The First Step: An Intern Architect Reflects on a Journey of Decisions

December 13, 2006 · by DesignIntelligence

The beginning of the end was bitter sweet with the knowledge that life was moving drastically forward.

August 24, 2005 - the starting point of the FINAL year! The fall began with famous Clemson tailgates and senior socials at the local establishments. I cheered, for the last time as a Clemson student, watching "the most exciting twenty-five seconds in college football" dash before my eyes. The beginning of the end was bitter sweet with the knowledge that life was moving drastically forward.

Throughout the fall semester, graduation seemed so far away. I was ambivalent about attending graduate school or beginning an internship after earning my diploma. It was with the push of my parents that I took the GRE and decided to submit my portfolio to my four "dream" schools, knowing they may well have been way out of my league. With only one week before the applications were due, I sat down to make the first draft of my portfolio, a major mistake, as I soon learned that this is not a task to be rushed. I slipped the final packages in the mail using overnight delivery with only the smallest hope that I would even be considered for a fall slot in any of the four programs. Once the applications were mailed I had to endure the hardest part of all - the wait. I wouldn't hear back from the master's programs until early April, leaving me four months to think about which firms I might consider an internship with.

Where to even begin?

The question had been floating through the studio corridors for weeks. How do you decide where you want to be in a year when there are no restrictions binding you? I could move anywhere in the world, work for any number of types of firms, or just take some time off to travel. I was paralyzed by the myriad options available to me. So I made a few phone calls to chat with those who had been in this situation before and those who might offer advice on where to start. This led me to DesignIntelligence and The Greenway Group, Inc. They shared with me their thoughts on some top firms in the country, lending me valuable insight into each firm. After leaving their offices, feeling relieved and more directed, I decided to choose four locations where I most desired to live, work, and begin the next phase of my life - adulthood. My list included Chicago, my number one city, followed by Seattle, New York, and Charleston, SC. Making this list was not an easy task. I dwelled over these decisions for weeks.

April arrived and letters began to appear in the mail. Because I spent little time on my application packages, I didn't expect much. Looking back, I believe I only applied to please my parents, who had worried that I might never return to school once I began working and earning a living. The first letter began with "We are sorry to inform you..." and the following three letters were the same. For each rejection letter I received, I gave myself five minutes to wallow in my sorrow and disappointment and then I moved on to think about what other paths were open to me, excited by the potential career possibilities. Already having some experience with small firms through my summer internships, I set a new focus on larger firms where I might have more opportunities to learn. While in my senior studio I had become very interested in the connection between architecture and sustainability; in choosing a firm, therefore, I decided to give priority to firms sharing this focus. I refreshed my résumé and cover letter and added a third element to my career package, a sample of work developed from my portfolio. When I began arranging interviews, the reality hit me: I was no longer going to be a student - I was going to be a working adult, responsible for my own livelihood. Terrified by this realization, I drilled myself with interview questions to prepare.

My first interview was with LS3P Associates LTD, one of the firms recommended by my advisors. I drove four hours from school - the day before my final project was due - to meet with a Vice President/Managing Principal from the firm. When the interview began, my tension abated and I was able to talk openly about what I wanted to do with my degree, my thoughts on the profession of architecture, and my personal and professional goals. The interview was typical, ending with a procession through the three-story, open office. On the drive home I began to reflect upon the interview with a feeling that I had done my best and would continue my search for the "perfect firm". I received a few telephone interviews and met with one other firm in Charlotte, NC, before receiving an offer from LS3P. It was then that I finally felt some form of direction. Knowing that I wanted to work for LS3P, I played my cards after receipt of another contract from the Charlotte firm, and the salary considerations began. Although offered a somewhat smaller salary from LS3P, I knew that, in the long run, I would benefit more through the knowledge, location, and associates of the firm. I began my internship June 1, just a few weeks after graduation.

In all honesty, being an intern is not glamorous and I won't sugar coat it for anyone who asks. What I will say is, when given the right firm, the opportunity to learn is priceless. My second weekend in Charleston was spent in the studio, and with that I knew the exciting journey towards becoming an architect had begun.

One key to this journey is finding a firm that will let you grow as a person and a professional. Coming out of school I was unsure of the type of firm I wanted to work for - healthcare-based, federal, commercial-based, etc. With LS3P I am able to get a taste of all I desire, which is one reason I choose such a respected and growing firm.

The transition experience from Clemson University to LS3P has been amazing, both personally and professionally. Clemson's Architecture program taught me that architecture is a collaborative art form. My educational learning experience was spent answering open questions and not finding definitive answers. It is in the academic setting that I learned how to take risks, to be bold, assertive. I found myself trying to change the world, trying to be innovative and unique.

Architecture is so much more than a fantasy of shapes; it is ethical forms and construction. And, while my degree gave me a quick snap shot of the construction process, I feel I will only fully understand it through my internship. How well prepared was I to handle the transition from school to career? This answer, as with most, is far from black and white. In architecture you are never fully prepared; it is a field of continual change and my educational experience will never end. I continue to learn everyday, which is what makes my job so exciting. I wish I had taken more advantage of learning 3D computer programs, as this it seems, is where most firms are headed. This knowledge would have placed me another step higher in the field. Many interns complain that we are seldom properly taught structures or the components of putting a building together. I would argue that this is best taught in the field, all the more reason we spend three years as interns.

In all, I feel I was prepared for the challenge of a new job. During "pin ups" in the office I can quickly analyze and critically justify my thoughts and opinions, a skill learned during numerous academic studio sessions and critiques. I plan to pursue this journey as an intern for a few more years before returning once again, to the academic world. With the knowledge I am gaining through my internship, such as structural components of a building, client relations, and costs that many times determine design, I can return to graduate school - after a much needed break from the grueling rigors of the academy and studio sessions - with a better direction of what I want to take away with me from my education.

It is only now that I begin to understand the daily problems and functions of an architecture office. We are constantly seeking ways to produce quality work faster, under budget, and in the client's time-frame. And it seems that in this profession we are, time and again, underpaid and overworked. With this practical knowledge I can again return to school with a renewed focus on how to solve these issues while creating meaningful solutions and unique designs. This is a time of transformation for me. And for those who choose to become architects, it is the beginning of a lifestyle of determination and discovery.

Lindsey Wagener grew up in Englewood, FL, enjoying sailing and rowing. She graduated from Clemson University in 2006 with a Bachelor's degree in Architecture. Lindsey currently resides in Charleston, SC, and is working as an intern with LS3P ASSOCIATES LTD.

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