Inspiring Success in Architecture for Small Firms and Sole Proprietor Architects

My Ultimate Guide to Landing Your First Job in Architecture

shutterstock_137760344This past December I was invited to speak at AIAS Forum 2013; the American Institute of Architecture Students national convention. This year the event was held in Chicago… Yes, Chicago in December, and yes, we were snowed-in for days. While we waited for the airports to open, I had the opportunity to speak in length with many of the architecture students in attendance. They asked me many questions, but the one concern they had more than any other was what they should do to land their first job in architecture. I shared my thoughts and told them to watch the blog for a post on the subject. So, here it is… a promise fulfilled. Here is my guide to landing your first job in architecture.

I graduated from Roger Williams University School of Architecture in 1993 and entered the profession during an economic period not unlike the environment we are experiencing today. The nation was slowly recovering from a recession and architects were not eagerly seeking help from intern architects. Throughout the winter before graduating, I wrote over 100 cover letters and mailed them with my standard one-page resume to every architecture firm in the New York metropolitan area. A few weeks later, the postman delivered an equal amount of rejection letters politely announcing the cold hard truth of the profession. There were hundreds of architecture students graduating that spring and they were all competing for the same few positions available in the region.

I did not know any architects. Every summer since my senior year in high school I worked on construction sites, learning the trade up close and studying the psychology of the architect/contractor relationship. I grew up in a family of auto mechanics and tradesmen. I knew well from my carpenter God father that contractors did not appreciate or respect the skills and talents of the architects with whom they worked. There was very clear distain for the professionals involved in his jobs. They were viewed as obstacles rather than team members and I wanted to understand why. I certainly learned what I needed to know during those hot summers in the field, but having no experience in an architecture firm was a major disadvantage as I prepared for graduation.

That first summer was not encouraging. With no available positions, I launched Plan B and started my own business detailing cars. I set up shop at my dad’s gas station and grew the business quickly. The entrepreneur life was great. I had a full schedule, set my own hours and made more money than any other time in my life.

My career as an architect was just going to have to wait.

Discouraged by my lack of success, I searched for a new way to approach these firms. I had plans for my life. I had goals to meet. Each day that I was not working in a firm was a day delaying my goal of becoming a licensed architect by the age of 30. There had to be another way.

More suited for an intern accountant, I ditched the cold, uninteresting resume and created something completely different. Combining the introduction of my cover letter, the list of experience from my resume and reproductions from my portfolio, I developed a new document that read more like a brochure for my personal brand than a desperate plea from a unemployed architecture student. I delivered my new “marketing material” personally to each of the local firms near my home and each time I was stopped at the reception desk and greeted professionally. They accepted my package knowingly and dismissed me politely.

I was not optimistic.

A few weeks later I received a call from the firm of Barry Poskanzer, AIA, Architect and Planner located in Ridgewood, New Jersey. They requested a meeting and later that week, I was working for the firm, measuring the existing conditions of 300+ condominium units recently converted from an abandoned brick masonry textile mill.

It worked. I didn’t know exactly how at the time, but my unique approach landed me the job. When Barry sorted through the dozens of unsolicited requests for employment, my “brochure” stood out among the other identical stark looking documents. Being unique got me noticed in the very noisy world of architecture internship.

Today, graduates of architecture school have it even rougher than us kids of the 90s. We are creeping out of the deepest recession since the Great Depression and firms are still reeling in pain from the past half decade. Seats for internships are few and very far between. Firms’ boards are filling up fast with new projects, but they are slow to hire for any position, hoping to recover from their financial loss. Interns are viewed as liabilities requiring time, attention and training. The few positions available are being filled by experienced professionals who can sit down and get to work with little or no supervision.

What are you students, who are graduating this spring, suppose to do? How will you find a position and start the long journey toward licensure?

My 12 Rules for Landing Your First Job in Architecture

Have no fear. There is hope. You too can be working toward your goals this summer. Follow these 12 rules and you will land your first job in architecture sooner than you may think.

