Is Architecture really worth it .. ? Insight into the profession.


Hey Everybody .. !

I am a 23 y o engineering graduate from India. I am thinking of pursuing the M.Arch degree. I applied to a bunch of schools last year, got accepted at SCI-Arc and few others, but couldn't go. Though I am ready to apply again, recently, I have seen the job satisfaction for architects go down even more compared to last year.

People here just can't stop talking about how unworthy this profession is! Unworthy of the time and effort it requires. This has put me into a dilemma.

I want to know what really happens after you graduate from a (pretty good) school, say, like SCI-ARC (currently ranked 6th in USA by DI). According to DI 2013, the starting salary for an entry level architect is around $45,000. That doesn't seem bad ! If you can get a staring salary of 40 grand, I think you should earn around 150-200 grand at the peak of your career. I have heard someone say you stop at 80 !

How true is this figure ? and more importantly, where does the corporate ladder of an architectural firm lead ?

I will appreciate any insight anyone can give me into the real world of the architectural profession. Is it really as bad as everybody seems to be saying ? Does one really hit a wall after few years in a firm ?

Looking forward to your replies ..  

Thanks :)

Nov 26, 12 8:45 am


Nov 26, 12 8:47 am

what is your source for architect satisfaction being less now than last year?  not just random people like me on the internets i hope.

i think there is a wall after you work a few years.  it seems there are a lot of walls in architecture.  it starts with application into a 3rd year program if you're on a 2-2-2 path, then application to grad school, then idp and the tests.  now a lot of people who have been fortunate enough to hold their jobs for the past few years are looking towards advancement, but maybe there isn't any position to move into.

there has been a global recession or otherwise droopy economy for the past 4 or 5 years.  maybe the dissatisfaction comes from that.  things seem to be starting to turn around a bit.  i can only offer one perspective, but for me it seems other people are starting to do a bit better, and my firm seems to be getting in a bit more work.  i'm not doing any better myself, though, even though i'm fairly intelligent, capable, willing to work hard and learn new things and stuff like that.  also, for what it's worth i've always worked for small firms and the wall i'm at is well short of 80k.  this is for 10 years past graduation, so i assume the 80k wall is after a longer period, and 150-200k is unlikely for many architects but maybe achievable if you own a firm or are at the top of the ladder of one of the big firms.

so, it's possible the wall you're concerned about is only there for people like me (those of us trying to advance our career in a stagnant economy).  hopefully the economy will be a bit more stable as you progress in your career and your barriers will be a bit easier to pass.  of course, there is also the possibility that these economic swings are common and our profession is particularly susceptible to the harm in those downturns.  maybe these walls have always been there.

also, i wouldn't put too much faith in the di report.  it's fun to see where schools rank, but realistically i don't think a degree from any of those schools is going to give you much of an advantage over any other decent school when trying to get a job and start a career.

Nov 26, 12 9:52 am

To break $85K/yr in architecture in the US, you need to be a serious hot-shot or management-level employee at a big firm, or an equity partner in a successful firm. That's pretty much it. FYI.

If you can break the $100K barrier, you can do very, very well. Most architects don't and won't.

Architecture has a much higher perceived status level than compensation level. It's not really a profession for people who aren't already from an upper-middle-class or higher background unless you show an unusually high aptitude for it and/or a gift for self-promotion.

Nov 26, 12 1:33 pm

hi AA23 ,even i m an engineer form india,wanted to apply for march 1 ,can u pls tell me which shools did u apply for and in which school did u got accepted 

Nov 27, 12 2:13 am

i think it is worth to do it.

Nov 27, 12 2:18 am

I think it is worth it! In Germany, the architect profession is really valued and you can get a good paying job if you're skilled.

Nov 27, 12 3:06 am


I hope the things you said are true Curt, and the architecture profession will experience a growth spurt in the coming years. The US dept of labor sure things so .. 24% estimated increase in employment of architects by 2020.

I hope the economy is the only factor for the slump. But before all this hit US, was it really much different for architects .. if so, how ? 


Now we are talking ! .. Very interesting answer ... partly because I don't think I fully understand your premise about the higher-middle class level compensating for lack of unusual aptitude in architecture. How does one succeed in arch having an upper middle class background ..? Buying partnership in a firm ..? Setting up his/her own firm ..?

