Anyone who chooses to qualify as an architect must be in the profession for life, right? Wouldn’t it be crazy to throw all that time and money away? Well, maybe, maybe not. As tough as qualification is, the practice of architecture can be tougher still.
It’s a sad fact that once they start practicing, most architects have fewer creative opportunities than they ever had as students. Disengagement and itchy feet are the logical results – but is leaving architecture really the answer?
In this article, we’ll weigh up some of the reasons to leave and to stay in the profession. We’ll also look at the likely future of the field, and at some easy-ish sideways moves that architects can make. If you’ve been feeling trapped, you’ll be pleased to hear that things probably aren’t as bleak as they can feel on a wet Wednesday.
Lots of young architects find their enthusiasm nosedives after a few months in an office. This is hardly surprising, and not unique to architects; the student experience is one of life’s most enjoyable, no matter how hard it is, and by comparison a nine-to-five can feel like a real grind.
Some of the reasons junior architects might feel frustrated include:
Lack of creative opportunity
During your university years, you’re constantly working on creative projects. That’s the whole point. Then comes a junior position in a firm, where 90% of the creative work happens at the top of the pyramid.
While senior staff come up with swan-shaped office blocks and jet off to Seoul and Sydney for meetings – or so it seems – you’re stuck at your desk, answering emails from contractors.
The good news is that the job tends to get more interesting as you climb the career ladder, and every great architect you know had to go through the same tedious initial years.
But it can be hard to see that light at the end of the tunnel.
As well as spending your days on uninspiring tasks, those days are likely to be long. Yes, it’s called a nine-to-five, but staff lower down the food chain rarely start at nine or leave at five; they might also be asked to give up their weekends at especially busy times.
Younger architects rarely feel confident calling out their employers on issues like this, worried (with some justification) that they may find themselves with no job at all. While more and more companies are recognizing the value of a healthy work-life balance, in theory at least, the long-hours culture still prevails in architecture.
Young architects also complain of low salaries, particularly in cities where the cost of living is sky-high – which may be why so many junior architects feel dissatisfied with their pay. Some new graduates take heart that their salaries will certainly increase, but others wonder why they should wait so long for proper financial recognition.
And of course, the temptation to quit the profession is not limited to newly-qualified architects. Those further up the ladder may feel they’ve been passed over for promotion one too many times, or start to find the work repetitive, or resent time spent away from a young family.
On one hand, it’s harder to quit something the more time you’ve invested – but on the other, as you get older you’re more likely to feel your life ticking by.
Every relationship has ups and downs, and that includes yours with your career. It won’t always be great – a particular firm or position can really drag you down and make you feel like architecture is altogether wrong for you, but remember how hungry you were at the start…?
Nobody signs up for such an arduous course of study without a real passion for buildings, and it’s possible to get that back. A few good reasons to stick with your career in architecture include:
Fast pace of change
Architecture is a field that never stands still, so you can always choose to develop a new specialism.
If you pick a skill that meets an emerging need, you can kill two birds (or frustrations) with one stone; not only will the process of learning kick-start your enthusiasm, but equipping yourself to work in a burgeoning sub-field is likely to increase your pay packet, too.
Keeping your status
Working as an architect, even if you’re not loving it right now, gives you higher status than almost any career you can (easily) transfer to. You might think status isn’t important to you, but starting over is hard and costly.
Even if you’re only a medium-sized fish in the great pond of architecture, who wants to be a small fish again? You’ve already done the legwork; hanging in there when the going gets tough will probably lead to better things in the end.
Architects do useful work
Though it might not feel this way after eight hours of fiddling with technical drawings, architects do useful, tangible work, and this just isn’t true of so many jobs in the 21st century.
How many people do you know who, when asked what exactly they do in that office all day, offer lengthy explanations that leave the listener none the wiser? Architects never have this problem.
Good buildings really can change the world, which should at least give you peace of mind during a rocky patch.
Is the architecture profession dying?
Developments in artificial intelligence have led everyone from architects to teachers to worry that they’ll soon be out of a job. But are these fears grounded in reality?
Within architecture, recent history shows that advanced technology can lead to job losses: the move from drawing and modelling by hand to BIM, for example, undoubtedly had an effect on how many bodies were needed in an office.
There are numerous architectural tasks that can be done well by a machine, and at a speed humans can only dream of.
That said, a huge chunk of an architect’s work (for example negotiating with clients, or making creative choices based on life experience) can never be automated. Humans will always be required in the profession; the real question is whether, in the future, there will be enough jobs to go round.
Nobody knows the answer to this question yet, but if this is your main reason for leaving, remember that other careers will be similarly and probably worse affected by developments in AI.
Architects are actually safer than most, so you may want to think twice before jumping ship.
