Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Changing Expectations

I’ve been quiet, sucked into the daily routine of our extreme makeover. The hope is that we are halfway through. But you know what they say about expectations.

It’s about this time in most projects that I find myself falling into a rut of sorts. The doldrums of the project, I suppose, when the end seems too far away and I second guess what’s been accomplished. Part of me wishes we were done. Part of me wishes we were a few steps back, and I could address some things differently. Part of me knows that, given the way things are, I should just lay low and ride it out for as long as possible. After all, once this is over, real unemployment awaits.

Where I sit now is miles away from where I thought I’d be. I don’t think anyone expects that, five years out of undergraduate school and weighed down by grad school debt, they’d be living in the basement of their parent’s temporary house. And I have it better than many others. I am at least doing work of some sort. Plenty of architects are in a far worse position.

But this isn’t the dream, is it? The one they sell you when you sign up. The one that drives you through late nights, past the criticism, hits to the ego, the numerous hours in front of a computer or at a modeling table. You don’t dream of looking for a new position during an economic crisis. You don’t necessarily plan life goals with the catastrophic collapse of your profession in mind.

If you were to ask me, in school, what I imagined for my life at this point: IDP completed, ARE exams completed and working in a mid-size, respected firm as a project manager of some sort. I’d be in a large city somewhere, on my own, with enough knowledge to be thinking about going out on my own, and the better sense to think about rounding out my experience by jumping to a new ship.

The reality? Well, I’ve tutored, taught, been an administrative bitch, a shoulder to cry on, a student adviser, a student and a junior staff monkey. I made good headway in an office I enjoyed working at, but doing work I didn’t quite fall in love with. (And don’t get me started on the fact that the principal of my firm never bothered to learn my name, even though I was one of the fastest junior members to get promoted.)

Not quite the dream, eh? Hell, it’s not even a direct-to-TV knock-off sequel of the Hollywood feature. For the most part, I’m actually okay with that. I’ve had experiences in the past five years that I never considered for myself while in school. In school, I was sold on the professional practice version of becoming an “Architect”. Who wouldn’t be, since it seemed so clear and simple. Do this, record this, work for this amount of time, and before you know it, you’ll be ready to go.

But, let’s face it. School does not provide enough time or experience to make a definitive decision on how you will practice. In fact, it seems unlikely that during your first, or second, job you’ll have found yourself doing what you want in a manner you wish. You may fall in love with the work, but hate how your firm runs its business. You may find yourself in a firm with solid client relationships, admirable benefits and working environment, but doing work that bores you to death. At one job, you may find yourself filling a niche, which makes you indispensable to the firm, but in no way helps you fulfill all those IDP units. At another, you’ll get all your IDP done without seeing a project from start to finish. It’s a crap shoot they don’t dwell too much on in school.

So, beyond my (to be eventually discussed) rants about the ever-changing standards for sending in IDP units, and the ARE exam format, is my considerable frustration with this so called intern life. This state, between student and Architect, leaves a lot to be desired. Supposedly, I am still learning; that’s the justification by firms for the lower wages we receive versus other professions which require a professional degree. But, since I am not in school, I get to pay back my student loans asap. Since I don’t know enough to practice on my own, I need to go out and find it. But, unlike residency programs for medicine, I can’t guarantee I’ll get the experience I need, in a timely fashion, or in any specific order. In the end, we are responsible for how well we prepare ourselves, especially if we wish to practice on our own. That is a heavy weight to shoulder, given the potential impact of the work we do.

So my expectations have changed. They are still changing, really, given that landing a job, any job, is not a guarantee right now. I know now that so much that awaits students who will, this May, join me in this state of non-professional professional life, will be far from what they were told, far from what they expect. Some will find the direct route to the land of “Architect”, but I think most will find themselves on one of many potential detours.

It’s not that detours are bad. For most, these detours may actually take them to a destination far more suited to their dreams and desires. But I think it’s time for our profession to take a look at how we get from here to there, and what guides we provide to those about to set out. It’s not simple, not easy, and not that clear. And after all the time and effort put in, the expense undertaken to qualify for this profession, the least we can do is make sure everyone understands that.