Be Known

In this very noisy world of instant access and social media, its not easy to get noticed. Architects are being bombarded everyday by emails and telephone calls from people seeking employment. Interns are not only competing with other interns, but experienced professionals desperate to feed their families. “Who you know” still matters, even in this overly connected world. Employers want to work with people who they know, like and trust. The first step in that equation is to be known. Connect with architects online through Facebook and Twitter. Network with professionals at AIA chapter meetings and local events. Be seen and let them know who you are. Share your plans and ask for advice. Build relationships online and in person. Position yourself to be the person they know before the new position even becomes available.

Be Remarkable

When I created my hand delivered brochure, everyone else was following the steps taught by their guidance counselors and mailing standard resumes to everyone they knew. My package was a Purple Cow. Seth Godin introduced the concept of being remarkable in one of my favorite books. When traveling trough the countryside, there will be farms flanking each side of the road and you will see many fields full of cows. The first cow will be new and exciting. You will push your nose against the glass to get a better view of the massive farm animal. As you travel, you will pass field after field. After miles of seeing more and more cows, you will lose interest and the black and white spotted beasts begin to blend into the bucolic hills beyond. Imagine then, you see a purple cow… a deep, dark purple cow standing among the dozens of normal cows. That would be amazing. Right? You would stomp on the brakes, stop the car, get out to have a second look. You would take pictures, post them on Facebook and send text messages to all your friends. The purple cow would stand out as “remark-able”. You need to be a Purple Cow. Do something that no one else is doing. Be unique in your approach and presentation. Stand out among the hundreds of other students looking for work and be remarkable.

Be Creative

Resumes don’t matter. You won’t be hired because of the piece of paper listing the school you attended or the other firms in which you worked. Architects are receiving hundreds of resumes that look just like yours, and as good as you may look on paper, there’s someone else that looks better. You are an architecture student; a proud member of the “most creative people on earth” club. Prove it. Use your imagination and develop a new approach to getting noticed. Invent a new way to connect with architects. Present yourself in a way that has never been tried. Architects are looking for people who can bring something new and innovative to their firms. Much like applying for architecture school, firms are looking for creativity, so be creative.

Be Respectful

Firm leaders are busier than ever. With an increased workload and a decreased staff roster, they are wearing many more hats these days. Their time is limited and their attention is short. Be respectful when contacting firms and understand that any time you are granted is a privilege. Let them know that you appreciate the opportunity to speak and thank them for spending a few minutes of their limited time with you. Polite people, with honed social skills and good manners, stand out among the crowd. This one tip may get your foot in the door when everyone else is trying to knock it down.

Be Nice

People like to be around nice people. Be Nice! Enough said…

Be a Resource

You have knowledge that others want. You have skills and talents that others seek. Share that knowledge with the world by building a blog or website where architects and students can go to learn what you know. To many, an expert is anyone who knows more than they do. By becoming a resource, you become an expert and demand for your services will soon follow.

Be Trustworthy

Trust is one of the most important character traits you can have. Your integrity will speak louder than your resume. Build trust by connecting with professionals on and offline and by becoming a resource. Ask the architects you meet what you can do to help them. Don’t ask for a job or for anything in return. Just simply ask, “What can I do to help you?” Then do what you say you are going to do, when you say you are going to do it. In every position I have had, whether it was swinging a hammer during the summer, making cars sparkle at my dad’s shop, working as an intern and even today, when working for a young family to design them a new home, being a reliable trustworthy person has lead me to success… every time.

Be Aggressive

Never underestimate the power of working your tail off. Push to learn what you need to know. Position yourself to meet the people you need to meet. Create the materials you need to set yourself apart from others. Hard work does not go unnoticed. If everything else is equal, the one who hustles the most wins.