How much does it cost to set up a new firm .. in a city like LA ..? and do you think there are architects who start off in a job with little or no savings, and later end up setting up their own practice ..?

Looking forward to your reply gwharton ..



Abhay .. I am glad to know there is another person trying to do things I want to .. Where are you from ..? and what engg did you do ..? I did my IT from MIT, Pune.

I applied to 

1. Cornell   2. SCI-Arc   3. UT Austin   4. RISD   5. Michigan   6. Syracuse and 7. Pratt

I got into SCI-Arc, UT Austin and RISD ($). You can check out the portfolio I submitted,

Its not that great, my photoshoping skills were not great then.

Where are you in your application process. You can mail me if you want, at


Nov 27, 12 4:53 am

hi aa23 i m presently in civil engineering in spce,mumbai .can i get u r fb id so that we can be in contact of each other 

Nov 27, 12 8:11 am


It's a matter of getting work. While most clients want their architects to be talented and do good work for them, even more important is that they be comfortable working together. Since the vast majority of people who hire architects are upper-middle-class or above in social status, that means they tend to be much more comfortable working with people who share similar backgrounds, values, and assumptions. This rule isn't universally true, but it holds in most cases. That's why architecture as a profession has traditionally been the domain of aristocrats.

So, if you don't have at least the same social standing and connections as the people you're trying to develop as clients, you'll need something else to make up the difference. That comes down to high-level talent (and we're talking 4 to 5 sigmas here, not just a small difference above average), or an extremely charismatic personality. If you lack all of those (class status, talent, or charisma), you're going to peak out early and low in this profession. You can get by with one of them, or modest levels of each. If you've got high levels of more than one, you'll do very well indeed. That's just how it is. I wish the profession and academia would be much more honest about that. Those three characteristics are not things you can learn in school or really change about yourself, though, so it's considered in poor taste to talk about them.

Unfortunately, the way our educational system is set up now, many people who essentially have no chance of ever breaking through the ceiling are being encouraged to go deep into debt and spend years of their lives pursuing careers in architecture when they would be much better off doing something else.

Nov 27, 12 12:29 pm

NO, if you see it as a 'job' only.  YES, if you see it as a career.

Nov 27, 12 12:55 pm

If you know your really talented and better than most in the field, stick with it and try to break out on your own.  Working under someone will most likely not advance your career much because everyone in the firm seems to think they're better or their ideas/design is better than others even though it isn't.

Nov 27, 12 12:58 pm

Be your own honest judge... If you're just good at cad, pushing buttons on arch viz softwares and can't design well or have good ideas, there are other professions more rewarding for you.

"To be considered irreplacable, you must be different" - Coco Chanel

Nov 27, 12 12:59 pm

"So, if you don't have at least the same social standing and connections as the people you're trying to develop as clients, you'll need something else to make up the difference. That comes down to high-level talent (and we're talking 4 to 5 sigmas here, not just a small difference above average), or an extremely charismatic personality. If you lack all of those (class status, talent, or charisma), you're going to peak out early and low in this profession."

Yup - sad but true - I came from a more humble background - never made it with the "rich kids" but had enough 3D  talent to be a "tool" for them for all of my 3 careers(flight Simulation, videogames and architecture) - I was warned - 

Nov 27, 12 1:05 pm

The same thing is true in virtually every profession or business sphere. For instance, my wife is in the movie business. The same three things control success there as well: class membership, talent, and charisma. In that case, the class membership is tied to certain preferential minorities (ethnic and otherwise) rather than being purely socio-economic, but it's still the same game. Talent and charisma can make up for not being a member of the preferred classes, but you need to have quite a bit of either or both.

We pretend these things are not true because we are uncomfortable with the implications. Many of our cherished beliefs don't mesh well with these realities (or even directly contradict them). But that doesn't make them any less real or less true.

Nov 27, 12 1:18 pm

Charisma will take you further than skill/talent.  Skill/Talent can always be learnt :)

Nov 27, 12 1:30 pm

You can learn skills. You can't learn talent. Or good judgment for that matter. You've either got them, or you don't. Cultivated skills, training, and experience can make up for that over time if you put a lot of work into them, but never entirely. Talent and good judgment augmented by skills and experience are best, of course.

