Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Burnout: the unspoken bane of emerging professionals

I haven’t been very good about posting regularly lately—I’ve struggled with keeping up with Intern 101, trying to come up with good topics to discuss and eagerly pouncing on a topic when someone emails me a question. Really, I’ve struggled with posting anything at all at least once a week. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m fighting some kind of burnout.

I don’t usually post about what’s personally happening to me, but I feel like mentioning it might be worthwhile, as I imagine I can’t be the only one. If you’ve managed to stay employed through the recession, you might be feeling this way yourself. You come into work and sit down at your desk, and suddenly all the energy drains from your body. You can’t even pick up a pen, and you can’t bring yourself to answer the urgent emails filling your inbox or to complete the rather simple redlines sitting on your desk. All you want to do is surf the internet or go home and do laundry. It’s a different feeling from spring fever or holiday restlessness; it’s a feeling that is a sudden draining of energy and focus at best, and at worst it’s what one of my colleagues once described as “the day is ruined the moment you turn the key in the ignition to drive to work.”

After months—if not years—of trying to do more with less and watching your coworkers get laid off in waves and struggling to keep your job and do the jobs of those who were let go and accomplishing all of this with a brave face, it’s no surprise that you’d be feeling burnout by now. Or perhaps the work has come back with a vengeance, and you’re working like hell with a paycheck that reflects your 2008 skills while doing a 2011 job (yours and someone else’s because no one’s hired extra help just yet, just in case there’s a double dip recession). Myself, I’ve just spent the past few months working at a breakneck pace, leaping from deadline to deadline after nearly wearing myself out with projects plus preparing and giving a presentation at the national AIA convention. I spend my days frenetically jumping from phone call to department layout to email to QC of a set of drawings to—oh, wait, have I eaten lunch yet? And of course, because the economy has been so bad for so long, it seems like sacrilege to complain. But the weariness, the anger, the anxiety are all there, and the passion for what we do—for what I do—is gone. I come home from work, bone tired and drained, and I can barely even flip through a catalog or magazine, let alone put together coherent thoughts for a well-meaning blog providing so-called professional advice.

Burnout is a weird feeling for me, because I’m one of the most motivated people I know. Burnout is what other people deal with, what people who don’t really like architecture feel, I think to myself. But I’m finding that even the most committed amongst us, the most devoted to this art and craft and profession and obsession that we call architecture, even we the truly dedicated feel some annoyance with this field and wish for a break to do anything, anything other than this. I don’t yet have any answers for working through my burnout, but I do know that the only way out is through. I also know that I have to find a way to get some breaks in before Christmas, and I have to make sure that those breaks don’t get used up by holiday shopping or filling out greeting cards or the like. My goal is to post on Intern 101 at least once a week. Any questions, observations, comments, gripes, etc. are welcome, as they help me get ideas for post topics. In the meantime, I do hope that all of you got to enjoy your holiday and are finding better days coming at your firms (or in acquiring a job), and I beg your patience in the coming month or so while I work through this exhaustion.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Lulu's Mailbag: Is doing a competition like cheating on your employer?

I know, I know, more Mailbag. But why not? We've had some great questions lately, including this one from R, who hasn't been able to get a job yet in the economy...

So in the meantime I've been working with another unemployed from my graduate classes to do a couple of competitions. We haven't won/place/show/honorable mentioned in anything yet and are now starting to think we need to seek out ways for our participation to be known. It seems like competitions are a bit light on publication of entries and we might be the only ones who have seen what we've put together (aside from new pages in our portfolios). How do we get our images out there? Any thoughts?
Secondly, although we're not architects yet, we appreciate the ability, and freedom, of making our own designs. We are hoping to continue doing competitions in some manner when we do land jobs. Any thoughts on this sort of competition moonlighting? (Really, it doesn't feel like cheating-the-employer type of moonlighting yet, although that might change when we do win something!)

