Is Architecture School Right for Me?
Updated: Apr 15, 2021
Welcome back to episode five of Design Create Inspire! Last week we talked about the Ideal Client and how important it is to work with people who support you. This week we will be talking about something that every aspiring architect has been faced with: architecture school. You can listen to the podcast episode here.
Deciding to go to architecture school is a huge decision, it is an enormous commitment. I have been asked, “Do you recommend architecture school?” more times than I can count and my answer is never the same, as the decision to go to architecture is specific to the individual. As most things in life, there are stereotypes that come with architecture school.
For me, architecture is my life, my passion. Homer Delawie encompassed architecture perfectly, “Architecture is a way of life. If not, you shouldn’t be doing it…”. I could not agree more.
The process of becoming an architect, from school, studio classes, presentations, eventually working in the field, endless exams, and licensure, is not a short, easy process. This process is guaranteed to include literal blood, sweat, and tears.
Blood: If you are not bleeding at one point during studio, the person next to you will be. I will never forget my friend James slicing up his hand during studio while building a beautiful model, ending his night in the ambulance.
Sweat: Being in front of your peers and top architecture professionals will have you sweating, the nerves kicking in as you get used to presenting.
Tears: They are inevitable. Crying during critique is common, especially during your first year when a project you have worked on for weeks was just criticized by someone you respect. If you aren’t crying during critique, you are probably crying at 4 AM when your project you are presenting at 9 AM isn’t finished.
This is all part of the process. This is also why the first year of architecture school, commonly known as “archi-torture school”, weeds out a lot of people who learn that this way of life is not for them, and it is not meant to be for everyone.
One disclaimer: If you choose to go to architecture school it does not mean you have to become an architect. This may sound crazy, but it happens. By no means does this mean that you need to quit school, rather there are different routes to choose from, such as city planners, furniture designers, professors. Architecture school does not just teach you how to build buildings, it teaches you how to be a great critical thinker, how to solve problems, and how to present yourself, and your ideas, in front of an audience.
I used to be terrified of public speaking, now I have a podcast! I used to shake when presenting in front of my peers, now I am excited to present a project to a community board and do so with confidence, as well as being able to comfortably receive client feedback to create the dream design.
Studio culture is one of the largest topics of architecture, in school as well as in firms. This is a culture of growth within your community, as well as pushing yourself to your breaking point.
Sleepless nights are very common in school, taking a physical and emotional toll on your body. It is not only the workload that causes the stress, it is the expectation and pressure from other students to reach a certain level of perfectionism.
Personally, I pride myself on the fact that I never pulled an all nighter during architecture school.
Did I stay up until 4 AM to finish a kick-ass project? Absolutely.
Did I ever watch the sunrise from the studio? I did not. I valued my sleep.
I am here as proof that you can do well in school and graduate while taking care of yourself.
Unfortunately, this culture has traveled from the studio environment in school to the firms.
Traditionally, you hear of architects having crazy deadlines, pulling all nighters, and being constantly stressed. This mentality comes from school and this culture will not shift until schools take the initiative to change the expectation and perspective of the studio environment.
The creative aspect of the studio is indescribable, being awake at 3 AM, five cups of coffee in, while the rest of the world is asleep. Some people get their best work done in these hours, but the mental and physical health of students is being compromised.
A few months ago I was reflecting on my studio time and became curious about what other designer’s experiences in architecture school were like. I decided to create a handy Instagram poll, asking “Would you recommend architecture school to someone who is thinking about going?”.
The responses were interesting, 74% said yes, 26% said no.
This sparked my interest, as over a quarter of individuals who had graduated from architecture school said they would not recommend it.
Here are their reasonings:
“Before I get into detail, I should preface by saying I absolutely adore architecture and design, and I wouldn't be where I am today without my degree or built the life long friendships that studio culture cultivated. But there are many reasons that I would not go back, and in hindsight might have chosen a different path. First and foremost being the cost associated with a 5 year program vs. the average starting salary for architecture professionals. Architecture students pay an arm and a leg for tuition, especially given that most accredited architecture programs are through private universities, and we pay for an additional year to get a professional degree. We also put in the most amount of hours outside of class working on school work, making it one of the most rigorous educational programs. Yet the starting salary for professionals make it hard to pay back student loans, or live comfortably.” - Anonymous
“Architecture schools breed students to believe they must "eat, sleep, and breathe architecture" in order to be successful. I had professors tell me that I had to pick between working a job or devoting my time only to school, that I would never put in the amount of effort they desired if I was working part time through school. The culture of working yourself to death, pulling all-nighters, and competing with other students on just how much mental and physical stress you can put on yourselves isn't healthy, yet most studio professors encourage this behavior. We call it architorture for a very good reason.” - Anonymous
I can relate to this immensely, as I had two part time jobs when I began architecture school. I had someone telling me that I would need to quit my jobs to succeed. She was wrong, and she also did not end up making it to second year.
