Finding the Part 1 Placement in Architecture

     Architecture students in the UK are normally expected to take a ‘Year Out’ in practice after their first three years of education (Part 1), before returning to university for the two year long Diploma course (Part 2). The purpose of this gap year is to get some experience in the construction industry, and I believe that this system is great - as explained in my earlier ‘Year Out’ blog post. However, the process of actually finding the placement in the current economic climate, in a field that is known for being extremely competitive, is not easy – partially because there is so little practical information on the topic. This is why, having answered several emails asking for advice, I have decided to create a list of the 7 main things I learned while looking for the Part 1 placement last year. Of course, there are no absolute rules and everyone will have their own job-hunting stories - I am sharing mine in hope that some of what I learned might be useful. 

1 - Think globally.

     As Architecture is becoming increasingly international, it makes sense to keep up and consider the offices beyond one’s town or country. Why limit yourself to a few good studios locally, if you have the whole world of options to choose from? Besides, some places simply have very little work and finding a job is nearly impossible – while other markets are in much better shape. Experience abroad is as valid for the PEDR (only one of the years must be in the EU), and living in a different environment for some time is undoubtedly good for anyone interested in becoming an Architect.

Applying internationally is definitely worthwhile – even for the sake of satisfying one’s own curiosity about the different requirements/conditions/offers for graduates across the globe; with some luck, one can end up picking between the capitals of the world. My personal experience in this regard has been rather positive, with some interest from studios in France, the US, Japan and Singapore. The offices in the UK were surprisingly much less responsive, both in terms of application to response ratio as well as speed (by the time London offices started inviting me for interviews, I already had several solid job offers) – so it makes a lot of sense to consider alternatives, and research the market situation globally. For ideas about the different destinations, see this map of where my coursemates are spending their Years Out.

2 - Network.

     The importance of networking is stressed by every article out there, yet most seem to tell you to abstractly ‘meet the right people’ at some conference or business event – not very helpful/applicable to most students. Coming from a family of Architects with a wealth of connections does not apply to everyone, either. 

There is, however, a unique source of contacts that every Architecture student can (and should) use: the studio. Not only is the studio a place where Architecture students (of all years) spend most of their time, it is also a place where one gets a unique chance of talking to the professionals in their field on a one-to-one basis, for extended periods of time (during tutorials/reviews). There is hardly a better place to find advice, feedback on your portfolio, or some insider information about offices that are looking for Part Ones. In fact, tutors will often receive emails from alumni looking for someone to join their studio, or will be able to write a recommendation letter addressed to someone they know professionally (if you ask nicely – and remind them several times). 

Older students, having returned from their Part 1 placements, will be able to give advice on which types of studios to apply to for the best experience; or recommend you to their ex-employer (who are often impressed by the Mack graduates, and specifically look for a replacement from the same School). The Architecture world is relatively small, and using your connections increases the chance of finding a good job dramatically. Asking friends/family for help does not hurt, either.

3 - Refine the portfolio.

     The portfolio is arguably the most important thing for an employer; it is also your main chance of grabbing their attention before they move on to the next applicant. That’s why it should be relevant, short and well-designed. My strategy was to mix the CV and select images into a two-page PDF ‘teaser’ - if it generated interest, I would have more work to send/ bring to an interview. This allowed me to adjust each package to the specific studio, giving more emphasis to physical models, renders or technical details depending on what their own work is like. Every application I sent contained a link to this website with further information - surprisingly, none of the companies that invited me for interviews seemed to have a look. From this, I learned that the short ‘teaser’ technique works well as it provides enough information and creates further interest, leading straight to the next step: the interview, where the employer is happy to discuss your projects in depth, and in person (rather than spending a lot of time going through your full portfolio alone). 

Of course, it takes some time and mental effort to try and reduce all the work to a few images, and it involves a certain risk, but this technique also means that some of the main boxes are ticked: all the images are powerful and create curiosity to see more work (and invite you to an interview); the file size is small (anything above 3MB risks not being opened at all) and the PDF is easy to print (only 2 pages as opposed to 50; it also helps if they are A4 format and printer-friendly so nothing gets cropped). Finally, this ‘teaser’ technique helps with timing, as one can start sending the CV/portfolio before all the projects are 100% finished, and keep working on further images.

During the interviews, on the other hand, it is good to show the projects and the thinking behind them in depth – a lot of people in my year did this in book format, which created a memorable connection to the topic of literature, books and the tactility of paper that we were exploring in 3rd year. I also used the same book for the Degree Show as well as further exhibitions – this way, all the work had to be formatted and printed only once (with Blurb, whose selection of papers/covers helped make the portfolio pleasant to the touch as well as the eye). Below is the digital version of my portfolio book:


4 - Make most of the Degree Show.

     The Degree Show is a great way to celebrate one’s work with coursemates, friends and family, yet it also attracts a considerable amount of interest from practices and can therefore result in unexpected job offers. Older students tell stories of glorious times before the Recession when large numbers of Architecture graduates at the Mack would get employed right at the Degree show; although this was not the case in my year, a whole number of forward-looking offices were still present with the intention of picking the best graduates before the competition got them. 

