Who would ever choose to study architecture? It takes over seven years to qualify, and research suggests architecture students put in more hours per week than any of their peers. Architects must be ‘Renaissance (wo)men’ – thinkers, drafters, crafters, mathematicians, diplomats, salespeople – but content themselves with realising other people’s designs for most, or even all, of their careers.
Why, then, is architecture such a popular and competitive university course?
As well as looking cool in black and impressing people at parties, architects literally get to change the world around them. They can impact people’s lives in a profoundly positive way, and few careers offer such broad and consistent intellectual stimulation. So how do you get your foot in the door – and then slip into the room with confidence?
…This article will show you exactly how to become an architect, from getting the right education and skills, to choosing the job that’s right for you.
What does an architect do?
‘No two days are the same!’ has become a cliché of working life, but nowhere is it truer than in architecture. While the archetypal image of an architect has them bent over blueprints, pencil hovering in hand, you could be involved in any stage of a building project from initial strategy meetings to post-occupancy evaluation.
For a detailed breakdown of the stages of a building project (as defined by AIA in the United States and RIBA in the UK), and of the specific work that architects undertake in each, see our article on What Does an Architect Do?
What is an architect?
The answer to this question depends, of course, on who you ask. While the dictionary will tell you it’s someone whose job is to design buildings, those working in the profession might prefer the ‘Renaissance (wo)man’ definition that encompasses more fully all they have to achieve.
Technically, only a trained, accredited and registered professional can call themselves an architect; those who stop at a three or four-year Bachelors’ degree have no claim to the title. For more information on what being an architect really means, take a look at our article The Meaning and Definition of an Architect.
What type of architect do you want to become?
While ‘architect’ is a neat catch-all job title, the reality is that there are many types of architect. There are design architects, who focus on the aesthetics of buildings, and technical architects, who make sure all the pieces fit together properly.
There are housing architects and restoration architects. There are specification writers and project managers, architectural assistants (i.e. those who cannot yet use the full title of architect) and associate architects (who are senior members of a firm and the public face of projects), and many more besides.
How much do architects make?
How much you earn depends on a number of factors, including: the country and city where you work; your position and responsibilities; your level of experience and skill; the firm you work for; and whether you are paid a salary or by the hour.
In short, in the US you can expect your salary as an architect to fall in the range of $60,000 to $90,000 a year. In the UK, it will likely be between £35,000 and £45,000.
In both countries, architectural assistants will earn less while associate architects, partners and directors can earn significantly more. Our article Architects’ Salary Guide offers additional information on typical pay scales in these and other locations, including Canada, India and Dubai.
What kind of education do you need to be an architect?
In the US, UK and many other nations, it takes at least five years of academic study (a Bachelor’s plus Master’s degree in architecture), as well as two to three years of professional experience, to become an architect. In the next part of this article, we will consider the specific career entry routes in the United States and United Kingdom.
How to become an architect in the US
While you’re still in high school
There are no pre-college qualifications in architecture, but it might be an advantage to take math classes such as geometry and algebra, arts classes such as drawing and sculpture, and physics. There are also Advanced Placement courses in calculus, art history, and 3D art and design.
At college, you can follow one of two routes to become an architect. The first option is to take a B.Arch, which lasts five years and includes Bacherlor’s and Master’s level qualifications. While this is the most efficient route, it is only suitable for students who are sure from the outset that they want to be an architect (and it must be supplemented with additional years of practical experience).
The second option is to take a four-year Bachelor’s degree in architecture or another subject and follow this with an M.Arch. Someone with a Bachelor’s in architecture will spend one or two years on the M.Arch, while someone who studied an unrelated subject can expect to spend three to five.
Practical experience is a requirement of licensure in all 50 states. Students generally join the Architectural Experience Program, known as AXP, which must include 3,740 hours of experience in six areas – practice management (360 hours); project management (360 hours); programming and analysis (260 hours); project planning and design (1,080 hours); project development and documentation (1,520 hours); and construction and evaluation (360 hours).
All trainee architects are required to take a test known as the Architect Registration Examination, or ARE, after they have the required amount of experience.
Certification and licensure
Passing the ARE leads to certification and licensure. This generally means you can practise in the state where you took the exam, although a national qualification is also offered for those who also intend to work in more than one state.
