Surviving the Design Studio: Things to do at Architecture School to make sure you get a job when you finish

Lately, I have had the pleasure of hanging out with actual architects in a number of different forums. Inevitably the conversation comes around to the state of architectural education and architectural graduates. This situation may be more the case now because the employment market in my small city is currently buoyant.

To my surprise, a few common themes seemed to emerge in the conversations about graduates. The first is the sense among most architectural employers that recent graduates are less engaged with architectural culture and that there is an expectation amongst them that they will land a job in an office as a “young” and “emerging” designer leading a project team. Amazingly, for whatever reason, young architects think that they will design. Interesting to think some recent graduates think they will be leading project teams. Especially, given the widespread and prevailing dislike of group work by students. But hey, maybe that’s only in the practice class.

Others are under the illusion that they will be working the fablab machines and robots when they make the transition to practice.

I haven’t looked lately, but I am not sure how many offices have robots or are part of prefabricated supply chains. But shit hey; there is nothing wrong with learning how to code for that brave new future that the technology nutters are telling us will happen. With any luck, we might even get a few future Architects who will understand how to interrogate AI algorithms. But as argued below it is all about balance; and if architects can’t learn to manage new technologies, as compared to merely executing the technologies, then we architects will end up being next too useless.

I think making the transition from postgraduate architecture school to a working life in architecture is a pretty hard thing to do. Its not a great sapce to be in even when the employment market is bouyant. So, if you are a graduate student, here a few things you can do now to make the transition easier.

The first rule is balance

Don’t sacrifice all of your subjects for the design trophy. Keep things in balance. Being fixated on design marks actually means nothing once you graduate. Your final year marks are only one thing that architectural employers will take into consideration. What is more important is where you are positioned in your career two years out after graduation. Are you a BIM monkey drone at that point or are you beginning to assume responsibility and leadership in various practices? Do you have a strategy for your career?

You need to focus on the other things if you are to survive in a competitive marketplace: Architectural Practice (of course), History and Theory and Construction (and that doesn’t mean hanging out with the 3D printers). If you don’t know any of those things or pay little attention to them, you may not necessarily learn them in practice. Moreover, it will take an employer longer to teach you those things. As one practitioner said to me “the recent graduates are loss makers” because even though they are enthusiastic about design, they are too slow doing the other things” You need to balance your time and efforts across everything. Don’t get sucked into the design vortex.

Get with the culture

If you are going to think that you are some kind of star designer, then become one properly. Pick the hardest studios to do, expand your design skill base each time you do a studio at architecture school. Become involved in the local culture of your architecture school. Join SONA. Hang out at architectural events and be engaged. Go to the nearest peer awards presentations. Be interested in the latest architectural and urban controversies. Sitting at home on your computer with the Rhino or Revit family catastrophe is one of the most boring things you can do. You might even get off your computer and organise a studio space with your fellow travellers.

By getting involved with architectural culture, you will help to change it.

Build a profile 

Every architectural employer will look at your social media feeds to see how you fit into the culture of their practice. If your Instagram account is full of images with you taking selfies in bathrooms, skulling alcohol out of the red plastic cups, dancing at the toga parties, or latching onto a bong-pipe or vomiting in stretch limos while wearing the hire tuxedo then maybe it is not such a good look. Keep your professional profile separate from your personal one.

You need to build a “professional” profile. There best way to do this is through social media. Choose which avenues will best help you to do this. This engagement can be great as it is your opportunity to show what you are interested in on Instagram or Pinterest or Linked-In.

Get work experience while studying

Yes, sacrifice that precious studio design time and get a job in an architects office while you are studying. And that doesn’t mean getting a job that is some low-rent unpaid exploitative internship. DON’T EVER WORK FOR NOTHING. Most architectural employers enjoy having students around. Usually, they will actually think your quite smart and will be interested in your views on architecture. But that doesn’t mean you will be designing the latest Opera House.  You will learn more about design in an architects office than you might in a graduate school architectural studio. Of course, it depends on the office and the studio. This is why the balance between the two is so important.

 Be enthusiastic about doing stuff

Oh, and be sober at the job interview: Someone I know who was struggling to find a job in the early 90s recession swallowed a whole lot of homemade hallucinogenic cookies. About ten minutes later the phone rang, and the architectural firm asked if he wanted to come in for a job interview later that afternoon. He said sure. The time was just about when the cookies started to take hold. The rest is history, needless to say, he did not get the job.

In the job interview, don’t shove every design thang, every design sketch, every design robotic fab-labster-lobster thing down the throat of the interviewers. It is a mistake to think this approach will make you seem different. It’s not about you. I once got a job by saying that horse racing was in my blood and I liked nothing more than documenting the joinery and urinals in jockey’s rooms. I got another job as a site architect on a correctional centre PPP by saying I was great at anti-vandalism detailing. That was because I convinced them I could think like a sub-criminal teenage vandal.

Be different 

Better to tell the potential employers how much you enjoy doing bathroom and tiling details than saying you are some awesome emerging mini-star designer. Become an expert on the mundane things by being curious about those seemingly ordinary things now. Chances are saying that will spin out the employers out so much, at the interview, you will get the job on that basis alone. To the architectural employers, you will seem different and a cut above everyone else. Once you get that post-graduation job, because of your tile detailing or contract admin knowledge skill set, and do anything attitude, you will eventually have to do just about anything once employed in practice.

You might even get the chance to design a few real bathrooms because you will be the person who has to design and document them. There are some great bathrooms in my city designed by the students and the recent grads. And after all, isn’t designing great bathrooms and toilets what design is all about?