Gund Hall at Harvard University
Courtesy Harvard GSD Gund Hall at Harvard University

You might be an architecture student wondering what awaits you upon graduation. Or you might be wondering how your first full-time job stacks up against others’. For this piece, I asked practitioners to reflect on their first job, mostly post-graduation. The stories vary across the board—and fortunately none involved drawing toilet room elevations or tile patterns.

Of course, your experience will depend on numerous factors, such as the size of the firm, the timing of your start date, and your experience level. Personally, I was lucky enough to join a small architectural firm in Boston in the early ’80s where I was partnered with a seasoned mentor who gave me a wide array of responsibilities, ranging from redlining to designing a three-story office building. It was an excellent springboard for my career.

The author drafting at his first full-time design position
Courtesy Aric Gitomer The author drafting at his first full-time design position

What follows are the experiences of 15 architects and designers worldwide dating back to the 1960s (responses have been edited for clarity and length). The takeaway: "Don’t sell yourself short." It is reasonable to want to design and not be pigeonholed in other tasks. However, you must then carefully evaluate where to begin your lifetime of experiences. Each aspiring architect graduates with different skill sets. Some firms may want to take full advantage of your abilities while others just want you to pay your dues.

Alexander Christoforidis, AIA
Owner, Synthesis Architecture, Cincinnati, Ohio, and associate professor, University of Cincinnati
My first job was with a friend of my parents’ friend in 1986. The interview lasted a few minutes; as soon as I showed a couple samples of my lettering, I got the job. We mainly worked on remodel rollouts of fast food restaurants—which essentially required no design. It was not the ideal introduction into our profession.

Sarah Lorenzen, AIA
ToLo, Peter Tolkin + Sarah Lorenzen Architecture, Los Angeles, Calif., and architecture professor, Cal Poly Pomona
My first architecture job, in the late ’90s, was with Lord Aeck & Sargent (LAS) in Atlanta. It was an ideal first job given how well the office was structured to train architecture graduates. Weekly workshops taught us best practices in drawing, material specification, budgeting, and detailing. Designated mentors guided us through various aspects of the design process, an estimator would verify the pre-bid budgets, a master detailer and specification writer explained the difference between using galvanized steel versus stainless, and a technology mentor gave software tutorials.

From day one, I was in LAS Science and Technology studio working directly with the firm’s design principal, Terry Sargent, largely testing out ideas. He would say, for example, “Do three options of the lobby and we’ll review them tomorrow.” We would then select one to refine, review, and repeat. In my first year, I primarily worked on the design of public spaces for a large university research building, including a 500-person auditorium. I also worked on his “idea projects,” such as a timber building for small zoo animals.

Doug Hervey
Principal architect, Douglas J. Hervey Architect, Durham, N.C.
Though my first real architectural intern job, in the early 1990s, paid minimum wage, my first real project was a multimillion-dollar military expansion project. I was hired when four licensed architects quit and opened a competing firm across the street. The only architect left was the principal, who was waiting for an architect from California (the firm is in N.C.) to arrive to direct/design the project. In the meantime, deadlines had to be met. On my third day, the principal lays a stack of files on my desk and says, “I know you’re new, and this is a lot, but see what you can do with it.” By the time the architect from California arrived, two fellow interns and I had already advanced the project and building designs past the point of no return. The Navy even acknowledged the firm for its outstanding designs for the project!

Andrea Carminio
Principal, Carminio Architecture, Westfield, N.J.
On the first day of my job, at a small architectural firm on the North Shore of Long Island in 1990, the principal sent me—by myself—to measure the groundskeeper’s residence at a country club for an addition. I was told to measure the area of the structure to be impacted. I had no idea what I was doing and returned to the office with less than adequate as-builts. The next day, the principal took me back to the site and gave a tutorial on how to measure and identify critical information.

Juan Blanco
Principal, Arqurbis, New York
In 2001, I worked on a project to renovate the ramps of the Holland Tunnel. In one of many of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey’s “improvements,” it demolished an elegant entrance ensemble that included a statue of civil engineer Clifford Holland, which was relocated to its New Jersey headquarters, next to a Coca-Cola machine. I called for installing this statue in an aedicule fashioned after the tunnel structure itself at a prominent pedestrian crossing. Then everything came to naught with 9/11—the people we were working with were killed. The site I had proposed for the aedicule became one of the sites for a spontaneous memorial.

Rasha Sayed
Assistant professor of architecture, October University for Modern Sciences and Arts, Cairo
My first assignment in 2005 was to design a one-room flat. It was challenging to fit all requirements with a limited space and budget. Immediately after that project, I designed a shopping mall. I went from swimming in a pot to a huge ocean.

Ben Levinson
Retired architect, self-published author and artist, Victoria, British Columbia
In the late mid-1960s, I worked as an assistant to Claude Maurice, at Siddall Dennis Architects in Victoria. We worked on the University of Victoria student residences as well as its administration hub, campus commons, and other renovations around campus. I did no working drawings, but was introduced to specification writing, interior design, and office administration.

