The nature of the pandemic and the economic downturn we face means fewer people may have access to secure work and a more traditional career path. Students and graduates may need to divert from the idea of the ‘dream job’ and the traditional model of an architectural career and embrace different opportunities to gain experiences and skills.

Building on our Path Ahead series, here a number of our Parlour friends generously offer advice for navigating the architecture profession, touching on topics from the importance of mentors and networking to building skills and gaining valuable experience in unexpected places. Thanks to all who participated.

Keep an eye on what you enjoy

Starting out in architecture it is good to understand what level of volatility you are happy to accept. Some people are comfortable chasing high profile jobs or working on contract while others like to work in more steady environments. This is impacted by the economic situation, so when things are good, take risks and keep some savings for a rainy day. It’s a good idea to keep an eye on what you enjoy, as this will keep you going in the long run. Practical experience is important and use your network as much as possible to get your foot in the door. Architecture is a rewarding profession; however, the joy of the job can often be marred by poor workplace practices. Architecture is a long road and aligned fields can provide different options that may align better with your aspirations or experience that allow you to return to architecture with a more diverse perspective. – Karen Le Provost, Associate, PTW Architects

Finding opportunity

Be persistent. Talk to people you know who are doing things that interest you. Ask for help. Get involved, because the conversations you have over drinks with someone at an architecture talk could turn into an opportunity. I was invited to work for a practice once on the basis of a conversation with a visiting tutor in a photocopying room at uni! I was doing a few small private projects at the end of uni (a small house alts and ads, colouring in drawings for an architectural competition, making a model for another architect), and had asked Graham Jahn for a job. He didn’t have anything available (it was another recession in the early ’90s) but suggested I ‘rent’ a desk from him for $60 per week, or four hours work. I did that for three weeks and then started at Jahn Associates full time, after working on a couple of invited competitions. I was there for 10 years.

It’s great to talk to others in the profession (or outside!) about what they do, because it’s fascinating, and it will help shape your own choices. Others, especially people that you have worked with, might be really good at helping you understand your particular skillset – what it is that you do that is special, and that might help frame future career direction. It’s worth asking. They can always say no. – Kim Bazeley, Senior Design Manager, City Transformation, City of Parramatta

Career and life lessons

It is highly unlikely that you will have one ‘career’ in your life – these days people are more likely to have multiple jobs across up to five careers in their working life.

In pursuit of the perfect career/job, don’t lose sight of the things that are important – friends, family, life experience.

You’ll make mistakes – we all do. Don’t beat yourself up about it – reflect, learn and move on.

Don’t judge yourself by other’s achievements. Figure out what works for you and what achievement looks like in that context.

My life/career goals from the age of 17 were: have an interesting life, travel, make the world a better place and maintain my integrity. I’d like to think I’ve achieved all of this and more – and no-one else can be the judge of that except me.– Alison Cleary, Parlour Director

The importance of clear, authentic communication

If you had told me when I was starting out that my communication skills would be as important (if not more) than my design skills I would have silently eye-rolled. But that is the honest truth! It’s not just about communication with clients / consultants to achieve a good project outcome; it has genuinely opened more doors for me and our practice than I could ever have imagined. Most importantly, your communication needs to be authentic – people can sense it if you’re bull****ing from a mile away. And if you think about it, the architects we tend to look up to, do tend to be good communicators. It takes most of us a long time to undo the “design is everything” mentality that our education tends to lionise.

Secondly, it is not possible to know everything before taking the next career step – it is instead more important to seek advice or at least know where to look for information to fill the gaps. The mindset that we must “know everything” leads to a very dangerous kind of hubris when we mistakenly believe we do. More insidiously, it also ends up being a blindfold that stops us from grabbing the opportunities in our vicinity.

And finally, a reminder to actually write down what your long-term goals are. And keep coming back to it every year. You will find that your goals will morph and shift because YOU will have changed in the interim. And it is liberating because you then remember to truly notice and value your journey… and not just the destination. – Sonia Sarangi, Director, Atelier Red+Black

Taking a Barty break!

There’s one lesson that has been persistent throughout my career and that is patience. Opportunities will come and go and it’s OK to miss one, or even a few. In fact, the opportunities that you miss out on, either from rejection or from a lack of availability, can be more defining to your career than the ones that you achieve. It can even be a good thing to walk away and take a break from architecture altogether.

A great example for how taking a break can be beneficial is Australian tennis superstar, Ash Barty’s career. A key part of Barty’s recent success was that in 2014 she walked away from tennis for three years to pursue other interests. For Barty, this career move was motivated by a feeling that she was approaching burnout and needed a break from the mental exhaustion and persistent feelings of homesickness. As it turned out, taking a break was a master stroke for Barty’s career and in 2019 she won the French Open final – the first Australian to do so in 46 years.

