The advice for a graduate looking for a first job is often the same for a professional looking to make a move within the field. Stella Papadopoulos, a practicing designer and assistant professor at Notre Dame, describes the strategies that work best for both.

The advice for a graduate looking for a first job is often the same for a professional looking to make a move within the field. Stella Papadopoulos, a practicing designer and assistant professor at Notre Dame, describes the strategies that work best for both.

Credit: Jimmy Fishbein

The sour economy and downturn in architectural billings has made job-seeking a challenge, especially for recent graduates. That’s one reason why Stella A. Papadopoulos, a visiting assistant professor at the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture in South Bend, Ind., teaches a course to prepare new graduates for the rigors of finding work. In addition to teaching, the 36-year-old Yale School of Architecture grad—and a veteran of several New York firms—now runs Poleis Design Architecture, a solo studio in Chicago. Papadopoulos offers salient tips for newcomers and seasoned professionals alike on how to land a job in a competitive marketplace.

Build your own brand.
“Many students are not prepared for job searching and are unclear about how to market themselves,” Papadopoulos says. A good starting point is to think about branding. Just as there is a narrative in design, you should have a narrative about your own work. “That’s your brand; use it to sell yourself.”

Create a portfolio that pops …
Avoid a generic portfolio by giving it a clear identity, Papadopoulos suggests. A portfolio is more than images in a binder. Include hand drawings, paintings, graphics, photographs, animation, computer renderings, and competitions—everything that shows what you can do. Firms today are looking for smart thinkers who have a vision and a variety of skills and experience.

… but is not written in stone.
You can tailor a portfolio to a specific firm. For an interior design firm, for example, push that angle in your portfolio. “Research what different firms are doing, their specialties, what awards they’ve won, and the new projects they’re working on, and adapt your portfolio to fit what they might be looking for.”

Cover letters count.
A sharp cover letter that piques interest is a bonus to the CV. “It’s all about putting yourself out there and pushing hard, because jobs don’t come easy anymore.” In the letter, use key words such as “management” and “leadership.” “Even if it was managing people at a fast-food restaurant, it shows you can lead and multitask and manage a full team.”

Cast a wide net.
Many of the big firms are in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles—but think about going outside your comfort zone. A job doesn’t have to mean a high-end firm or a “starchitect’s” office, and it could mean “going back home and living with your parents for a while,” Papadopoulos says. A smaller firm can give you basic, valuable experience and a chance to work on different projects before that big break arrives. “That can be more important than meeting a famous architect.”

Dress the part.
Before an interview, find out how an office dresses. Architects don’t always wear black and designer glasses. “At Robert A.M. Stern, you can’t wear jeans,” she points out. A simple suit and good shoes always works. If it’s an in-house design job at say, Ralph Lauren, add something fashionable. In general, don’t be too laid-back or too Bohemian.

Don’t be discouraged.
Remember that if a firm tells you, “we will keep your CV on file,” it is not necessarily just to dismiss you. For a firm, having your name at the ready is a cost-effective way of recruiting—cheaper than hiring a headhunter. “Send a thank-you note to show that you’re still interested and a CV update every six months to let them know what you are doing.”

Work the job.
If you land a position, remember that there were a lot of people aiming for that job. Don’t be complacent. “Don’t leave on time. Don’t pack your bag at 10 minutes to six,” Papadopoulos says. “Always be busy, and ask around if people need help.”

Climb to the top.
Consider each job a stepping stone. And always think about the next step. “You can switch jobs to find out what you want to do, until you really know what you want,” she says. At some point, though, you will know what excites you. Strive for that. “If it’s Zaha Hadid’s office, just go for it.”