Monday, November 14, 2011

Lulu's Mailbag: I feel like I'm a good designer, but am I wasting my time?

I recently received this email from G., who is probably not the Lone Ranger in terms of what s/he's experiencing right now:

I graduated in May and have been searching for a job (more on this in a bit), but since starting graduate school I have been nursing a slightly growing inkling that perhaps architecture is not the right profession for me. I originally wanted to become an architect because I like most things related to design and drawing and was always being pulled toward the architecture section at the local library. Of course there are several things about architecture that I dislike—mainly the low pay coupled with the long hours. Knowing that perhaps my love of architecture would hopefully outweigh these two negatives, I continued along the linear path that seemed so defined and ready for me. I studied architecture at my undergraduate college on a full ride and graduated summa cum laude and with an AIA medal; I took a gap year between degrees to work for a forensic architecture firm; I was accepted into grad school with a full fellowship and have won several design competitions. I did all that was required and gave it my all, but now I am starting to wonder if I am doing it for reasons that truly appeal to me. Perhaps these feelings are now surfacing because I have not had much “real-life” design experience at a traditional firm?
Which brings me to my question/point. I graduated in May and have been searching for the ideal position that would allow me to have a second chance with Ms. Architecture. I declined a job offer upon graduation because I really wanted something closer to family and friends where I would be able to save money. I did this assuming there would be more offers. One month later I was offered a position with a startup company based in China that was looking to expand to the US. I took the job and absolutely detested it. It was a two person closet-sized office (me and a jaded, older design architect who had next to no experience dealing with interns), and most of my time, including unpaid overtime, was spent working on non-billable work that would not count toward IDP. After two weeks I knew that this experience was completely the opposite of my structured, professional internship with the forensic firm; I quit with the hope that I would find something more suitable. Is this internship experience typical of a design firm? After five months of searching for the right job, I am starting to wonder if I am being too picky and should just settle for some horridly similar CAD jockey position at a less-than-average design firm just so I can get experience. The alternative, to go back to school for an MBA in real estate, might be a possible alternative, but I feel like I just need to get out there and give architecture another shot. After all, I did just spend seven years of my life for this career and I know I could be a great designer.

Wow, G., you've certainly been through it, but the short answer is: yes, you still have a place in architecture.  Now let me give you a longer, more thorough (if also boring) answer.

First of all, I can see how any work experience would be a letdown after having won so many awards and scholarships.  You've been given every indication over and over that your skills and interests are perfect for this profession, so why should it be so hard to find a good firm?  Well, the economy is a huge reason right now.  Like many of your colleagues just getting out of school, there aren't a lot of jobs available right now, so you take what you can get.  The corollary to that fact is that if there are very few places interviewing and hiring, you don't have a chance to compare potential firms against each other or even jump ship in three months when you figure out you've stepped into a firm that's more like Thunderdome with Revit on the workstations and your boss has an Axis II personality disorder.  Furthermore, while starting intern pay is pretty low (as is the starting pay for a lot of college graduates, regardless of their major), it's even more depressed right now because the economy is keeping wages across the board either stagnated or increasing at a lower rate than usual.  No wonder you (and I'm sure many other interns out there) feel so demoralized.

And yet, you had a great experience at the forensic architecture firm that showed you how good it could be--well-structured, respectable and respectful, and educational.  That, my friend, is what a real firm can do for you.  In this economy, I think it's hard to judge the profession on one crappy firm that abused your skills simply because they could.  Yes, there are other crappy firms out there, but there are also so many good and even great firms out there that want to use your skills while also helping you grow as an architect and a professional.  You may have to move away from your family to find those jobs and firms, but it can be so worth it.  It may take you longer than five months to find that job and firm, but it will happen.  (Remember that you're looking for a job during the worst economy since the Great Depression, so it could take some time.)  If you're hankering for that MBA because you can and it's really what you want to do, then do so.  But it sounds to me like you're not done with architecture, and I don't think architecture's done with you.  It needs your badass design skills that won you those awards and fellowships, and there's a good firm out there that needs those skills.  In return, that firm will teach you how to make those amazing designs come to life in real concrete and steel and drywall and glass and aluminum.  And that is so worth it.

Got a question or topic for this blog?  Let me know in the comments or via email in the sidebar.  Thanks!

1 comment:

  1. I think it is better to continue your passion on architecture..If are really talented you can shine in any field you know..And more over you seem to be great in designing..Drop all the negatives from your mind..