Learning on the Job: Architecture Graduate Students on Summer Internships

Learning on the Job: Architecture Graduate Students on Summer Internships

By Timothy Parker, PhD, School of Architecture + Art

The successful practice of architecture requires a combination of broad cultural competency and the close refinement of ideas into concrete, detailed expressions. This requires the integration of art and science, passion and reason, and other commonly opposed faculties to such a degree that the design process can be said to hinge around resolving conflicting agendas. One variation on this theme is the notion that the distinction between theory and practice exists only to be overcome. But it exists, and it is perhaps nowhere more palpable than when students first work outside of school and in a professional firm. As part of the Masters of Architecture program requirements, architecture graduate students must spend a summer working in a firm within—or closely related to—the architecture profession. Many do this prior to their thesis year, but it is possible to complete this requirement afterward.

Twelve students had such internships this summer. To ensure that the summer internship is more than mere work experience, students take a concurrent six-credit course that charges them with reflecting upon the profession in light of their education, the internship itself, and their imagined career plans. This reflection occurs in two modes. The first are weekly essays written in response to assigned readings. These cover topics such as project delivery, financial management, legal and managerial organization, environmental priorities, and marketing. The second mode of reflection is a less formal online discussion, following not only faculty prompts but also questions and observations by fellow students.

Two examples from this summer’s internships illustrate how theory met practice through questions students posed to each other. One student asked how well their Norwich education had prepared them for work in the so-called real world. Most students promptly identified significant differences between the academic and professional settings, yet they just as readily acknowledged how certain skills and experiences were proving to be valuable.

Loren Carrier

Loren Carrier, M.Arch. 2016

In the words of Loren Carrier (M.Arch. 2016): “Through countless crits and sleepless nights, the endurance, courage and the ability to defend your ideas begin to help us find a place in the architecture profession. However, the skills needed to be an asset to a firm are far more defined. Norwich does begin to introduce us to these skills by familiarizing us with drawing standards, the ethics of practice, and project documentation. But in reality this barely scratches the surface on what we actually need to know.”

The conversation brought out both the limits of academic preparation and its true value for knowledge that could perhaps only be obtained later, in the midst of practice. Jess Dahline (M.Arch. 2016), the student who raised the question in the first place, summed it up well: “From my view, Norwich seems to do a good job producing strong, independent thinkers, which is what firms should be looking for in an employee and what I think the education process is about.”

Another topic raised by a student concerned the balance between work and the rest of a person’s life. As Anthony Menard (M.Arch. 2015) set up the question: “I think in architecture the line between a profession and a life are blurred. I think we enter architecture school to create income, to pursue other goals, but find that architecture becomes the goal. My question is, How does the firm that you are working for promote a healthy lifestyle outside of the workplace, or does it at all?” The ensuing exchange revealed that while everyone was aware of these enduring challenges—and the myriad ways in which we can fail to meet them—many were heartened to find that employers sought a healthy balance for themselves and their staff as conducive to a better, more sustainable design practice.

These pointed discussions took place against the backdrop of daily office routines, in the midst of which many students happily reported being given more responsibility than they had expected. It was as if the shock of being in the “real world” served, not to discourage, but to prod their thinking about the profession and their place within it even further. For my part, as one of two professors teaching them this summer, I was too often mainly thinking about the clarity and quality of their writing and how to help them solidify their research strategies. But I was also heartened by the initiative and far-reaching thoughtfulness in evidence throughout these casual discussions. These are not mere architects in the making; they are citizens preparing themselves for meaningful participation and leadership in the world.