Should I quit my Master's program in Architecture at one of the best schools in the country?
April 20, 2010 10:27 PM   Subscribe

Should I quit my Master's program in Architecture?

After graduating from a very good school in the Northeast with a BS in civil engineering last spring, I am about to finish my first year of a Master's program in architecture at another very good school. This is not to toot my own horn - it is just to put things in perspective.

To be frank, I haven't been so happy with it since I got here. The work is rote and often uninteresting, the people are generally quite shallow, and I feel like I am not really growing in a positive direction from this experience. Even with a relatively good grant and scholarship, school is very expensive ($20K a year). The school is challenging, but mostly because of the shear volume of work, not because it really requires me to use my brain.

I originally came here because the school was known for having very good facilities, very good recognition, and it supposedly attracts a diversity students and teachers (This is only superficially true, I now realize). Also, I received a comparatively good scholarship.

I have slowly realized that "design" is a mega competitive profession and the majority of my teachers seem extremely neurotic and unhappy. I don't particularly like their work and I hate the fact that I feel that I am becoming a dilettante. I don't want to turn out that way! I want to be an expert on something and I want my work to have integrity.

I think Robert Venturi said recently that you shouldn't become an architect nowadays unless you absolutely have to. I may not be up for it.

The program is 4 years long and I am seriously considering leaving for greener pastures - maybe a MS or PhD in structural engineering.

The problem is, how will I put this on my resume? Do I simply omit it?

How do I discuss this with the people who gave me my recommendations? What if I were to pursue them for a recommendation in the future? I feel that I may have let them down...

Also, this would leave me with year to burn before applying to other programs. What should I do in the meantime? I feel burnt out and discouraged, but want to find my life's passion.

I'd appreciate any insight from people in the engineering or architectural profession, or people who have changed careers.

Thanks so much!
posted by peetle to Education (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
>the majority of my teachers seem extremely neurotic and unhappy.

Really? That is odd. I guess you've had some ugly personal experiences with them?

I think Robert Venturi's advice is true for any field. There will be others who disagree -- not everyone believes in absolutes that way, but you sound like you like to aim high, and you've been disappointed.

I would not put this on your resume. Nobody needs to know. If you do get asked about it -- if somebody notices a gap -- you can tell them you found a better fit for your interests at another school. That won't sound bad to anybody; it should, at the very least, tell them that you know what you're interested in.

The people who gave you recommendations should probably hear the same thing out of your mouth. They'll understand. Changing, shifting,'s part of life. They'll know that.

In the year-meantime, I recommend picking up the book "What Color is Your Parachute" and working through the exercises, if you haven't already. I did the "informational interviewing" part and am so glad I did.

I found out in about an hour of calling around and personal meetings that I did not want to be an architect. Ditto with several other careers.

I have changed careers several times, and looking back I can see how my careers changed but my trajectory didn't. I was constantly narrowing things down, and all that experience was worth it.

Good luck!
posted by circular at 10:36 PM on April 20, 2010

A friend of mine was trained as an electrical engineer, went to arch school...

...and draws comics for Marvel now. He does not seem to regret this.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 10:39 PM on April 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think your concerns about architecture (e.g., Venturi's quote, the observations about your profs) are very valid.
posted by salvia at 11:52 PM on April 20, 2010

I will try to address your questions from both the objective (former head of dept of Graduate Admissions at top ranked design school, including the A to Z of student services) and subjective (managed to drop out of two different graduate design programs on two continents in two centuries, bachelors in engineering)

If you were a student of mine, here is what I'd ask you to consider:

Can you take a leave of absence or sabbatical? You don't need to drop out of the program completely at this point, you can take a semester or two off, perhaps even more depending on how flexible the staff and the policies are. That's often the best way to start when one starts to feel this way. This ensures that you are not closing any doors while you go away from the environment that is currently 'depressing' you (creatively, I think).

I would hesitate to rush into another graduate program without giving your sense of burn out a chance to unfold and recover. Otoh, as you point out, admissions will take a year, so that may be something to put into action while you take the time to explore. (see Why Grad School if it might help)

Think about what attracted you to Architecture in the first place - it took time and effort and ability to gain admission to a good program - perhaps you might consider interning in your gap year at an architects studio (you still have a civil engineering degree) or even, exploring the envelope of traditional disciplines a bit by considering a design/innovation studio.

Finally, good programs, like well known companies, are often the inadvertent victims of their own hype - the reality inside the system rarely matches up to the glamourous conceptual vision from the outside. I would caution you that in the event you consider any creative field - design, architecture, planning etc rather than pure engineering - you may find this aspect recurring regardless of the school or program.

From my personal experience of dropping out, once in 1990 and once in 2005 -

There is nothing to hide. I would keep that year in your resume. You demonstrated the ability to plan, collate, coordinate and execute a graduate admissions process successfully. You don't say that you are not doing well in school, simply disillusioned (was Roark involved, by any chance? :) You have nothing to be ashamed of and additional skills adn learning are not to be sneezed at.

In terms of your answer, if you take the "semester's leave" approach, you can say that the program was burning your creativity out and you want to explore and enhance your talents before taking the decision to continue or change your choice of graduate program. Slightly different in nuance than "I ran away cos I couldn't take it anymore and I am hiding the fact"

It sounds to me like you went straight from undergrad to grad - a couple of years in the working world would do a world of good - regardless of actual field in which you get a job - to help decide if you want further education and in what field.