How to become an architect in the UK
There are no A-Levels or Highers in architecture, but the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland suggests your final high school subjects might include English, maths, art, geography, history, foreign languages and/or computer studies.
Students in the UK generally take a B.Arch, but this differs from its American counterpart. In the UK, it consists of a three-year BA/BSc degree followed by a year of experience, then a two-year Master’s course (which goes by different names in different institutions, e.g. M.Arch or Diploma), then another year of experience before full qualification.
It is not possible to study a subject other than architecture at Bachelor’s level and then take a Master’s conversion course, as it is in the US.
Students must gain a minimum of two years of experience during their B.Arch, one before and one after their Master’s, before qualifying as an architect. If you are older, and already have significant industry experience – enough that you can pass the three RIBA exams described below – you may not need to take a B.Arch.
Students must complete RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. Part 1 is the BA/BSc, Part 2 is the Master’s qualification, and Part 3 is the experience. If you are an older candidate with extensive industry experience, you can sit the respective exams for Parts 1, 2 and 3; passing all of them means you can apply for licensure in the same way as a B.Arch graduate.
Certification and licensure
After completing Parts 1, 2 and 3 students are eligible to register as an architect with the ARB (Architects’ Registration Board).
How long does it take to train to be an architect?
It takes five to eight years to become a qualified architect, depending on which country you train in. It’s not a career choice for the faint-hearted!
Getting your first job
You’ve finally got the certificate in your hand – now what? Work on your resume and especially your portfolio, build your online presence, and start researching what’s out there. Don’t undersell yourself, but be careful not to oversell yourself either; most graduates don’t walk straight into a prestigious firm and command a generous salary. Work hard, though, and those things should come in time.
Choosing where to work
The place where architects work might be called a firm, practice or studio. These terms can be used somewhat interchangeably, although in the UK ‘firm’ generally implies a larger company and ‘studio’ a smaller one. If a company has the word ‘architects’ in its name, it must only employ licensed architects.
But how do you know what would suit you best: a small, medium or large practice? Working in a small studio (often defined as fewer than 10 employees) means you are likely to get a wide range of experience, as projects often have an all-hands-on-deck feel to them.
In a medium-sized firm (10 to 50 employees) you will probably find there are different departments, and that you report to someone directly. And in a large firm (more than 50 employees, likely in various international offices), you may find things more impersonal, but have the advantage of future employers already knowing the company and its work.
For more on different types of architectural practice and their pros and cons, you might like to read the article A Guide to Architecture Firms.
Is it hard to become an architect?
The short answer to this is yes! The training lasts many years, which can be a financial burden, and architecture degrees require more hours of study per week than other subjects. You will be required to have a wide range of skills, from drawing to maths to coding to engineering.
You will likely work long days and irregular hours to meet project deadlines, and while architects’ salaries are respectable, only a handful of ‘starchitects’ will ever get rich.
Once you become an architect, you naturally take on a daunting amount of legal and other responsibility. However, it can also be an extremely rewarding profession.
Is architecture a good career?
Architecture is a massive industry, which means your employment prospects after graduation are good. An analysis of the American job market by US News found that only 1.4% of American architects were unemployed. US News also produced scorecards for a number of leading professions, rating them out of 10 in various categories; architecture scored seven for salary, eight for job market, two for future growth, four for stress, and six for work-life balance.
In the UK, the unemployment rate for architects is similarly low at 1.2%, according to the Labour Force Survey.
However, data like these can only ever tell you whether architecture is a ‘good’ career on paper, and not whether it would be a good career for you. If you are passionate about creating buildings and spaces that people love, and are prepared to work hard to make this happen, architecture will probably suit you very well.
Your job is likely to be varied, and as time goes on you will have the option to become self-employed, if this is something that appeals to you.
What you need to know before becoming an architect
The architect that exists in the public imagination bears little resemblance to one in the real world. Yes, an architect’s job is to design buildings, but this is a tiny part of work you will do. Most of your time will be spent figuring out how to make your design a reality, which includes things like sitting in meetings, completing paperwork, and making technical drawings.
Make sure you’re up for doing this less glamorous work before you sign up for several years of training!
And about that training. If you’re the kind of person who picks up new hobbies and abandons them after a few months, architecture may not be right for you. Becoming an architect is a huge investment of both time and money (and blood, and sweat, and tears…) and you’ll need healthy amounts of determination to survive.