There are two questions here from R. One is how to we publicize our involvement in competitions, and two is how acceptable is it to do competitions while working. Let's address these in order:

First, it's a little tough to drum up interest in your competition work if you haven't won anything yet. Winning makes it easier to toot your own horn. That being said, there are other ways to broadcast your efforts. The obvious first way is to create a blog or website that allows you and your pals to showcase your work. Then, any potential employer can surf on over and have a look at your efforts. The second is through the print media. First, you can write a press release to a local architectural publication or even your local paper about how you and your pals are making the best of a down economy by gong after design competitions. This might also allow you to get featured in the paper or some other publication as a human interest story: look how these kids aren't just sitting around at their parents' houses, waiting for a phone call--they're out doing cool stuff! There are books and online articles about how to write a press release. However, I have to say that I wrote up press releases for the seminar I did at the national AIA convention this year, and no one picked it up. Here's hoping you have better luck than I did.

Second, the competitions and work: overall, it's a good thing. Firms know that you don't get much creative control in your first few years in the business for a variety of reasons, and there's nothing wrong (and many things right) with entering competitions. However, if the competition is to do an actual project that could be built, you might want to talk with your manager(s) and/or firm owner(s). If you win a competition to do a building that will actually be built, you're going to need a licensed architect on board to oversee the design. That's where your firm would come in handy--suddenly, you'd have built-in support to get a project done, plus you'd actually be bringing in work for the firm. When you talk to the firm owners, be sure your group is all in agreement on how the work would be done. Explain that you're happy to do all the work and design on the front end, and that if you win the project that you'd like to be on the project team. If the firm insists on putting someone else on the competition team with you and your buds, be willing to either work with that person or stand your ground about it just being you and your friends...and know that standing your ground might leave a bad taste in the firm owner's mouth. (Remember, just because we're all old and cranky doesn't mean we might not be interested in doing a cool competition with you--your enthusiasm gets us excited!)

Got a question for Lulu or a topic you'd like to see discussed here? Tell me in the comments or via email in the sidebar, and thanks again for all your support and comments!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Lulu's Mailbag: How to toot my own horn on a competition design?

More Lulu's Mailbag again! I really appreciate folks sending me questions, by the way--it makes for a more interesting blog. I can tell you what I think is interesting, but I'd rather hear your questions. Today's question is from J, a return reader/Mailbag Writer, who says:

I graduated in December 2009 from IIT and one of my last Studio's I worked on was a Design/Build studio(spring 2008, summer 2008). Designing during the spring semester a small field chapel in Germany and building the design over the summer. The project went extremely well, an amazing time, an incredible experience professionally and definitely the high point of my B. Arch. Two years have passed and we've received some great attention. [links to various websites and magazine publications here] The Chicago AIA Chapter gave us a Distinguished building - Honor award [for this project].

I'm wondering how to call attention the project, outside of everything I can present in my portfolio. Do I mention the project being published in a book? I know the internet article is only of little importance, as anyone can publish something on the Internet, I'm just wondering if there is a way to mention the book gracefully. Outside of just calling out the Award on my resume is their a better way?

Wow! This is great news indeed, and I don't know why you wouldn't walk into an interview with this news on a t-shirt that you not only wear but also shoot into the potential office with a t-shirt cannon. Okay, I'm kidding (kind of), but I think you can make this more apparent in your cover letter as well as your resume. If you have a section on your resume called "Honors and Awards" or "Competitions", you can describe the project briefly and then list the Chicago award and then say "Featured in Awesome Architecture 2010 (Little, Brown Publishers, 2010)". You should use that section of your resume to describe all the places that the project has been featured as well as any and all awards it has received. Further, you can mention the award and publication in your cover letter or introductory email to a potential firm: "I would be excited to bring my design skills to your firm; my senior studio design team's work received the Chicago AIA's Distinguished Building Honor Award for 2010 and was featured in a recent architectural publication." Furthermore, you can use this project as a way to discuss your usefulness as an architect trying to detail something--after all, having actually had to build something you drew, you have a unique perspective on design and construction. Be sure that you describe the "I built it too!" part on your resume. Do you have any pictures of you and your group actually working on it? Arrange those on a page in your resume, or even better you could provide a link to a blog or website that shows everyone the project. The website might be dedicated to your work alone, or it might be dedicated to the project alone (sketches, final boards, in process construction photos, final product, list of and links to awards).

