Architecture is a fantastic career – and a terrible one. It can be fiercely competitive; the pay isn’t nearly as good as most people suppose; and in reality it involves a lot more mundane labor than exciting, creative projects.
Is being an architect really worth it? In this article, we’ll look at 15 reasons why architecture could turn out not to be the dream job our younger selves imagined…
Fifteen reasons why NOT to be an architect
1. Training is expensive . . .
Architecture is one of the most expensive degrees you can take. Not only do you have to spend a minimum of five years in school, rather than the usual three or four, you also have to complete two years of internships before you can graduate.
On top of this, you need to fork out for books, software, art supplies, field trips and much more. (See our article How Much Does it Cost to Become an Architect? for more detailed information.) There’s no way of avoiding massive debt unless your parents are both wealthy and generous; it’s hardly surprising architecture often comes under fire today for being an elitist profession.
2. …and it takes at least seven years
Seven years – split unequally between study and internships – is the shortest time it’ll take you to become an architect in the US, UK and Canada. (In countries such as France and Italy, you may be able to shave off a year or two.) Realistically, it takes many people longer as they need an extra couple of months to pass their exams and qualify for licensure.
Even for a goal you’re determined to achieve, this is an enormous chunk of your life to give up; you could fit two regular Bachelor’s degree into that time and still have a year to go backpacking! Our article How Long Does it Take to Become an Architect? gives a more comprehensive overview of this topic.
3. Architecture crits are an extra stress most students don’t have
Essay deadlines are stressful, and exams are stressful, but they have nothing on the architecture crit. Even as an undergraduate, you’ll be required to stand up in front of your class and present your work. As if speaking in public weren’t scary enough, you’ll also have to answer spontaneous questions from peers and tutors, and defend your ideas.
There’s no escaping it: every student has at least one crit that leaves them in crying into their pillow, cursing their life choices and wishing they’d studied geography instead.
4. Stress, in fact, is an inescapable part of being an architect
Unfortunately, the pressure doesn’t even stop when you leave architecture school. Low pay, irregular hours and constant multi-tasking, particularly at the start of your career, can quickly take their toll on your mental health. A British survey found that a quarter of architecture students had been treated for mental health issues, while an American study of stress in various occupations showed architects were the fifth most likely to commit suicide.
Though architecture is a relatively safe bet as a lifelong career, many people burn out and drop out before the finish line.
5. You need full licensure to call yourself an architect
In many countries, including the US and the UK, you can only legally call yourself an architect if you’ve got a license. Many people are surprised to find this is not automatically given to you when you complete your degree! In the US, you have to pass the Architect Registration Examination (ARE), and in the UK, the Part III exam for full qualification. And if you fail to clear these final and costly hurdles, you’ll have to make do with calling yourself a designer.
6. You have to be competitive all the time
Whether it’s getting onto an architecture degree in the first place – even mid-ranking schools have a lot more applications than places – or applying for your first job with thousands of other graduates, competition becomes a part of your life. Sure, competition for all jobs is fierce these days. But in architecture it doesn’t let up even when you have a foot in the door, as so many contracts are also awarded on a competitive basis.
If you prefer to take a back seat instead of putting yourself in the spotlight, you might find being an architect frays your nerves.
7. Your degree may not prepare you for the day-to-day reality of being an architect
Though an architecture degree is tough, it’s also potentially more fun than the real world of work. While you’re a student, you have unlimited freedom to create and go a bit mad. A music school in the shape of a trumpet – why not? But once you start in a firm, you spend most of your time making drawings on someone else’s instructions, or doing tasks even less pleasurable than that.
It can be quite a shock at first, though on the upside with a few years of experience under your belt you’ll probably get to play again.
8. You have no choice but to start at the very bottom of the food chain
Let’s say you want to be a civil servant. With a decent degree, you can join a ‘fast stream’ of graduates and skip the lower pay grades doing less exciting admin work. Now let’s say you want to be an architect – can you jump ahead and avoid all those early-career boring bits?
Not a chance! Thinking you can climb the ladder without first putting in the hours will win you no friends (and no jobs, since there’s a surplus of graduates willing to suck it up). Your only option is to keep your head down, do quality work, and hope your skills shine through.
9. .You will likely work long hours for low(ish) pay
Architects are paid less than many people think (see our articles A Guide to UK Architectural Salaries and A Guide to US Architectural Salaries for more details). In the UK you could start on as little as £20k with the average salary between £40k and £50k, while in the US it’s between $70 and $80k.
That’s more than interior or graphic designers, but less than engineers or surveyors. Is this fair, after such a long and intense period of training? And for the number of hours per week you’re expected to work? Maybe not, but there are things you can do to push up your salary such as moving city and adding specialist skills to your armory.
10. The rewards for progression aren’t that big either
At least the people at the top of the tree are taking home huge pay packets, right? Well, only sometimes. It goes without saying that big-name architects are handsomely compensated but a ‘normal’ director or partner in the US, CareerExplorer suggests a top salary of $130,000 is all that a director and partner can expect. In the UK is unlikely to make more than £80,000, according to RIBA. (Other employment websites such as 9B Careers put the figure much higher, at £120,000.)
That’s more than most headteachers will ever see, but it won’t see you retiring to the Caribbean.
11. You take on a lot of responsibility
Once you’re a fully registered and practicing architect, you’re legally responsible for the work you do. This can lead to anxiety, and may be one reason why some promising graduates never continue to licensure (if you’re not officially using the title of architect, any mistakes are someone else’s responsibility). The consequences of a building falling down, or even going wrong, are very serious – and the burden of responsibility is more than some people wish to shoulder.
12. Some aspects of architectural work are mundane
You’re not going to be designing ground-breaking buildings every day, even if that’s what your parents think you’re doing! You’ll mostly be sitting in front of a screen, making drawings, sending emails, answering calls, and wishing you didn’t have to go to that meeting this afternoon. There will be hours, days and even weeks of unbridled creativity throughout your career, but sadly this isn’t the bread-and-butter of being an architect.
13. Building projects are complex and can be stressful
There’s a lot going on during a building project, and humans are fallible beings. Sometimes we don’t quite communicate right, or we forget things, or we do tasks badly. While this is totally normal, the different elements of a building project are stacked like a Jenga puzzle: everyone’s work supports everyone else’s, and if you mess up you could bring the whole tower down with you. If you don’t enjoy that kind of pressure, or get rattled trying to multi-task, you might want to pick a more peaceful career.
14. The profession changes so fast you can never really relax
One of the coolest things about architecture is that it’s constantly changing. Simultaneously, one of the most annoying things about architecture is that it’s constantly changing. You can never just relax and get into your comfort zone, because the profession will overtake you. You need to keep reading and learning throughout your whole career; luckily, for some people this is precisely the motivation they need to stick with something and not get bored.
15. Your chances of becoming a ‘starchitect’ are very slim
Ask a random person to name three famous architects, and they might struggle. Ask an architect to name 30, and they still might struggle! The number of people who make it big – i.e. people know your name and work – is tiny, so it’s pointless going into the profession with the hope of global (or even national/local) recognition. If this sounds depressing, it needn’t be; take heart that it is in your power to make a positive impression on everyone you ever work with.
There are lots of downsides to being an architect: the long training period, the unsociable hours, the stress . . . yet young people still apply to architecture school in droves.
Despite the disadvantages, there’s something about architecture that seems unshakably attractive (see our article Why We Love Architecture for more on this).
The reality is that it’s a very hard road, filled with pain as well as joy – which is why we only recommend a career in architecture for those who really want it!