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What you should know

February 5, 2020

In this installment of What You Should Know, Kelli Weiland takes a look at what you should know about architecture school. She provides a list of Do’s and Don’ts and offers some great insight into what architecture school is really like. She should know; she’s a recent graduate of Mississippi State University’s College of Architecture and Design. Take it away, Kelli!

So, you’re considering Architecture School. I bet you’ve heard all the same responses I heard when I announced my decision to enter architecture school:
• “Oh, those architecture kids practically live in their building!”
• “Do you hate sleep? Do you enjoy total exhaustion?”
• “Can you draw?”
..and one I got way too often…
• “What’s an architect?” followed by “So, what will you do after you graduate?”

Yeah, there’s a lot of disbelief and shock from others who hear what you do. There’s a lot of back-handed “good luck” from skeptics who don’t realize your capabilities. There’s also a lot of people who severely downplay the level of intensity the program entails, much less the dedication and discipline it takes to make it through those seemingly endless studio nights. “You just have to draw a wall? That doesn’t seem too hard. Why is it taking you so long?” If I had a nickel for every time someone questioned how difficult the architecture program actually was, I could’ve paid for all the wood, glue, and other supplies needed for a model that took a week to be built and 40 seconds to be destroyed by a professor who “just wants to see something…oh wait, no, it was better before,” and handed it back, broken in half, much like my spirits.

But, despite all of that, there’s a lot of confidence gained. There’s also a lot of pride that comes with telling people, “I’m in architecture school.” For those who understand the breadth of what architecture school truly means, they’re genuinely impressed by your choice in major. Every time you complete a semester and make it through another final jury, alive or otherwise, you’ll feel the weight of the work you’ve put in. You’ll know there are many others who may not have made it as far as you have – and, sometimes, these are your own fellow classmates. Once you make it to that semester where it all just clicks, you’ll feel a rush of, “I know what I’m doing and I’m meant to be here.” You’ll know how to design, how to present, and how to portray the beauty you see in your design to the critiques. And there is no better feeling than on graduation day when you’ve gotten your well-earned degree and made it into the small percentile of architecture graduates. It’s a discipline that not everyone is cut out for, which is okay. I’m in no way cut out to be in the medical field, and I’m grateful for those who are because that means I don’t have to.

So now, where do you even begin to succeed in architecture school? I present to you “10 Do’s and 10 Don’ts of Architecture School Survival, as told by a recent (and employed) architecture graduate.

DOs:

  • DO some research before choosing your school. There are a select number of colleges with an accredited architecture program. This means you go to undergrad for five consecutive years and graduate with a Bachelor of Architecture. The alternative is choosing a college with an unaccredited program, which is four years undergrad and no eligibility for licensure until you’ve achieved a two year minimum Master of architecture degree. This option is great for those who are unsure if they’d like to become licensed at all.
  • DO invest in a high-quality laptop going into school. Trust me, it is SO important to make sure your laptop is able to handle the storage space and driver accommodations needed to efficiently run large programs like AutoCad, Revit, Rhino, Adobe, etc. and run them all at the same time for hours on end. There’s nothing worse than losing three months’ worth of work because your computer crashed three weeks before final juries.
  • Speaking of crashing, DO invest in a quality external hard drive and BACK-UP YOUR FILES FREQUENTLY. Say you’ve just set your 7th cup of coffee down, unknowingly on top of your round blender tool, causing it to fall over, and it spills across your keyboard, disabling all computer functions. Things happen, and high-quality computers break. Lucky for you, you’ve just backed up your files on your beloved external hard drive, so you haven’t lost your progress. Go you. Thank me later.
  • DO take time to get out of the studio after you’ve been in there for days at a time. I found my productivity decreased after being in the studio for too long. Opting to work from home or a diner every now and then helped boost my creative flow. Get out of your studio space, change your atmosphere, and please shower before you head to your local coffee shop after a week-long stint in the architecture building.
  • DO try to work summer internship positions or Co-Op opportunities if you can. The benefits of internships are three-fold: you get your name on the radar for firms who are looking for full-time hire, post-grad, you get incredible firsthand experience in real-time, and you get to experience what a career at a particular firm in a particular location would be like long term. Because internships and co-ops are temporary, it takes the pressure off of learning you don’t enjoy a firm, its location, or even architecture in general without having the commitment of a full-time hire.
  • If your program offers architecture based organizations, such as Alpha Rho Chi, AIAS, NOMAS, etc., DO become a member! Get involved! You’ll create friends and resources within architecture school that understand your unique collegiate lifestyle, you get opportunities to connect and collaborate with other school organizations, and you just get exposed to so much diversity in advice, professional practice tips, and architectural events. It also helps to show your extensive architectural involvement on your resume.
  • When you become an upper-level student, and you will if you heed all my wonderful advice here, DO encourage and offer help to the lower-level students. Don’t be a know-it-all, but share your suggestions on drawing techniques, modeling tips, and design choices. Keep in mind; you were just in their shoes not too long ago. The upper-level friends I made as a first-year gave me more direction than some of the feedback I received from my professors.
  • DO give the program some time. I’ve always lived by the “give it a year” rule. Stay in the program for one year. Stay at your new job for one year. It’s going to be uncomfortable and hard. You may question your sanity. But please just stick it out for at least one year, and try each day to make it work. In a year’s time, if you’ve really put forth the effort, you’ll become adjusted, adapted, and acquainted. After that year, if you realize this path is just not for you, make your changes accordingly. You’ll feel better knowing you tried.
  • Before you begin a new project, DO start with some precedent studies and actually study them. Ask why or how the architect approached their design this or that way. Continue to do research all the way through. Read architecture books. Explore architectural blogs and articles. Get inspired by architects before you and learn from them. There’s a reason why famous architects became famous.
  • When you travel, whether it be across your home state, across the country, or across the world, DO seek out the architecture around you. Become diversified in the difference of architectural styles from place to place, and from time period to time period. You’d be surprised how much beautiful architecture is right where you are. You don’t have to go all the way to Rome to see beautiful buildings (but you should – I did, and I will again.)

