Three career path tips for young architects
Three accomplished architects share their professional journeys.
After being inspired to become an architect at the age of 11, Kimberly Dowdell thought the path to her goals would be a straight line. The reality was more like an adventurous obstacle course filled with potential pitfalls and hills to climb.
Dowdell was one of three architects to share her story in a panel discussion for Architectural Record’s Forum for Emerging Professionals and Students.
Dowdell pursued career paths in both architecture and public affairs and served as president of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) before becoming a principal at HOK Chicago.
Patricia Rhee joined Steve Ehrlich Associates after attending Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, and in 2015, she became a partner in the firm which is now Ehrlich Yanai Rhee Chaney Architects.
Each of the architects’ stories illustrated the importance of networking, ambition, and even serendipity in navigating a career in architecture. Here are three insights the accomplished architects passed along to help emerging professionals chart their own paths.
1. Find your mission statement.
Throughout her career, Dowdell has been guided as a professional by a mission: “To improve the quality of people’s lives, by design.” Dowdell encouraged young architects to think about their own mission.
“What inspired you to pursue architecture?” she asked. “How does that factor into your mission? That’s a great way to help you make those decisions.” Another strategy from the corporate world that applies to careers in architecture: Having an advisory board of mentors who can help you navigate your career decisions. “Hopefully you have a diverse array of people that have different perspectives and can just help you evaluate what’s ahead of you,” she added.
For architects with a passion for sustainability and climate change solutions, their mission statement might involve advancing the pursuit of materials such as mass timber that help reduce the carbon footprint of the built environment. Check out Think Wood’s profile of Dowdell and other women in AEC for inspiring examples of mission-driven careers.
2. Tap into your network.
Whether you call it an advisory board or a network, don’t be afraid to call on the connections you make in each step of your career. Dowdell recounted landing multiple jobs through the alumni network at Cornell University and through connections she made at NOMA—including an early internship at Washington, D.C. architecture firm McKissick & McKissick. “Your network is your net worth,” she said. “Think about ways that you can leverage those connections and be shameless about it”—while, of course, remaining respectful and thankful for the assistance.
It’s not just your alumni network that can help, but also the larger network of your faculty, Goldstein noted. “Getting a good letter of recommendation from your faculty can really just help open the door,” he said.
Rhee recommended staying in touch with both your professors and your former employers. “The world of architects is very small,” she said. “Everyone seems to know each other, and they will also recommend good people to each other. You never know when you might return to that employer.”
3. Know when to stay—and when to leave.
What if you have your first architecture job, but it’s not exactly what you pictured for your career? Give it a fair chance before you move on, Rhee recommended. “Oftentimes it takes three to six months to get a sense of what an office is like and for the people there to get a sense of what you are like,” she said.
Ultimately, though, your career should provide more than just a paycheck. “If you’re not excited almost every day, then you should think about what you’re doing and question where you are,” Goldstein said. “You should feel like you’re growing, like you’re learning. It’s not always joyful, but you should be feeling like you’re being challenged, you’re doing important work, and you’re learning a craft.”
Check out the on-demand webinar, Architects’ Career Paths Post-Graduation, to learn lessons from each of the three architects that will help emerging professionals navigate their own paths to rewarding, impactful careers.