How to Get the Most Out of Your Internship

Posted on June 9, 2013


Welcome to the Real World

I’m still a greenhorn in the field of architecture, but in my budding career, I’ve learned a lot. Having recently finished the last hurdle and become a full-fledged architect, I thought I’d take some time to give a few tips about the ride so far.

Welcome to the world of the architectural “intern” (cringe). The way the architectural profession is set up, you’re required to be an “intern” for at least 3 years, while you complete the Intern Development Program (IDP). Some states allow you to take the ARE while completing the IDP, and others make you complete the IDP before taking the ARE. A few years ago, Illinois changed their rules to allow the former so I was able to start the ARE before I had finished the IDP. I wish there was a better way to do this and I will talk about it again in a future post, but for now, it’s the reality that we all have to deal with. IDP has 17 categories and a total of 5,600 hours needed to complete IDP. If you’re very efficient in being able to actually do the tasks that count towards certain credit hours, it should take about 3 years. More than likely it will take longer because it takes time to get all the hours in certain categories. Make sure you keep this page handy so you can track which tasks you perform will count towards which categories. It’s important that you track which categories you need hours in, so you can identify tasks you can be doing that will get you those hours. It’s all too easy to just let your bosses give you work, but they aren’t tracking the tasks you need to complete and this could cause you to take more time to complete IDP.

[Image Source: Dreamstime]

It’s Only the Beginning

One of the hardest things during your internship, is to keep an open mind and to not get too worked up about specifics. Architecture is a profession that takes time to learn. You simply cannot become a good architect overnight. Everyone (including myself) thinks when they graduate, they’re ready to be an architect, but you’ve only begun to scratch the surface. . There is SOOOO much you’ll learn in the form of day-to-day experience working in an architecture firm. There are periods of time that I hated the things I was having to do, but looking back now I can see that there’s a lot that I learned from those experiences. I learned to try to keep a positive attitude about things, even when you’re not enjoying them, because you’re probably learning something while doing it.

Shop Around

I’ve worked for both large and small architecture firms and they each have pro and cons. One of the most important things to do is keep your ears open. There is so much you will learn by observing other people. You can learn a lot from other people’s successes and failures. One huge benefit of working in a smaller office is that you get exposed to all the little details, meetings, and processes with running a project that you probably don’t get at a large firm. Large firms obviously have the resources and scale that small firms do not. I would recommend that interns and young architects get experience working for multiple architecture firms. As long as you maintain positive connections, you should be able to go back to a place if you liked it, but working in multiple environments will give you a broader experience range and help define who you are as an architect. Think of it like traveling abroad. You may not plan to be there for long time but it’s a way to broaden your horizons.

Gain “Other” Experience

One thing I should have been better at in the last 5 years is seeking out opportunities to help myself grow as an architect. Seek out local professional organizations. Use Twitter and LinkedIn to meet and network with other professionals. Work for Habitat for Humanity or other organizations. Do competitions in your free time for sharpening your skills. Teach at local schools or universities. All these experiences can have a huge impact on what type of architect you become, but it also has the HUGE benefit of introducing you to people outside your normal range of influence that can have an impact on your career. If you bring in a project through a contact that you’ve made, that is a big deal for architecture firms, especially the smaller ones. The people who can network and bring in projects are one of the most important people in keeping an architecture firm going. If you have this ability, you will make more money and move higher than anyone around you. This may seem like something that’s beyond you right now, but you are training to become an architect. The more exposure you get to these types of things, the more confident you will be and the better and more frequently it will happen to you.

Take opportunities to learn new things. Go to lunch and learns at your office or through your local AIA chapter. Attend seminars. Sometimes you can have these entirely paid for by your firm or the company putting it on. Look for free opportunities. They’re more common than you think, you just have to learn where to look.

Sorry, but Suck Up

I learned this the hard way. You need to suck up to your boss(es). If they don’t like you, they won’t be so willing to let you tag along to things or let you work on things you request. Sorry. It’s that simple. Don’t be obnoxious about it or anything, but make sure you’re always giving your boss a smile and a positive attitude. In the same vein, you need to learn how to positively dissent. If you’re unhappy about something…make your boss aware of it, but in a way that doesn’t put blame on them. Make them aware of a problem and give them a solution.