How to change your job
If you’re quite certain that where you are now is not where you want to be, make sure you have a clear idea of what you want to do instead. Don’t hand in your notice without a game plan. Think about the steps you can take to get to your dream job, and tackle them one by one.
You may need to gain additional qualifications and do unpaid work experience, both of which take time and money, and/or find someone who can mentor you as you make the transition.
For some people, taking time to think through practicalities leads to the realization that they don’t have to leave architecture altogether; after all, it’s a diverse profession, and your focus can always be redirected. If this sounds like you, have a look at the section ‘Alternatives to leaving’ below.
For other people, though, thinking through their career goals forces them to accept that architecture just isn’t right for them any more.
One good thing is that you will have acquired transferable skills that allow you to step sideways into fields like project management and industrial design, without the need for requalification.
For some related professional arenas, though, such as engineering and urban planning, you will need to spend another couple of years in school. See the FAQs below and our article Alternative Careers for Architects for more ideas on what you could do instead of architecture.
Alternatives to leaving
At some point in your career you may find yourself in a situation you dislike, but you aren’t ready to leave the profession altogether. Let’s say, for example, that you’re frustrated by the amount of time you’re spending at a desk. Can you turn this around without having to hand in your notice?
If you thrive on personal interactions, is there a way you could spend more time working directly with clients, or supporting younger architects? Before you speak to your boss about this, make a list of the ways this might benefit the business – that’s what they’ll want to hear, not all the reasons you’re feeling dissatisfied!
As well as redirecting your focus within an organization, you might choose to supplement an underwhelming nine-to-five with a relevant side project such as writing or volunteering.
There’s no denying this will eat up a ton of time in the short term, but it will give you new skills and open doors without throwing away all you’ve learnt so far. And it will cost you a lot less than going back to university.
And is it possible that you haven’t had it with architecture per se, but that you’ve stayed too long with your current employer? Consider moving to a new one – even to a new city or country.
Our brains crave novelty, and a change might be exactly what you need to re-energize you. If not, you can always go back to your exit plan after a year or two.
FAQs about leaving architecture
What other jobs can architects do?
The most logical move for an architect is into another field of design – interiors, landscape, cities, products, graphics, video games, movie and TV sets, and so on. Depending on your interests and experience, you may or not need to take another qualification.
This could be a one- or two-year Master’s, or it could mean going right back to the start with a Bachelor’s degree. If you’re interested in becoming an engineer, you’ll definitely need to do the latter since architecture degrees don’t cover math’s and physics in sufficient depth.
Other jobs that might appeal to former architects include teaching, writing, activism, conservation, management (whether of people or projects), and becoming an entrepreneur.
Is it OK to quit architecture?
If you’re truly unhappy, of course it’s OK to take charge of your life and make whatever changes you need to. But by quitting architecture, you may feel guilty for ‘wasting’ seven years of training (in reality, it’s unlikely to be a complete waste), especially if you have to return to college and take more qualifications.
The job you move to will probably be less prestigious – in the public eye, architecture is up there with law and medicine as a ‘proper job’ – which can be a knock to your self-esteem, and there’s no guarantee you’ll like your new career any more than your old one. Let’s face it, most of us only work because we have to.
But in spite of all this, is it OK to quit architecture? Absolutely. If your instincts are saying you’re done, there’s a good chance you are.
Is architecture a good career?
In all kinds of ways, yes! It’s engaging and fast-moving, demanding lots of different skills, and architects aren’t going to be replaced by robots any time soon. People tend to respect architects and listen to what they have to say. The salary could certainly be higher but it could be lower too, and there are plenty of opportunities to specialize and progress.
You can work for a company or for yourself, and you even have the option to practice overseas. If you can overlook the crazy training period – and even that can be a lot of fun – it’s a lot of people’s dream career.
If you’re still feeling meh about going into work tomorrow, you might like to read our article Why We Love Architecture and remind yourself why you picked this career in the first place!
Why do I hate being an architect?
Why does anyone hate anything? Different humans get pleasure from wildly different activities, and it may just be that you and architecture are a bad match. But you may also encounter specific issues, such as low pay, long hours, or too much mundane work and not enough creative challenge.
Perhaps you just dislike your firm or your colleagues, and changing this up will solve a lot of problems. Our article Why We Hate Architecture looks in more depth at factors that drive people to quit the profession.
If you were hoping this article would give you a sign about what to do next – we can only apologize, as it almost certainly hasn’t! The truth is that there’s only one person who can decide what kind of work is right for you . . . and you know who that is.
There are plenty of well-documented downsides to being an architect, and it’s reasonable (if you’ve given the profession a fair shot) to decide they outweigh the advantages. However, the advantages are many, and it’s not a career to be given up lightly.
If you decide you can stay the course, with the right attitude you’ll almost certainly find yourself in a better position a few years down the line. But if not, good luck with whatever path you choose to take!