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Architecture or engineering?
April 21, 2006 2:40 PM   Subscribe

Architecture or engineering?

Which is better, pays more, has more personal freedom?

I'm an undergrad architecture student questioning my career choice. I like design work, but I understand that the life of an architect is characterized by stress, sleep deprivation and no personal time.

I'd like to hear from people in the field:
*Is architecture really as torturous as it sounds (I get about 5 hrs sleep average as a student, does it get better?)?
*Do you have any artistic influence as an engineer?
*Are the hours as demanding? Job security?
*Any special training or certification required (like the licensing exam for architects)?
*Bachelor's or Master's?
thanks for the help
posted by aquavit to Work & Money (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Which do you enjoy more: maths, or puzzles and art?

This is a legitimate question; although engineering requires art and puzzle skills, and architecture requires math skills, the nitty-gritty of engineering is about calculating loads and whatnot, while the nitty-gritty of architecture is figuring out how to fit everything that needs to fit into forms that are pleasing to the eye and cost-effective.

That makes architecture sound more complex, to be sure, but don't forget that engineers have to make sure that people aren't killed by the structures that architects design -- so that's pretty complex, too.
posted by davejay at 2:46 PM on April 21, 2006

As a former engineering student, I can tell you that engineers think architects are the dreamers, and architects think engineers are the killjoys. Go for architecture if you're artistic and artsy-creative, go for engineering if you are problem-solving creative and like number-type details. Both can be workaholic-causing, yet both could result in a balanced life-- that's up to you. You'll have to put in your dues in the few years after college with possibly some crazy hours, but that really depends on the firm you work for. Engineering had me working 70 hours a week so I switched to teaching for five years. That had me working 80 hours a week (except for summers) so now I'm in building contracting and project managing (for the last 3 months). It's a nine-to-fiver because my bosses are committed to a balanced life instead of huge paychecks.

All that to say, go with what you like to do, and worry about the schedule later. Those are my two cents. Best of luck.
posted by orangemiles at 2:46 PM on April 21, 2006

My parents are both engineers (mom is a civil, dad is a mechanical). They're both brilliant, but they work a lot and (in my opinion) aren't paid commensurate with their abilities. My father works for a very large corporation that you would probably recognize, and therefore has quite a few levels of management above him. His greatest frustration is that none of them are engineers (rather, most have business-related degrees like finance or econ), and thus don't always see things the way that he does. His job requires ingenuity and creativity (designing assembly line/factory machinery), but he says that those above him don't typically recognize a clever solution as much as a cheap one -- even if the clever one is more lucrative in the long-term. Also, I think it's frustrating when your bosses make two, three, or more times more than you do, and are half as smart (not saying that all are -- but I'm sure everyone knows someone with a business degree and two brain cells).

As for my mother: she is completely passionate about the field in which she works, but she works a lot. Also, you don't list your gender, but I know that she's had to face some pretty sexist opposition. When she was in college (at the University of Illinois, so a pretty engineering-centric school) she was the only woman in quite a few of her classes (in the early/mid seventies -- it's definitely improved since then, but not equal). Not so much in her workplace, but with clients. Not so much now, either (much worse in the past), but it's still there -- there's still the Old Boys Club element.

In terms of education: engineering, at least at this point, is one of the careers in which you really don't have to get an advanced degree to still do pretty well. That said, those that I know who have gone for engineering PhD's have all (but one) stopped after getting the master's: the master's is a little more practical, while the PhD is more theoretical; the master's can get you a good job, while the PhD can get you a job as a professor, or in research.

As for architecture: the friends I had in college that were architecture students were always in the lab. As I'm sure you know. But I have a friend that's currently in the master's program at Yale, and it seems pretty exciting.

In the end, I think you'll probably work a lot doing either. Sorry.
posted by penchant at 3:04 PM on April 21, 2006

Short answer: study what you'd rather do 40-60 hours per week, then worry about the details later - both have their high-hours, high-money opportunities and their work-life-balance-for-peanuts opportunities.

You do recognize, right, that the answers in "engineering" (and probably architecture, but I haven't a clue there) are highly dependent on that subspeciality - environmental/civil/structural, right? And even within that, depends on what end you take it from?

E.G. in Environmental: At a non-profit you can get piddly pay, but you can save the world on relatively low job security and (probably) high weekly hours. For government, there is better job security, but perhaps an otherwise more drone-like existence. 40 hours/week more likely. You could take that same degree to a company that does environmental consulting, earn oodles of money, work ridiculous hours, and maybe get your soul chewed up.

Bachelor's or Master's: In a lot of engineering fields the Bachelor's can lead you to a "dead-end" track. A Master's can boost pay about $5k/year (according to MIT's recent survey of their new grads, I don't have the reference handy) especially if it is in a program that is *designed* to be a terminal master's (e.g. a 5-year program or engineering/business master's) rather than a Ph.D.-wash-out-consolation prize.
posted by whatzit at 3:09 PM on April 21, 2006

I hear most architecture graduates design stairwells, spec out bathroom tile, and are "AutoCAD monkeys" (this is the phrase other people use) for the first 5 years after graduation. I'm not sure they get any artistic influence there. Of course, people tell you scare stories about almost every profession -- I'm sure the talented and self-motivated escape this somehow.

