The Austrian-American architect Richard Neutra once said, confirming a popular perception of his profession: ‘I am simply submerged in work from five in the morning to eleven at night.’ Why would anyone choose a job that seems to require such intense commitment?
Does architecture have to be such hard work? It’s a fair question, and many prospective architects are put off when they start thinking about the answer.
Though architecture can be a wonderful career, it’s not an easy one – so this article will give you the lowdown on the challenges you’re likely to face during the beginning, middle and end of your career, and compares architecture to other notoriously ‘hard’ professions like medicine and engineering.
If you’re not sure whether you’re cut out for architecture, you can also try our quick quiz (link below) to find out whether it’s likely to suit you or not.
In short – is being an architect hard?
In short – yes! Architecture students spend more time and money on their training than almost any other profession. After graduation, competition for jobs is fierce and young architects often find themselves doing years of menial work for low pay, putting in much longer hours than they’d like.
And things don’t always get better higher up the ladder: salaries tend to increase in small increments, and many senior architects feel burdened by their heavy legal responsibilities.
While architecture can be a long and extremely gratifying career, there’s no denying it is tough from start to finish.
How is being an architect difficult?
In this section, we’ll look in more detail at some of the reasons why being an architect can be tough.
You need a wide variety of skills
One of the hardest things about being an architect is that you have to be a master of all trades.
As well as the creative aptitude needed for designing buildings, you should have a solid understanding of math and physics; as well as the ability to do focused and solitary work for hours at a time, you should have the social skills to develop good relationships with clients and contractors.
Very few people are such incredible all-rounders that they can cope with the many and various demands on them.
Qualification takes a lot of time and money
In the US, UK and many other countries, an architecture degree takes at least seven years to complete (five in school and two on placements), whereas the average student spends just three or four years at university.
Predictably, the fees are prohibitively expensive for some – and architecture courses have hidden costs, too, such as materials and software.
Moreover, the pressure of an architecture qualification can be intense, with ‘crits’ (in which you present and defend your work to tutors and peers) a compulsory component of most courses. All-nighters are common as deadlines loom, and sleepless nights can soon take their toll.
Licensure takes even more time and money
After all this, by law you still have no right to describe yourself as an architect. Architecture graduates can work in the field as so-called architectural designers, but those wishing to gain full licensure and the professional title architect must take additional exams (such as the ARE in the US, and RIBA Part 3 in the UK).
This involves yet more time and expense, as well as taking on extra legal responsibilities. On the plus side, though, architects with full licensure have more job opportunities and greater earning capacity.
Working as an architect isn’t always a bed of roses
Architecture seems glamorous from the outside but it’s a competitive profession, with many more qualified applicants than jobs. Young architects tend not to be paid very well, and find access to more creative work severely restricted until they have a few years of experience under their belt.
Hours are often long and unsociable, including evenings and weekends. And unfortunately, this doesn’t even balance out with increased seniority; working for yourself is one of the only ways to take control of your work-life balance as an architect, and of course this just means trading one set of stresses for another!
Architects have to deal with a lot of regulations
Licensed architects bear legal responsibility for the safety of their buildings, which is more than some people care to handle.
On top of this, building regulations change from country and country and even (within the US) from state to state, so a licence to practice is not a licence to practice anywhere. If you move, you may have to retrain before you can start signing off on buildings (though if you’re lucky, an employer might foot the bill for this retraining).
Are architects always stressed?
Not always, but often. All kinds of things cause architects stress, from the relatively minor (computers crashing) to the terrifyingly major (discovering, too late, a structural problem with a building you’ve designed).
For more information on some common stressors in the profession, you might like to read our article Is Being an Architect Stressful?
Quiz: Should I be an architect?
So do you have what it takes to be an architect? Try our quick quiz to find out! Read each of the statements below and decide how strongly you agree, with ‘1’ indicating the strongest agreement and ‘5’ indicating the strongest disagreement.
Answer as truthfully as you can. At the end, if you find that you’ve selected 1 or 2 for most of the statements, there’s a good chance you could make it as an architect.
Is a degree in architecture hard?
It’s certainly not easy, but whether it’s hard really depends on what you’re good at and what you enjoy. Student architects should be as comfortable with math and science as with designing and drawing, and this is a combination of skills not found in many people.
However, you don’t have to be brilliant at both of these things – you just have to be prepared to work hard on them. For a long time. And be resilient enough to handle a group of people pulling apart your work in crits.
Do architects get paid well?
This also depends – primarily on your qualifications, your experience, where you’re based, and the kind of firm you work for.
The take-home: being fully licensed, at least halfway through your career, and working in a major city is likely to push up your earnings considerably.
If you’re based in the US, this article gives an overview of the average salary for an architect in each state. If you’re in the UK, this RIBA survey indicates how much you can expect to earn at various stages of your career.
Is it hard to become a successful architect?
Our article Nine Ways to Be a Successful Architect shares some advice on how to excel in the field, but the reality is that most architects will only ever be good, not magazine-cover great.
For every Richard Rogers or IM Pei, there are millions more whose names will never be known. That said, success can be defined in many different ways, and plenty of architects have made a quiet difference to society by designing well-functioning homes, schools, hospitals and more.
If you equate success with this social contribution, rather than fame and fortune, then yes, lots of architects are successful.
Is being an architect worth it?
While this article may sound a bit doom-and-gloom, plenty of architects spend their whole lives in love with their craft and can’t imagine doing anything else.
If you have the drive to be an architect in the first place – the need to create, the never-ending fascination with the built environment – you’ll probably find you can bear the hardships of the profession well enough.
Though architectural salaries aren’t great they aren’t terrible, either, and there’s endless variety to be had in the job as long as you keep challenging yourself. Our article Is Architecture Worth It? explores this topic in more detail.
Is architecture harder than medicine?
On one hand, it makes sense to compare these two fields: both require long and costly periods of study; both require thorough scientific knowledge as well as people skills; both are (in theory, at least) careers for life in which a person can specialise, progress, and perhaps change course several times.
However, it is almost impossible to say whether one is harder than the other, since different people have different aptitudes.
You’ll work long hours and experience considerable stress as either an architect or a doctor, but architecture at least has the advantage of ‘cool’ stress (changing drawings for the tenth time to please an especially picky client) over ‘warm’ (seeing someone lose their battle with a terminal illness).
Is architecture harder than engineering?
Some might say that architecture is harder than engineering, since it involves creativity as well as mathematics.
Others might argue that engineering is harder because it requires studying math in greater depth, and an understanding of structures like bridges and dams as well as buildings.
Engineers qualify more quickly than architects, which is reflected in their pay, although not necessarily in proportion to the length of their training! See our article Structural Engineer vs Architect for a more thorough comparison of the two careers.
There’s no doubt that architecture is hard.
It can take the best part of a decade to qualify and get licensed; it’s a competitive field in which salaries can be low and hours long; and architects are affected by all kinds of stresses, from demanding clients to 6AM starts. But it’s also a deeply satisfying career; when Neutra described the long hours he worked, he was describing an all-consuming labor of love.
If you’re not afraid of a little – OK, a lot of – hard work, you may find yourself equally enamored with architecture.