“I went into arch school straight out of high school. And discussions and feedback like this are something I really wish I would have heard before I started. Our dropout rate in the first year was over 50% and from the 96 students that started with me in 1st year, only 11 of us made it through to graduation in 5th year. It's definitely a huge decision to make, and I do believe that the culture is changing slowly. A lot of colleges are starting to promote mental health...but it's going slow.” - Kendra C.
“I went to SDSU and got an Interior Design degree (accredited at the time). My ambition at the time was to attend New School for a masters and go from there. The year was also 2009 (enough said lol).
I bounced between jobs; retail furniture to even copier sales. In the Meantime, I was teaching myself furniture design. What I learned and what I wished any college program would do a better job at was the entrepreneurial side of business and how business really works in the real world. I had the opportunity to mingle with the old school Interior Designers and their best advice was “take business classes'' when I look back there is no class that could have prepped me for what I do now. You simply learn on the job with years of dedication. In fairness, they probably didn’t see this industry evolving immensely in the next decade to what it is now.
I also wish they spoke more about other certifications: like PMP (what I am currently getting ready to take for project management).
[Project Management Professional is an internationally recognized professional designation offered by the Project Management Institute.]
Also other functions and roles in the A+D industry, like sales distributor, wholesale, all of that. I think more can be done to encourage students to think outside the box and show them the possibility of being a design/ fabricator one stop shop. Show them a combination of tools and possibilities. My advice to anyone seeking a career in architecture or design- it’s a labor or love and pay attention to the big players, the “rule” breakers and to not follow the linear path schools unfortunately teach.” - Hector Bernal
Hector’s perspective directly relates to why I created Design Create Inspire, to help promote the entrepreneurial side of this industry and show others that the path is not linear.
“Our industry in general is pretty broken, a 5 year degree in architecture literally means nothing, we still have to intern for 2+ years just to get the opportunity to take 6 exams to then become an architect. I think this process is really hurting the industry as a whole and slowing down the innovative process needed in our industry. So I wouldn’t recommend someone to go through 5 years of school to get out not knowing how to do their job (we don’t actually get taught architecture in school). After all that we enter a saturated job field that offers $30,000 a year as a starting salary. There’s a large distance between academia and profession, and most schools don’t prepare you enough for the job field. When you finally get your dream job you realize that you have no work life balance, constantly having to sacrifice your youthful years working 10+ hrs a day to make a mediocre salary after years in the job field. Yeah I don’t necessarily regret it, but definitely underwhelmed by what I got from it, to the point where I did a masters and it was basically the same thing.” - Phil Rocha
Phil’s response is painful to read. Honest, real, vulnerable, but still painful.
There are a few more I want to share.
“So on the negative side, I’ve always struggled with school since I was a kid. I always knew school wasn’t for me growing up. It was extremely difficult to transition to [architecture school] since it’s in a quarter system. The amount of school work, on top of studio, and work made it extremely difficult for me. Since I’m the first child born in the U.S. because my parents were immigrants and learning two languages at the same time it confused me. Also school is very expensive for me, I always have to use my tax return, and save money to pay my tuition since my tuition is never completely covered throughout each quarter. As much on the negative side there’s a positive side. I feel architecture chose me. I remembered when I would dine with my mom on the first day of school she would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. When you're a kid you’ll say, ‘I want to be a Dr. etc.’, So I stuck to architecture.
Second year [in school] was the year I fell in love with architecture. I use architecture to express myself. Since then I knew what career path to take. I find architecture to be easy for me because I love the challenges and the passion to design. I do believe it’s not for everyone. I believe if people are curious about architecture and willing to go down the rabbit hole then I do see them successful but they have to want it. I feel people or students would benefit more if they are able to see the process of an architect because I know school is completely different than working in the field.” - Anonymous
Then there is another path, those who are still pursuing a licensure without a degree in architecture. This is also a very long path, but possible.
Marie Biaggi shares her experience on this path, “I never went to architecture school. I wasn’t sure about going into architecture so I didn’t want to limit myself to just that. I ended up with degrees in Environmental Studies and History of Architecture at UCSB. I decided toward the end of my studies that I still wanted to pursue a career in architecture because I was still so drawn to it. It was also really exciting for me to be able to fold in my newfound love for sustainable design.
