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

Question: After college, how do I start a career in architecture?

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.

Stage 1:

Your School: what does it offer?

If you possibly can, begin your career in architecture while you're 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 or drafting 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:

  • kickstart the "experience" section of your resume
  • observe a real work environment, without the pressure and stress of having to produce a product (e.g., a project or paper)
  • "shadow" a professional architect for a day or work week, getting a feel for the professional side of architecture
  • 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.

    Stage 2:

    The "Internship": some say this is the hard part
    Most graduates work for several years as "interns" in a professional architectural firm before they take licensing exams and become licensed architects. For help finding an internship, visit the career center at your college. Also look to your professors for guidance. Career tips: How to Find an Internship

    After you are settled into your internship, more help is not only on the way, but mandatory in some states. The Intern Development Program (IDP) is a joint venture of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) and the American Institute of Architects (AIA). How does it help? Dr. Lee Waldrep, author of the Becoming an Architect book series, explains its value:

    "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.'

    NCARB, the licensing organization for architects, is incredibly involved with providing architecture firms with prepared architects ready to contribute to a practice. NCARB introduced the Intern Development Program in 1976 and overhauled the program in 2016. The Architectural Experience Program™ or AXP™ is now a requirement for showing professional competency and is a requirement for initial registration. The term "intern" is on its way out.  Here's the NCARB History of the AXP.

    Stage 3:

    Licensing Exams: No, this is the hardest part
    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. Study for and taking the exams are usually accomplished during the internship period.

    Learn more from these study guides:

    • ARE Review Manual, 2nd Edition
      Buy on Amazon
    • Structural Systems: ARE Sample Problems and Practice Exam, 2nd Edition
      Buy on Amazon
    • Building Systems: ARE Sample Problems and Practice Exam, 2nd Edition
      Buy on Amazon
    • Construction Documents & Services: ARE Sample Problems and Practice Exam, 2nd Edition
      Buy on Amazon
    • Site Planning & Design: ARE Sample Problems and Practice Exam, 2nd Edition
      Buy on Amazon
    • Building Design & Construction Systems: ARE Sample Problems and Practice Exam, 2nd Edition
      Buy on Amazon

    Stage 4:

    Job Search
    After completing the AREs, some students find jobs at the same firms where they interned. Others seek employment elsewhere. Either way, a strong career network will pave the way toward a success. Career Tips: Network Your Way to a New Job

    Find Architecture Internships and Jobs:

    Learn More:

    • Build Your Career in Architecture
    • Become an Architect Q&A
    • Becoming an Architect, books by Dr. Lee Waldrep in the Wiley series
      Buy on Amazon
    • Beginner's Guide: How to Become an Architect by Ryan Hansanuwat, RA, NCARB
      Buy on Amazon
    • The Survival Guide to Architectural Internship and Career Development by Grace H. Kim, Wiley, 2006
      Buy on Amazon

    Sources: Externships, LSU College of Art + Design [accessed April 29, 2016]; Becoming an Architect by Lee W. Waldrep, Wiley & Sons, 2006, p. 195.