Masters vs. bachelors -- depends on your university's program, I think, whether you can get by on a Bachelors of Architecture.
posted by salvia at 3:13 PM on April 21, 2006

At first I assumed that you were using "engineer" to refer to "civil engineer", but now I'm not so sure.

If you mean "engineer" generically, it's almost impossible to generalize because engineering is so varied. Which kind of engineer? Chemical engineering? Software engineering? Civil engineering? Mechanical engineering? They're all totally different. Worse than that, many of them have subspecialties which are effectively unique engineering fields in their own rights. An electrical engineer who specializes in power is entirely unlike an electrical engineer who specializes in electronics, for instance.

I think that just about the only reasonable generic statement I can make comparing engineering as a career choice to architecture is that there are a thousand working engineers for every architect, so you're more likely to be able to get a job as an engineer.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 3:25 PM on April 21, 2006

I work in civil engineering. All disciplines work long hours with high stress. Architecture, from what I gather in meetings, consists mostly of repetitive, penny pinching design work. As mentioned above, Architects giveth and engineers take away. Only the select few Starchitects design anything you would tell your grandkids about.

The upside to Architecture or Engineering: High salaries if you are talented. Big bonuses when thing go right.
posted by vaportrail at 3:36 PM on April 21, 2006

Where are you? Architectural work varies a lot depending on where you're located. In the US it's very bureaucratic, lots and lots of permitting, etc. In more informal places, not so much. In Europe it's (I've been told) a bitch, with so many different level of regulations and bureaucracy the fire marshall ends up designing the building for you. In more dynamic economies/societies (emerging markets, etc.) there's a lot of work for small architectural firms, meaning you don't necessarilly have to go work for some 500-people firm but can start your own with a few friends.
Engineering seems quite liberating (I'm an architect, with a lot of engineer friends), as it's a basic skillset which can be applied to many different problems. Architecture is too (a basic skilset), but tends to be more pegged to "designing buildings", etc.
posted by signal at 3:37 PM on April 21, 2006

My great-uncle has an engineering degree, but his career has basically been that of an architect. He has his own practice designing houses and, now, increacingly large commercial buildings. His partner is my uncle who never got around to passing the california bar and who handles property management of some of the commercial structures they design, and general contracting on some of the smaller projects they build.

In short, an engineer can act as an architect, I'm not sure the reverse is true. Really though, a good part of it is what you make of it.
posted by Good Brain at 3:39 PM on April 21, 2006

First, IAMAA, but an architecture professor of mine had a cartoon on his office window: Two architects talking, leaning over their drafting tables (this was a while ago). One says, "If I had a million dollars I'd run away to a tropical island. What about you?" the other says, "Easy, I'd practice architecture till it was all gone." Architects are always portrayed in movies and tv (Seinfeld--it was George's profession for his idealized self) as very well paid rugged individualists, but the pay and creative control are very low for a long time. You've got to love it. If a building or space has never thrilled you I'd lean toward some type of engineering.
posted by tula at 3:41 PM on April 21, 2006

>>*Is architecture really as torturous as it sounds (I get about 5 hrs sleep average as a student, does it get better?)?

It depends what kind of architecture you practice. Some of my friends went corporate out of school, work for large firms that do unexceptional work, get paid well, and work regular hours from 8 to 5. These friends generally have spare time to relax, and some also pursue their own architectural agendas outside of the office.

Other friends work for small firms that do challenging work, get paid shockingly little, work 12 hour days / 6 day weeks, but still feel good about working on something they genuinely enjoy.

Personally, I work for a mid-sized (25 person firm) that stands somewhere between those two examples. I occasionally am at the office until past midnight, have to work on the weekends occasionally, but I'm paid well (comparitively) and do have spare time (that I choose to spend working on side projects).

And yes, engineering definitely pays better. Much better.
posted by unlicensedarchitect at 4:53 PM on April 21, 2006

..and no, engineers cannot legally act as architects-- at least in the state of California. They'd like to think they can, though. :)
posted by unlicensedarchitect at 5:11 PM on April 21, 2006


If you are drawn to architecture as a career, you probably have a little of the artist in you. That's not as necessary or as useful in engineering, but lots of my engineer friends do art of one form or another. ( I am an EE/MBA and my artistic outlets are marble sculpture and music.)

Life is a series of careers these days. It sounds like you have plenty of time to check out architecture and if you hate it, you can always elect to get some more training and do engineering. Education doesn't stop with graduation and engineering smarts will make you a better architect.

Of your choices listed for engineering, I'd heartily suggest you investigate environmental engineering more closely. It's probably NOT what you think. Mechanical and civil are lower on the rung technically and more widely applicable than other types, but the money is in petroleum engineering, chemical engineering, and electronics/electrical. If you have the capability, getting involved in electronics at the level of chip design is certainly esoteric, lucrative, and in demand. It's not for the faint hearted.