DON’TS

  • DON’T fall into the trap of “pulling all-nighters” every three days. Despite what studio culture may present, it IS totally possible to get quality work out on time and still manage to have a steady and healthy sleep schedule. Tired minds make time-consuming mistakes – and tired minds nearly slice your fingers off in late-night model making. There will, of course, be some nights where you’ll be awake at ungodly hours after already having been awake for an ungodly amount of time, but this doesn’t have to be true for you EVERY night or EVERY weekend. Manage your time, choose to spend it wisely, and work well in your designated working hours.
  • DON’T drink 16 coffees a day for a week straight. I did this once. I literally had 2 cups per meal and 3 in between. That energy drink only helps you for so long. PLEASE limit your caffeine intake to a healthy amount and make it a priority to drink plenty of water especially as hell week draws near. Hydrate your body and don’t have a caffeine-induced mental breakdown. I’ve filed this tip under “Things I Learned the Hard Way.”
  • DON’T sacrifice your social life too much. Yes, prioritize your project goals each day, but find a balance that allows you to get completely away from the studio, mentally and physically. Go out with friends, have a movie night at home, get a work-out in, go to the football game. Work hard and reward yourself. You can get away from it for a little while. You may even find your mental capacity and health benefits from those social breaks, which results in better studio productivity. And try not to consider naps at your desk a “break.”
  • DON’T forget that school is temporary, though it feels like forever at the time. Studio won’t last forever. One day, you really will have your FINAL final juries. And typically, professional practice does not operate on the same intense “die-hard architecture” style as studio. You’ll actually have weekends again!
  • DON’T compare your progress and skill level too much to others, rather strive and be motivated by the upper-level students. I remember being a first-year, looking at some of the fourth year level work and thinking to myself, “Wow. I can’t wait to be at this level of skill and knowledge. Then one day, I began pinning up work for a design competition and a bright-eyed first-year came up to me and said, “I can’t wait to be where you are.” That’s when I realized at some point I had become that talented and skilled fourth-year for someone else! It’s a process, but that day will come.
  • DON’T take those bad critiques to heart. Bear the brunt, hold your ground against the harsh criticisms, sort through the critic’s comments and take only what can help you be a better designer, give a clearer presentation, and improve your graphic representations. Remember that at least a solid 85% of architecture critiques is objective. Design what you love, be confident in your design, and learn from the feedback. Don’t grow discouraged of your ability from one, or two, or fifty bad reviews.
  • DON’T skimp on building your portfolio early on and throughout your collegiate time. Consider every piece of work you produce as a potential element to include in the portfolio that will aid in your job hunt. Trust me, not everything you make is qualified to make the cut for your portfolio – see my first-year chipboard models, yikes – but document these pieces as if they were. Photograph those junky models well. Carefully scan those charcoal drawings. Edit them in Photoshop and file them away, just in case. You may decide later to use them as examples of iterative work, or even to showcase your growth and improvement.
  • DON’T rely too heavily on the “fake it till you make it” mantra when it comes to jury presentations. This may work in some cases in order to cover up a small mistake you’ve made, but more often than not, it won’t. Don’t think you can just make up some reason for your design decisions on the fly and have it go unnoticed, or your pride unscathed. The critics are not dumb, and they will make you KNOW you are not fooling anyone. One time, a guy in my year tried to play off his design choices as a result of the Fibonacci Sequence. His critic caught on to his bull and asked him to elaborate. Long story short, he didn’t even know what the Fibonacci Sequence was. He just knew it sounded smart.
  • If you find yourself loving architecture school and knowing you’re in the major you need to be, but you find yourself very overwhelmed and anxiety-ridden when studio inevitably gets the best of you, DON’T be afraid to talk to someone, anyone. It can be a therapist, it can be your friend, it can be me. As long as it’s someone who wants to help you through it. The program is a lot, but it’s not unmanageable. It’s possible you may have absolutely no issues whatsoever, and that’s great! Be a positive voice for those who are struggling. I was among the crowd who needed outside help, and I was fortunate enough to have a great set of people to fall back on during those tough times. I’m honored to say I’ve since become that same helping hand for my friends in the years below me.
  • Lastly, DON’T forget to be excited about your future. Whether you make it all the way through the program, switch majors halfway through, or opt-out entirely, you have a set of skills and qualities that will make you a key component in whatever field you end up in, and that’s incredible. It’s all good. But if you become an architect, I hope I get to work with you one day and see the fruition of my great survival guide.
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