Monday, September 26, 2011

Lulu's Mailbag: How do I respond when asked about salary and work hours?

First of all, I cannot thank y'all enough for sending in some great questions lately.  I've got so many topics to blog about that it almost makes me dizzy.  I've also received some great resumes for my long-languishing feature Redlined Resumes, about which I have been gravely remiss and need to get off my ass and post a few.  Meanwhile, here's a great question from A. regarding salary and other details in an interview:

I recently just graduated with my Masters in Architecture and just had my first job interview. I have a lot of questions for you if you wouldn't mind answering them. I feel as though my fellow colleagues may be withholding information from me to keep that competitive edge. During my interview, I was asked about starting salary, benefits, and work hours. Would you mind if I picked your brain and asked you a few questions? My concerns are that I am being taken advantage and would like to know where the profession stands on these topics. 

Wow, A.  You were asked about starting salary in a first job interview, where the interviewer clearly had to know that s/he was interviewing an entry-level person?  That's kinda weird to me, as how are you supposed to know what the market really bears as someone with little to no experience?  Websites like are only helpful to a point, as I think architecture as a profession holds its cards a little too close to the vest when it comes to what we make (and what we all should make).  That being said, some firms do report what they pay to whom, and those results make it into certain documents, such as the 2008 AIA Compensation Report.  That report showed that in the first quarter of 2008, intern pay averaged $45,400 a year.  But note the asterisks by that figure--that includes interns with a wide range of experience levels as well as (or so it would seem) geographical locations.  If you lump together an intern with one year of experience in Denver (making $32,000) and a six-year intern in New York (making $55,000), the mathematical average is $43,500.  (Regional reports are also available from the AIA, which might be more valuable to the average architect or intern.)  Plus, this report was compiled and released before the Great Recession really kicked in, so those numbers may be skewed even more.  

Having said all that, I've seen and heard of a few interns with 0-2 years experience here in Denver getting paid about $16/hour for their starting salaries.  I think it's unfortunate that our culture--American, not architectural--has a stigma towards money and discussing salaries.  Especially among interns, it's helpful to know what you "should" be asking for or expecting so that you can know if you're being compensated appropriately or if you're being taken for a ride.

Asking you about benefits and work hours might be a way for the interviewer to test your work ethic and sense of entitlement, or at least that's my guess.  S/He wants to see what you "expect" to have in a workplace, both in terms of the "freebies" (which aren't free) and how committed you are to work.  Are you a slacker who just wants to warm a chair for 40 a week, or are you more motivated?  Or are you so desperate that you'll let them abuse you week in and week out for 60 hours at a time?  

If you're new to the job market, I would turn the question back to the interviewer: what would most of the employees here say if I asked them about their workweek and workload?  If I were an intern and were pressed further on the topic, I might say something along the following lines:

  • work hours: "I suppose 40 hours is the norm in the workplace, and I'm fine with that.  However, I understand that sometimes the job takes more or less than that number, and I'm willing to do the work it takes to make our firm look good.  How would the employees here describe their workweek length and tasks?"
  • benefits: "I see working with a firm as a symbiotic relationship--I provide high-quality architectural services that help us gain and keep clients and make a mark on the built world in our market, and in return I gain knowledge about how to do that job even better through the support of the firm.  Sometimes that support is through additional training or continuing education opportunities, and sometimes that support is through time off that allows me to heal from an illness or take a break and recharge.  How does your firm view employee benefits?"
If you have a topic you'd like to see discussed here or a question you'd like to ask, feel free to do so via email in the sidebar or in the comments.  Thanks!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Studying for the ARE: finding study buddies and materials

Recently, a reader asked in the comments on this post I did about ARE study tips:

1. I just finished B.Arch at University of Oregon. And now I'm back in Newcastle, WA where I live and know practically nobody. Can you think of a source to find study buddies? And maybe what the best forum to work with?
2. Books, Visuals. I know you mentioned two sources up there, I'm going to try to look them up, but any other recommendations?
3. How did you go about choosing your order of the exams?

