Should my friend pursue architecture as a second career?
April 30, 2010 8:23 AM   Subscribe

Should I advise a friend to stay out of a grad program for architecture as a second career?

I just read this thread ("Is architecture a good fit for me?"), and it got me worried about a good friend. He's a smart guy with a science undergrad degree and a solid but boring job. He has been talking about various grad school programs for years, ranging from public health to an MBA to urban planning. It sounds like he may be settling on an architecture graduate degree. Yay! Go friend!

Then I read that thread about the terrible job market for architects, the extreme stress of architecture school, the line "I pity the fools graduating this year with any student debt." That's not at all what I would want to hear if I were going into a similar program.

On the one hand, it's quite literally none of my business. It's his life, and I'm sure he's done some research. I don't know anything about architecture school or architecture as a career that I didn't read on the internet.

On the other hand, his attraction to architecture seems genuine, but it's not exactly a lifelong passion. It seems like he might benefit from the experience of some people who have been there. Also, it seems possible that an architecture masters degree, for someone without an undergraduate degree, will get him little but debt.

What would you do if it was your friend?
posted by Clambone to Education (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

Then I read that thread about the terrible job market for architects, the extreme stress of architecture school, the line "I pity the fools graduating this year with any student debt." That's not at all what I would want to hear if I were going into a similar program.

Are you assuming that he doesn't know about these things? If he's been talking to different programs for years, then he's likely talked to people in those careers. While you might not want to hear those things, it's likely he's heard them for quite some time and has evaluated those variables.

If in casual conversation you can drop the idea that it's a risky proposition and you'd be a little wary of going to grad school now, you might be able to find out his views. There's no reason to directly nay-say his desires.
posted by mikeh at 8:39 AM on April 30, 2010

I'd send him a quick email with a link to the thread. Something along the lines of "Hey - I came across this link about architecture and it had some interesting comments. I remember you were thinking about going into this - just wanted to pass it along!"
posted by valoius at 8:40 AM on April 30, 2010 [7 favorites]

His attraction to architecture seems genuine, but it's not exactly a lifelong passion.

Why are you judging how passionate he is or isn't? If he wants to do this, let him do it. Let him do whatever he wants and stay out of his business, especially when you don't know anything about the field anyway.
posted by anniecat at 8:45 AM on April 30, 2010

On the one hand, it's quite literally none of my business.

Damn right.

Worst case, he sits on the degree for a few years after graduating. It sounds like he's very employable in other fields, which means he could nurture an architecture career while holding down another job, until the market for architects gets better.

Absolute worst case, he never uses the degree professionally, but gets to explore one of his passions, and eventually designs an awesome house for himself later in life.
posted by schmod at 9:05 AM on April 30, 2010

I personally know three architects who have lost their jobs in the last two years. These are guys with advanced degrees and awards for architecture. One has completely switched gears and is learning all there is to know about computers and networking and whatnot because he just doesn't see the future being very bright for architects. Perhaps there's a glut in the market?

Knowing what my friends went through as undergrads and grads, yes it's very stressful. We (those of us outside the architecture program) wouldn't see them for weeks or sometimes months on end because they were so busy. That's not necessarily bad, but it is a very intense program.

I like voloius's suggestion to sending him the link to the other thread. And keep in mind that sometimes the best intentions aren't taken that way by the other person. We need to make our own mistakes in life. We learn better that way. And who's to say this is a mistake? Send him the link but ultimately, step aside and let him choose his own life.
posted by cooker girl at 9:09 AM on April 30, 2010

Yeah, I think you should at least advise your friend to really look into the field and make sure he has really done his homework. In my opinion, architects make a lot less than most people would think.

My aunt and uncle have both been architects for over 20 years. Both are Harvard grads and work for a top firm, think top 10 in the world. My uncle in particular is the #2 at the firm. However, he has told me what he makes and it was about half what I would have guessed. And he works 60 hours a week. The firm just picked up a huge client, a three-year contract for a $5 billion development. He then tried to negotiate a raise but was only able to get a small one.

