Monday, January 18, 2010

Lulu's Mailbag: Should I go back to grad school?

AI101 reader Q from the East Coast shared the following with me:

Dear Lulu:
I have a well paying job doing non-architecture work even thought I got my pre-professional degree in architecture last May. I applied to or inquired to over 120 arch firms in the DC metro area and no offers, about 3 interviews. So I took this job which I'm sure pays more than anything that architecture would offer me. Do you think it would be wise to go back to grad school or to even leave my good paying job for a most likely 20% pay cut to persue architecture? I live in a state that requires a professional degree to get licensed, but I also went out of state for my first degree, so now I have major student loan bills. (On the plus side, my present job, though boring, allows me to really pay down those loans. That job will also pay up to a certain amount for me to go back to school.) I've read some depressing articles about the profession and one article said it was the most hurt job in 2009. I only know two graduates who found architecture work after graduation. Everyone else is working a random job or grad school or nothing. I have a good paying job, but its boring and I would like to do architecture. (I have found a local architect to do some contract work with--basic CAD drawings, but it's good experience.) But I don't want to regret leaving this job to work long hours making $30k or go through grad school to still end up struggling to find a job. It really seems like this is the worst time to graduate.

Hi Q!

Your question is a good one. First, if you haven't found them already, I have two posts on whether to go to grad school: Here and Here. I generally advise folks to go to grad school in order to meet the requirements for any state they end up moving to or end up trying to get a license in, as some states are moving towards not allowing anyone to be licensed except for folks with a B.Arch or an M.Arch. But let's examine your situation a little more.

Architecture is indeed on the bleeding edge/front line of the economy. When the economy is good, architecture is really good, and when it's bad...well, you know the story. The AIA estimated that architecture firms suffered a 15% unemployment rate, though that seems really low to me. You graduated undergrad during the worst recession since the Great Depression (though to be fair, the Great D had 33% overall unemployment, so it really was a lot greater than what we're enduring now), so I'm not surprised that you had a hard time finding a job in your field. But you have a job now, which is a small miracle, and it sounds like it pays decently, so that's a great relief. Another great relief is that you're working with an architect on the side and getting some kind of experience in your field; should you need to get a job during college, you're now more marketable to firms. Be sure you get this person to sign off on your experience so that you can count it towards IDP or whatever you use to document your time.

While it appears that grad school is inevitable, assuming that you remain in the state you're in now and will need that professional degree to sit for the ARE, here's the bigger picture regarding grad school: if you start a 2-year grad school program now, the economy will likely be very different for you when you graduate in 2012 (or thereabouts). During my junior year of undergrad (which was 1997, back before iPods and text messaging :-p ), our professors advised us to go straight into grad school because the economy still wasn't so hot. I did indeed go straight to grad school (which had been my plan all along), and by the time I graduated with my M.Arch in the summer of 2000, firms were hiring like crazy. It was then that I got the job that I still have to this day. (Well, I'm licensed now and I have more/different responsibilities, but I'm still with the same firm.) So grad school can be a good place to weather an economic storm.

Something else to keep in mind: many folks work while going to grad school. Depending on what grad school you attended, you could work at the place you are now but with a part time schedule, or you could work somewhere in the town of your grad school. Some of my grad school colleagues were RAs in the dorms so that they could live cheaply on campus, while others worked as TAs in undergrad studios to help pay for grad school (one of them now teaches at Boston Architectural College--score!), and still others worked at architecture firms or other places of employment. There is an intern at my office who is presently going to grad school, so she works a limited schedule as well. However you choose to do this, having some financial backing from your present employer plus finding ways to supplement your tuition, perhaps through being a TA or research assistant, you can come out of grad school with less of a financial burden than most.

About three or four years ago, I sat in on an intern's pay and performance review, and apparently she was getting a raise: she would be making about $18/hour. If you got that right now as a starting salary, you'd be making a little over $37K/year before taxes, 401(k), etc. But by the time you graduated in 2012, $18/hr would be the very minimum, I'd say. And that $18/hr is here in Denver--I'm sure it would be more in a larger market like DC.

And alas, Q, here's the final thing: People say that life is short, but when you hate what you do and how you spend your time, life is damn long. If you really want to do architecture, as a profession, please please please do so. Make the most of your contract work with the small architecture firm--ask to meet occasionally and ask him/her/them questions, or take a day off from your usual gig and spend some time just seeing what goes on in that architect's office. Ask to learn more about the rest of his/her/their work--can you help with shop drawings or specs? You don't mention what you're doing now for a living, but if architecture is really what you want, you can make it happen. Maybe not right smack-dab now, but you can make it happen. And heck, depending on what your living situation is right now,it sounds like you're in a good place to save up some cashola to help you make it through grad school with fewer debts when you get out (and paying down on those existing student loans is very helpful!). You may work long hours, but you won't do it all the time. you might get paid less than what you're doing right now, but you might enjoy it more.

You have the time to figure out what you want to do, so do a little digging. But if you want to be an architect, I'd love to have you in this profession. We need curious, motivated, energetic, thoughtful people in this profession, and I'd love for you to see this profession--my profession--when things are good. A friend of mine who works at a chemical dependency treatment center was talking about what are the worse drugs to come through his doors, and I told him, "Those don't hold a candle to architecture. That's a profession, a drug, a love affair, a life...meth wouldn't stand a chance against what I do for a living!"

I hope I've helped in some way here. I may have just given you more questions than answers. Feel free to email me anytime or post a comment on the blog. And take heart: this too shall pass.