Part of this selection happened during the Assessment when no students were present and the studios involved in giving Awards could have a good look at all the work – leaving business cards by the Drops they found interesting; a nice surprise on the day of the Degree Show. This was the case with Holmes Miller Architects who support the Award for the best 3rd year project in Glasgow, for example – it was incredible to receive their congratulatory email and be invited for an interview before the Degree Show had even started.

And yet, the majority of offices come to see the work during the Degree Show Night, which gives students the perfect chance to explain their projects and impress potential employers with their carefully designed Drops (exhibition walls) in a festive and relaxed environment – much more fun than attending formal interviews. This way, a delegation from John McAslan+Partners went around the 3rd Year Shows in several leading Architecture Schools talking to the students about their work and inviting a few from each School to exhibit their work in London – with a further interview invitation (and a clever promotion of their office as a great destination for Part Ones - as part of the Exhibition Opening/ Open Studio Night that drew significant interest)

The Degree Show is full of unforeseen opportunities: for example, my flatmate managed to sell several copies of her architecture illustrations without ever having planned to do so (in Edinburgh, a lot of architecture models have a price tag on them; I imagine visitors buy some as independent pieces of art); other coursemates were invited to submit their work for publications, and so on. During the Night when everyone comes to celebrate your work, it is a good idea to be proactive and ready to grab the opportunity – with some business cards/ booklets/ apps/ QR codes(?) nearby just in case.

5 - Prepare to wait.

     Most architecture offices will not be actively looking at portfolios unless they feel they need some help; often they will only start hiring after they have secured some larger project – which unfortunately means that it’s difficult to predict what time is best for applying, or when one will be hearing back. 

I sent my first application out in April, yet the first responses started coming only in June. Sending carefully considered applications and not hearing anything back for a long time is somewhat frustrating – but it’s part of the normal practice: after all, most applications for the Part 1 positions are speculative, and it is unlikely that the offices will be looking at all the portfolios they receive until they actually need someone. My personal experience suggests that July (and a bit before/after) is the most active time for interview invitations, and that the average response speed is around 6-8 weeks - but this can vary quite extremely (it was almost suspicious when one of the offices replied in just two hours). 

Some of my coursemates knew where they will be working as early as April, some had to keep applying for months before something worked out, and some are still looking – the main thing is never to give up. Waiting may not be easy, but it is a very important skill to develop as an Architect – I always remind myself of the great masters who had to wait and keep fighting for decades before some of their projects got built; it really puts things into perspective.

6 - Use social media.

     What sets graduates apart from most of the ‘older’ competition is our online literacy and the fact that most of us are active on social networks – which are increasingly used for work. Companies post job vacancies on their Facebook/ Twitter/ LinkedIn pages, career advisors at School (see here) re-tweet and share real-time information about opportunities for students, and following the people/ studios you’re interested in working for keeps you up to date with what’s important for them – meaning that you can engage in a thoughtful way and impress them during interviews. Several of my coursemates found that having an updated LinkedIn profile helped them show the skills/education that lead to employment; it’s also simply a sign of being professional-minded and up to date with technology (today, if you cannot be found online, it almost looks like you have something to hide). 

Even if you are not planning to use social media to find work, it is still useful to remember that a lot of employers will Google you before making the job offer – it’s worth making sure they will not find anything that could make them re-consider your adequacy. Do take the time to figure out the Privacy Settings for Facebook, for example – it’s not that complicated, and will make sure the whole world does not see those embarrassing pictures your helpful friends tagged you in (not getting into any altogether is even smarter). Instead of hiding everything, though, it makes sense to take some time to turn your social media activity into an advantage and let it feature on your CV – your boss might hire you in part because he’s heard something about that ‘social media thing’ and understands it’s good for business - even if it’s not quite from his generation (for example, my Part 1 flatmate was asked to design not only buildings, but a new website for his company as well).

7 - Be open-minded. 

     Architecture students today might be graduating into some of the toughest markets, yet we are also some of the most multi-skilled and flexible professionals - and can therefore be successful in almost any field. The way multiple design limitations often end up producing some of the best works, the current economic climate should force one to be creative with their Year Out – not necessarily in an Architecture office. The PEDR suggests that the Year Out experience should be in the construction industry – and several of my friends have found that working in an engineering company, on a construction site, or volunteering has given them a better and more practical understanding of how things get built. Interior, landscape, lighting, furniture and product design fields significantly overlap with architecture; one can also find some incredible areas to specialize in – such as my coursemate who combined his interests in extreme sport as well architecture and now spends his time designing (and testing) skate parks. 

If finding a job in the field does not work for some time, it might be a good idea to keep developing one’s skills by participating in competitions (a great addition to CV/portfolio) or even inventing your own speculative briefs – something Steven Holl Architects did a lot in its early years before built projects were commissioned. 

It would probably be a better world in general if designers were more proactive: I recently heard a story about an Architecture Graduate who could not find a job or any commissions, so he approached the local Council with an idea of designing a public pavilion for one of their picturesque locations – some time and negotiations later, he’s building three structures and has a whole group of local high school students helping him as part of their Design education – a win-win situation for everyone. 


     Hopefully, some of this was useful, and gave an insight into the exciting (and slightly terrifying) prospect of finding the Part 1 Placement in Architecture. If you want to add something or ask a question please do so in the comment section below; the whole point of this blog post is to collect and share the scarcely available information in one place.