It’s hard being the low guy on the totem pole but if you charm everyone, you’ll at least be less likely to get stuck with the worst jobs.

You’re on Your Own

I know it’s not what you want to hear, but the sooner you get used to being independent and making sure you track and push for your career goals the better off you’ll be. Depending on the size of firm you work for, you may have some sort of mentor who tracks your progress and tries to help you meet goals towards becoming licensed, but you probably won’t. Chances are that even if you do have a mentor, you’ll still need to take a lot of initiative.

Make sure that you’re working on a variety of tasks and projects. In case you haven’t noticed, the Intern Development Program (IDP) tracks a lot of different tasks in a lot of different areas and requires a crazy amount of hours in some of them. You need to keep track of the different tasks you need to be doing and reminding your project manager/architect and other bosses the types of experience you’d like to be getting.

we're having fun while also doing work!!

[Image Source: South University]

Look for ways to fulfill those hours. If someone is going on a site visit ask if you can tag along. If you’re working on a long-term project, try to go to all the meetings, site visits, etc. that you can.

Be Annoying

I’m serious. Architecture is very cyclical. Sometimes architects will have so many projects at once, they’re working overtime every night, hardly see their family and start living off a diet of coffee, ramen and snacks out of the vending machine. Other times architects have so little to do they create a blog to prevent boredom from eating them alive. In the slow times, it’s easier for your Project Architect/Mentor to remember that they have an intern or two around who knows nothing about architecture outside of their computer screen. More often than not though, they’re busy and just forget. You have to take the initiative and be really annoying. Ask to tag along to everything: client meetings, site visits, coordination meetings. Don’t give up. If you get denied, keep asking. There’s so much involved in getting something built that’s not sitting in front of your computer drafting and sending emails. What makes someone a good architect is all the stuff that takes them away from their desk. You have to have drafting and design skills, but if you lack real world experience (construction and personal skills) you won’t make it far.

Keep Asking Questions

Ask lots of questions. If you don’t know how to do something, try to solve it on you own first and if you’re stuck, immediately find the right person to ask to help you solve it. This is something I dealt with at first. When you’re the new guy, you don’t want to be the one constantly asking questions, but if you’re taking way too long on a task because you can’t figure it out or do it completely wrong, it will look much worse on you than for having to ask a few dumb questions. Knowing who to ask is just as important as what to ask. Find out what everyone’s expertise is. That way, when you have a question, you’ll know who to ask.


Architecture school trains you to adjust to sleeping less and working constantly (if you were smart in school though you learned how to minimize this). That should not be the case when you get into the profession. Some firms look at overtime as a necessary part of how they run their business, with employees regularly working 50 hours or more a week, every week. That’s wrong. Sometimes deadlines will require some overtime to meet them or there may be changes that have to be addressed via overtime, but it should not be the norm. Firms that run this way are abusing their employees. A good architectural firm knows how long it takes to complete a project and what resources are required. Constant overtime hints at poor management and neglect by the employers. You should avoid places like this.

that looks about right

[Image Source: Lindagalindo]

That’s not to say that architects don’t have to spend time outside of regular office hours on projects. Especially with schools, board meetings are at night, but again. These require occasionally giving up some time here and there, not working every night and weekend for months straight.

Express Yourself

It can be hard in the professional world to get yourself out there and make your ideas known. You need to speak up. I’m not going to lie. It takes time to be good, as put so eloquently by Ira Glass in the video below. Most of your ideas for years won’t be very good, but you are capable of thoughts that will surprise your bosses. Don’t be afraid to throw out your ideas and get constructive criticism (very carefully in front of clients). The more you’re able to take your own thoughts and either improve them or discard them will make you better faster. This blog came from a failed idea I had at work.

These are some of the things I’ve learned along the way. Feel free to add any if you have them. If you have anymore questions, as always, I’m available via the comments, Twitter, and email.


[Image Source: Travellersquest]

Posted in: Architecture