Strategies for Seeking an Architecture Master’s Degree


I was going to write a helpful post for recent Architectural Graduates. I went through the gauntlet upon graduating, and thus I have many words of wisdom. But then Bob Borson swooped in and just wrote Architects – Getting Your First Job. 

So I thought Great! Now I need a new topic this week. However, Bob has already written on (practically) every topic. So, this topic can be viewed as an addendum to Bob’s informative viewpoint.|1| Whereas Bob is in a hiring position, he can offer insight into what he looks for in candidates, I will inform you, the candidate, what I have experienced through countless tribulations, hours, and interviews.

Thus, the following is Part 1 in a 5 part series to encapsulate every level a person may experience on their (post- bachelors) architectural journey.

Part 1: Will focus on architectural students attempting to pursue their Master’s Degree.
Part 2: Will focus on every strategy for getting a job within the architectural profession.
Part 3: Will be the resume/portfolio techniques to ensure you get that interview.
Part 4: Will be invaluable interview techniques.
Finally, Part 5 is intended for people, like the immaculate Bob Borson, who have amassed countless hours of architectural expertise, and are now in the hiring position – this post will provide guidance to architectural hiring managers on how to recruit top talent and create a winning culture within their firm.

Congratulations! You have just received your undergraduate bachelor’s degree in [insert degree without the title: architecture]. You are now qualified to work in the retail industry.

If you just received an undergraduate bachelor’s degree, and have not received an NAAB accredited degree, you must now seek a Master’s degree in Architecture.|2|

I know people who were not admitted to Graduate School, thus were forced to find an architecture job and return to get their Master’s degree later. The Great Recession happened and they were lucky enough to have a job, and then finish school at their leisure. This may have not appeared to be the ideal route beforehand, but the delayed gratification, with established work history, is much better than graduating with a Master’s degree without any firm on the horizon hiring – and still being turned down for the Copy Center Clerk position at Staples.

There are many resources claiming top 10 Architecture schools or Top 5 graduate programs. I was even going to make a top 10 list for seeking your Master’s. But 10 facts would have 4 highly relevant topics, and 6 watered-down items. People who want to build a following by amassing the most clicks write top 10 lists; the author typically does not have a voice nor do they provide meaningful information.

Therefore, the following are the 4 TOP Extra-Important Strategies for Seeking an Architecture Master’s Degree. 

Attempt to Branch Out and Apply to a Master’s Program Elsewhere.

It is safe and comfortable to reapply within your current institution for their Master’s program. You will know all the other students, professors, and keep the same friends.|3| While Architecture schools immerse students in design and architectural theory, the University system was established to train people entering the workforce. Therefore, after graduation you need a job.|4|

A key reason for applying to another institution is if you seek to work in a separate region post-graduation. Most architecture firms hire employees within their region, and active alumni often recruit from their own school. However, the biggest reason to apply elsewhere is to establish more relationships within the industry. You can always ask any of your undergraduate professors for a recommendation, but now you will have a broader network of professors and alumni with additional industry connections.

There is a multitude of financial decisions regarding which schools to apply to including: number of years until completion, paid scholarships upon admittance, or financial aid for becoming a Graduate Teaching Assistant. However, even if you decide not to attend a separate school, the cost for an application is equivalent to the cost of one textbook.

Hopefully, you will consider at least applying to one other school, but be cognizant of disparate deadlines.

Harvard University’s Application and Portfolio Deadline is December 15 of the preceding year (for Fall Semester). Immediately upon finishing your fourth-year fall semester you have to have your portfolio finished! (Hopefully, with your current project included).

Whereas, Montana State University’s Application and Portfolio Deadline is March 1. (For Fall Semester) 

Don’t Attend a University Solely for Their Name Recognition

Architecture and design rankings are inherently flawed. Do not put excessive emphasis on numbered rankings. Furthermore, unranked schools are ideal options for the majority of students.
In the same vein as Top 10 lists, DesignIntelligence produces their annual rankings of America’s Best Architecture Schools. 

However, here is a tidbit. Architects who do the hiring within their firms do not care where you went to school. You get a job interview because of your portfolio or through a recommendation. And you get the job because of your personality. Furthermore, hiring managers do not know the strengths of many architecture programs.|5|

Even DesignIntelligence reveals this underlying (contrary) evidence to their own rankings system:

What is most important in a new graduate entering the workplace? (Multiple responses)

Their attitude/personality …………………………………………………………………………. 70.1%
Their portfolio ………………………………………………………………………………………. 44.8%
Work experience …………………………………………………………………………………… 25.2%
Where they went to school ……………………………………………………………………….. 12.8%
Where they’re currently located …………………………………………………………………. 2.6%
GPA ………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 1.6%


Strategies for Choosing a Thesis Topic

The scariest part of Graduate School is trying to derive a Thesis topic. In the past, your Studio teacher had an arbitrary program, a site picked, and guidelines to develop your project. Now, with seemingly no safety net, you are expected to present a culmination of your architectural studies, theories, and philosophies into one encapsulating project that will become the apotheosis of your architectural education.