Although it might seem to defy logic, sometimes taking a break can be the most productive thing that you can do. We can sometimes think of architecture as a static profession that only progresses through technological advances. However, there are constant systemic and procedural changes that require the incorporation of new and diverse skill sets. Taking a break and doing something else might result in you developing new skills that will enhance existing practices within architecture.

When listening to architects that I admire, I am regularly surprised by how diverse careers can be. I’ve heard stories about career breaks that vary from teaching at a university, working as a sustainability consultant, project management and even fashion design. I wish I had known at the start of my career that there’s no need to rush. There is no one right way to have a career in architecture. It’s OK to take a break and focus on something else. You can defer your studies for a year or drop to part time for a while. Taking time away from your career to pursue other interests doesn’t mean that you can never re-enter the profession of architecture. Don’t be afraid to take a Barty Break!
– Kirsty Volz, Lecturer, UQ

Mentors, role models and trusted guides

What is very important is to have mentors and role models – not only from the beginning, while you’re finding your feet, but also throughout your career. These trusted guides will be the ones you turn to for advice. Don’t worry if you don’t always agree with them. This is a good thing – it’s about learning to listen to other perspectives, stepping into the shoes of another. A great mentor can help provide you with insights and new ways of approaching a situation.

I think another thing that would have been good to understand early on is that careers are rarely linear. There will be times when you might not feel you are moving upwards fast enough, but I’ve learned that your best next move might be sideways or even something outside your core experience entirely, so you learn new things to build into your repertoire toolkit.

It’s also good to be a little humble. Listen and learn from others. At the same time though, remain visible – everyone can get lost in their own work and there is always more than one story going on at a time. Having something meaningful to say, and actively showing interest is a vital part of engaging – and developing a career.

When you’re starting out, be the best person you can be. Work hard, be calm and kind to others – even when you are stressed. Have a strong sense of responsibility for the work you are assigned and own it all the way through.

It’s also important to really understand that employment is a two-way street. I often see graduates expecting to be promoted or rewarded just because they’ve been there a while. This is not always straightforward. Your professional journey will take you in different directions – and every now and then you’ll need to make a compromise, within reason. Being fulfilled in employment does take negotiation.

Finally, I think it’s also great to be curious, and to understand that collaboration is more rewarding than competition. And keep your eyes up rather than just down. Be interested in not just what you’re doing but what is happening in your practice and the wider industry. —Thihoa Gill, Studio Manager, Grimshaw

Trust in yourself and others

Seventeen years ago, I was sitting on a plane bound for Shanghai reading the Lonely Planet Shanghai and studying an outdated map of the city – trying to pinpoint where I was meant to be working and living in that sprawling metropolis. A few months prior I had been offered a job teaching design at a Design School in a city I’d never really thought of visiting, let alone live in someday. Having never been to China, not knowing a word of Mandarin and coming from industry with no prior teaching experience, I should have been terrified. I knew that in the first few weeks I’d have to find a flat without any basic language skills and teach a group of 100 students that probably wouldn’t understand me. More urgently, I needed to work out how to get from the airport to the hotel that I was booked into. Instead of panicking, however, I took a break from poring over the map and sat there calmly watching the clouds part over the East China Sea. I remember thinking, “Trust yourself. You can do this. No matter what happens, good or bad, this will be one of the greatest adventures of your life.”

Living in China was a challenge. I had to create a new life from scratch in a place that was completely foreign to me. But I stuck it out – learned survival Mandarin, memorised the metro map, found a great group of colleagues and friends. And I fell in love – first with working in higher education and then with a smart and hilarious Aussie who had mastered enough Chinese characters to find the ingredients to make me an authentic New York chilli dog. By trusting in myself, my colleagues, my students and sometimes random strangers, I had opened a door to a completely new, unexpected and better reality than I had ever imagined for myself.

What is clear to me after all of the experiences I have had working in design and higher education is that any great undertaking starts with a level of trust. You cannot truly learn from someone that you do not trust, and equally you cannot expect others to trust and respect you if you are unwilling to trust in them. Relationships built on mutual trust and respect enable us to go further than we could do on our own. Unless you are able to trust in yourself, your colleagues and in the direction of your company or institution, it will be difficult to achieve your highest potential. — Lisa Scharoun, Head of School, School of Design, QUT

The power of the pen

Take the time and make the effort to actively engage with the architectural profession. Go to events, follow the online conversations and make it your business to know what architects are talking about. This engagement gives you the opportunity to meet architects, broaden your network and expand your knowledge. These opportunities can be found through organisations like the Australian Institute of Architects, Parlour and New Architects Melbourne, but also can be found by following architects on Instagram and Twitter.

One of the more surprising things I found during my early career was the impact of writing about architecture. The act of writing requires an active interest, along with time to actively research and think deeply about the topic at hand. It helps to clarify your own thinking and strengthen your knowledge. It can also open the door to some remarkable career opportunities. — Michael Smith, Director, Atelier Red+Black

Commissioned, compiled and edited by Susie Ashworth.