salary advice for entry-level architect just graduating from Harvard
December 29, 2012 10:59 AM   Subscribe

I am about to graduate from Harvard Architecture School (GSD) with an M.Arch. and am trying to think about what to do in terms of next career steps. I've worked in architectural offices over the summers (some prominent ones) and not been too thrilled with the work and am now trying to decide what to do about my career. A factor in my decision is earning potential and salary.

I had a career before starting architecture school where I was making close to $80K, but I left it because it was not satisfying.

I cannot get a straight answer out of anyone (including our employment office) about what kind of salaries to expect as someone starting out working in firms, but it would be useful to have some ballpark ideas so that I can think about whether sticking it out in architecture makes sense or whether I might want to revert to my old line of work.

Can folks out there give me an idea of what kind of starting salaries to expect (perhaps in big cities) and also what kind of earnings potential to expect 5 and/or 10 years out from graduation? The statistics that I found (NYT) are that unemployment is at 25% in architecture nationwide in the USA and 50% unemployment for recent grads - no idea how accurate these figures are, so I'd like to hear about that too. I am somewhat older because I came back to school after a prior career.

Does having the Harvard degree help? I know a lot of this depends on contingencies that cannot be predicted, but I need some general information just to start making decisions. Thanks in advance for your advice!
posted by cmp4Meta to Work & Money (14 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
This person sounds like he/she was going through your identical dilemma.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has pay information about architects. Presumably newly-minted architects start at the low end of that pay scale.

Architect magazine published a salary survey that looked at salaries by job title and years of experience (in the slideshow).
posted by deanc at 11:35 AM on December 29, 2012

Response by poster: The published statistics are a good start - I've looked at those, but they are averaged across the whole country. I'd like to get some more first-hand idea of specific regions. I'm most interested in New York, LA, San Francisco, and Boston.
posted by cmp4Meta at 11:37 AM on December 29, 2012

I don't know about a Harvard degree helping out, but it certainly couldn't hurt. In my experience, prior work history will have more of an effect on your employability than your degree, although you'll certainly have a leg up on people that just know how to use some kind of CAD and don't have a professional degree.

The AIA has a salary survey that comes out every three years. Sometimes you can find versions of it (however old) online, although typically not the most recent one (which would be from 2011). If you actually want to read/get a copy of the most recent full report, it'll cost something like $150 to get it from the AIA. The report is quite extensive, with salary breakdowns by position, firm size, US region, and US cities in some cases, with further information about the firms reporting. Here's a PDF version of the Mid-Atlantic region report from 2008 - salaries may vary from this for different areas, but it'll at least give you an idea of the ballpark. You may be able to use your google-fu to find something applicable to regions you're looking in, even if it's from 2005. I would expect that salaries generally shrank or stagnated after 2008.

Just going purely from my experience, the most I ever made was in 2008 before being laid off during the whole financial mess. I was getting $63K in Southern California for a Job Captain position, was valued by my firm, and had about 8 years of experience at the time; it was also at the tail end of the housing boom and the firm mostly did work in retail, developing new shopping centers to service all the far-flung outlying communities that were expanding at that time, so my salary was perhaps a little inflated. I interviewed for a position at that same firm last year, and the Director of Operations said that pretty much everyone in the firm that was able to stay on had taken something like a 10% pay cut.
posted by LionIndex at 11:58 AM on December 29, 2012

also what kind of earnings potential to expect 5 and/or 10 years out from graduation?

Of course this will depend on the condition of the building industry, which nobody can predict with any confidence.
posted by jon1270 at 12:02 PM on December 29, 2012

I've worked in architectural offices over the summers (some prominent ones) and not been too thrilled with the work and am now trying to decide what to do about my career.

This might be something to think about - I don't know what you're expecting to be doing in a firm right out of school, but it's probably not going to be anything too exciting for a number of years, especially if you go into a larger firm with more rigidly defined project team roles (although the pay will likely be better at such a firm). If the work that you've done previously was mostly picking up redlines, responding to plancheck comments, working on production drawings, and code and product research, you can honestly probably expect to be doing the same thing for the next 10 years or so.
posted by LionIndex at 12:09 PM on December 29, 2012

Ho ho ho! I was in exactly your position in '08 -- older student coming out of the GSD (greetings back to Frau Rocker and the gang, btw) with a previous career -- and I hightailed it right back to my good old programming work as I watched the architecture economy tank, sucking down so many of my compadres in architecture. Having said that, what I found is --

1) Architecture work was for me significantly more boring than architecture school, which is a wonderful way to spend four years, if that's the sort of thing you like (no regrets here for the time I spent). And so many of the guys in their 50's I saw at the desks at SOM seemed to hate their jobs...

2) Many of the people with whom I graduated -- talented, devoted people -- had trouble getting interesting work out of school, and many are still not where they want to be. Caveat: If you are independently wealthy, or have parents that are willing to finance your early work, you'll have a much better time. (It's no coincidence that many Starchitects had wealthy families to finance their early years...)