Let's start with the first question.  If you've moved somewhere after finishing your degree, did you move there for a job?  If so, get to know your coworkers and ask them if they or anyone they know are studying for the ARE.  If you've moved home because of a lack of work, check with your nearest AIA chapter about classes or ARE study groups.  AIA Denver (here in my adopted hometown) puts on low-cost classes to help interns prepare for each of the ARE exams.  Also, NCARB's website might have some good info on study groups (either existing ones or on forming your own).  As for forums, can be helpful, but by the end of my husband's and my time taking the ARE, we quit visiting it because it seemed like the only people on the site were those with extreme panic disorders.  Read the site, but take the OMG!!!?! THISTESTISSOHARD!1!!! tone of the comments with a grain of salt.  And a large margarita. 

NCARB also may have some resources for helping you study for the ARE; I haven't looked lately, but they've been getting more info on their website lately.  The interns around me are saying good things about both the Kaplan study guides and the Ballast study guides.  I've heard especially good things about the Kaplan ARE Complete Library, which includes 24 months of online access to additional online study supplements.  It's pricey at $1300, but if you go in on it with several friends/study buddies, you can offset the cost somewhat.  (Some folks sell their used study materials to other interns for less that what they paid after they've finished the ARE.)  If nothing else, get the flash cards.  I'd have to say that every test I took had at least three or four questions that came straight from the flashcards.

As for the order of taking the tests, bear in mind that I took them when there were nine tests: six multiple guess and three graphics tests.  My husband and I thought about what sounded easiest to us, i.e., what could we have the best chance of passing, given our work experiences in the last year or two?  For us, Construction Documents and Materials and Methods were the obvious first choices, since we both had a great deal of experience detailing buildings and working with the actual process of getting a project built.  We then reasoned to take the two structures tests together (General Structures and Lateral Forces), as the knowledge of studying one added to and built on the other.  We then took the last two multiple guess tests, which were MEP and Pre-Design.  Finally, we took the three graphics ones, starting with the toughest one (Site Design) and saving Schematic Design for last because it seemed like the easiest of the three.  By taking a couple of "easy" ones first, we were hoping to build our confidence up to take the tougher ones in the middle.  Taking the tough ones in the middle would hopefully give us time to fail a test and wait six months to take it again while taking possibly-easy-ish other tests.  While there are now only seven tests and they all combine multiple guess and graphics, the principle remains the same--start with the topic you think you might know best, then take the toughest ones so you have time to fail them if need be.  (Note: my husband and I didn't fail any of the sections, but it's no shame or crime to fail one or more.  It happens to the best architects.)

Got a question you'd like to ask or a topic you 'd like to see discussed here?  Ask me via email in the sidebar or in the comments, and thanks for all the questions and input!

Monday, September 12, 2011

What makes it "worth it"?

I recently got a comment on the very first post I ever did on Intern 101 that asked a good question.  I noted at the end of that post that I myself nearly left architecture but am glad I stayed and that staying in the profession is worth it.  Reader DRob26 asked:

I really appreciate your insight as I am a new intern. It seems to be a difficult transition from school to practice. I have only been here 4 months, and I have often wanted to quit. You say staying is worth it. What made it worth staying?

First of all, I really feel your pain, DRob26--the shock of going from school to work can make a person curl up in a ball in the bathroom floor sometimes, and even today I have moments where I think Good Lord, did I really spend all that time in school for this?!  (Apparently, yes.)  But the question still stands: why did I say it was worth it even if I find myself now and again wishing I'd gotten a degree in psychology or mortuary science instead of architecture?  (Those who know me personally know that I'd make a great embalmer and funeral home director.  I'm not particularly goth, I just find the whole process of dealing with death interesting.  Every vacation I take eventually involves touring a graveyard.  But I digress....)

One of the reasons I'm glad I stayed in is that I gave myself enough time to experience a wide range of the architectural profession's ups and downs.  No offense to DRob26's four months in a firm, but anything less than two or three years isn't much to base a career (or career change) on. Projects in a firm last too long to make a quick decision about what's good, bad, exciting, or craptastic about the profession you've chosen and for which you've spent volumes of time in school.  In a way, joining a firm is where the rubber really meets the road--it's where things get exciting, and you find out if you really can handle all that's being asked of you.   Furthermore, time spent at one firm also may not be enough experience on which to base a career.  I've spoken with interns whose first firms out of school were everything from bland to Stephen King-esque nightmares; interns either did the same types of plan details over and over for two months straight at the blah firms, while other interns were forced to work 20 hours of unpaid overtime a week or sexually harassed by the firm owner.  All of the interns in these firms I just described have since left those firms and are now much happier and fulfilled at other firms.

