How To Choose An Architectural Employer (part 4)

Following on parts onetwo, and three, here are a few more thoughts on how to choose an architectural firm in which to work at. This post and the three proceeding it are directed at recent graduates, though some of the ideas within them can apply to those with more experience as well.

Intern Development Program (IDP)

I assume, as a recent graduate from an accredited architectural school that you plan to become a licensed architect - meaning you intend to complete your internship, become eligible to sit for the Architectural Registration Exams (ARE), pass them, and get your license. From there you might be content to stay at the firm you are with, find work at a new firm, or even start your own. The first step to achieving any of those goals is to enroll in NCARB’s Intern Development Program (IDP) as soon as possible so that your intern experience is documented.

You'll also want to make certain that your firm of choice – particularly the people within it – are willing to help you on your quest. My first firm claimed to support IDP, but its owners (principals) didn't seem to know the first thing about helping those within it. Part of that was probably due a transition in the testing process at the time.  Those who came before me took a week-long series of written tests. When I sat for my exams in the fall of 1999, the tests were completely computerized and could be taken individually over the course of days, weeks, months, or even years.

As such it took me on my own about a year to figure out how to get started in the process. With the internet as your resource, you shouldn’t need anywhere near that amount of time to get up and running (hint:  visit The process is ever evolving (as are the exams) and I believe you can now even enroll while still in school and possibly even take some of the exams upon graduation as well. It may seem daunting, but it has actually never been easier to begin the process.

Once enrolled, don’t forget you need experience in different work categories.  If the firm you are employed at is only giving you drafting work, be a squeaky wheel and let them know you want (and need) to experience other aspects of the architectural profession in order to be qualified to sit for the licensing exams. If they fail to provide this experience, don't be afraid to look for it at another firm. One regret I have is that I wasn't squeaky enough in my younger years and it ended up taking me five years to gain the necessary experience that I could have had in three years. It's your career, not theirs. It's also your future, but a progressive firm will recognize that it is also their future as well. A progressive firm will help you in your quest to get licensed by offering IDP mentorship, study materials, the test fees, and/or time off in which to sit for the exams. Ultimately, your license benefits you AND your firm.

Wrap Up

Over the course of four blog posts, I've shared some of my thoughts on how to pick an architectural firm to work at. I've discussed finding a location, researching firms, expectations in regards to compensation & benefits, firm size, and, with this post, the value of your internship.

So, ultimately, what should you look for?

I'm afraid that only you can answer that. From my own standpoint, I wanted to stay in Oregon and ultimately live in central Oregon. I have done and am doing that. I wanted to work at a variety of firms. I have done that too. I wanted to complete my internship, become licensed, and work on projects with a high degree of design. Check, check, and check. Your goals might be different. Hopefully, with these posts I've shed some light on how you might start to choose a firm and what you should expect.

When I was in school, there wasn't any sort of job placement that I was aware of. You earned your degree and upon graduation the rest was up to you. I was fortunate that within a few months I found a opening at a architectural firm in Portland. The job description was really that of an errand boy and consisted of delivering drawings, running prints, maintaining the drawing archive, and flattening cardboard for recycling. They even had me building workstations, helping to install the office computer network, and the particularly nasty task of emptying the spent ammonia from the blueprint machine each month. Those are not the sort of tasks one would associate with having a 5-year college degree and I even took a pay cut from my summer freight handling job to accept the position. At the time, I was told that it would only be a three-month gig and that they would move me into actual architectural work once they found someone more suited to the office-runner position (i.e. a high school student or college practicum participant). Nearly a year later, I was still doing those same tasks and had yet to do any actual architecture (much less enroll in NCARB). Looking back, that was not the best first step in terms of a career. While it was great to get a foot in the door and the position gave me fantastic insight and exposure the inner workings of a firm, it also devalued my education and my talent while increasing my frustration level. Even when I did finally manage to get my own workstation and begin to do architectural work, I was still often called upon to do the sorts of tasks that I was told I wouldn't be doing anymore (i.e. flattening cardboard, putting up holiday decorations, and even disposing of the vile ammonia). Never-the-less, I did enjoy my time at that firm immensely and ended up staying with them longer than I probably should have in terms of the health of my career (a fact confirmed to me by the immediate 25% bump in pay I received when I left to work at another firm).

The point of all that is that there are little signposts - indicators, if you will - that can give you insight into an employer.  Once recognized these indicators can tell you if you are a valued employee. I've touched on a number of them in these past few posts. Things like bad office moral, severely limited time off, and being limited to one role or task within the company can ultimately do more harm than good. Your ability to do good work is directly tied to the level of happiness and fulfillment you have doing it. If you are miserable, your work will suffer, those you work with will suffer, and your position in the company and thus your career will likely suffer as well. As I write this other things come to mind as well - things like extremely restrictive non-compete agreements, lack of severance pay, and the advantages & disadvantages of promotion. Perhaps those will become topics for a future post as they are more targeted to those who have been in the profession a while. Instead, I would advise those of you coming into the profession to value your education thus far and look for a firm that also values it with what they offer in terms of salary, benefits, the work they do, and your role within it.

The average firm might offer the basic 401k, medical coverage, holidays, paid vacation, and sick leave. You won't be enticed to stay, but you won't exactly be encouraged to look for work elsewhere either. Lesser firms will pay you a below average salary, provide only limited medical coverage, offer little or no sick time & vacation time, won't recognize some holidays, and/or won't match any part of their employee 401k contributions. These kinds of firms typically have bad moral, bad reputations, and, as expected, high turn-over rates. There is a somewhat "old school" view that you shouldn't expect much from the architectural position - especially starting out. This school of thought says that you should take what you are given and be eternally grateful. However, this is the 21st Century and that sort of view will do nothing to help you in your career. It also does nothing to help those that foster it upon you. Ultimately it only hurts the profession.

I would advise you to look for a more progressive firm - one that not only offers the basic salary & benefits, but goes above and beyond them - even if only a little. Those firms will are much more likely to be rewarding places to work. It is a symbiotic relationship. The more you are rewarded as an employee, the more the firm will be rewarded. And vice versa - the more you give, the more you get.