Currently, many Universities offer a Plan B. Basically, another studio class with a defined project. However, it is more impressive to walk into an interview with your portfolio and a giant thesis book, drop it on the table, and the book will exclaim, “This is me, and this is what I can accomplish.”

Therefore, I will present three advantageous approaches to developing your thesis:

Building Typology Based

This strategy allows you to select a building category to base your project around; whether it is an aquarium, museum, or convention center.

If you can be immersed in Golf Digest equivalently to Metropolis magazine, then you could create a Golf Course Masterplan for your thesis. You can design the entire course and incorporate an amazing, architecturally mind-blowing, “clubhouse” within your project.

If you are the biggest Dallas Cowboys fan, and want to design a new “Jerry’s World.” You can design a stadium, but incorporate flexibility for year-round use.

This is the simplest direction for selecting a thesis topic. But caution! It easily could become a contrived version of theme park design. Regardless, if your architecture is amazing, nobody will care.

Scientific Philosophy Based

This approach is probably the most difficult, but potentially the most rewarding.

This approach will utilize books and resources from the scientific community to inform your project, thereby providing you with a bounty of reading material to incorporate into your thesis book.

If you are fascinated by network theory and topological forms, your project could be founded upon ideal solutions for social interaction. Unlike Facebook, Google, or Apple’s campuses, your building would bring disparate companies/institutions together to create a new form of laboratory with seamless integration.

While architecture is the experience of the built environment, it also has the capacity to be defined more broadly – as the experience of any environment. Thereby, allowing for a completely digital solution. Perhaps, only Google Glass users will have access within your theoretical digital landscape.

Some architects might frown upon the lack of typical construction assemblies within a completely digital environment. However, even if a student’s project is a housing project, they probably still will not know the difference between a sill plate and a rim joist. Furthermore, I can guarantee the student with the all-digital project will be able to immediately provide graphics/software capabilities for a firm, unlike many architecture graduates.

Within the past century, there has become a rift within the university system, where schools no longer prepare workers for factory jobs. University has become (once again) an establishment for higher learning, while the profession provides the environment to develop and refine these processes.

Site-Specific (Location) Based

This can become a unique approach; allowing you to directly define your program based upon the inherent site circumstances.
You could choose a familiar locale, but it also allows for exotic solutions.

If you wanted, your project could be near a Hawaiian volcano. You could create a research lab and place it directly in a lava flow. The lava would inform the direction of your programmatic elements, but it also could help define the shape of your building.

If you wanted to address the needs of slum housing in South America. Your program could incorporate a building shell out of local resources. This “shell” could be used to create different distinct “building blocks” for individuals to stack. Furthermore, this could help initiate directives for harvesting clean water, recycling waste, and creating ownership of their own community. 

Choose the Hardest/Scariest Professor

This should be a general rule of thumb for everybody signing up for next semester’s studio class.

Often students do not want to take the studio class with the hardest or scariest instructor. These instructors are typically the professors who make students cry by their harsh words during critiques – or just by their blank stares when you frantically try to explain your misguided concept to this clearly higher-intelligent lifeform.

However, higher education is supposed to help you grow and acquire more knowledge. I can guarantee that every one of the professors that fit this mold are probably the brightest and smartest people within the institution of architecture.

Furthermore, who do you want to have at your critiques: the most intimidating professor on your jury panel, or the most intimidating professor on your side, further explaining your project to the (remaining) feebleminded jurors?

I have little respect for the teacher that just wants to be pals with the students while providing little insightfulness, and never attempts to create innovative or challenging thought processes.

One semester we had the choice of three professors. Two superb professors, and one professor that offered little in the form of architectural perceptiveness. Every student that produced poor architectural projects, or who never exerted much effort, chose the inferior third professor. Remarkably, this professor guaranteed every student would receive a passing grade, due to a belief in championing everyone’s morale. However, my professor took the opposite approach. He would only give desk critiques to the top five students in his section. He had the belief that if you were dedicated in architecture, you would jockey for placement within his class, and always seek to provide remarkable results in a never-ending quest to rise to the top. Nevertheless, probably half of the students failed in my section that bleak semester, yet I can guarantee he developed more impassioned students and created fantastic architectural projects.

Higher education is supposed to be challenging; if it just becomes a mindless means-to-an-end then perhaps architecture isn’t the right profession for you.




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1 Because if you are reading my architecture blog, I guarantee you already read his.
2 Obviously, if you received a 5-year bachelors’ of Architecture degree from an NAAB accredited school, then wait for Part 2: Strategies for Obtaining a Job. (But doesn’t Master’s in Architecture sound more prominent than Bachelor’s in Architecture?)
3 Because all your friends are in the architecture program too.
4 Preferably in the Architecture Industry.
5 At least ones not named Harvard or Columbia.

One Comment

  1. Great post! Getting a Master’s isn’t a decision to be made lightly, so it’s good there’s resources like this sharing what it will be like. Thanks for posting!

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