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Nuts + Bolts #10: Charting a Course from Career Bewilderment to Career Betterment

Be curious, be adventurous and, when necessary, be assertive.

By Stanley Stark, FAIA, LEED AP
December 5, 2014

Editor’s note: This is the 10th installment in an exclusive ArchNewsNow series to provide A/E professionals with practical tips for a more successful, profitable practice.



Author’s note: The idea for this article – confronting the pervasive anxieties of career uncertainty – gelled after I participated as a mentor in a Speed Mentoring Workshop sponsored by the AIANY Emerging New York Architects Committee (ENYA) earlier this year. Everyone I spoke with, among both mentees and organizers, was particularly stressed by the question: What’s my next career step? No one was positive about their current direction or what to do next. The fears voiced most frequently were that whatever momentum they had might lead to stasis, obsolescence, or marginalization.


Uncertainty and bewilderment are conditions that affect most people as they enter the workplace and embark on their careers. In the architectural and design professions, especially, there is a strong headwind against career advancement. We can feel it at any stage or any crossroads in our professional development, not just when we’re young. But it is particularly formidable when one is starting out, especially in the current risk-averse and hesitant market that makes entry opportunities more limited.


Paralysis can strike. You may think it’s impossible to choose a direction or develop a career in architecture. And, given the way architectural firms are structured – with their narrow margins and market pressures on everyone’s time – there may be no one to ask. Senior staff may be well-meaning, but they may not have the time to mentor and guide.


On the up side, there are things a young architect or designer can do to find a pathway through the daily fog of battle. But first, recognize that you are responsible for your own development. No one will graciously take you in hand to guide you. They don’t have time. You will have to assert yourself. Here are some tactics you can employ to chart a path forward:


·        Ask for help. The biggest inhibition that young architects harbor is the fear of acknowledging that they don’t know what to do or how to do it. Adopt fearlessness as a method. Find someone you trust and ask plentiful questions.


·        Look into opportunities for exposure and development. Reach out to a project architect, project manager, or partner-in-charge and show your enthusiasm. Attending client meetings, assisting the designer in conceptualizing a scheme, working with the project architect to detail some component of a project, visiting the field, participating in proposal development or presentations, assisting the business developer in reaching out to potential clients – these are all examples of how you extend yourself beyond your current skill set. Such activities may be part of the firm’s professional development program (assuming the firm has one), but they represent areas of your development where you have to take the initiative. You can only get better if you prioritize it.


·        Test many aspects of the profession. Architects have a broad spectrum of roles that you should explore. This will help you to establish a direction or directions to pursue.


·        Seek connections and professional relationships outside the firm. Other voices and insights will help. Join the AIA, a local organization like the Architectural League (here in New York), or a related professional society. Find peers and near-peers to link to, compare notes with, and get advice from. Connecting to the larger world is can only be beneficial.


·        Nurture other skills that you already possess. It is likely that you have other talents, in addition to those that you cultivated in architecture school. Perhaps you paint, draw, write, teach, build things, do sports, or you’re a great organizer. Find a venue where these abilities can grow – a non-profit, a journal, a blog – and foster these dimensions. The relationships and the work that you do outside the office will help you find your direction. They may also instill some patience with a profession where maturation occurs slowly.


·        Start building a portfolio. Save your work. Develop a mutually acceptable method to do this with your firm.


·        Read. Read as widely and as much as you possibly can.


·        Get out and explore. If you’re in or near any city, you are in the midst of a wide and rich mix of cultural institutions, sights, sounds, and furies. You are in the conquistador phase of your career – so go out and navigate!


·        Start conducting self-assessments. Perform periodic reviews to monitor your growth in certain skills, as well as a gap analysis related to your objectives and expectations. Somewhere during your first three to five years of professional development, you may want to organize a group assessment conducted by a willing mentor along with some peers, and also including more seasoned professionals or former faculty. Present yourself to this group – in terms of where you are, and your intentions as to future directions. The outcomes could vary from confirming a direction to withering your expectations. But either way, the process will be illuminating.


From these assessments, you will be able to compare what you are becoming quite good at and what you ultimately want to do. These things may be congruent, or they might be in opposition. In the first case, you are in luck. In the second, you may have to think about how to bend these directions toward one and other. A career can accommodate some divergent interests and directions as long as there is some compatibility. Or, you may actually decide that you have to make a choice. As a character in Martin Cruz Smith’s Polar Star says: “Happiness is the maximum agreement between reality and desire.” It is your responsibility to find the best and most happy medium.


Your career is your biggest and most important project. It is your major act of creation. But it is created step by step, and the progression is not always smooth or linear. Architecture is a notoriously contingent profession; it is highly sensitive and easily disrupted by the forces of capital, politics, market, and taste shifts. Career paths are twisting and capricious. You have to be fearless and ready for anything.


Bewilderment and confusion are not limited to young architects; they can strike more mature architects at mid-career. Even after you have invested a lot in a direction that you’ve chosen, you may find that it’s no longer satisfying or in demand. It may be time to focus on something new. Or, it may be time to leave the confines of the profession and branch out into a different career altogether (e.g., become a client or a teacher or a talent spotter). All the tactics previously mentioned apply in those cases as well but, by then, you will know more, and you will also know more people.


A career direction evolves. It is a path we have all trod. Give it some time. Be curious, be adventurous and, when necessary, be assertive. Gumption is a desirable trait, especially when you impose it on yourself.



Stanley Stark, FAIA, LEED AP, is a New York City-based architect who has held senior leadership positions with major firms including HLW, HDR, and Francis Cauffman. He is currently Books Editor for AIANY’s Oculus magazine, and also serves on the Board of the Center for Architecture Foundation. Stark’s theater drawings are in the collection of the Library of Performing Arts of the NY Public Library. He can be contacted at


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(click on pictures to enlarge)

Johnathan Ward