I think the assumption is that architects are like other professionals, i.e., lawyers, doctors, CPAs, investment bankers, etc. But they're not. Architect firms are usually owned entirely by the head guy--no one else gets equity, so the head guy makes a ton of money. I would think this is due to the nature of the business. With architects, it's a low volume, high margin business. And really value is driven by design, which is also ultimately what sells (i.e., wins bids), and the head architect can handle the design for all his firm's projects. All the power lies with the customers, and architect firms typically have to spend tons of money competing with other firms in submitting a model and bid to win a project. So it's a capital intensive business, which means high risk, high return, which means a handful make millions while everyone else gets mediocre pay. I would guess that there are some sort of market distortions that are too blame--i.e., unintended consequences from some sort of government interference.
posted by stevenstevo at 9:41 AM on April 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

1. the job market for urban planners sucks too. trust. me.
2. the architecture folks (we were in the same building) are generally really driven by a lifelong passion; the ones who just thought it was cool were quickly weeded out.
3. don't piss on someone's dreams, even if they're unrealistic. let him see for himself.
posted by desjardins at 9:44 AM on April 30, 2010

It's always good to have options and more knowledge if someone is looking to change their career. If your friend is interested in architecture from an enthusiast point of view then maybe he should take undergrad classes. Probably without an undergrad architectural degree he would not be able to get accepted to a master's program.
posted by JJ86 at 9:53 AM on April 30, 2010

I nearly made a similar decision myself a few years ago.

Architecture education & practice is structured very much like the other big professional disciplines, medicine and law. All require a huge time commitment, have limited financial aid opportunities, include a long unrewarded internship period, eventually followed by professional practice. However architecture, unlike the others, is rather poorly paid throughout. If your friend cares the least bit about a comfortable personal life and financial freedom, he should probably think things over a little deeper.

This is going to sound a little harsh, but make sure he is at least considering that he will almost certainly end up in serious debt, will have a hard time making time for relationships, and may not want to stay in the field afterwards. As long as he's thought about all this, you've done your part to mitigate risk; from then on, by all means, encourage him at every turn. There's a lot of interesting work to be done.

For what it's worth, I didn't go back to school, but I now work hand-in-hand with a lot of people who have done an M.Arch, and they are pretty universally interested, talented people.
posted by jacobbarssbailey at 10:00 AM on April 30, 2010

If you are good friends and he is taking on loans, I think he would be well served if you made some comments basically ensuring that he is making an honest risk calculation with the loans he'd have to take on and the job prospects. All of the talk in this thread about "stay out of his business blah blah blah" is all well and good, but student loan debt is extremely toxic and education tends to make people idealistic... "I'll study what I love, the rest will fall in line because I'm doing what I love!!" Sadly, the real world doesn't quite work like that. So I might try and make sure he reads the other thread on the realities of architecture, and leave it at that. It's his decision, but as his friend I think it's fair that you make sure he has some material information.

Glad I'm not friends with a lot of people in this thread.
posted by wooh at 10:38 AM on April 30, 2010

My dad warned me not to go into architecture unless I was completely passionate about it.

But my dad's an architect. I probably wouldn't have paid much attention to some friend who read an article.
Bring it up once but don't harp on it.
posted by kidbritish at 11:08 AM on April 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd send him the thread with a neutral comment like "just thought you might like to read this" just as a poster above suggested. I've sent friends links to such materials before when they were embarking on something that seemed risky or problematic, and it's always turned out to be a sound idea. They read and considered the material, thanked me for it, and either jettisoned their plans or proceeded anyway but with caution or debunked it. And I felt I'd been a responsible friend and relaxed.
posted by orange swan at 11:20 AM on April 30, 2010

Unless he asks you for your opinion on his decision to pursue architecture, I wouldn't say anything. Maybe, just maybe, if you were an architect yourself and had some personal insight, it would be more valuable but since he didn't ask your opinion and you aren't in the biz yourself, I would keep it to myself if I were you.
posted by 1000monkeys at 11:54 AM on April 30, 2010

"My dad warned me not to go into architecture unless I was completely passionate about it.

But my dad's an architect. I probably wouldn't have paid much attention to some friend who read an article."