Nov 27, 12 1:39 pm

common sense/good judgement - are you broke? if you are, then you failed at some point to make good decisions. A persons finances are the indicator of a person's judgement ability - tha'ts why many employers do credit checks

Nov 27, 12 5:32 pm

^ does debt and going broke from supporting ourselves during university count?

Nov 27, 12 7:08 pm

only if you fail to make the grade after you graduate and can't afford the payments - in school you really need to be the very best to obtain employment that can carry the debt burden to make it worth while - average grads with major debt failed to to do what it takes in school, have 2nd rate portfolios and thus are saddled with a heavy debt to income ratio. We make decisions and with those decisions are rewards or consequences - Always be thinking ahead 

Nov 27, 12 7:24 pm

sucks for us immigrants who have to work to support family, pay tuition and eat ramen and mac/cheese to get through school

Nov 27, 12 7:31 pm

lots of talk about decisions there.  if you decide not to be born rich, then i would suggest you decide to marry rich.  succeed like a republican.  hard work is for the welfare-cheating 47%

Nov 27, 12 7:32 pm

yeah, marry a republican would work for women.. much tougher for us guys xD

Nov 27, 12 7:36 pm

it worked for John McCain !

Nov 27, 12 7:46 pm

^ he's a redneck

Nov 27, 12 7:49 pm

This is getting way too depressing, so everyone just look at this picture, and post about how great the architecture profession is! ... and then get back to real life.

Nov 27, 12 8:01 pm

According to DI 2013, the starting salary for an entry level architect is around $45,000. That doesn't seem bad ! If you can get a staring salary of 40 grand, I think you should earn around 150-200 grand at the peak of your career. I have heard someone say you stop at 80 !

reality check - I have 4 years exp. and only make 41k in San Francisco no less and only the top 2% get to 80k let alone 120k.

Nov 27, 12 8:05 pm

I don't think architecture is worth it unless you plan to start your own firm. Most architects “top out” early in their career because architects who own firms don't hire other architects, they hire people as drafters, and that only pays so much. If you want to make the real money, you have to go after your own projects. I half agree with the class/social standing deal, it doesn't hurt, but it really depends on the type of work you're going for. You have to be connected to convince the Rothschilds to let you design their new beachouse, but anybody can march into a local homebuilder's office and say you want to draw plans for them. 

Nov 27, 12 9:27 pm

so i think i'm going to pick up a powerball ticket on my way home this evening.  i'm not really sure how it works, or even where to get one.  i'm pretty good with numbers, so i know my chances of winning are 0 (within any reasonable rounding error).  however, i really do want to improve my livelihood rather than stagnate.

what do you guys think has better odds?  improving my livelihood as an architect (through hard work or through just watching the clock and growing older?  from what i've seen both have the same outcome), or powerball?

Nov 28, 12 9:27 am


As you said, things like charisma and social standing are great factors in one's success, if you are not exceptional at what you are doing. It really comes down to who you are friends with.

That is true with 100% of professions including business (again, unless you are selling a product which is exceptionally different or selling the same thing at an exceptional discount). So people who are in the 3 sigmas and can't win a client by his brain, because everybody around him is providing more or less the same stuff, they go through the emotional route. 

So, this being not exclusive to architecture as gwharon also pointed out later, then the question remains unanswered as to why architecture is so densely considered an unworthy profession. The economy? not being able to open a firm?


As you said you have been an architect for 10 years now and "fairly intelligent, capable" at that. You say that in arch, hard work has the same outcome as watching the clock and getting old. I want to know what is your job profile right now? The things you do now should be the same all architects are doing who can't open there own firms. So, it seems like there are only two options here; open your own firm or watch the clock.

I am looking forward to your reply.