Since I could still get my license without going to school, I never felt an intense need to go get an M. Arch. Plus I figured I would rather spend those 3-5 years getting practical real world skills. I had a mentor that told me he thought a lot of architecture students come out of school thinking they can take on anything, only to be shut down and be working on ADA bathroom design and other non-exciting design, and I didn’t want to spend all that money and time to experience that kind of let down. I found it much more fulfilling to start at the bottom of a firm and work my way up practically. I was also blessed with an amazing principal that took the time to teach me all the critical elements and explain to me all the ‘whys.’ He also let me figure a lot of things out on my own - so lots of learning by failure at first.
I was also very lucky in the sense that both my principals had no formal education in architecture - one was a structural engineer and the other a fine arts major. So they had no prejudice against my lack of formal education.
Ultimately, I would take the same path, in fact they saw it as a strength because it made me more well-rounded and could see the industry from a different lens. Although I don’t think having a formal degree equates to more success, I wouldn’t tell someone not to go to school either. Everyone is in a different place in life and learns differently. So it depends on the kind of person you are. If you work hard and love what you do, then your success will develop naturally.”
I completely agree with Marie’s perspective. Just because someone graduates from architecture school does not mean they are going to be successful. Marie is a perfect example of if you work hard, you will be successful, whichever path you choose.
On the other side of the spectrum are the 76% of architects who would recommend architecture school.
These are their responses:
“I study in Mexico and [studied a semester in San Diego]. I was able to experience the degree in both countries. However they remain the same. Stress, sleepless nights, and many days when you prefer to keep designing than eating.
During the course all of my teachers said that architecture was based on 2 things, aesthetics and functionality. And that's what I take with me…Architecture is for those people who have a passion for creating, dedication, patience, and a taste [for] design. It is beautiful to see how people put their houses in our hands, and in the same way we must respect and treat these projects with great responsibility and dedication.
In my opinion, patience is the key. When you start the degree of architecture, there is a 100% chance that there will be nights when you will not stop. There will be nights when you sometimes ask yourself why you studied that degree, and even more so, because it’s 5 years long and sometimes a little bit more. But in the end, when you finish, it is something you won’t regret. I 100% assure you.” - Jocelyne Martinez
Clearly Jocelyne loves what she does, as do I, and she has no regrets for her decision.
“I think so far something from architecture school is design thinking, the processes and the methods that are used to design are something I did not get in community college or in an office. I’d recommend it to people that are both creative and technical. I had a professor tell me once that you don’t have to be an artist to be an architect but by being an architect you will be an artist. I think that resonated with me because I love art and being creative but used to think I needed to be a great artist to be an architect. Architecture is not for the faint of heart and without trying to scare anyone off, I would only recommend it if you feel prepared and ready to take on the challenge. Becoming an architect is a long process, and takes real commitment but it will prove worth it the more you put into it.” - Mike Cintron
If you are still here, (and I thank you if you are!), a few more positive experiences to share.
“I always tell people I learned how to solve problems in architecture school. Of course you don't need architecture school for that but it helped me with that. Really that's all design is, problem solving. I'm a registered architect in the State of California, working as an architect for the State of California. I'd never have the job if I didn't go to school, test, and become registered.” - Anonymous
“What I got from architecture school was that you're more capable mentally than you think you are. All the late nights, design iterations and ability to present somewhat coherently your idea after all that will show you that. With that said though I also learned that if you're not all in on trying to make it through architecture school then it will [be] miserable, I had to repeat a year because I wasn’t invested in what I was doing and all disinterest showed in my work and my performance suffered. I would recommend architecture school to anyone interested in design as a practice and those who find engineering and art interesting (at least that's how I was). I’m currently using my degree now, it almost took me two years to land the position I wanted…” - Anonymous
Despite all of the differentiating opinions, one thing is certain, architecture school takes a lot of energy, time, and work. If this is something you want to do, do it. If you begin now, you will be done sooner than you think.
I love the quote, “The most dangerous risk of all - the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later”.
I chose to go to architecture school because I knew if I didn’t, I would live my life asking, “What if…?”. I knew the sooner I started, the sooner I would be finished.
When I was in my final year of undergrad I had the opportunity to meet with Taal Safdie from Safdie Rabines Architects. She told me, “If you love architecture, go get your degree. Be an architect if that is really what you want to be.”
I knew then and there where my heart was and that I was going to be an architect no matter what it took.
Don’t stop learning. Make it fun.
And last but not least, “If it’s both terrifying and amazing then you should definitely pursue it.” - Erada Svetlana
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