It’s a nightmare scenario. After at least seven years of architecture school, the prospect of working in the field now fills you with more dread than joy – so what to do? Start applying for jobs regardless, or have a long, hard rethink?
This dilemma doesn’t only affect new graduates, of course; it may take years for some architects to realize the profession doesn’t suit them. But is it sensible, even possible, to switch track once you’ve begun?
The situation is more common that you might imagine, so this article will consider some alternative careers for architects. It will examine the reasons people leave the profession, think about the skills they’re able to take with them, and suggest a number of ways to change direction.
So if you’ve lately realized, with some horror, that you mightn’t be the next David Adjaye after all – take a deep breath and read on.
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What transferable skills do you learn as an architecture student?
One of the best things about an architecture degree is how wide-ranging it is. It equips students with skills that can be used in all sorts of other careers – you just have to prove this to potential employers. If you’ve graduated in architecture, here is a (non-exhaustive) list of 10 things you can probably do well:
1. Analyze complex situations
Realizing a building is no mean feat. There are a hundred things to take into account, which means architecture graduates are better able than most to think through situations with lots of variables.
2. Conduct research
Buildings are designed for people. To get the former right, architects spend a good deal of time researching the needs of the latter – among many other things!
3. Solve problems
How often is a realized building identical to its plans? Rarely. That’s because unforeseen problems arise, many of which fall on the architects to solve. The skill of thinking through a situation and making the best fixes is required for all kinds of jobs.
You’ve spent seven years honing your drawing skills, so a host of other careers within art and design may be open to you.
5. Go through the design process
‘Design thinking’ helps you work on all kinds of projects in a structured and iterative way, whether it’s opening a coffee stand or writing an online course. Of course, you could also use your understanding of this process to help others with their projects.
6. Use a variety of advanced software
Many of the packages you became proficient in as a student (e.g. Photoshop, InDesign) are used beyond the world of architecture. Moreover, the fact you learned them shows you’re tech-savvy and can adapt to new software easily.
7. Communicate clearly
You’re used to presenting your ideas to others, whether that’s in words (oral and written) or images. All sorts of careers, from teaching to advertising, require precisely this skill.
8. Work in a team
Building is never a solo effort. You’ve certainly worked on group projects during your time as a student and intern, which means you’re experienced in negotiating and in supporting co-workers.
9. Work to tight deadlines
Remember all those nights you stayed up till three? They weren’t in vain! Every time you met a deadline and passed an assignment, you proved you could come up with the goods when they were needed.
10. Think outside the box
Nobody gets through an architecture degree without healthy doses of curiosity and creativity. Think about times on your course when you solved problems in an unusual way; employers love hearing about your ability to innovate.
How can you transfer these skills to other fields?
It is often said that architecture is a profession rather than a trade, and this is a good way to think about the skills you learned as a student.
While you might, most logically, apply them to the design and construction of buildings, they can just as easily be applied in a number of other fields. The trick is convincing employers outside of the architecture profession of this, because it might not be obvious at first glance how your skills transfer.
When you look at a job specification, take each of the required skills in turn and think of a specific time during your degree (especially during internships) when you demonstrated it. Turn this into a short story with a STAR (situation, task, action, result) structure; concrete examples are always better than generic claims.
Why abandon architecture for another career?
There are a number of reasons why people who trained as architects don’t go on to work in the field. Some surveys suggest architects are only averagely happy with their careers, and are less than averagely happy with their pay. It’s also an open secret that architects struggle to maintain a healthy work-life balance compared to their peers, so really it’s a question of where you want to invest your time and energy (which is likely be different at 24 and 44).
You spend a huge percentage of your life at work, so don’t accept a job that makes you miserable. If the idea of giving up on architecture altogether is really too painful, consider applying to smaller firms that will probably allow you greater variety in terms of your day-to-day work.
What happens if you choose a career other than architecture?
In general, nothing that terrible happens! Sure, you might have to field a lot of questions from relatives, and you’ll have to let go of the cachet that comes from introducing yourself as an architect.
You may also find yourself awake a few times at two in the morning, wondering why you spent so much time and money on your degree. But the main thing is that you graduated, which not only means you have the all-important piece of paper, but also that you’re the kind of person who doesn’t give up.
Changing direction when something isn’t right for you isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of strength and self-knowledge.
Other jobs that architects can do
So you’re not sure about architecture any more. What can you do instead? The following is a list of 20 jobs for architecture graduates to consider.
The list is divided into two sections: jobs that are closely related to architecture, and jobs that aren’t directly related but for which you’re likely to have at least some of the requisite skills.
One caveat with the list is that some of the jobs (e.g. urban planner, teacher) require an additional Masters qualification – but definitely NOT years of retraining.
Jobs that are closely related to architecture
1. Structural engineer
Structural engineering is very closely related to architecture; if you were always more about the technical side of building than the design side, you’ll probably love it. Structural engineers make sure that new buildings, or adaptations to existing ones, are physically safe, and in the US they tend to make between $30,000 and $95,000, and in the UK between £22,000 and £70,000..
2. BIM technician / coordinator
You spent a long time improving your BIM (Building Information Modelling) skills, so why not put them to good use? BIM technicians / coordinators create digital information about buildings and structures, and can advance their careers to become BIM managers. This page from Go Construct has an overview of working in the field.
3. Urban planner
Urban planners undertake a variety of tasks including designing public spaces, assessing the impact of roads and railways, and deciding what kinds of housing should be located where. In most instances however, you will need an additional qualification.
4. Landscape architect
Landscape architects design and create open spaces. The job might involve surveying wildlife and plants on a site, researching public opinion and using CAD software, among many other tasks. To practice formally you will again require an additional qualification.
