Transitioning from institutional Mindset to the Professional Workforce

by Kate Walker

I will be the first person to tell you that getting my degree in architecture at DoArch has been an incredible gift and privilege in my life that would not have been possible if Brian, Chuck, Federico and Jessica had not brought the School of Architecture to South Dakota. I am forever thankful for giving me the opportunity to elevate myself.  My degree has given me an outlet to direct my passions for social and aesthetic qualities. It has also forced me to overcome my tendencies as a technology hating Luddite and adapt to our digital world.

The transition from the institutional mindset of theory and design comes with its own challenges that every young architect must come to terms with, in their own way. After spending (a little too much) time in school, I felt ready to punch the clock. I was exhausted with hypothetical assignments lacking real-world consequences and classes indulging my professors’ interests. I wanted to design real buildings for real people.

In reality the first week was a bit of a let down – because no – you don’t get to design a building – you get to fill out your PAPERWORK, tour THE WHOLE office, and then read up on standards (whoo!). My commutes have allowed me the introspection about the transition that occurs out of college. During this year I have spent a lot of mental energy considering the growing pains of being a young professional.

One sentiment that many designers feel as they transition from school to the profession is that their degree doesn’t prepare them well enough for their day to day work. You spend six years training to be an architect, and you get into the field and feel like an infant learning a new language. School teaches you how to design and think divergently. It encourages exploration and research while the profession demands efficiency in production and documentation.

I spent a lot of time looking at mass timber structures in college because of its potential to be a more sustainable way to build in terms of materiality. This was the system that I understood best, in terms of component assembly and detailing. I did not, however, spend a lot of time detailing steel or dimensional pre-cut stud structures more common to this area. In my first year I did not feel overly confident in my abilities as a drafter, which encompasses a lot of the DD and CD phases of design. Understanding these later phases of design in turn impacts your abilities with front end design as well. The better you understand the constraints and constructability of a project from the get-go, the more calculated risk you can take with your design decisions.

I also did not have a real grasp for the building code or specifications when entering the profession. Did I really want to dig into the code and zoning when I was in school? Maybe not, but frankly it dictates many of the constraints and contextual design of the early phases of the project and having a few more exercises with it could have made the situation feel less daunting.

One fear that I think we all share as professionals is not being taken seriously or disappointing others expectations. Because many of us feel unprepared for the field it can be extremely difficult to find your confidence in that first year. Unfortunately, the reality is that success takes confidence. While young professionals do lack experience, it is important to remind yourself that you DO have skills and talent (yes talent). Don’t forget to remember what you know you know. It is more than you think. Even as a young designer, you still bring value to a firm with your insights, energy, and tenacity. No one expects you to understand everything right away – buildings are complicated. Once you find your sea legs it will be smooth sailing.    

Lastly, the thing I have contemplated most in my first year is the actual process of design in the field. This was the aspect that school did prepare me for the most and the place where the field of design and the study of design could be closer related. I am intrigued by how actual forms and building shapes come about in the field. Do we model? Do we draw? Do we write? Do we lean on our digital modeling tools? This aspect of design has changed dramatically in the last 20 years as a result of our new digital world. Offices are not as immersive without the tactile process of design anymore. Maybe this is okay – we can design digitally. The important part is intent. The process of design is also extremely quick. If you don’t take the time to pause and flush out ideas, you will be forced to move on to a schematic with a form lacking intent. 

In summation, as young designers we need to take all of the techniques we learned in our 6 years of school and compress them into a very intentional and concise conceptual design process. Not to place too much emphasis on conceptual design, but it truly sets the stage for the entire project to be realized in the not-so-distant future. I do not think that concept needs to be complicated or convoluted – it can be as simple as a word, but it should be the common thread weaving through the project. 

Every designer has their own transition year and it is important to remember that this is natural. Architecture couldn’t possibly be compiled and learned in 6 years of schooling. It takes real practice. We do not just DO architecture, we practice it, over and over until our hair turns white. It is a career that will grow with you. And after a year in the field, while I DO feel differently about the practice of architecture, I know I’ll never do anything else.

One Reply to “Transitioning from institutional Mindset to the Professional Workforce”

  1. Welcome to the profession, Katie. I remember in my first job, I was asked to type specs since I was the girl! It was demeaning but I learned a lot.

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