When university student and relative newcomer to Australia Badru Ahmed made a quiet commitment to herself to become a registered architect, little did she know of the challenges ahead. Here she offers advice about choosing a supportive practice, avoiding unhelpful advice and unnecessary competition, and steering clear of the gatekeepers.
The term ‘Architect’ is legally protected in Australia by states and territories. This means you cannot call yourself an ‘architect’ and provide ‘architectural services’ regardless of the degrees you hold, your job title or how many years of experience you may have, unless you are a registered architect. This is not a Federal system – you can only represent yourself as an architect in the states and territories you are registered in.
I recall the impact of this statement on me the first time I heard it during a university lecture. As an international student then, in an unfamiliar professional setting in a foreign country, and yet to grasp the difference between the terms ‘Federal’ and ‘State/Territory’, I made a quiet commitment to myself that I would pursue becoming an ‘architect’, without quite understanding what it would take. If I had known about the exciting, eye-opening and equal-part frustrating journey that awaited me, I perhaps would have braced myself better, and given myself the following advice.
Registration matters / So does the practice
“Registration does not matter.” “You can always get promoted even if you are not registered.” “Registration does not necessarily mean higher pay.” Unfortunately, I have heard these statements more times than I would like. Casually throwing around statements like this in professional settings can have massive impacts, reverberating throughout the lifetime and career of architects.
As extreme as it may sound, I believe that casually fostering an uninspiring environment for young graduates considering registration is equivalent to stripping away their opportunities, often impacting something as deep as their personal identities. In a world where quasi-ideas of support, opportunities and picture-perfect workplaces can be shallow and performative, registration support needs to go beyond statements that “we support our graduates during the process”. It is about walking the talk. It is about having measurable actions with definite timelines in place as part of official policy to get graduates across the line to become architects, if they aspire to it.
Registration is not a process that graduates can accomplish on their own. The process is designed as such. Isolated self-preparation does not enable the graduate to attempt the process. To simply qualify, graduates need experience hours across designated competencies. Thus, the onus is on both parties: graduates and their employers. In fact, the role of the office is equally as important as the drive and commitment of the graduate to become an architect.
I received excellent support from my employer during my registration. However, I have often wondered if this was sheer ‘good luck’ or a strategic decision on my part to choose a practice that would actively support registration. Ultimately, I concluded that getting registered is as much a personal milestone as a professional one. To be able to call myself an architect legally after almost a decade of academic and professional experience was surely more than just a pay rise or ticking off a box for the next step. This was most certainly personal, and I was willing to do whatever it takes to achieve it.
There is a comfort in the familiar; no one would deny that. But often sheltering in comfort can lead to a lack of diversity of exposure across tasks, roles and project stages – all of which are essential in the pursuit of registration. The passage of time is not necessarily a reflection of competency either. Competencies, skills and experience need to be actively and mindfully pursued and gained.
What are a few years of experimentation in the grand scheme of careers that may very well span decades? I indulged in a variety of projects and practice sizes as best as I could in my limited time as a graduate. From large to small projects and practices, I had experience of diverse settings and project scales and typologies. Ultimately, it was this diverse exposure that made me feel confident during the registration process. It also allowed me to have a comprehensive understanding of the architecture design and delivery process. This knowledge, I believe, will serve me past my registration, and perhaps throughout the rest of my career.
Beware of the gatekeepers
Gatekeepers that impede the pursuit of registration come in all shapes and forms. From a fellow graduate to the highest rungs of an organisation, gatekeepers lurk all across the entire span of the ladder. The role of a gatekeeper, as the name suggests, is to hinder a graduate’s pathway to registration, either with or without agenda. Gatekeepers may be the supervisor who was convinced that my best skills were suited to only one aspect of the project, which they wanted to make the most of; or perhaps the fellow graduate with a territorial approach and unwillingness to share office responsibilities that added immense value to their registration journey or career progress.