Esin Pektas, AIA
Principal, Esin Pektas Architect, New York
After graduating, I emigrated from Istanbul to the United States and learned English while working as a Burger King fryer in Akron, Ohio. With my limited English, I was initially hired to do 3D renderings and cardboard models in the early 2000s. My first project was Silo Point in Baltimore Inner Harbor, designed by Parameter Inc., founded by Christopher Pfaeffle, AIA. It was an adaptive renovation project, turning silos into high-end condos. From the demolition of the existing steel structure to the design of the new building, it was one of the most magnificent projects I have ever worked on. I ultimately contributed to all phases of the project, including conceptual design, historic preservation, and construction management.

Declan Connolly
Owner, Bespoke Home Design, London
In the year 2000, I was assigned to inspect the ground-floor cladding of a three-story apartment in Dublin with the contractor, who had not constructed the details in accordance with the construction documents. It got a bit heated and the contractor, realizing my lack of experience, tried to bully me, but I stood my ground and won the argument. However, on the walk back to the field office, my trousers got snagged on rebar wire, ripping the side seam from my underwear line to below my knee. Needless to say, the contractor was delighted. I stapled it up and made the long, 45-minute trip via public transportation back to the office.

Antonio Aiello, AIA
Principal/ Architect, Urban Design Workshop, Hoboken, N.J.
In the early 2000s, I worked on the conversion of an old sugar warehouse across the Hudson River from New York into luxury condos. I helped prepare details, wall sections, wall types, and handicap bathroom layouts. It was a great project because of its intensity, speed of deliverables, and pressing developer. I learned that the real world is an absolute beast, and that you have to work hard to provide your clients and the general contractor with everything they need to keep them happy.

Amelia Lee
Founder, Design by Amelia Lee; podcaster, blogger, and architect, Undercover Architect, New South Wales, Australia
I had been working part-time in a practice for a couple of years so my transition to full-time work was seamless. I was part of the project team for a firm that was the lead consultant over public domain at the 2000 Summer Olympic Games, in Sydney. We worked with a large group of professional consultants to deliver uniquely designed and manufactured street furniture, lighting, signage, streetscape, and landscape design. It was a fast-paced project with a fixed deadline and motivated client. I worked on the project for about 3.5 years, gaining skills in design, documentation, team coordination, consultant management, and project delivery.

David Shanks
Assistant professor and architecture program director, Syracuse University, Florence, Italy
In January 2009, I graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Design with no job in the awful job market. I had a residency at the MacDowell Colony, in Peterborough, N.H., to continue my thesis research, but cut that short when I got a job at a midsize firm where I had previously done a summer internship. I felt fortunate to get the position and glad that I had laid the foundation for it by interning. I worked on a large medical school building from conceptual design to design development.

Stacey Ruhle Kliesch, AIA
Principal, Stacey Ruhle Kliesch, Architect, Ridgewood, N.J.
My first job in late 2000s was preparing pen-and-ink colored perspective renderings for real estate sales marketing materials for the firm’s developer client. After that, I jumped right into all the design phases for a corporate interiors design/build firm under an in-house, licensed architect's supervision—that was all good stuff! To get the “good stuff” during your internship, emerging architects should choose smaller firms that need everybody's participation to get the work out the door, raise your hand for every new opportunity, ask lots of questions, and do your homework so you are not perpetually helpless when taking on an assignment.

Tara Imani, AIA
Principal, Tara Imani Designs, Houston
For my first job, in a five-person office in the late 1980s, I was tasked with measuring a suburban high school for a renovation that included updates to the track and field. I used a moldable, long, and blue French curve to hand-draft the running track with pencil and ink on vellum for the construction documents. It never quite lined up the way I wanted it. Any more erasing and re-drawing and I’d be out of vellum! Post–French curve activity, I picked up redlines for an Ohio State fairgrounds building and designed and wrote specifications for a set of stairs at a courthouse.

William J. Martin, AIA
Principal, WJM Architect, Westwood, N.J.
In 1982, I secured my first architectural office internship, the summer after my freshman year. I was excited to put on a shirt and tie on that hot summer day and drive down to the firm to do important architectural work. At the office, I was greeted by clouds of cigarette smoke, the sound of spittoon pings, and wafts of ammonia in the open plan drafting room. The architects in this firm worked in windowless interior offices so the drafting office could have the light of the corner office.

After introductions, I was assigned to a drafting table and then given a tour of the diazo blueprint area, where a big, smelly machine sat under a giant purple light bulb. Blueprints were made by sliding a hand drawing over paper containing a yellow chemical coating, and shining an ultraviolet lamp through the transparent drawing. An ammonia vapor bath would cause a chemical reaction, creating a blueprint copy. Each individual drawing was fed through the machine, making one blueprint copy at a time.

An impressive stack of hand-drawn drawings for a supermarket shopping center had just been completed. In the blueprint room thick with the odor of ammonia, I was asked to make copies. Excited about this very important task, I asked how many sets were needed. The boss responded. With the hum of the blueprint machine in my ear, I said, “Six sets of blueprints coming right up.” The boss turned right back around, walked over, and said, “Not six. Sixty.”

I spent the next week running in the blueprint room. Each drawing set had to be cut to size, organized, collated, and then bound together with a massive clamping machine that could take off your fingers. After that experience, I ran blueprints only occasionally and was put to work drawing.