transition from the theoretical realm you’ve become familiar with in school to a habitable building is a fantastic way to learn about the process and way more fun than reading about it in a textbook or ARE study manual. Even if you feel out of your depth, or perhaps underqualified, for a certain meeting or conversation, you’ll never be at a disadvantage for having participated and you’re sure to pick up something interesting or useful along the way.

7. Find a firm with a culture that works for you.

As I mentioned earlier, the firm you choose makes some difference in the type of work you’ll likely be doing, but besides this most new hires start at about the same level. The major difference will likely be in the culture and atmosphere of the company you choose. You will probably be spending at least 40 hours a week at this place, so it will make your life a lot more enjoyable if you like being there. Priorities vary, but good general guidelines are to choose a firm that matches your workstyle. If you work more efficiently in peace and quiet, maybe don’t choose a firm with an open office layout. If you get your creative energy from interacting and collaborating with others, you might not be happy in a cubicle. As someone who is new to the field, it is also important to look for a firm whose leadership really fosters and encourages growth for young staff. A supportive culture can go a long way in your development as a designer and future architect.

8. Get started on licensure right away.

Speaking of the future, if licensure is something you are interested in pursuing it can be helpful to get a jumpstart on it right away. Find an AXP supervisor (or whatever you need given the licensure system in your country) and make sure to get credit for your hours if you’re going to be working them anyway. Even if you don’t feel like you’re ready to start your tests, it can be easiest to start studying while your brain is still accustomed to it rather than a few years out of school. If your firm has a licensure study group, join it! If it doesn’t have one, start your own and recruit your coworkers! A support network can be advantageous when you’re working towards licensure, not to mention giving you and your coworkers a bit of mutual responsibility and guilt to hold you accountable to your study goals.

9. Speak up about your interests.

Just like starting a study group, if you have other interests and passions, share them with your supervisors or project managers and work with them to get the most out of your time at the firm. A good firm will want to help you pursue your interests and they’ll always appreciate any outside expertise and enthusiasm you can bring to the table. It can be intimidating to speak out and jump into responsibilities as a new employee, but it can personalize your career and make it much more rewarding.

10. Get involved in the community outside of work.


© Megan Fowler

© Megan Fowler

It is important to be involved not just within your new company, but outside of it as well. Especially if you moved to a new city for your job, a great way to get to know your community and really relate to the context of the work you’ll be doing is to get out there in person and see what it’s all about. This could take the form of volunteering for an organization you’re passionate about, joining a committee that’s design related like a Public Arts Committee or the local Main Street Organization, or it doesn’t have to be work-related at all. Take karate lessons, start a book club; the possibilities are endless and it has the bonus of bringing variety to your life so that you don’t feel like all your time revolves around your job. You aren’t in studio anymore—you’ll need something to fill your newfound free time!

11. Your first job doesn’t have to be your dream job.

Lastly, there can be a lot of pressure for new grads to find their dream job with their dream firm right out of college. And to be honest, that’s just not always possible or feasible. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Every job you have will be a valuable learning opportunity that you can take with you to the next job you land. Don’t give up on your dreams of course, but if it doesn’t pan out right away, just be patient, be engaged in the job you have, and give it your all until the next opportunity comes around. If you’re feeling like you’re in a rut, maybe switch to a different but related field for a while and then see how you feel about coming back to architecture. An architecture education is a great knowledge base and offers a creative way of thinking and problem-solving that you can use wherever and however you choose. Don’t worry about taking the linear path to your dream job and try to focus on the present; by the time you get to that job you know you were meant to have, you’ll just have more valuable experience and knowledge than you did when you graduated.

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