4 Steps to a Life in Architecture

After College, How Do I Start a Career in Architecture?

The Principal of an architecture practice, like Daniel Libeskind show here, is at the center of decision making.
The Principal of an architecture practice, like Daniel Libeskind (center), is at the center of decision making. Photo by David Corio/Michael Ochs Archive Collection/Getty Images

As in any profession, the steps to be an architect seem simple, involve a lot of hard work, and can be filled with fun. Simply put, becoming an architect involves education, experience, and examinations. Your journey from student to professional architect will move through several stages. You begin by choosing the right school for you.

Step 1: School

Some people become interested in designing and building things while still in high school is a great place to start to become an architect. Since the 19th century when architecture became a profession in the United States, you have to go to college to be an architect. This is the 21st century. But, many paths can lead to a career in architecture. In fact, you can become an architect even if you earn a bachelor's degree from a school without an architecture program.

But it's a little more complicated. What is called "higher education" comes at different levels — undergraduate and graduate. You can earn an undergraduate degree in most anything — English, History, Engineering — and then be admitted to a graduate program in architecture to earn a professional degree in architecture. So, you don't even have to decide if you want to be an architect until after you receive a bachelor's degree. Going this route, a professional master's degree in architecture (M.Arch) may take an additional three years beyond your four-year degree.

You can also become an architect with a professional undergraduate degree (B.Arch), which in many architecture schools takes five years to complete. Yes, it's a five-year program, and you only earn an undergraduate degree. A vital area of architectural study is the Design Studio, which is hands-on experience that consumes a lot of time. For students less interested in becoming an architect but still interested in architecture, most schools also offer NON-professional degrees in architecture — without the Design Studio. It turns out there are plenty of opportunities for architecture majors as well as for professional architects. Choosing the school that best fits your needs is the first step.

If you possibly can, begin your career in architecture while still in school. Consider joining the American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS). Look for a part-time job related to architecture or design. Do clerical work, drafting, or crowdsourcing for an architect or designer. Consider volunteering for an emergency relief organization or charitable program that provides design services for those in need. Whether you are paid or not, the experience will give you the opportunity to develop your skills and build a strong portfolio.

Hopefully you've chosen a school with an active alumni. Does your university sponsor alumni homecomings, bringing your school's graduates back on campus? Get your face out there among the established architects — whether these gatherings are called "networking" opportunities or "meet and greet" gatherings, mingle with the people that you will forever be associated with as alumnus of the same college.

Alumni are also a great source for externships. Usually short-term and unpaid, externships can do a number of things for your career. Externships can (1) kickstart the "experience" section of your resume; (2) help you test the waters, observing a real work environment, without the pressure and stress of having to produce a product like a project or paper; (3) allow you to "shadow" a professional architect for a day or work week, getting a feel for the professional side of architecture; and (4) help you determine your comfort level in a small or large architectural firm.

Louisiana State University calls their externship program a chance to "Get out of town!" The difference between an externship and an internship is found in the name — an extern is "external" to the workplace, and all expenses are usually the responsibility of the extern; an intern is "internal" to the organization and is often paid an entry-level wage.

Step 2: Architecture Experience

Yay! You've graduated from college or graduate school. Most graduates work for several years as "interns" in a professional architectural firm before they take licensing exams and become registered architects. For help finding an entry-level position, visit the career center at your college. Also look to your professors for guidance.

But, the term "intern" is on its way out. The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), the licensing organization for architects, is highly involved with helping architecture firms mold neophytes into architects ready to contribute to a practice. Before you can even apply to take the test to become a registered architect, you have to have experience.

What used to be called the Intern Development Program (IDP) is now the Architectural Experience Program™ or AXP™. A beginning professional needs 3,740 hours of experience before earning a professional license. AXP certification is a requirement for initial registration to sit for the licensing exams. These required hours are associated with nearly 100 tasks — for example, "Review shop drawings and submittals during construction for conformance with design intent." How do you log experience? Now there's an app for that — My AXP App.

How does NCARB help? Architecture firms are businesses and not schools — professional hours are best spent doing the business of architecture along with training new hires. NCARB helps the new graduate transition from being a student to becoming a professional without using some of a firm's "billable hours." Dr. Lee Waldrep, author of the Becoming an Architect book series, explains the value of this program when it was called IDP:

"In a recent discussion with an intern-architect a few years out of school, she confessed that while architecture school prepared her to think and design, it did not sufficiently prepare her to work in an architectural office. She further admitted that IDP, with its training areas, simply lists out what you need to do.'

Step 3: Licensing Exams

In the United States and Canada, architects must take and pass the Architect Registration Examination (ARE) to receive a professional license in architecture. The ARE exams are rigorous — some students take extra coursework to prepare. A new set of exams, ARE 5.0, was implemented in November 2016. Although the tests are completely online, you cannot use your own computer. NCARB, the licensing organization that creates the test questions, works with Prometric test centers who administers the exams. Study for and taking the exams are usually accomplished during the AXP experience-gathering phase of a professional career. This can be the most stressful part of the process of becoming an architect — generally, you're not getting paid very much (because you are not a peak contributor to the architecture firm), preparing and taking exams is stressful, and all this comes at a time when your personal life is also in transition. Remember, however, that you are not the first person to go through these times.

Step 4: Building a Profession

After completing the ARE, some early-career professionals find jobs at the same firms where they first gained experience. Others seek employment elsewhere, sometimes in careers that are peripheral to architecture itself.

Some architects start their own small firms after licensure. They may go it alone or team up with ex-classmates or co-workers. A strong career network will pave the way toward success.

Many architects begin their careers in the public sector. State, local, and federal governments all hire architects. Generally, the jobs (and incomes) are stable, control and creativity may be limited, but your personal life that may have been put on hold can be reawakened.

Lastly, it's important to remember that many successful architects don't come into their own until they are into their 60s. When most people are set to retire, the architect is just beginning. Be in it for the long haul.

Summary: Becoming an Architect

  • Stage One: Complete an accredited professional architecture program at the undergranduate or graduate level
  • Stage Two: On-the-job experience
  • Stage Three: Pass the licensing exams — only then can you call yourself an architect.
  • Stage Four: Follow your dream


  • Externships, LSU College of Art + Design, http://design.lsu.edu/architecture/student-resources/externships/ [accessed April 29, 2016]
  • History of the AXP, National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, https://www.ncarb.org/about/history-ncarb/history-axp [accessed May 31, 2018]
  • Architectural Experience Program Guidelines, National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, PDF at https://www.ncarb.org/sites/default/files/AXP-Guidelines.pdf [accessed May 31, 2018]
  • Becoming an Architect by Lee W. Waldrep, Wiley & Sons, 2006, p. 195
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Craven, Jackie. "4 Steps to a Life in Architecture." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/steps-to-a-life-in-architecture-175937. Craven, Jackie. (2021, February 16). 4 Steps to a Life in Architecture. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/steps-to-a-life-in-architecture-175937 Craven, Jackie. "4 Steps to a Life in Architecture." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/steps-to-a-life-in-architecture-175937 (accessed March 26, 2023).