Sometimes the commitment is simply to gain the necessary credentials in today's world, a pragmatic decision, in which case, forget the profs and classes and look upon it as your own choice to do something for yourself and your future. I sometimes regret not having that piece of paper, the first grad school was NOT easy to get into at all.

Imho, we so often take these decisions at a young age before we know enough that we take many twists and turns in our academic and professional paths - this is not a bad thing to acknowledge if you do take the simple decision to drop out and change tracks.

I hope this helps and feel free to memail me if you like.
posted by infini at 1:30 AM on April 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

I am in the last month of finishing a 5-year bachelors program in architecture. as part of the course i've done a six month internship. in my experience the environment at school seems to be very different from that at work. in school everyone is always stressed out due to all the work and the professors seem bitter and sadistic. work was much better.

All the same, i too am seriously considering a career change. i no longer feel passionate or interested in 'design'. i am too logical to be whimsical and design needs you to be whimsical at some point. I just know i'm not cut out for this profession.

I agree with Venturi, and I think what he says particularly applies to architecture because I think architecture, like any other design field, is about communicating your ideas with others, except the language for communication of these ideas is convoluted and time consuming and it comes with more responsibility due to the function and cost of the building. Its hard to carry on unless your passionate about it and really feel the need to get your ideas out there.

I completely agree with infini in that you should probably work with some design studio for sometime to see what the work is really like. It might change your perception entirely. Different studios have different processes of reaching a design and you might find something that really interests you.
posted by niyati182 at 3:27 AM on April 21, 2010

It might change your perception entirely. Different studios have different processes of reaching a design and you might find something that really interests you.

Yes, this book review came up in a recent thread on the blue --->

christopher alexander's book "A Pattern Language"

Some food for thought there, imho, since I consider design to be first and foremost a philosophy, a system of values, that we then manifest tangibly in whatever form etc.
posted by infini at 3:44 AM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

You might consider that nearly everyone hates their graduate program at some point, some for most of the time they are there.
posted by SandiBeech at 5:08 AM on April 21, 2010

Nthing a break and a really hard look at what your priorities are, what you want your daily life to be like, and what career paths align with those things.

A career counselor reminded me that for people with a lot of interests (sounds like you might be one of them), it's probably best not to try to focus too hard on one single career as the be all end all; chances are that you will end up doing lots of things.
posted by nosila at 5:57 AM on April 21, 2010

Remember that grad school is two or three years, while a career is measured in decades. Also remember that school is not like work. This is true of most fields, but especially of architecture. Therefore, I'd recommend taking a break from school and interning for 6 months at each of two firms: a large firm (50+ people) and a small one (10 or fewer). This will give you a better feel for whether you want to pursue it as a career.
posted by Chris4d at 7:04 AM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Chris4d makes an excellent point... if I'd ever thought work and school would be the same...hang on a minute... ;p
posted by infini at 8:56 AM on April 21, 2010

The school is challenging, but mostly because of the shear volume of work, not because it really requires me to use my brain.
Two thoughts:
  1. If architecture school doesn't make you feel like you are using your brain, architecture may not be the career path for you (if you are leaning towards engineering, that is definitely a different part of the brain that will be put to use)
  2. If you are put off by sheer volume of work, architecture may not be the career for you

posted by misterbrandt at 9:08 AM on April 21, 2010

I would recommend staying in, and learning the most you can. Architecture is far more than design. You have the opportunity to learn what makes buildings work, how to deal with codes, vendors, materials.

A master of Japanese calligraphy spends many years practicing brush strokes, so that when the opportunity to express creativity arrives, the calligrapher has the appropriate tools to express the creativity.

I've worked with some architects, and they often get more involved in Design, when what I need is a working roof. But the architect who understands the roof, the house, the angle of the sun, the seasons, and the trees, can re-design the roof so that I have shade in the summer, sun in the winter, an roof that doesn't leak, and real beauty, both apparent and subtle.

Maybe leaving for a year and working on buildings would be useful, then returning to learn as much as you can, would be a good compromise. I'd hesitate to waste the year of study.
posted by theora55 at 9:20 AM on April 21, 2010

mrbrandt makes a good point though about "using your brain" - that was what got me in my first program which focused more on honing the skills of the trade (detailing, rendering, lifelike model making) than the thinking behind the "why so"
posted by infini at 9:39 AM on April 21, 2010

I should also add: attending "one of the best schools" is somewhat meaningless in terms of whether it is the best school for you. A lot of finding a good architecture program is about finding a good fit between the school's curriculum/emphasis and your interests. If you are more prone to detail-oriented problems, technical challenges, etc, then a "design"-oriented school like Harvard's GSD (just to pick one) will just be a bunch of esoteric bullshit to you, won't stimulate your brain, and will probably make you hate the profession.
posted by misterbrandt at 10:03 AM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

when you add to that most admissions staff are less aware of the school's design philosophy, approach and orientation and not geared to consider "fit" of candidate to program, you get troubles and discontented students
posted by infini at 10:18 AM on April 21, 2010

I have one thing to add to this great advice about architecture school: You don't have to start when you're 22. I went to Architecture school when I was 32, after 10 years in mechanical engineering. I knew myself better and had a wonderful experience. I also realized that there was no way my 22 year old self could have succeeded, much less thrived in the studio environment.

I strongly support the recommendation to take time off the program and go do some work. It's the only way to truly answer the question you're asking yourself.
posted by Carmody'sPrize at 11:19 AM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

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