And speaking of online presence, I'd still mention the internet article about the project. Yes, any fruitcake can publish something online (I'm "Exhibit A"), but it might be on a website with which a firm is familiar, and they might go, "Oh, cool! I saw that building! That was this guy? Get him in here!" It also might excite a not-so-into-design firm: "Neat! This guy's a good designer; maybe he can help us class up our strip malls!" However, bear in mind that if you send your resume to a firm that's more about production than awesome design, your honors may not have as much impact. That's okay--keep tooting your own horn, and don't sweat it.

If you have a topic you'd like to see discussed here, or a burning question about the architectural profession, feel free to ask me in the comments or drop me a line via email in the sidebar. Thanks, and have a great Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Lulu's Mailbag: Is a posh grad school worth it?

Today's letter comes from a fellow Gator (that is, attendee of the University of Florida), who writes:

I was curious as to how significant the grad school I attend is....Like if I get into say Harvard (which would be fantastic), is it worth it to attend there considering the loans i might have to take out. Will I be getting a significantly better paying job if I graduate from Harvard than say the University of Florida (i graduated from there and if i go there it would probably be free) or University of Texas, University of Pennsylvania...(other schools i'm applying to are Wash U, UVA, M.I.T.).....

This is a good question, and I'm surprised I haven't been asked this yet: if I go to a more prestigious graduate school, will I make more money coming out of it? And the answer is no, not really. You may be more highly sought after for having a more prestigious name on your diploma, but it's not really going to affect your pay out of school. The architectural profession pays you more for your experience than for your education. If you want to make more money coming out of graduate school, your best bet is to get a summer or part time job during school so that you have some familiarity with the practice before you start.

Myself, I graduated from the University of Florida in 2000, and my starting pay out of grad school with no experience was $14.50/hr. You might expect kind of around that much out of graduate school in 2012, but maybe perhaps more like $15-$17/hr starting pay. My husband graduated from Kansas State University with a 5-year B.Arch in 1998, and his starting pay was less than my starting pay. The M.Arch is still being paid slightly more than the 4-year degree or the B.Arch, even though it's really just an extra year of school. But ultimately, you're being paid for experience, not the school.

I've met architects from Montana State University who could draw and detail circles around people who went to Harvard, and I've met University of Colorado students who could draw and detail circles around people who went to a 2-year college and have been working in architecture for fifteen years. The point is that the school does not make you a good architect; YOU make you a good architect, and your own skills make you worth hiring, paying, and paying more. (By the way, I've met good people from Wash U in St. Louis and from UVA, and they're good, though they could tell you stories of not so good graduates as well. Every school has some winners and some losers. :-p )

That being said, going to Harvard, Cooper Union, SCI-ARC, and the like are a good move if you're really interested in teaching at some point (like during or after you get licensed). If teaching architecture (especially teaching design) is your ultimate professional goal, then Harvard and its cohorts will be more worth the loans.

Got a question you'd like to ask or a topic you'd like to see discussed here? Drop me a line via the comments or in an email at my address in the sidebar. Thanks!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Tales from the crypt, um, email inbox

I know it's after Halloween, but I had to share a recent spooky occurrence that happened to me via email. I was looking for a set of PDFs of a project that was similar to one that was just in SD. I wanted to send this set of PDFs to my cost estimator so he would have a good idea of what this new project would be like (in terms of casework, finishes, mechanical and plumbing standards, etc.). I knew that a colleague of mine had worked on a similar project to mine, which we'll call the Winburn Building. I sent my colleague the following email:

Hi Xxxxx,

Are there PDFs of the drawings (CDs, as-builts, whatever) for the Winburn Building? I’d like to upload them to our FTP site to send the cost estimator for the Crestridge Building.

This was the response I got back:

Sure are


So I sent this:

Excellent! Where’s the best place in the project files drive to find those? I see [project number] and [different project number] under the [Winburn Building's Client Name] folder...would you recommend sending the PDFs in [long file path name and number] to my cost estimator for Crestridge? I want to give him something that’s as complete as we can get it for Winburn, and that looks like what I want but it also says “Initial Pricing Package” on the front sheet…?

And I got back this:

[project number] is what you should use

Good luck

Um...wow. This is feeling really unhelpful and dare I say a little schmucky. So I finally wrote back:

Oh, derp! What I was trying to do is ask if you had CDs of Windburn [project number], or is the Initial Pricing as far as the project has gotten?

