Memoirs of an Architecture Student

Christina Franken
Dec 27, 2016 · 5 min read

This is an article I wrote in 2013 for Urban Times, which is unfortunately not online anymore. A lot of what is said holds still true though, so here it is resurrected from its digital grave:

Every architecture student learns early enough: despite the hard work university does not provide enough practical experience for the architecture profession, so especially here, internships are crucial tools in architecture education.

When choosing an internship, there are however some choices one has to make — which will influence the quality of the work experience significantly. I would like to share what can happen during these short snippets of real life in a student’s world and hopefully can give a few tips on how to avoid the really bad experiences.

Students tend to choose either of the following strategies to pick an offer to work for a studio:

1. Choosing an interesting city to reside during a working holiday, which then hopefully makes after-work hours and weekends enjoyable

2. Picking a world-famous architecture firm — or just your favourite — to make sure your CV sparkles ✨ like the Starchitect’s portfolio.

3. Going for the option you can afford without investing ALL your savings, hence a studio that pays you for your work or

All combined would be ideal — but then, famous studios often ask 14+h of work per day, including weekend work, at low pay — and there’s no time to experience beautiful cities, or spend a lot of money either. Depending on which country and option you go for, you might get a small salary, a contribution towards your expenses — or nothing at all (which never was an option for me, but it really depends on what kind of experience (not reference!) you get).

This means, your experience of architecture work will most likely lie almost entirely in the hands of the studio, or better the practices, conditions and social circumstances under which the actual work experience takes place in the studio — yet the exterior circumstances of the placement, such as country, region or city, the living conditions and social contacts you have during the time have the potential to improve even the worst work experience — or worsen the best experience likewise.

So how to go about this decision?

Some tips & tricks I find looking backward I should have known or done better:

Connected consequences: It helps to get a timeframe on the decision making when you have your interviews with several studios.

What if the office you really wanted to work for, actually wants you, but lets you know a week later than the other ones, and you’ve already agreed to start somewhere else? This happened to me, and I can safely say, my life would have been very different if I’d gone for the 2nd offer that came in about 8 days later

Application: Some quite useful tips on how to draft your application can be found here.

Timing: Sometimes it’s worth to apply and wait until there’s an opening. In Europe, most offices work with a certain amount of interns per 6 month period, so maybe you’ve just not gotten in this time, but maybe for the next round?

Interview: no interview, not a good sign. Prepare your questions with the help of the following bullet points.

Content: Find out early on what kind of projects you want to be working on. It is a big difference if you spend your days clocking hours in the office working on a competition entry or working on real plans, meeting clients and visiting real construction sites.

Contract: No contract, not a good sign. If you get a contract, read it well. As it’s common that students work on competitions, so there will probably a disclaimer that you won’t get any share of the win. Permitting to publish material without knowledge of the studio, is standard as well — however you should keep yourself some space here — find out which things you will be able to take-away for your portfolio before you sign the contract.

Reviews: Ask for one-to-one reviews of your performance, either regularly spread over the time of your internship — or whenever your team leader feels it’s necessary. Be open about what they say, it can help immensely.

Take away: Define in the interview, or even beforehand what you’re allowed to take away from the internship. Working for a few months for little money full-time, should get you something — not only intangible invaluable experience, but also some kind of tangible take-away. Don’t be too bold to ask for vector drawings, but maybe jpegs of the parts of the projects that you’ve been working on — to be placed in your portfolio with reference to the internship and the studio, maybe even for your website or blog. You should really get your foot down if they refuse. That is the reason you do this — not the fame, not the time spent well on cutting pieces for models- for the PR shots they made of the model you built, for the renderings YOU’ve done, so you can PROVE that you worked there and did something amazing!

If these months spent working for some tiny salary only turn into 2 lines on your CV, it’s not worth anything — it’s the valuable experience that you demonstrate through your portfolio, so don’t be fooled by big names or empty promises. You need to get shit done in your first PAID job, so you want to make sure the time spent on internships PAYS for your portfolio that will land you that first paid job.

Credits: On the other hand, and this should be considered standard: Most likely is that the firm will publish some of the work on which you’ve helped or maybe drawings, renderings or graphics you’ve done during your internship… it’s only fair to mention your name somewhere. Check out the website if there are names of non-team members mentioned, or be specific about this before you sign up for the job.

In my personal experience I tried all these options above, but have to admit, I failed miserably several times. Looking back, the best internship was where I learned the most — this was not in a cool city, and with a good, regionally known office. After this first internship I felt empowered.

The next internship was in a cool city abroad and a more known office: I met cool people in town, but the work was 10+ h AutoCAD per day on some less prestigious project — with trips in-between to drop off the boss’ clothes at the dry cleaner’s or pick up stuff he had forgot at his son’s school. I felt run over and exhausted and yes, didn’t get anything out of this for my portfolio. After a 3rd hopeless attempt I was totally done with this kind of work: Whilst I understand this was also part of my personal development and can’t be generalized — only now I know, the 1,5 years I spent working like this did help me to define what I didn’t wanted to do for the rest of my life. I can now say, thank you for f**king up these internships, especially in the light of recent job prospects for architecture graduates.

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