Be Responsive

Respond quickly to requests. You may be one of many who are approached when a position opens up. The early bird gets the worm. Answer calls or emails immediately upon receiving them. Schedule interviews at the convenience of the employer and as soon as possible. Follow directions too. If you are told to submit a letter of introduction with a required word count and a deadline, don’t send double the words a day late and expect to be hired. Architects are looking for people who will do as directed. Show them that you listen carefully and respond appropriately.

Be Flexible

When I was offered the job to measure hundreds of condo units in the summer of ’99 (many of which were essentially identical), I jumped at the opportunity. It was certainly not my dream job. I wasn’t going to have much exposure to the firm’s architects and I wasn’t going to work on any interesting architecture. Design wasn’t even involved in the job I was offered. In fact, I wasn’t going to be in the office at all. After searching for a job for months, I took what I could get and I am glad I did. That summer work lead to a full time internship working with Barry directly. I took the job I could get, did the work with enthusiasm and accuracy and landed a job that lead to the rest of my life.

Be Confident

You have done the hard part. You have been through architecture school and met your demons (and your share of unreasonable studio critics). You are prepared and you have done what you need to do. You are qualified and, if you follow my rules, you will be ready. Be confident and have faith that you will succeed. You will land the job you are seeking. Be careful though. There is a fine line between confidence and conceit. No one wants to work with an over-confident know-it-all. Conceit is corrosive. Confidence is captivating.

Be Brave

The profession of architecture is not easy and searching for your first architecture job can be intimidating, overwhelming and at times, depressing. Be brave. You can do it. With these 12 rules, you will be armed with the knowledge you need to succeed. You will be working in no time. You will be the one to land the job.

***

Architects, please let me know what you think. What advice can you share? What are your rules for landing a job in architecture? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Working interns, please let me know what you think. Have you done something remark-able to get noticed? How did you land your first architecture job? Support your fellow interns and share your thoughts in the comments below. The more we all share, whether we are students, interns or professionals… the stronger the profession will become for all of us. Support and encourage one another and we will all succeed.

Architecture students, here is your chance to connect. Let me know what you think. Have you started your search for work? Where have you found the road blocks to be? What can we, the Entrepreneur Architect community, do for you? How can we help you land your first job in architecture? Please leave a question in the comments below. I wish you all the best in your search for internship.

Go get ‘em.

Comments

  1. Mark, These 12 rules are an excellent guide for not only someone looking for that first job but also for that seasoned job seeker. Also a lot of this guide can be used by any Architectural Firm (big or small) when working and dealing with clients. Thank you for your insight.

  2. Mark, what a great post. Seriously I wish I would have had something like this when I was in school. I think what I’d say in regards to “Have I done anything remarkable to get noticed?” is that I have and haven’t. I could have done a lot more and as I continue to look for new opportunities I continue to improve my resume and portfolio. I was lucky to have an offer extended to me 3 months prior to graduation so unlike my peers, I didn’t work my tail off in the last few months of school making everything sparkle. Instead I did it after graduation, but I’m glad that happened because it’s allowed me the luxury to spend some quality time improving past projects – something everyone should do! Honestly the best way to get your first job and to be noticed is to BE NOTICED. Go to AIA meetings, go to YAF meetings, look for a senior mentor even if you don’t have a job because they can help you figure out what to do about that. Honestly since graduating 9 months ago, the thing I’ve learned is most important is really knowing people, especially at our age. Your portfolio may be prettier, you may have a few years of internships but you can easily be overlooked if a hiring manager sees a name they know, trust and like come across their desk. Don’t be afraid to go to happy hours with your local AIA chapter and make small talk with the people there. It doesn’t all have to be about the profession either, my favorite is “What do you think about xxx sports team?”. If you continue to work on past projects, enter some competitions in your spare time (gasp, what does that word mean!) and network you will have no problem getting in somewhere. Lastly, don’t let money or unstable jobs deter you. We will all make money, being young we have the luxury of not making a lot and learning how to still have fun. Do what you love and the money WILL follow, unless you have unrealistic expectations. It’s not as scary as it may seem, just get out, dress well, speak well and represent yourself in a way that will make you desirable. Thanks again for this great post Mark.