I considered leaving architecture while working for a frustrating jerk back in the early 2000s.  He was arrogant and would behave either passive-aggressively or as if he were bipolar--laughing and joking one moment, then fifteen minutes later he was cursing loudly and throwing code books.  Other people at my firm were talking about how great my firm was and how much better it was that where they used to work, and all I could think was Jesus, really?  If it's so great, and I'm so miserable, then clearly I shouldn't be in architecture at all.  However, a few months after I had this feeling/realization, he told his project team that he was leaving our firm and moving out of state to start his own firm closer to his family out east.  It was only after he left and I was able to work with another manager in the office, one that many people refused to work for because he was "strict and overly-serious", that I found out that the problem wasn't the firm or the profession but rather the manager.  I was finally working with someone who was more interested in teaching me how to be a good architect than in eating a whole bowl of crazy every morning before coming to work.  Once I was able to experience that difference, I could settle down and enjoy the profession for real.

The other reason I'm glad I've stayed is that after working my butt off, I'm now reaping some of the fruits of my labors.  I spent years slogging through details and drawings and code books and project after project, and I've finally developed the expertise to know if I can or can't locate a soiled utility room in a certain part of a department or how a room has to be built differently if it has one kind of equipment versus another.  I've developed the ability to look at a corridor in a floor plan and know almost instantly if it meets code (IBC, ADA, or various state and national healthcare guidelines).  By learning constantly and producing good work and retaining knowledge and managing my projects well, I've earned the right to run some of my own projects and have interns help me draw and detail and do code research on those projects.  And because I'm in charge, I finally get to do it my way.  While adjusting to the changes in my workdays and workweeks hasn't always been easy, at least I'm not doing the same thing over and over for eleven years.  And because I learned what I needed to learn and am still learning more and more, architecture is, in some ways, becoming easier.

Architecture can be an addictive profession.  You work so hard for so long for that brief, strange payoff of walking into a building you drew that has been built and indeed has come to life.  For me, it's the payoff of having the users--the people without whose input I couldn't have done the work--run up to me in the new building and proclaim how great it looks, and how well it works, and how wonderful it is.  Those moments are rare and few indeed.  I've done a lot of remodeling jobs lately, one of which was in a very busy clinic in a metropolitan area.  The clinic's project manager, the contractor, and I were all standing in the newly-renovated lobby recently, discussing the open items from the punchlist and wondering how to phase the next part of construction because there had been so many complaints about the temporary walls we'd had to put up for the first phase...and a little old lady came out of nowhere and put her hand on my arm.  She looked up at me and said, "I want you to know that this lobby  looks so's just so pretty in here, and I just love it!"

That, my friends, was worth it.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Happy belated Labor Day, hopefully without the labor!

I just got back from an extended Labor Day weekend, in which I unplugged and checked no email or voicemail, turned off my cellphone, and didn't watch a lick of TV.  It was unbelievably relaxing, and it was just what I needed.  I actually heard someone lament today at they were annoyed that our IT department shut down the servers over the three-day weekend so they could do some upgrades.  My colleague had wanted to work on a deadline over the weekend, and he was rather piqued that he hadn't been able to use a three-day weekend productively.  I thought to myself, what could be more productive that staying the hell home and getting a little extra sleep and having brunch with a mimosa or twothreeseven?

I've emphasized before on this blog that there are times when you're just going to have to pull long days/nights and weekends, but as the book of Ecclesiastes said, to everything there is a season.  There's a time to work a lot, and there's a time to go home and actually enjoy your three-day weekend.  Here's hoping you all did just that.

I've been emailed some great questions and comments as well as post ideas, and I plan to get to them in the next few weeks here.  I welcome more comments and questions, as always.  In the meantime, please be patient as I get through the pileup in my email inbox from a five-day weekend!