Preparing for Practice

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Chelsea Doorne

After (a minimum) five long years of architecture school, it’s finally over and time to transition into full time employment as an Architectural Graduate. Naturally, the experience changes depending on whether one has worked in a firm throughout their studies, or starting from scratch. However, the transition between the life of an architecture student and that of a graduate can be a tricky one that brings into focus the lessons taught (and not taught) during architecture school.

Upon writing this article, I looked to see if others had documented their transition between student and graduate life, but I could find little more than a sentence here and there. This transition is entirely personal and reliant on my own experiences and those of my peers, and should not be taken as scripture.

Architecture school is hard. While seated in graduation watching a compilation of other students reminiscing about their time at university and what they’ll miss about student life, I and other students wearing the bright magenta hoods of the architecture faculty noticed a distinct difference between our experiences versus those in other disciplines. While they were recounting their incredible social lives and the countless parties they attended, we were likely sleep deprived and under levels of stress that were able to be counted by the bags under our eyes. There were times when fun was had, but there was a definite disparity between our experiences and those of the other coloured hoods in the ceremony. Despite its long list of well document faults, spanning from high levels of mental health issues, unhealthy working hours and a renowned nightmare-like critique culture, it is also a degree which encourages creativity, complex problem solving and emphasises a utopian mentality of designing a world better for yourself and the community as a whole.  It is a profession in which you need to know ‘a little about a lot’ and there are very few set classes or practice exams that can truly determine what the field involves. The concrete lessons in transitioning from a student to a graduate however, rarely show themselves in a directly in the coursework, but can be drawn from external realisations having now having left architecture school and entering the workforce.

  1. Architecture School is a Bubble

It is important to remember that architecture is a life choice, but should not be considered as a complete lifestyle. Between the long hours and the studio project that is never quite finished, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing a world does not exist outside of architecture school. It was this long haul of hard work, dedication and focus that led me to believe upon the submission of my final thesis project I would be met with a moment of fulfilment, accompanied by the sunshine and rainbows which I had missed during my time in the architecture school hole. But I wasn’t. In fact, it was rather anticlimactic and despite there being feelings of relief and excitement, it did not feel relative to what I had just accomplished. Suddenly, architecture school did not feel like the most important part of my life, despite taking up a substantial chunk of it for the better part of 6 years. There is a whole world going on outside of school and the pressures that exist there, which leads me to my next point….

  1. Grades Are Not Everything

It is easy to say this now, but it was a struggle to wrap my head around this while studying. While great results are not to be undervalued, sacrificing a mark here or there will not affect job prospects. And from my personal experience and that of my peers, it is not common to be asked by an architectural firm for your academic transcript. When your mental health is struggling or you’re presented with an opportunity that takes up precious studio time, consider your options before retreating back into studio life. This is particularly relevant when opportunities to attend industry events arise as they will often provide more insight and beneficial outcomes than the couple of hours you would have otherwise spent mostly focused on studio.

One of the most relevant examples of this is the upcoming Presentation to Juries, often held at the Melbourne School of Design. Despite this occurring just shy of mid-semester presentations, the experience of attending these talks is invaluable. From watching how the professionals present their designs and field questions from a jury, to gaining exposure to what and who is current in the Victorian Architecture scene, and the subsequent networking opportunities that may arise. However, while the who’s who of Victorian architecture are presenting in the spaces around the faculty for free, it’s common to see students hunched over their laptops oblivious to the invaluable advice and insight that is happening around them. Taking time off from studio to meet and greet those who will be future colleagues and connections, if only for a couple of hours, is definitely worth the potential half a mark you may miss had you sat huddled around your computer. And realistically, how much work do you really get done on a Saturday? The presentations this year are on the 24th of March.

  1. Networking is Important

Architecture firms can range in size from large to very small, which means there often aren’t any structured graduate programs to ease the transition from student to working professional. Building on the previous point, networking is an invaluable asset in our career. The architecture community in Melbourne is tightknit and absolutely bursting with industry events that are open to all levels of the profession. Attending these events, such as the Presentation to Juries, New Architects Melbourne, Process, Melbourne Open House, and events hosted by SONA and Parlour are an opportunity to gain insight into what the community is like. By attending these events you will be given opportunities to introduce yourself to those who attend regularly, establish connections and develop an insight into what life as a working architect is really like prior to graduation.