On the plus side, it’s good to know before you start that while your certificate will say ‘architect’, it isn’t really one job. Architects go on to specialise in all sorts of things, from building sustainable schools in South Asia to adaptively reusing industrial heritage buildings.
If you have the talent, you’ll find your own way within the profession and be able to carve out a niche that works for you.
What skills and qualities are needed?
The following are all considered essential skills for architecture – but bear in mind you don’t need to have all of these in spades before you start your training! A good university course will help you to develop all of these things.
It’s possible to make buildings that are safe and fit for purpose without being terribly creative – but really, creation is at the core of an architect’s work. If you prefer taking directions from someone else, or sticking to familiar ways of doing things, you’ll probably never excel in the field.
You’ll need to become an expert in 2D and 3D drafting, both with physical materials and on screen. Almost no-one joins a Bachelor’s course with these skills, however. Your college years are when you’ll really learn and hone these skills.
Design of any kind is the ultimate problem-solving activity, so be sure you will relish the chance to make order from chaos!
Yes, communication skills. Architects are not solitary artists; they work in a team with others who need to understand their thinking. Even if you’re a sole practitioner, you’ll need to communicate with clients and other contractors. And communication doesn’t only mean talking; you’ll need to get the ideas in your head out into the real world in a way that other people will understand, which can include the written word, images and models.
There are few jobs these days that don’t require organisational skills. As an architect, you’ll likely need to prioritise competing tasks, meet deadlines, and ensure all the necessary paperwork is completed.
As for personal qualities, determination has already been mentioned several times. (Drop-out rates for architecture courses are notoriously high.) But it’s also helpful to be calm and personable so you can build a good relationship with clients, and adaptable since projects rarely run smoothly!
It has also been said that the best architects are those who are interested in everything, not only buildings. You might be surprised by how often seemingly unrelated knowledge informs the creative work you do as an architect.
Is becoming an architect worth it?
There is no simple answer to this one. It very much depends on what you want from your career, and indeed your life.
In purely financial terms, the many years of training can be costly – but you are very likely to find work after graduating and make a consistent, respectable and rising salary. The world will always need architects in one way or another.
In terms of job satisfaction, the industry is so varied that there’s no excuse for boredom. If you are genuinely excited by the built environment, there will always be another job or another project that fires your imagination.
In your university years, there might be days when you feel the opposite of satisfaction, for example when your ideas are torn apart by peers and tutors in a crit. But try to remember this is the only way you’ll improve; take the advice, move on, and don’t let negative feedback throw you off your bigger course.
In terms of work-life balance, issues within the architecture profession are well known. For many people, however, this doesn’t automatically mean a reduction in job satisfaction. There are those who thrive on complex, challenging projects that occupy significant chunks of their lives. And with a greater understanding than ever of the need for employees to balance their work and home lives, long hours as an architect needn’t be a given.
For a more detailed look on the advantages and disadvantages of a career in architecture, see our article Is Architecture and Being an Architect Worth It?
Questions to ask yourself before becoming an architect
If you’re thinking of becoming an architect, answering the following questions might help you decide if you’re on the right track.
- Do you spend most of your time thinking about the built environment, or issues connected with architecture?
- Do you take pleasure in finding ways to solve problems creatively?
- Are you prepared to spend a lot of time and money becoming a fully qualified architect?
- Will you enjoy the reality of being an architect as described above, or are you more interested in the idea of being one?
- Are you willing to do a job that might demand irregular working hours and long days?
- Can you deal with criticism in a positive way, whether from peers, tutors, bosses or clients?
- Do you have ‘soft’ skills like being good at communicating and organising your workload (or are you prepared to develop them)?
Becoming a fully-qualified architect is a long, hard road. You will have to make sacrifices, and there will likely be days when you want to throw in the towel. But if you make it to the end of your training, an exciting future lies before you. Not only will you have excellent employment prospects, but over time you’ll be able to specialise in the sub-field of architecture that excites you most, and even to become your own boss.
In short, there’s a reason why architecture courses are oversubscribed, and why being an architect has a certain cachet. It’s a wonderful industry, full of variety and possibility. If you want nothing more than to improve the spaces we inhabit, and are not put off by some seriously hard work, a career in architecture will probably make you very happy indeed.