And I finally got back:

[project name and short path to the correct folder]

Try these… might be better

Now then, was that so painful? If you had sent me that three emails ago, we could have been done by now. Perhaps my colleague was annoyed because the folder, once he sent the link for it, was pretty obvious. But for some reason, I just had not been able to find it and was looking for direction from him. Furthermore, there were two project numbers that could have been the project I needed. Ah, but I promised you a spooky event, didn't I? Yes indeed, and here is the scary part...

...this colleague is a licensed architect with more years of experience than I have! AAAHHHHHGGH!!! [running away from the campfire]

Okay, okay, that was a little dramatic. But it's still a little scary--this architect (whose poor email skills I've written about before) sends emails to clients and consultants all the time, and some of the things he sends out on which I've been copied are downright horrifying. More than once, I've read his emails and thought "If I hadn't been in that same meeting, I'd have no idea what he was talking about right now."

Your consultants, clients, and colleagues all have jobs to do on a project, tasks that intersect with your tasks and that make the project run smoothly. Sometimes they need something from you, and sometimes you need something from them--fair enough. However, it's not fair to make them a) work hard to understand you and b) work hard to get what they need from you. Email is a communication medium that is rife with opportunity for misunderstanding, so a well-written email saves everyone a lot of time and energy (energy spent either figuring out what you want from someone, or energy spent getting furious with a misinterpreted comment).

Some basic tips for writing good project-related emails:
  1. Take your time. Email does make it easy to dash off a quick note to someone, but really take a moment to reread what you've read, or even read it aloud (a trick I learned from some of my English-major friends in grad school). This is good practice even with the smallest emails. Perhaps you want to send a layout of some outdoor mechanical equipment to your engineer, and you need him to confirm if the layout will work. You could just say, "Eddie, here's my pass at the mechanical yard. Will this work for you?" However, a little more thought makes this a much more useful email and can help them think through your request: "Eddie, here's my pass at a layout for the mechanical yard equipment. Do we have all the clearances correct around the equipment, and will these locations work for now as well as the Phase 2 buildout?" Also, composing your email with a little time allows you to prevent from sending out something with sentence fragments (where you began to type something, then changed your mind but forgot to erase the first half of the abandoned sentence).
  2. SpellCheck is your acquaintance, not your friend. There are plenty of words that pass SpellCheck because they really are words, but they're not the right word for your email. One of my English-major pals tends to accidentally start many emails with "Dear family and fiends..." Fortunately, he checks the email again (see tip #1 above) and catches it before it goes out. While most typos and grammatic snafus aren't that big of a deal (e.g., "form" instead of "from"), it does make it look like you're not paying attention.
  3. Ditch the slang and (most of) the jokes and funny references. Email is an medium in which it's easy to misinterpret what was typed, because many of us do dash off an email quickly in the same voice and words that we might say aloud. Since that written form is missing our tone of voice and inflection, a joke might come off as a snidey slap in the face. Also, you're working with people from a wide spectrum of backgrounds, ages, generations, cultures, etc. Slang doesn't always translate even amongst people who speak the same language. I think about a fellow grad student who was born in Spain and moved to the U.S. when he was ten. His parents hired a tutor to teach him English, so while my friend spoke impeccable European Spanish, his English was so perfect that he actually had slightly adopted the Brooklyn-inflected accent of his tutor. The only thing that would give him away as a naturalized citizen instead of native-born is that he didn't understand a lot of American childhood cultural references and older slang sayings, like "the early bird catches the worm".
  4. Always use a good, clear subject for the email. A good habit to develop with project-related emails is to first type the name of the project and then the primary topic or topics of the email. In my case above, I might use this as my email subject: "Crestridge Building -- Mechanical Yard Layout." If my email had a variety of topics involving mechanical stuff, I might write "Crestridge Building -- Mechanical Issues." (Notice I did not say "stuff"; I didn't go to grad school and pass the ARE to write emails with the word "stuff" in them like I was starring in Dude Where's My Car?.) A good clear subject line not only allows someone to quickly know what information you're looking for or problem you're trying to resolve, it also can help them (and you) search for the email later in their inbox.
  5. Make sure the point of your email is clear. Even if you have to write a bunch of introductory information, or perhaps you have to clearly spell out the three or four problems going on in a project, you want to be able to make the intent of the email clear. What do you want this email to do after the recipient(s) has/have read it? Do you want someone to make a decision? Do you want someone to get you a drawing? And if there are multiple recipients, is it clear which of them should be making the decision, getting you the drawing, etc.? One of my favorite sentence structures for being clear is this: "I want/need/would like __________ by __________ because __________." And that "because" is not an apology. but rather a courteous explanation of what's going on that requires that we do-this-by-this-time.
  6. And finally, when you get an email asking for something, either give the person what they need or ask for more information. It was pretty clear what I wanted in the email at the beginning of this post, and had my colleague given me the file path at that point instead of waiting for the third email, we could have been done. If my colleague was really busy and couldn't help me, at that moment, he could have emailed back that he was on a deadline and would get me a link later that morning, or he was on a deadline and I should ask So-and-So for more prompt help, or he could have said "here's the project number, and I'm pretty sure I have a folder in there called _____ that should have what you need." Taking your time with emails refers to reading them as well as writing them. What is this person looking for? What are they needing? Instead of just firing back a "here you go" when you're not sure, ask. It might even be helpful to call the person and talk through their request, then use a reply email to recap the discussion and give them what they have asked for (or explain why you can't do that at that time).