  3. Mark, I like your 12 rules and agree they are an excellent guide for any job seeker. But having witnessed family members go through a job search, I would add: Be Optimistic! It will help you approach each day and it will shine through when you meet potential employers or potential referral partners.

  4. Elayne LePage says:

    I have one more suggestion when you apply for any position. Dress like you are the architect who is looking to design a million dollar project for a successful homeowner or a multimillion dollar firm. Don’t dress like you just stepped out of your studio after a 3 night stint to finish a project. First impressions are very important.

  5. Mark, I concur with your comments. You basically summarized the characteristics I think most architects/employers are interested in: 1) competency, 2) character, 3) creativity, 4) dependability, 5) responsiveness, 6) self-motivation, 7) independent thinking and 8) confidence with humility. I would also like to encourage those graduates entering the job market, (or those that have been seeking opportunities for a while) to be persistent and diligent. Things always seem to work out for the best, sometimes just maybe not according to the timing we hope for.

    Although you make a valid point regarding interns, I would like to challenge you slightly. I agree that interns do require some extra work on the employer’s part to integrate them into the office culture, work process, etc. And, it also depends on the size of the firm and the duration of the projects you work on. But, we’ve found over the last several years that interns (granted the one’s we’ve been lucky enough to hire have been exceptional students/people), have infused a ton of energy, creativity and eagerness to learn. Aside from being productive on projects, they’ve helped revitalize us as a firm, and they continue to challenge us to stay up with innovation, etc. If you can’t tell, we’ve become big fans of interns!

  6. Don’t ever give up, you have to keep trying! Yes, you may send out so many resumes, brochures, etc; but if you don’t, how would people know about your existence? You need to (pretty much) market yourself and your services, what you can offer as a recent graduate. Mark is right- find a nice and unique way to get noticed, and you will! Don’t forget that we, as architects are very “visual” and creative people. Find something that differentiates your from the others! But you have to be persistent, you chose this profession because you’re passionate about it and you want to get in there. Try to learn something from every experience: even if you get rejected, e-mail back asking what could you have done better; ask for advice or recommendations. It may surprise you, but some of them will be very nice and respond to you. That’s how you may just start your networking, and that is very important!

  7. Hey Mark,

    Definitely could relate to a lot of your points as I look back at that year of job hunting after graduation.

    I think including my blog on my resume was a point for departure to shedding some light on my passion for architecture and my personality. I find out little bits and pieces why I was a suitable candidate and a willingness to learn was a crucial one.

    It’s funny, this morning at work we were talking about the types of cover letters and interviews that hint off what kind of architecture students design practices do NOT want to hire: students who are arrogant and conceited.

    Humility is a virtue that is easily lost in the competitive environment of design school: Arrogance is easily mixed up with confidence. There is much to learn and understand at work that schools cannot teach. There is greater collaboration and cooperation required when a firm works together on a design and you must be humble and confident and be the right personality for that firm.

    For any soon to be graduates, you must paint a realistic picture of your strengths and weaknesses to describe and what you can offer, what are your weaknesses, what are you doing to work on those weaknesses and have an openness to be willing to learn and grow. Nobody wants to hire a recent grad that is not willing to learn or thinks they are a gracious gift that firm desperately needs. Just be careful of the tone in your cover letter architecture students and realize that there is so much to learn outside the confines of academia.

  8. Kevin Brown says:

    A good resume is the first step. Whether you get a job responding to an ad or through networking, anyone who hires will want to see it.

    Having often been in a position to hire recent graduates, I must say rule #1 is: put value first – focus on proven skills and be specific. In your resume, mention any awards and honors, and feel free to list accomplishments in sports and hobbies, too, but let the reader determine whether they demonstrate anything important. Avoid generalities like the plague. Whatever you can be specific about, the more you say, the better.

