Monday, May 2, 2011

Lulu's Mailbag: I'm still unemployed; time to quit architecture?

I received a timely email from "K", and I bet a lot of you are wondering the same thing s/he is asking here.  

I graduated last May with my Masters degree from an accredited university, and at the top of my class. Since then I have applied for over 100 jobs in many different areas, had few interviews, and am having zero-luck in the field of architecture. It is approaching the one year mark of unemployment, and I am highly discouraged. 
I have been trying to make myself more marketable, studying to be a LEED Green Associate, brushing up to stay current on software, even teaching myself new software.  Even if I could find an unpaid position, I am simply unable to work for free with all of my loans.

When is it time to abandon all that I have worked so hard for? My student loans are just accruing interest, becoming more impossible to pay. I have been forced to move back home because I cannot afford to pay rent. How should I proceed in this job market where I cannot acquire a position in architecture or a related field? How will this affect my chances in the future when employers see such a gap in work experience?

Good questions, all of them.  I've been getting so many of these kinds of emails over the past year-plus that it's nearly demoralizing (and sometimes, frankly, I feel like I'm repeating myself).  So in a fit of brilliance (?), I forwarded K's questions to my husband, Mr. Lulu (Hubby) Brown.  Hubby has worked at more than one firm in his lifetime, unlike me.  He also had some difficulty getting a job right out of college during the 1990s, so I thought he might have something useful to say here.  I've reprinted Hubby's responses to K below, with my commentary in a contrasting color afterwards (wherever I felt like I should add something).

It is a desperate time. There is no gap really, since you have not worked. You are in transition and it's ok.  I agree--if you're just getting out of school during 2008-2011, and you have little to no architectural experience on your resume, any employer with half a brain knows that you're a victim of the economy.  No harm, no foul.
1) Are you committed to staying in architecture? If not, start looking into good paying careers outside of architecture. If yes go to 2.
2) Get a part time or full time job to pay some bills. Apply in any state and for every job you can find and get a job. Live cheap and start paying you loans. Limit your exposure to loan deferment. It will cost you later. And you want to be able to defer later if needed. No firm is too small. Also, go to the local AIA for the directory and send resumes out to every other firm you did not apply to. 100 resumes sent in a year is not even close to what a serious job hunt would require. This is not the time to pick and choose; it's time to get work.  
I concur with the get-a-job-in-general suggestion, especially in 2011 when the economy is picking up slowly across the board.  I recently met an engineering intern who got a job for the past year as a lighting fixture representative, but she's about to move to California to start working as an EIT with an electrical engineering firm.  That's another thing about getting hired right now: you need to be willing to relocate for work, which is how both Hubby and I found our jobs here in Colorado.  100 resumes in a year in a down economy is relative to where you live; if you're in the Northeast, then you're just scratching the surface with 100 resumes/year, but if you're in Wyoming, then you've probably sent one to everyone within 300 miles of you.  Either way, it's time to get a job in any field so that you can put off deferring your student loans (which Hubby has done before, with only mediocre results).
3) After a year minimum experience you can a) Then you can start looking where you really wanted to live and apply for jobs you really want. Hopefully the market will be better by then, or b) figure out that you like where you are and finish your licensing after 3+ years. 
FYI #1 - If money is your priority, jumping after one year is your best bet, even if you like where you're at. But jump too much and you gain no loyalty at a firm.  A little firm-jumping can increase your income, but a lot of firm jumping means that you don't stay anywhere long enough to have anyone really fight to keep you if things got tight at a firm and layoffs needed to happen.
FYI #2 - You should be ready for the LEED exam after two to four weeks of solid studying, so just get it done.
This is what I, Lulu's husband, did and it worked well for me. I did not start working until I was about 6 months out of school and it never hurt my career. I was able to start saving serious money after five years and am still paying the minimum on his student loans. When times were tough, I deferred for 12 months. Just depends on how nice you want to live. But that is the only debt I have.  How nice you want to live...this is a very good point.  I've had interns at my firm complain about how much they made, but then they drove off in a one-year-old Audi to a downtown Denver loft apartment.  It might be worth it to work with your parents (or whoever you've moved back in with) to get started saving for moving expenses, a down payment on an apartment, or some similar savings plan while you pay off student loans and credit card bills.  I realized that by moving one mile away from my office in 2000 (from downtown Denver to a more residential/mixed-use neighborhood), I saved $400 a month in rent and parking garage expenses.  Getting a roommate (who later became my husband, coincidentally) saved me an additional few hundred a month.  Put plainly, it really sucked that I couldn't make it on my own out of college, and I think that's the big bait-and-switch that a lot of college graduates are given, regardless of their major.  But we have to be realistic in those first few years about how well we "need" to live in order to get through this once-every-70-years recession.

