The Truth About a Career In ArchitectureAn Experienced Architect Reflects on the Profession

A beautifully architected landmark building at night

Why should anyone become an architect anywhere? Let me qualify that by saying that I am a Chartered architect in the UK, and have been for over 20 years.

Studying to be an Architect — Intense, Competitive, and Expensive

The course of study is intensive. It’s not like a typical Arts degree where you can turn up to a couple of lectures a week and write a couple of essays. It’s more intense than most courses. You have to turn up to a lot of lectures, have lots of essays and at the same time, project work, on which your degree is dependent. And it’s not simply a case of harder work meaning higher grades. There is an element of subjectivity in assessing your project work. Tutors genuinely try to be objective, but invariably — most aren’t. The course is long, it’s a minimum of 5 years of full time study (most countries seem to involve a degree and a Masters), and it’s intense. The critique or jury system that everyone undergoes at the end of each project can be tortuous. You stand up in front of your peers, your tutors, and anyone else who happens to be around, and you explain your design, and it often gets ripped to shreds. It can be a kind of regular public humiliation, and there are few people who, if they haven’t been brought to tears, haven’t felt like bursting into tears. It can be brutal. Unfortunately you need this training to be robust enough to justify what you are doing when you are responsible for spending lots of other people’s money. It’s not a course for the faint hearted!

Depending on which country you study in, you might have to get one or two periods of work experience to be eligible to take your professional practice examinations to be qualified. There is a lot of competition for jobs, during and after qualification.

It’s also a very expensive course — one of the most expensive. Books, computers (high spec ones, not cheap ones), software, paper, presentation materials, printing costs. Unless you have rich parents, or manage to get a good job while you are studying, you will most likely end up with a very large debt.

Compensation — Starting Salaries Tend to be Low

When you qualify, your salary is lower than probably all of your colleagues who went into the other recognised professions like law, medicine, engineering, banking etc. One could debate whether teaching is a ‘recognised’ profession in the sense of the others (in many countries they don’t have a professional institute as such, they have unions) but they will generally earn more. Headteachers generally earn a lot more. You won’t be poor, but at best you will be comfortable — once you’ve paid off your debts. You could possibly earn more as a police officer in some countries. The only way to earn a reasonable amount of money (comparatively speaking) is to make a business of architecture, and to be a good entrepreneur.

You should embark on the course because you have a deep passion for design. In purely logical and comparative terms, it’s a terrible course of study and an awful profession. Your salary is lower than many non-professional jobs. Here in the UK, a train driver earns more than a newly-qualified architect, and many earn quite a bit more than fully qualified ones with lots of experience.

A Job With Significant Responsibility

You have a lot of responsibility. Clients effectively entrust large sums of money to you for design of a building. You don’t actually take the money, but you are largely responsible for how it is spent. The actual process of designing, detailing and managing the construction of a building is very demanding. You need to be meticulous and thorough. There are so many regulations and procedures that you need to be familiar with, and they change regularly, sometimes significantly. It can involve constant stress.

There is a lot of negotiation and management, and many architects have to balance this with entrepreneurship. You don’t start to get really good until you are over 40. There is so much to learn, that bringing everything together successfully is hard, and you need luck.

Your liability doesn’t necessarily end when you stop working. You can be sued by a client many years after you finished a project, even if you are no longer working. There are mechanisms to limit this (insurance) but it’s not necessarily absolute protection.

The Career Path

You can get stuck in a job working for someone, and after all your lofty ambitions, you can be producing tedious stuff for years. Some jobs will require you to work stupid hours for little money, and you will most likely have built up a lot of debt to get there. If you get to a job where you are lucky enough to be able to get something you design constructed, you may have a client that only wants to pay you to build something horrific with his money!

It’s not a logical choice for a profession. Probably every other design discipline is a lot easier. There is usually less study, a shorter course, less stress and more money. It could be either one of these, a combination, or all of them. Arguably there are too many of us. Our salaries are kept low by supply and demand. Unless we are in a position to design beautiful buildings, its questionable whether a client needs an architect at all.

The Joy of Architecture — A Deeper Understanding of Design

Engineers and technologists design buildings all the time. What makes architects different is that we understand design and all its aspects properly. Or at least ought to. I look around at the built environment and wonder sometimes… However — that said, I still enjoy my job. I have maybe 15 years left before I retire, and the older I get, the better I get. I’ve been lucky enough to have won awards, but they have all happened in the last few years — I was well over 40.

It’s not an easy life, and the financial compensation for the stress, time and responsibility are not remotely enough, considering the study and investment in time. I don’t think it ever gets easier! I hover between huge satisfaction from when things work out well (although on every project I tend to focus on the things that could have been better) and thinking, “Is it really worth the aggravation?”

If you want to study architecture, you need to make sure you have the drive and passion to stick at it for decades, and keep learning and trying harder on every project. If you have these things — good luck!

The author is a professional architect who has practiced for over 20 years. This essay first appeared as a response to a question on Quora, and has been republished here with the author’s permission.

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Tapwage occasionally gets authors to write candidly about their career transitions, and experiences at specific companies. In this case, the author has chosen to remain anonymous.