  1. Get Involved

Unfortunately, architecture is a profession plagued with a myriad of well documented issues, ranging from mental health to gender inequality. However, moves are being made to remedy these matters to encourage an inclusive, healthy profession by numerous organisations. Parlour does brilliant work with a focus on work/life balance, and equity within the architecture realm. Their guides on combatting the long hours culture, and their dedication to improving gender equality in the profession make Parlour an excellent resource for all things architecture and the workplace. Gender inequality within architecture is definitely an issue, with women representing roughly 20% of registered architects in Australia. Given females account for over 40% of students in architecture school, this figure is needs to change.  Mentoring programs such as women@RMIT provides career advice for women entering male dominated industries while the Atelier Red+Black Preparing for Practice Mentorship program aims to reduce the gender gap through the mentoring of a select number of female Master of Architecture students. Post-graduation, programs such as the Australian Institute of Architects Constructive Mentoring Program provide graduates with 4 years of experience with a support network in the industry with a focus on career development, networking and business and management skills.

  1. Critiques Aren’t All Bad

While the critique culture of architecture has its problems and undeniably needs to change, there are also benefits to be drawn out of presenting and defending your designs to a jury and your peers. Skills in articulation, timing and visual and verbal presentation are invaluable. It’s common to field questions which can vary from what the strategic vision is of your masterplan to why you chose to use that style of font. Communication is an integral part of working within the design profession and the experience of presenting a design or scheme is a skill which can set you up in all aspects of life, as well as architecture. You need to be able to communicate in different ways while still getting your point across; from presenting to your director, a client or a consultant, your message needs to be clear despite shifts in the delivery made to suit your audience.  Treat presenting as an opportunity to learn how to field questions from every angle, defend your design and respond to suggestions with diplomacy and tact. Setting your phone to record your critique is handy not only because you’ll then have all your feedback on record, but you’ll be able to review what parts of your presentation work well for your scheme, and what aspects of your delivery need to change.

  1. Work Experience is Invaluable

Working while studying is a balancing act, but the benefits gained by working in the industry prior to graduation far outweigh the difficulties. The experience gained from working in a firm is invaluable and can often pair nicely with your studies, be that through construction knowledge, software experience or communication skills. The time restrictions in practice also can lead to better time management in the studio sphere as you need to embody the motto of ‘working smarter, not harder’. It is important to realise when to draw the [final] line in lieu of sacrificing hours to sourcing the perfect bird silhouettes.  Having this experience also aids in the job search following graduation and can help you stand out from the less experienced graduates you’re competing against if not lead to a career opportunity altogether.

  1. Time Management is Vital

The all-nighter culture of architecture school is well documented and a badge often worn with pride. As someone who relished in the fact that she managed only 10 hours of sleep over four days, I am guilty of this. However, the deeper I got into my degree, the more I realised that had I just managed my time properly, I likely wouldn’t have needed to calculate the perfect length of time for a nap to trick my body into being less exhausted (90 minutes). The reality is, you probably won’t be able to work consistently on one project for 16 hours a day until you’ve come up with the solution in the professional sphere. You need to be able balance a myriad of tasks while negotiating the deadlines of various projects and still go home at a reasonable time.

  1. Seize Every Opportunity You Can

The architecture community is a tight one, and there are a number of opportunities open to students and graduates alike which can provide unique and varying levels of insight into the profession. In class, getting involved with practice-based studios and studios led by industry professionals can offer diluted insight into life in practice. Attending the end of semester exhibitions at schools other you’re your own can inspire a different way of thinking to what you’re usually exposed to. Seeking other avenues of learning from blogs, podcasts and events with a Q&A component allow for a broader view point which can be applied to your studies.  Opportunities outside of the classroom are abundant and can provide a much more multi-faceted view of the architecture profession and encourage you to develop your views and skills in other relevant areas. Alternatively, there are an abundance of programs and platforms which can improve and provide skills that are beneficial within the professional sphere. SONA run a vast number of events which encourage interaction with the professional sphere such as industry night, Networking night, Portfolio Speed Dating and a number of open debates. Additionally, architecture is a career which embodies flexibility and there are many caps to wear within a firm, from project management to 3D visualisations, to report writing, photography, technical drawing and diagramming.  Taking advantage of learning these skills is important and can allow for more opportunities within your career progression.

Hopefully these points provide an insight into the life of a Graduate of Architecture while delivering an aspect of comfort when it feels like architecture school isn’t entirely helpful. It’s a hard degree, but the rewards are definitely worth it, even with the permanent dark eye circles.

Originally posted on theredandblackarchitect.com

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