Most of the civil engineers I know do foundation design, drainage, subdivisions, roads, etc. Boring but great for self employment, if that appeals to you.

I don't know a single ME who is self-employed. With appropriate apologies to any who are reading this, I think its appeal is that it is so concrete and understandable.

Last observation is that I have found most of the engineering problems I have ever encountered in 30+ years of work have been primarily economic in nature, not technical. It's been about how to get the job done with an optimum mix of risk, schedule, performance, money. That's where my MBA has set me apart from so many of my fellow engineers, who think it's all about performance. Not only is it not so, but that's why they work for me and not vice versa. Food for thought!

Good luck. You'll make the right choice. Great to have such wonderful alternatives facing you!

BTW, unlicensedarchitect, you have to be a registered professional engineer (PE) in most states to advertise your services as an engineer. I am not sure that a registered PE has to do anything else to recommend himself as an architect.
posted by FauxScot at 6:40 PM on April 21, 2006

*Bachelor's or Master's?

Master's. From what I can tell, more and more people opt for some kind of graduate or professional degree these days -- higher pay and better positions.
posted by Krrrlson at 8:16 PM on April 21, 2006

I work in the marketing department of a civil engineering firm. I know that right now the big push for us is recruiting new engineers. Firms are having a hard time filling positions because there are more jobs than engineers right now.

An engineer from our firm (USA) was just lured away to New Zealand. They are paying his moving expenses and buying him a house. Apparently they are desperate for engineers there. Maybe someone from down that way can confirm this.

Anyway, the market seems hot for engineers right now.
posted by studentbaker at 9:03 PM on April 21, 2006

I am a fourth year student at the University of Cincinnati's architecture program (DAAP). I will be getting a masters in architecture in their 6 year program. Here is some first hand advice: if you are concerned about making money, get out now. The truth is you are going to work your butt off for 6 years, because a 4 year bachelor's degree in architecture does not mean anything today if you want to do design work, and get paid very little for the amount of time and effort you invested in your education. Unless you are a big name architect or you are running your own large architecture firm, you are not going to make a lot of money.

Hours can be long depending on where your work. You can also have a regular 8-5 working most likelly for a larger company.

Structural engineers have no artistic influence (period) Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

The real question you (as in you specifically, judging by your post) should be asking yourself: Do I really care about making money?

If you answered yes, than architecture probably is not the best career choice for you.
posted by comatose at 3:00 PM on April 22, 2006

I've worked at an architectural firm as a structural engineering technician so I may be a little biased towards engineering. Basically for either a structural engineer or an architect you really want to get a Master's. Otherwise it will take much time to move up and start getting a decent pay. Engineers will have a better starting pay but architects can become bigger stars....if they have the right connections and drive. You can become a star as a structural engineer but it is rarer and the average personality type of engineers usually precludes this.

It also goes without saying that you will need licensure in many states for both engineers and architects if you work for a major company. The company I worked for, HGA, has quite a few offices around the country and works on projects in just about every state.

Regardless, you want to be in a major market if you want the best opportunities. There are a lot of great firms out there that you can hook up with in most major cities. It also helps to have connections that can be found at better universities. So it may depend more on the strength of the university you are attending if you want great opportunities to go anywhere. Obviously the master's program will have a greater influence but a good undergrad program can give you a strong push toward a promising career.
posted by JJ86 at 5:29 PM on April 22, 2006

Structural engineers may not have artistic influence, but they are called on to be quite creative, and can put the brakes on the direction the architects can go on certain projects. I've been a cost consultant on project teams for very visible jobs where the engineers had to work to meet insane site constraints or design intents. When cantilevers, or hung floors, or bridging issues or whatever come into play they often take the lead.
posted by jamesonandwater at 7:04 PM on April 22, 2006

I am an architect in NYC and while I do not regret my choice, I have come to realize that I will never be paid for what I do as much as a longshoreman, although I may work twice as many hours in him or her. It's a slow and rather heartbreaking profession that requires the tenacity of a teenager playing Doom, which is a bit hard to muster, say, in your fifth month of pregnancy. I'm almost 40 and still paying for my masters. If you go for architecture, you should make sure that you learn enough of your engineering design to NOT get pushed around and figure out some affordable solutions to common problems that your designs will engender.

Also, consider school and practice in Europe. Design in America is a constant struggle for both engineers and architects, and the craft level is higher there. Or consider Asia or South America, where there's just more zest for crazy design.

Somewhat randomly, in my collaborations with many engineers over the years - and they ARE collaborations, if they are healthy - in my experience, MEP folk don't work a MINUTE past 5 PM and make just as much money. For sizing DUCTS, dammit.

Finally, if your passion for architecture is flagging in school, that's probably a good sign. Try an internship for a year and see how you like it. You can do lots of stuff with a B.Arch or an M.Arch - be creative now before you lock youself in too much.
posted by DenOfSizer at 3:00 PM on June 17, 2006

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