    Be careful trying to “stand out.” Nothing turns me off a resume faster than an inflated, irrelevant “design.” A resume should highlight facts – leave the demonstration of graphic skills to your portfolio and work samples.

  9. David Locicero says:

    Back in the dark ages when I graduated, 1985, I moved to San Francisco. I went door to door, from office to office, and hand delivered a resume and cover letter to each office. When I was standing there I asked if there was anybody available to speak with me. I got a lot of interviews this way, including the one that landed me a job.

    I used this technique to land my second job as well. When I returned to the job market after graduate school, I used this method, but focused on firms that employed former coworkers. I made coffee/lunch appointments with the former coworkers. During lunch I’d ask who I should talk to at their office. I got several interviews immediately following those lunches, including the interview that landed me my third job. Showing up between 11:30am and 1:30pm or after 4pm increased my chances of getting an immediate interview.

  10. You never know who might be a good network contact that can refer you to a potential job. I was referred into my current job by a contact in a construction firm. Don’t just network with architects – contractors, suppliers, engineers – anyone in the industry may know and be trusted by an architect they know.

  11. Kent Brown says:

    A very common HR and management motto is: “Past performance is indicative of future performance”. This applies to the employer as well yet some HR people and hiring managers forget or ignore this, especially when they are looking at hundreds of resumes and interviewing many. It is very important to be tactful, job seekers must always use discretion – follow their process but don’t let yourself get moved or rushed through it like all the others in line for the position. Differentiate yourself immediately by asking a few intelligent questions pertinent to the position and/or the company’s strengths.

    Preparation: It goes without saying that you must research the company that is interviewing you and you must be prepared to answer questions. This is interviewing 101. One method of questioning smart HR people and managers use is SAR or STAR, which stands for Situation, Task, Action, Response. The interviewee is asked a series of open-ended questions intended to make you think on your feet and provide a detailed and intelligent response. How you deliver the response is just as important as the answers you provide. Here is a detailed description and preparation document about the STAR interviewing method which contains examples of typical questions:

    https://app.box.com/s/7k2ti9ym64jrakeb1qco

    And for those with previous work experience, in addition to the many STAR questions, a very common and important question you need to prepare for is: Why did you leave your last position(s)?

    Never belittle a former employer or boss; keep your answer succinct and don’t offer details unless you are asked for them. Just off the top of my head: “The company has been affected by the current economy and I was a part of their downsizing.” “I was hired for a particular project that ended successfully and although they wanted to keep me on, they had to let me go due to financial reasons”. “It turned out the position did not fit with my long-term career goals”. Often the interviewer will simply note what you say and they won’t prod you for details. Interviewers know there are all sorts of reasons why people leave jobs and it is not always necessary to provide the details. Answering intelligently and succinctly is the key.

    Another common question interviewees often stumble on is: What are your weaknesses? My brother gave me a great response to this question: You simply say with a smile: “Well, my biggest weakness is identifying my weaknesses”… pause, and follow up with: “No, seriously, one weakness of mine can be impatience – I am highly client focused and sometimes I can be impatient with administrative work or other duties that take me away from my clients.” This won’t work for all situations but it’s better than stumbling on the question.

    2nd interview: If the 2nd interview is going well, many recruiters and career counselors recommend you ask for the job or declare you want it which is a good move, however, there are several key questions that should be asked BEFORE you do this. Regardless of your situation or how long you have been out of work, job seekers must be careful to never come across as egotistical or too eager. If you declare you want the job or ask for it before YOUR questions are answered, this may come across as unprofessional or even desperate, which will end the interview quickly. Bottom line is 90% of the time you will be asked if you have any questions and you must be prepared. Many specific examples of questions you can ask are provided below.