Nov 28, 12 4:15 pm

i suppose my job profile is to do what work i can ;)

i suspect your are asking about a general job profile, and i think the environment has a large effect on how that profile is created.  also, i think the environment can create very different profiles for different people.  i'm going to go ahead and write an essay on how i see the office structure of an architecture company working, at least as it relates to my personal experience, then i will wish i had a more anonymous pseudonym.

my position is restricted by the fact that i answer to others.  obviously that will always be the case, in that you will answer to clients or god or the public or government or zombies or someone somewhere.  in the present case, i don't think i'm living up to my potential because apparently there just isn't a need in my environment for me to exercise my potential.  take your charisma comment as an example.  this is something i think i could personally develop better if i worked at it.  however, there are other people here that like doing that, so in my position i am told by them that i shouldn't be interfering in their relationships.  i could improve my charisma at toastmasters or something like that, but as stated above the people at my company who like to be charismatic are going to protect their position and prevent me from exercising that aspect of this profession.  this probably applies to most any aspect of being an architect with the exception of what they don't want to take on.

to successfully start my own firm i would need enough clients to keep me paid.  i would either need an established network of clients, or i would need to take a pretty big risk (the size of risk dependent largely on my nestegg and how long i can survive while building a client base), or i would need to be kind of dumb.  having said that, there are a number of real-life examples of where dumb people have become quite successful, so that may not be the right word.

my 'watching the clock' comment was a bit dramatic and perhaps exaggerated.  i don't think a person's experience at one firm is going to be the same as at another.  this is something i'm not certain of, and my latest hobby is trying to figure out what other people in my position are doing for a living.  i suspect there are more than 2 options, and i would like to learn about what those options are.

a lot of my concern with what other people in my position are doing revolves around 'motivation.'  this applies outside architecture too.  i think i've been focusing on this because i have more control of my motivation than my environment.  anyway, if you go into architecture, you're really not going to get paid a lot and you probably won't even have the opportunity to lead a design project the way you did in school.  so what to you get out of bed for?  why do you go into the office every day?  i sort of feel like i'm at a crossroads (there are a lot of these) where i can make decisions now that could have a lasting impact.  this is my perspective on what you referred to as a 'wall' in your original post.  in my current setting, i'm pretty convinced that there is no amount of hard work or ability or effort that can improve my position.  as stated with the charisma example above, there is an entrenched hierarchy that does not want to be disrupted.  i do the tasks i do because that's what i do, and others do what they do.  this environment rewards people for time served; essentially there is a benefit and promotion system based on longevity.  this is not uncommon, though i think in other industries there are 'forks' one could take in their career to move into different positions.  my place may be too small to have different positions open.

so my motivation isn't going to be to work hard because i will somehow get a larger share of profit or anything like that.  greed is not a good motivator (unless you really are in poverty.  thankfully i'm not concerned whether i will be able to make rent this month), though i think very few people in the baby-boom generation would agree with that or even fathom the possibility.  their parent's generation, the hard working union folks of the 50's, were often motivated by pride (i wasn't there, so it should be noted that i just made that up.)  i think that's what keeps me working hard when i can, but i can't really put myself in a position to gain decision making autonomy to have pride in.  therefore, the source of my pride may simply be stubbornness.  i'm not sure how long that will last.

the other motivator is fear.  i am convinced that if a person falls too much into routine and stops thinking things through and challenging themselves, they become stupid just through not exercising their brain.  this is also an existential sort of view i hold on generally allowing yourself to suffer on occasion.  what doesn't kill you makes you stronger and all that.  so, in that sense i often feel l have to find some sort of new thing to learn and new puzzle to challenge myself with (even if it's outside of work) so i don't become too lazy and complacent.  i would prefer to spend my long hours at work undertaking these challenges, but as it is i'm generally prevented from exercising that kind of ambition.  i'm pretty sure there is a natural inclination for people to let others take care of them, and this leads to a natural path of mental decay.

i know a bunch of lawyers.  their firms promote people to partner, and people my age seem to already be there.  partnership is mostly just a carrot to wave in front of junior staff to give them something to look forward to.  it may not be all it's cracked up to be, but it does give you something to work towards and you do get some personal ownership in your career.  i have not seen this sort of structure in any small architecture firm.  our firms tend to be structured such that junior staff supports the principals, allowing them to focus on whatever they think is most enjoyable for themselves.  i know there is stress in ownership and whatnot, but i also think it would benefit our profession to look into this sort of firm structure.  then there would at least be a third option of improving your company rather than what you propose, which i see as 'suck it up or leave.'

Nov 28, 12 5:52 pm

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