Thursday, November 4, 2010

'Tis the season to give...and give.......and give.....

If you've been at a firm of more than five people since perhaps August, then you know what I mean by "giving at the office": once school is back in, colleagues with children bring in order forms for fundraisers, hitting up everyone from the firm partner to the copy room guy for cookie dough, candles, wrapping paper, and the like. This kind of fundraising is so prevalent that some companies forbid it. That seems a little extreme, but I can't say as I blame them. It gets to the point that almost every other week, there's an order form for something or other taped to a cabinet door in the office break room, and I'm practically praying for my property taxes to skyrocket so that we can fund these schools well enough that they don't have to resort to organized panhandling in order to support field trips and art supplies. That being said, I also like to support my colleagues, especially if it's something that I'm actually going to use--like cookie dough or wrapping paper. And school fundraisers aren't the only sort of giving that you see at an office; sometimes it's a colleague asking for donations as they participate in a charity event.

Charitable solicitations and sales in the workplace can be a great way to make up your sales fast--I've got twenty people in one place, and if ten of those people buy a container of cookie dough or donate $10 each to my 5K run for trichotillomania awareness, then everybody wins. But the process leaves your coworkers in an uncomfortable spot, especially in a smaller office: either I say yes to everybody's solicitations and find my pockets empty by the end of the month, or I say no to everybody and look like a total Scrooge, or worst of all, I say yes to some but not all the solicitations and look like I'm playing favorites. So, what to do?

The first thing I do is this: I actually have picked a few charities that I really like, that champion causes that I support and that are efficient with their funds, and then I support those charities by having them bill a manageable monthly amount to my credit card every month. They get regular support, I get to help a cause that I like, and I also get the cash back points by using the card. What this also does for me is it allows me to budget my charitable donations--I want to give x percent to charity each month, and I've done so. As cold-hearted as it sounds, this process can allow you to give to worthy causes and then legitimately say to your colleagues, "I wish I could help, but I've already spent my charitable donation allowance for the month." That will allow you to graciously bow out of at-work giving without looking like a jerk.

But not all giving at work is bad. Because I work in a large office and don't work with everybody all the time, I generally only buy from those people I know and work with on a regular basis. I'll look for something that isn't too pricey, for example, or even better I'll just make a donation. Some school fundraisers allow you to donate to send cookies to overseas military, and some allow you to simply donate an amount without having to accept any wrapping paper or whatever from them. I like both of these options because they sometimes allow you to name your price (which is handy if the stuff they're selling is out of an intern's price range), plus you don't have anything cluttering up your house when it's all said and done. (Just remember--if you say you'll donate and the money is due later and not now, don't back out on the person/cause.)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Not exactly uplifting, but funny

There's some adult language in here, but it's hilarious. The truth of the architectural profession lies somewhere between these two points of view. I had to post it, though, because it actually made me laugh out loud.