3) You asked for salary information. I don't have any exact figures -- I'll tell you that working at a small architectural firm in the midwest I was making a quarter of what I'm making now as a coder in a large city; 5 to 10 years down the line, I could have perhaps gone up by 50%. What I hear from the people that graduated with me and are working in largish firms isn't promising (and also isn't exact, alas) -- and those who work in boutique shops make even less. I have the feeling that you won't earn a great deal in the field until you make partner.

(...and I can also tell you that the Harvard degree helps a lot -- even when you're applying for jobs as a programmer. PM me if you want more details.)
posted by ariel_caliban at 12:17 PM on December 29, 2012

Have you discovered It's a valuable resource (for all things related to architectural careers, not particularly salary. Every few years, someone posts a salary survey. Here's the most recent.

AUGI (Autodesk User Group International) is also a good general resource, and also has a salary survey.

Short answer: don't expect to make $80K until you have better than 10 years of experience, are licensed, live in one of the larger cities, and are lucky. An M.Arch (even from Harvard) will have minimal impact on your salary compared to any of those factors. It can help you to get a job in the first place, though, especially if you are good at networking.

Also, when you're calculating the financial aspect, figure in the likelihood of being laid off for a significant time period at some point during your career.

Personally, I wouldn't recommend the architectural field to anyone, and I hope to get out of it myself within the next few years, despite having spent the past decade of my life on it. It's a fairly brutal and unrewarding industry, in my experience.
posted by Kriesa at 12:25 PM on December 29, 2012

Oh, also, when I was job hunting, I found to be a somewhat helpful salary reference. I looked up a smattering of specific firms to see what salary ranges people at different levels were reporting. It generally only has information from large firms in big cities, but it was useful to me.
posted by Kriesa at 12:38 PM on December 29, 2012

Do you have access to an academic library? Or even a public library?
When I was considering going to architecture school I ILL'ed a bunch of architecture career books at my undergrad institution. They were very helpful in my decision not to go to architecture school.
What I recall is that most folks were saying they had to put in 4-6 years as a grunt, working 70 hour weeks. Then even as a principal with 10-15 years experience people were making $60-$80k and working 80 hour weeks.
Coming from Harvard you may have a better shot. I hope so!
posted by MonsieurBon at 12:51 PM on December 29, 2012

What I recall is that most folks were saying they had to put in 4-6 years as a grunt, working 70 hour weeks. Then even as a principal with 10-15 years experience people were making $60-$80k and working 80 hour weeks.

I heard those horror stories too, and I've had times where I worked some pretty extensive hours, but for the vast majority of my career I've logged solid 40 hour weeks without any problems. I think those stories are mostly relics of either the pre-CAD era or gigantic firms. When I've worked late or on weekends, it's mostly been at a project deadline and would only be for a week or so. For the most part, I put a lot more hours in at school (where we did all hand drafting and physical models) than I've ever done at work.
posted by LionIndex at 2:55 PM on December 29, 2012

sorry, I was boarding a plane and they made us turn off our devices before I could finish.

In my own experience doing IT consulting for a small (6 employees besides the two owners) architecture firm, they were usually there even as late as 10pm in the dozen or so times I was there. The two owners lived upstairs so it's possible they weren't good at keeping a work/life boundary.

But that is only a handful of data points, or one, depending how you see it.
posted by MonsieurBon at 7:36 PM on December 29, 2012

I'm reconsidering my earlier answer - it may be possible to drop by your local AIA chapter and take a look at the full version of the latest salary report without having to pay the exorbitant cost. It's at least worth a shot, and you'll probably be able to get some decent info - the Boston chapter is here.
posted by LionIndex at 10:51 AM on December 30, 2012

You could consider feeling out a multidisciplinary construction consultancy such as this one (there are others) if you're not married to architecture practice. They do project management, program management, all sorts of strategy and consulting work. The money will undoubtedly be better and lots of challenge/travel/etc. Your Harvard pedigree and age would be an asset I believe and depending what you did in your past life there may be a nice niche you could fill combining it with your architecture education.
posted by jamesonandwater at 6:22 PM on December 30, 2012

I can give you actual numbers for Los Angeles. An intern fresh out of school can expect to make $0-45,000 depending on if they take an unpaid internship (common) or work for a a very large firm like Gensler or SOM. $35-42 is common across the board. Coming from the GSD is generally good, but not as great as the GSD would have you believe (most architects in CA come from Cal Poly SLO). Earning potential is OK, but not great. I would expect you would be back to your $80k in 10 years. Which pretty much sucks, but I think that's fairly accurate. I can also tell you internships in school are significantly more boring than actually working full-time in architecture, but I can also say that it doesn't get interested until you're at least 2-3 years in. Gotta plow through the boring stuff first.
posted by annie o at 8:04 AM on January 7, 2013

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