If you have a topic you'd like to see discussed or a question to have answered here on Intern 101, feel free to ask in the comments or via email in the sidebar.  And don't forget to take the 2011 Intern 101 Survey for Interns and Architects!  The survey for interns is here, and the survey for architects is here.  Please take the survey and forward to your friends and colleagues, both licensed and unlicensed.  Thanks!


  1. Very interesting post, thanks! I am in a similar position as K and I'd love to put my B.Arch degree to use in a well-paid career that does not involve architecture. I do not know what this career would be, I guess I always figured I'd work in a traditional architectural office setting. What are some of the careers I (and other recent graduates) could be well-suited for? I appreciate any feedback and thank you again for writing this blog!

  2. NOT PENNY ANTE from LaLaLandMay 3, 2011 at 11:37 PM

    Dear Lulu,

    First of all, I would like to say thank you so much for your time and efforts. Since I graduated from college, I've been looking for an architecture job. I don't think I'm lacking any skill on computer programs such as Revit. May be not on expert level. But could work out in a month. Long story short, I didn't get any job though.

    Anyway, I sucked it UP! I worked for a research organization, and I also helped family business.

    I even applied some grad school and got into some. But they're very very expensive and I wasn't so sure I can pay back the student loan. So, I deferred the admission. To be honest, I'm scare S***t out of paying skyrocketing tuition. I don't have trust funds.

    My question to you is
    actually two of them...

    1. Do you think it is worth paying about $55,000 for the grad school? I got into two year program. I decided to not spend more than 30,000 on my M.Arch. I'm not cheap. Just not dare to spare every penny I'll be making.

    2. What is your opinion about all these super duper scripting amazing jaw dropping schools tuition fees.

    To be honest, I'm scare to see current recessions AGAIN! when I get my M.Arch.

    NOT PENNY ANTE from LaLaLand

  3. Hey Lulu,

    Thanks for posting. I am spending my evening google-ing for "I'm an unemployed architect"...and so I ran into your blog. The fact is I am not employed as an architect. I graduated with an MArch, top of my class in 2008 and have been struggling roughly since 2009 to get a job as a starting architect (I'm not American, but Romanian and have graduated in Bucharest). I've also asked myself the very same question: is it time to drop architecture?
    I lost two job offers in 2009 because they were not exactly in building architecture (it was real estate and kitchen design) and the companies were small so I thought it would be a waste of time to get hired there. In any case, the next job offers came to me after about a year.
    The moment I started getting a lot of feedback was when I made speculative applications to architecture and product design offices in Romania- I sent about 150 applications at a time (same cover letter, same cv, same portfolio- blind cc); I got 4 job interviews and 1 interview to discuss a possible contest collaboration. From these, I got one not-so-serious job in architecture (one month contract to be extended if things go well) and another job offer that came too late. In any case, I was working two weeks after this 'mass application' (after having been unemployed for two years).
    Things 'didn't go well' and my contract was not extended (I think it was also an issue of convenience for my rather small employer who actually only needed me for one project). Anyhow afterwards I got a job in exhibition booth design- coincidentally I interviewed the same afternoon after getting fired in the morning and signed the contract one day after. So I have been designing exhibition booths for the last six months, which isn't quite putting my urban planning specialization to much use, nor my keen interest in urban theory. I'm not terribly happy with my present job, I'm smoking more, I'm reading about urban issues in my free time- at the expense of my personal life- and try to envision money and the uselessness of sitting home, every time I want to quit (which is pretty often).
    I have recently faced the dilemma of further studies- I got accepted to some advanced programs, but I'd be spending all my savings on them (and I have won a studentship, covering my tuition fees!). In any case, my mind is made up after working in small design...but there is definitely the high risk of being even less employable after this masters (no way I could be going back to Romania- there is hardly any notion about the master topic there...I got my interests doing a lot of reading on my own).
    One thing I have learned from my long unemployment time is to think carefully but move fast when it comes to jobs and career in general(my decision making process is considerably faster now :)).
    Another interesting phenomenon, at least in Romania is people getting into architecture masters and phDs massively(the number of phD candidates increased 10x in Bucharest- yes I went to a phD examination too). However it doesn't seem to be the same elsewhere- or is it?
    And another observation, also local- but perhaps it resonates, is that the job structure in architecture and related fields is mostly made up of very small offices and employers- which, I think, rendered them particularly vulnerable to the crisis and hence(thinking from an employee standpoint) terribly unstable as workplaces- even though the issue of job instability surely does extend beyond employer's economic (in)stability...and is something quite interesting to think about in general.
    Anyhow, hope the post is of use to someone and not unbearably long.
    Good luck with surviving all fresh architects.