    Questioning Strategy

    Asking the interviewer smart questions about the job, company, people, industry, business model, etc. is absolutely crucial in order to not only receive an offer but also to receive the best possible offer and put you in a position to negotiate. Asking questions and listening intently puts you in a better position to obtain the maximum compensation as the company wants you. Everything is life is negotiable and taking the 1st offer is not always the right move. The questions you ask are more powerful than the answers you have given to their questions as they will clearly indicate you are a detailed, organized, efficient, intelligent, and confident business professional that gets things done. You want to make sure the company is right for you as your intention is to work for them for the long-term. You are not just looking for a job; you are looking for a career and you want to work for a solid company. A pleasant demeanor, clear and concise answers, asking smart questions, and confidence (without being egotistical) are the 4 keys to success in any business relationship. Operate in this manner and the quality job offers from successful companies run by experienced professionals will come. Be careful not to ask questions that are too difficult for the interviewer to answer or questions you are not entitled to know the answer to.

    The Questions

    Here are some examples of questions to ask a prospective employer, all of which can be (or need to be) modified to suit the specific position, interviewer, job description, company, industry, etc. Note: I am not proposing that ALL of these questions be asked in one sitting or conversation, certainly not, these are simply examples of some that can be asked throughout the process. Ultimately it is up to the job seeker to do the necessary research and assess their own situation in order to develop a few impressive questions. A quick and easy strategy is to make sure you have questions the interviewer can answer and a couple they can NOT answer due to their department, not their role, etc. The key is to never ask a question they likely should know but don’t as this will only embarrass them.

    If you have hit the point where the interview is going great and the interviewer clearly likes you, ask them easy questions about the next steps and their hiring/decision process and if time permits or you feel it’s appropriate, ask a few more such as the examples below. A good strategy may also be to pose your questions in an email with this intro:

    Dear_______, thank you for speaking/meeting with me on… etc. I remain very interested in this position and I’m excited about my potential future with _______________. I have compiled a list of questions about the position and ____________ for you and/or __________. They are fairly detailed and I fully realize answering them will require some thought and time. I did not want to surprise anyone with these questions during our next _______ and so I thought it would be a good idea to provide you with these now. I do not expect you to answer all of these questions in a typed response to this email, however, if that is your preference, great. I will be perfectly happy with a phone discussion about these items and I’ll take some notes. Please consider the detailed nature of the questions as an indication of my serious interest in working for __________ (or with you) for the long-term. Thank you and I look forward to our our next steps.

    1. Specific to the_________ market , what is your company’s value proposition considering _____________ (information specific to the company’s performance, industry, market, etc.)
    2. How is your product/service different from or better than your competition?
    3. As you know, in business if you’re not growing, you’re dying; in what ways has your company been the most successful and what has your year over year growth been like?
    4. Other than greater market penetration, what will contribute the most to your company’s growth in the next 5 years? New products/services, improvements, acquisitions, price increases, etc.?
    5. What are some of the biggest challenges you are currently facing?
    6. What are your expectations for this position and how will my performance be measured?
    7. What kind of support does the position have in terms of resources and tools? In terms of people? (Management, administrative, technical, etc.)
    8. How would you describe your company’s current business, sales, and marketing model?
    9. What strategic sales or marketing initiatives, methods, or projects has your company rolled out recently and what was the result?
    10. What are the primary reasons for people leaving your company?
    11. Other than what is in your job description, what are you looking for in a successful candidate?
    12. In what ways were you most pleased with the performance of the last person?
    13. What would you like done differently by the next person?
    14. What is the most pressing issue to be addressed in the next 2 or 3 months?
    15. Please describe for me your company’s social media and digital marketing position and strategy.

    Ask only a few questions 1st, customize them to fit the company and the position you are seeking; this will establish yourself as a credible, smart, and valuable professional. The interviewer will respect the fact that you want to know as much as you can about the position and the questions themselves reflect your serious interest.

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