5. Interior designer
Interior designers meet with clients to establish their needs, then produce designs for rooms. They advise on colors, fabrics, furniture and fittings, and are responsible for estimating costs. Although they are paid slightly less than architects, you may not need to take any additional qualifications.
6. Lighting architect or designer
Lighting architects use – unsurprisingly – light to enhance the appearance of a building or room; lighting designers work in TV, movies or theatre (see also ‘production designer’ below). In both roles, you’ll need to be technically minded and have an intuitive grasp of the effects of light on spaces and objects. In the US you can expect a salary of approximately $45,000, and in the UK just over £30,000 in this career.
7. Industrial designer
In short, industrial designers make objects. They usually specialize in one kind of product, such as furniture or bicycles, though this isn’t always the case. To be a successful industrial designer, you’ll need to combine creativity with practicality – which should come naturally to any architecture graduate! This page from Truity has an overview of the field.
8. Graphic designer
If you always excelled at the design side of things, why not turn your hand to graphic design? Graphic designers create the 2D images that surround us, whether it’s laying out a magazine or coming up with attention-grabbing product packaging. It’s a competitive career, and you’ll need to assemble a strong portfolio, but on the plus side you won’t have to go back to school.
9. Production designer
Production designers work in theatres or on the sets of movies and TV programmers. Their job is to create believable worlds for actors to inhabit, so they work closely with people like directors, lighting designers (see above) and costume designers. This page from Screen Skills tells you all you need to know about working as a production designer.
10. Video game designer
Architecture students are adept at creating digital spaces. Add a few characters, and you have the fundamentals of a video game! Clearly, the job is a little more complicated than that. For this work you can expect a starting salary of around $30,000 in the US, rising to around $85,000 for senior designers, and £20,000 in the UK, rising to £65,000.
A year-long Master’s degree will allow you to teach subjects related to architecture, such as art, design and technology, at primary, secondary and post-16 level. If you’re good at explaining things and inspiring others, this could be a great career for you (and one in which there are many, even international, openings).
Some architecture graduates choose to stay on at university, complete their doctorates and become professional researchers. One thing to consider, however, is that PhD funding is hard to come by and gives you less to live on than a junior architect’s salary. For several years. While you’d need some practical experience to teach architecture itself at university level, there’s nothing to stop you branching out into architectural history and theory – or planning, heritage and other related fields.
If you’re more of an ideas person, why not write articles or even books about architecture? Websites and magazines pay for contributions for specialists – though you’ll almost certainly be working on a freelance basis and, unfortunately, earning very little indeed as you start out.
Conservators decide how objects (including buildings) should be preserved, and carry out any necessary repair work. While this is a specialist field, and a certain amount of up skilling will be required, an architecture degree should stand you in good stead. What’s more, a particularly rare and practical skill could see you in international demand.
Unless you’ve always taken photos as a hobby – and this doesn’t mean uploading snaps of your breakfast to Instagram – it might be naïve to think you’ll compete with photography graduates. However, our appetite for photographic images in the twenty-first century seems almost insatiable, so if you have ‘the eye’ this career you might find this career very satisfying.
16. Events planner
Architecture graduates are expect planners, so why not turn your attention to events rather than buildings? This could mean anything from weddings to conferences to raves – the fun thing about events planning is that you can match your job to your personal interests.
17. Facilities manager
Facilities managers usually work within companies and make sure that the buildings and services used by staff are as efficient and secure as they can be. Unusually among the jobs on this list, you’ll probably get to work nine to five. So if your home life is especially important to you, facilities management could be a canny choice.
18. Project manager
If you’re one of life’s organizers, you are likely to thrive in a project management career. You’ll need to take a bird’s-eye view of a project (which could be almost anything!) and plan how each part of it will be managed. One of the advantages of this job is that, on a freelance basis, you can move from sector to sector, which should keep things interesting.
Perhaps you have a head for business, and have always fancied working for yourself. And why not? If you start a small business, you’re answerable to no-one – except, perhaps, your bank manager. There’s no doubt that being an entrepreneur is risky, but perhaps you’ll become the next Elon Musk.
20. Politician or campaigner
There are lots of controversial issues within architecture (e.g. social housing provision, planning permission, decisions relating to the conservation of heritage sites) – why not speak out? It’s certainly possible for architecture graduates to find work at charities, think tanks and lobby groups. Or maybe you can see yourself as a civil servant, discussing and driving forward architecture-related policy.
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How much money can architects expect to make?
The average salary for architects in the UK is somewhere between £40,000 and £50,000, while in the US it’s roughly $76,000. Our articles ‘A Guide to UK Architectural Salaries’ and ‘A Guide to US Architectural Salaries’ have more detailed information on this.
Is being an architect a stressful job?
It certainly can be. While it’s a different kind of stress from that faced by doctors and nurses, who have people’s lives in their hands every day, you are likely to work long and unsociable hours as an architect. There is also no denying that architecture is a competitive field, so it can take a long time to rise through the ranks.
Is architecture a good career for the future?
In the UK, unemployment tends to be low within architecture – after all, people will always need buildings – although in the US, some research suggests the field may be growing more slowly than others. Unfortunately, no matter your career, it is very hard (especially during a global pandemic) to make future predictions about where your profession is heading.
If you’re agonizing over whether you really want to be an architect, but feeling like you can’t ‘waste’ all those years of training, try to take a step back.
If you were able to disregard the opinions of everyone else, what would you do? In the long term, the most important thing is your happiness, so if architecture doesn’t feel quite right any more there’s no shame in moving in a different direction.
Also, remind yourself that your degree is in no way ‘wasted’. You’ve learned valuable, transferable skills, and remember that many people end up working in fields completely unrelated to their degrees.
With architecture, at least, there are hundreds of jobs that overlap to some extent. Hopefully, this article has provided some insight into the options available – now it’s up to you to choose one!