One of the things that helped me the most in my journey to registration was to identify the gatekeepers early on and always take their ‘advice’ (!) with a pinch of salt. While it is incredibly important to have a realistic idea about one’s skills and experience, it is also important to separate the bad influence from the good. I always tried to consider carefully why the ‘advice’, comment or influence felt like gatekeeping. I made it a point to not take any gatekeeping personally, but rather make an objective assessment of why they were gatekeeping, and what actions I could take to get past the barrier they were presenting. This also helped separate the genuine input from well-wishing colleagues from the unhelpful ‘advice’.
Registration is not a competition – Do not make it one
Registration is not a competition, and the title of ‘architect’ to be bestowed each round is neither limited nor scarce. It is a competency-based assessment, where knowledge is tested in application through real-life-like scenarios. This means that by sharing our rationales and experiences with other professionals, we are better prepared. Thus, competition with others in the same boat is futile, if not detrimental.
I was incredibly lucky to have an excellent study group. We met every week, bounced our thoughts off each other, laughed, argued and tackled our confusions and frustrations together as a team. Together we were stronger, smarter and most importantly, calmer. I am convinced that I certainly would not have passed the exams in my first attempt with my sanity intact if not for them.
Be prepared for the exam conditions, despite how unrealistic they may be
The second part of the exam tests candidates through nine scenarios, with each scenario containing five questions, each having four choice options. The exam duration is 90 minutes. That is 45 questions in 90 minutes. This means that each question has two minutes to select the correct response. These two minutes do not include the time it takes to read each scenario, and each answer choice gets 30 seconds to be considered. This is simple maths.
Now, take into consideration each candidate having to manage their accelerated heart rates, adrenaline and any technical issues that may accompany the remote proctoring system; and for some candidates, sprinkle a bit of ‘English as a second language’ in the mix.
To date, I cannot rationalise nor understand this unrealistic time pressure. Sure, as architects, we work under tight deadlines, but are we surgeons or pilots whose failure to make a split-second decision under immense pressure could cost massive loss of life or safety? I kept asking myself if I had ever witnessed a split-second decision made in practice. If anything, I recalled observing some of the competent professionals I know carefully considering their design or administrative decisions, often in discussion with others.
Thus, if this was not how we were conducting business, then why were we being tested under those conditions? The second part of the exam actually reminds me of a popular Korean television show ‘Squid Games’, where contestants are asked to participate in seemingly harmless childhood games but under unrealistic conditions and immense time pressure. If they are unsuccessful – which most quite easily were – they were eliminated, often brutally.
I believe that hasty decisions without careful consideration of each possible outcome and its impact could lead to poor outcomes indeed. A ‘competent’ architect may be quick, but a ‘good’ architect would think carefully about the options presented and what they could truly mean. Haste in practice is not necessarily smart. It could be argued that the benchmark of this exam is to assess if a future architect is, at the very least, competent in their roles. However, this speed-chess format of the exam may also casually exclude neurodivergent candidates and others. Of course, I am not an education expert nor a test designer by any means, but surely there could be better methods that test future ‘architects’ under conditions that are more in line with reality?
The exam format is set to change in 2024. The new format will require candidates to attempt 80 questions in 120 minutes. That is 1.5 minutes per question. This, unfortunately, continues to be simple but unrealistic maths.
An important and defining milestone
Becoming a registered architect does not mean that one fine morning we know-it-all, nor does it mean that we stop learning. Continuing to be an architect will be a life-long commitment and process. Registration is only one of the many steps that we will take in our professional journey as architects, but it is an important and defining milestone in one’s career. A registration left for too long may never become a registration at all. This is perhaps even more true for women, with many of us bearing the brunt of family or carers’ responsibilities, often disproportionately. Registration may help individuals better manage career breaks, if and when they occur. It provides a minimum benchmark from which people can pick up from when re-entering the workforce.
For me, going through the registration process felt like a game of Snakes and Ladders. For every opportunity to move forward, there lurked pitfalls to lose sight of the end goal and be both distracted and diverted, whether by personal self-doubt, or administrative and professional frustrations. However, I got there in the end, and I was glad that it was over. I felt like I played the Registration Games and emerged at the other end – perhaps humbled, slightly scathed, and even low-key angry, but thankfully still with the privilege to have become an ‘architect’.