What kidbritish said.

I am a landscape architect. I work very closely with architects, naturally, and many are my close friends. I wouldn't choose architecture as a profession myself. Here's why:

1. It's extraordinarily complex. Architects spend a lot of their time herding cats - i.e., subconsultants, as a result. You have structural, mechanical (plumbing, electrical, HVAC, communications, etc.), fire safety, ADA, and on and on and on.
2. It's extraordinarily frustrating. 99.999% of architects are not Frank Gehry. They don't get to "realize their vision". Most of them have to fight tooth and nail to get simple design basics into a building or site.
3. It's extraordinarily frustrating, part 2. They have to fight ignorant clients, obstinate and ignorant planners. They have to fight the budget. They have to fight municipal bureaucracies run by non-architects who have no knowledge of architecture, design, infrastructure or anything relevant, but who have stacks of checklists to run down - and they don't have the knowledge to know if they are using a relevant checklist or not.
3. It's extraordinarily time consuming. So much for the "high margin" that someone mentioned above. They collect a lot in fees - 8%-15%, even 20% or more of construction costs, but that money gets paid to consultants like me. And to the design/drafting staff, who work for peanuts, mostly. And the insurance company.
4. Back to the vision. It's extraordinarily frustrating - again. The architect spends three years or more convincing the client, coordinating the team, dealing with ad hoc community user groups, processing the plans through myriad agencies, and finally gets the plans out to bid and construction. Then the contractor turns out to be incompetent, crooked or both. Material costs spike the month before the bids go out. Excavations find archaeological elements. The client's bank financing falls through. The end result is that unforeseen construction issues break the tightly controlled budget, and the architect is left frantically downgrading the design while expensive construction equipment sits idle - and of course, the architect has to secure municipal approvals yet again.

The list goes on. But you get the point. Right?

Anyone would be better off pursuing honky tonk guitar as a profession. Make $100 bucks, maybe $200 a night. Drink beer. Envy architects in air conditioned offices.

Both professions require passion. Architecture requires passion, and the ability to endure endless humiliations, being kicked in the teeth, punched in the crotch. Only to risk getting sued by the client or some idiot tenant or passerby sometime in the next ten years.

So yeah. Architecture. Go for it.
posted by Xoebe at 1:04 PM on April 30, 2010

I'm the one that made the "pity the fool" comment. I think you should share your concern. Also forward this article. I would say I wish somebody told me before I jumped head first into Architecture school, but the truth is several people did. I chose not to listen, because I thought talent and hard work would make the difference. Not really.
posted by tfmm at 1:13 PM on April 30, 2010

I like valoius' suggestion. He can then take or leave the info as he likes.
posted by stewieandthedude at 3:11 PM on April 30, 2010

I have to say that it doesn't matter what field your friend wants to go into, there will be someone advising them not to do it because of "the terrible job market" and the student debt. Well yeah, the economy really sucks right now for everyone, and an advanced degree offers no immunity. And taking on a lot of debt is always a risky, troublesome proposition.

I would advise you not to treat your friend like he's a child or irrational in his decision-making process. I would say support your friend in whatever way you can, but don't try to discourage him or "warn" him by passing along the naysaying of others.
posted by Danila at 4:17 PM on April 30, 2010

IANAA, but I met a friend of mine when she moved from the East coast to the West coast to get a master's in Architecture, taking out student loans to pay for the degree. Her undergrad degree was in an unrelated field. She finished school and moved back to the East coast about 10 months ago. Every single day, her Facebook status update was some variation of her begging people for a job, any job, asking if anyone knew any architects or knew of any jobs, etc., etc., etc. She seemed pretty miserable, and was down to her last $40 in the bank by earlier this year.

Somehow, she landed an architecture job right at that point. She's been working there just a month or two, but seems to love it, and has her own big office. So, the short answer is, who know? Don't discourage your friend, but you could certainly share a couple of cautionary tales with him if you think he hasn't done due diligence or isn't the type of person to sick with something for many, many months of unemployment after years of hard work in grad school.
posted by booknerd at 6:12 PM on April 30, 2010

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