• Melanie

From Professors to Partners: A Journey from Academia to Industry

At first thought, it’s easy to say that my transition from academia to industry was challenging. There were moments when I thought “I don’t think this can’t get any more difficult,” and as the reader, you’re most likely thinking, “Yes, it probably got more difficult…how predictable.” And you know what? Yes, you are indeed correct. It is predictable, but nonetheless, a reality. In fact, looking back, it’s quite humbling to see how incredibly wrong I was going into my first job in the field, post-graduate degree.


To give you a little background on my educational experience, it’s pretty straightforward. Graduated high school, straight into four years of university, and then another two years of graduate school (for that sweet master’s degree and street creds). Throughout those six years of university, I never once successfully managed to land a job at an architectural firm. To say the co-op program at my university was actually helpful would be a blatant lie. And after paying all the fees to be enrolled in the program without any success, I was coming toward the end of my third year of undergrad faced with the decision of having to take the next year off of school to complete all of the co-op work terms or drop the program. Out of fear of not being able to find a job in that year off, I decided to not take the risk and dropped out of co-op.


Fast-forward to my fourth year, and yet again I’m faced with the contemplation of pursuing a master’s degree or finding work at an architectural firm after graduation. At this point, most of my peers had already worked a few summer jobs in the field and I had yet to land my first one. I couldn’t understand why I was having no luck with finding professional experience, let alone even getting an interview to begin with. Let me tell you, that I had not a single employer reply to any of my applications after several years of attempt. I went to professors, friends, and peers, asking to put in a word for me, attended networking events, even tried my luck at cold-calling some firms.


In retrospect, I think that I found comfort in the “academic bubble.” It’s a space I knew I could do well in, push the limits of my critical thinking with little to no boundaries - and frankly, building technology was never what interested me the most about architecture. I knew that once I entered the industry, it would be rare to find a place where I could do the kind of explorative work I was doing in school. Not to mention that whatever you propose in the “real world,” has to actually be feasible.


I think it’s safe to say that I was dealing with some major feelings of inadequacy during this time. So naturally, I chose to go for a master’s degree at the same university as my undergrad. Once again, out of comfort. Perhaps it would’ve been more beneficial to have a varied educational background, but I suppose I approached it from a strategic standpoint. I knew I could get this degree in the shortest amount of time and seeing as I had already established relationships with various professors for the past four years, it seemed like it would be my best bet at a smooth two years of masters. Which it was definitely was. I can’t say much else other than I greatly enjoyed my graduate experience.


The problem with my approach was that I let my imposter’s syndrome get the better of me. Because when graduation rolled around this second time and it finally came down to applying my education to practice, the adjustment was a very steep one. I was lucky (and extremely grateful) that Jason was willing to give me a chance, knowing I had no prior professional experience.


What your professors don’t tell you is how little your paper on the “phenomenology of space” or your absurd studio concepts will come in handy when you find yourself talking to a client about the most specific and mundane things, like their HVAC system in their home. Making the transition to the industry and finding my footing was one of the biggest learning curves I’ve ever had to endure (so far). Everything that I had learned throughout my undergraduate and graduate studies didn’t quite prepare me for many things I was confronted with in practice. But here are just a few of the things that really stood out to me:


1. The adjustment pace

2. Budgets (ha, money doesn’t exist in your fictional studio project)

3. Specificity!


These are just a few of the hurdles that I was met with during my first 8 months at JFA. Because I was so accustomed to an academic structure – you know, which is usually the “ideal” situation with the “perfect” clients and extended amounts of time to complete these projects – I never learned how to design or solve problems that were outside of the professor’s syllabus. What I’ve grasped throughout this transitional period was to be patient, to listen, and to be comfortable with making mistakes. It’s in my nature to overachieve and to excel. Initially, I would try to get everything right on the first try – this went on for several months. And when I saw that I wasn’t performing well, that was a difficult pill to swallow. I’ve come to find that things just don’t sink in quite as much as when you mess up. So I decided to really give into Jason’s advice and let myself make as many mistakes. Once I started caring less about fumbling, that’s when I unconsciously committed myself to grow, and things finally started to click.


Now that adjustment pace… I was always under the impression that academia was already fast-paced. Assignments are due on the date they are due and compounded with all the hours dedicated to the lectures themselves; there was never enough time (it seemed). But everything is so much faster in practice. There’s no time to make that perfect drawing anymore. Everything is due, now. With new jobs and projects coming our way, that unsettles the schedule you thought you had for the week. So yes, I had to learn how to adapt and think on my feet very quickly. Learn fast and act fast. Regardless of the adjustment, one thing I was most worried about was the work itself – if it would excite me as much as the conceptual work I did in school. And to my surprise, that was far from the truth. When working at a smaller firm, it affords you the privilege of being able to exercise your creativity a little more, because unlike a lot of corporate firms, here you can actually do some design work!


Although I’m nearing onto my 1 year at JFA, I know there’s still a lot of more growth to be made as a young intern architect. This first experience in the industry has allowed me to gain an insightful perspective on professional practice and appreciative one at that. If I could go back and take that year off to get that experience, sure maybe it would’ve made things slightly easier coming into the workforce. But I do know it’s possible to transition into the industry with no prior experience and that they are employers that are willing to take a chance on fresh graduates. I’m an example of it. It makes things much harder, but it’s not impossible.

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