Wednesday, May 6, 2009

An Architectural Education: To Grad School or Not To Grad School? Part 2 of 2

The question asked in the last post is, "what's the tradeoff between going to school for six years and working for three versus only going to four years of school and working for five?  I'm trading school for work, but it's the same amount of time.  What's the difference?"

The difference is that you have your entire life to learn how to put a building together, but you only have a few years to learn how to draw, to communicate with lines and form and light and space and color.  You only have a few years to learn how to come up with a parti and an overall design for a building, to learn how to think in three dimensions, and to think of more than one way to solve any design problem.  That’s what architecture school is for.  So the B.Arch and M.Arch illustrate that you have a grasp on design skills, and you’re not just a draftsman who understands flashing details.

            This may seem esoteric enough, but the other big difference between all these degrees is that each state sets its own architectural licensing requirements, and more and more states are requiring a professional degree in order to either sit for the exam or gain reciprocity if you’re already licensed in another state.  Colorado, the state in which I live, is one of the most lax with their standards.  Presently, it allows interns to take the ARE if they have the two-year associate’s degree and ten years’ experience.  At the other end of the spectrum is Massachusetts, which requires a professional degree (B.Arch or M.Arch).  What this means for future architects is that if you get licensed in a state with low licensing standards and move to a state with higher standards, you might be hosed.  You'll be even more hosed if you move to that state and you only have a two-year or four-year degree.

            So, back to the original question: Hey Lulu, should I go to grad school and get my M.Arch?  And for that matter, I only have a two-year degree, so should I go back and get at least a regular four-year degree?  Back to my original answer: the short answer is yes, but it ultimately depends on your situation.  I say yes because more education in architecture (if not America, really) increases your earning potential.  A colleague of mine has a B.Arch and I have an M.Arch, and while we’re both perfectly intelligent and competent architects with comparable skill sets, my starting salary out of college was 20% higher than his starting salary.  

Earning an M.Arch also made financial sense for me.  As a good student and a Georgia resident, I got a myriad of scholarships to the state school of my choice, Georgia Tech, which offered a four-year degree followed by an M.Arch.  I had no student loans when I finished undergrad,, so getting two more years of education wasn’t a financial stretch.  Meanwhile, my husband is from Missouri, which doesn’t have its own architecture school but does have an in-state reciprocity agreement with Kansas. Missouri residents get in-state tuition rates to attend Kansas State University, which grants the five-year B.Arch.  The degrees we got were fine for where we were, geographically and financially, and they have been more than adequate for our careers.  Maybe your degree it was all you could afford at the time you got it, or you had to settle for a two-year because of family obligations.  Fair enough, but it may be time to further your education.

            I encourage interns to go back and get professional degrees (a B.Arch or an M.Arch) to future-proof their careers.  I mentioned that Colorado presently allows the two-year associate’s degree to sit for the ARE, but it could change its mind at any time.  And let’s face it; we live in a mobile society.  My husband and I live a one and two-day drive (respectively) from our original birthplaces, and we know we’re not the only ones who have moved away from home.  Most interns are married to people who do other things than architecture for a living (my husband and I are an exception), and some of those careers are mobile or volatile.  If the non-architect spouse’s job were to take them to a new state (or if an intern had to move back to their home state to care for an ailing relative), then having a degree that fits the requirements of more states is of benefit to them.  If mobility is not an issue and you’re willing to take the risk of having your state change the rules on you, then I say proceed as you wish.

            Note: much ado is made about what college or grad school you attend, and I have one word for those people: relax.  I know there are schools out there that have reputations for having amazing or elite programs and that there are some programs that are supposed to be a breeze, but I have found that what school you attended for your degree has little bearing on how good you are in the workplace.  Some of the best colleagues I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with were from good old state schools, and some of the most annoying and incompetent colleagues I’ve ever wanted to beat unconscious with a spec book have been from so-called “elite” architecture schools.  Your education is what you make of it, and there’s more to the workplace than what you learn in school.  All that design knowledge only goes so far.


  1. I think you've hit many good points, especially the practical ones, on why getting your professional degree or master's degree is probably in a student's or interns' interest. However, I do believe you skipped one aspect of why I value my Master's degree and time spent acquiring it.

    With a typical B. Arch, you study a standard curriculum set out by the school. But in a Master's program with a proper thesis, one has the opportunity to really engage in a field where their interests lie and create a thesis which gives them a depth of experience that is unmatched by other recent graduates. I was able to do a thesis involving international development in East Africa, something I could not have done in my B. Arch program. For other people this could be sustainable design, transit-oriented development, synchronized alternative energy sources, alternative housing models or hospital design. Not just the degree, but the thesis as well provide an excellent stepping stone into careers that truly hold your passion.

  2. Well put, p-dizzle. The M.Arch does allow a student to further their knowledge in a specific area of interest. My thesis involved treating the mentally ill, and I believe that helped me get a job in a firm that did healthcare (something I wanted to do in the first place).

  3. I will like to note a few things:

    B.Arch (Professional Bachelors degree in Architecture) - 5 years

    M.Arch (Professional Masters degree in architecture) - 2 year or 3 years+1 term program for people who have a pre-professional degree in Architecture or a non-related degree

    The 1 year M.Arch is a Post-Professional degree.

    B.Art or B.Science in Architecture (Pre-Professional degree in architecture) - 4 years and not NAAB accredited.

    A student may only enroll in either a B.Arch or M.Arch (professional) because you may not have a B.Art or B.Science and enroll in a B.Arch. That is attaining two Bachelor degrees. It is just a common school policy in universities. So, they offer a Professional Masters program in many schools.

    University of Oregon is one that has such a program. I hope this helps add information.

  4. Rick, thanks! I knew there was something in the rules that said "if you have this degree, you can't get that one" or "if a school offers x, it cannot also offer y." Your comment clears that up perfectly. Thanks!

  5. Hi,

    Just started to read your blog and love it! I'm in my second year of my internship and wish I had read this sooner. Either way, great read and making me be aware and think more about what I'm doing now as an intern.


    My question for this topic is; I have a B.Arch already, is there any need to get an M.Arch besides 20% salary boost? Just curious for an outside and well experienced view. Especially from one that has an M.Arch.