A year ago, I stood on the stairs of Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology with my new architecture diploma in hand. There were smiles all around as well as a sense of relief. The “real world” promised energizing colleagues, realized projects, and no more all-nighters. Perkins+Will has provided that valuable change of scenery for me, with the following four observations being my key differences between architecture school and the “real world” of a professional firm.
1. Design Approach
In school, students spend significant amounts of time reworking and refining the “parti” of the project. Conceptualization is king. Budgets, when set, are astronomically high; the hope is usually that you will expand the implied boundaries of a project rather than respect practical constraints. You will, after all, be presenting your work to other designers rather than to potential clients. There are also always so many assignments that there is never enough time to thoroughly study the structural and mechanical systems or the building codes of a project, even if you want to.
In contrast, the professional world consistently exposes you to these systems and codes and frequently reminds you of the limited time, money, and other resources of a project. Now, every design action has a real and multi-faceted impact. While this framework is freeing in many ways, it also causes many of us to specialize is a specific part of the design process. One of the things I miss from the academic side if architecture is being able to envision a design from start to finish. In contrast, one of the things I do not miss is the lack of connection to real clients and communities.
2. Team Culture
In school, most projects are done individually or in small groups. Working alone, you are left without a valuable sounding board. But working in groups often results in conflicting ideas and personalities that catalyze miscommunication, disorganization, disproportionate division of the work, and other unfortunate effects. While students definitely do inspire and support each other in school, the competitive environment and lack of sleep can wear down even the best of intentions.
Working at a firm requires a high level of professionalism at all times, and everyone more consistently contributes to the project at hand. The fact that we are all part of a business means that, again, the constraints have been better clarified than they were in school. There is a sense that everyone is on the same side and happy to help each other out, which helps in creating even higher quality work.
3. Deadline Management
Students frequently pull all-nighters in school, with coffee and loud music as the tools of choice for making it through the night. After a day (or more) without any sleep, students then present projects before heading home and sleeping away half of a day. It is a pendulum with two very intense extremes.
In the professional world, there are a few late nights, but many of my colleagues have yet to pull an all-nighter at any point in their professional career. When realistic deadlines are set, everyone works hard to meet that deadline. And when the occasionally unrealistic deadline is set, those who are capable of participating are rewarded. Balance is now much more highly prized than it ever was in school.
In school, after working tirelessly and sometimes sleeplessly, students leave for multiple weeks of vacation in both the winter and summer. While some students stay actively engaged in design during that time, either by taking on a passion project or doing a short internship, others truly “check out” and get some much needed rest and relaxation. Either way, everyone returns en masse at a predetermined time.
In the professional world, firms offer holidays off for employees but also provide individually-managed vacation benefits. There are never the multi-week escapes offered in school, but you do have the opportunity to personalize your vacation based on your own interests and needs.
Despite all of these differences, there are a couple of things that the two spheres share. In the professional world, changes are still sometimes made until the last minute. Part of that is due to the fact that we still get caught up in a concept for days, only to ultimately discover that it does not work. When we finally receive feedback from the stakeholders (clients, professors, or others), who sometimes show us why a concept does not quite work, that feedback still determines how much sleep we will get for the next couple of weeks. I also still mistakenly hear the word “parti” when someone says “party.” It seems that some of me will always feel like I am back at school. In the community of lifelong learners that I have found at Perkins+Will, maybe that conclusion is not too far off.