What is the Best Degree Path to Becoming an Architect?

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A career as an architect requires a college education. However, the educational path toward an architect career may be challenging due to the limited number of programs. The first step toward a career in architecture is to earn an architect degree. Choosing the right path for career preparation requires careful planning and focus. Below are the best degree options and guidance to assist with the journey toward becoming an architect. In this article, you will find the ins and outs of architect schooling, and advice to help you with choosing which architect major you should pursue.

Best Degrees for Architects

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there are three steps to becoming an architect:

  • Complete a bachelor’s degree in architecture
  • Gain relevant work experience through a paid internship
  • Pass the Architect Registration Examination

Bachelor’s degrees are generally considered four-year degrees, even though many students don’t actually graduate in the allotted time. In architecture, though, bachelor’s degree programs are designed as five-year programs. These programs are for students with no experience working in or studying architecture. The National Architectural Accrediting Board, which accredits professional degrees in architecture offered by U.S. institutions,  recognizes 181 NAAB-accredited programs at 144 colleges and universities. However, there are less than half this number of NAAB-accredited bachelor’s in architecture programs available.

As indicated above, most architecture majors earn their degree through a five-year program.  Typical bachelor’s in architecture programs include basic liberal arts courses that fulfill general requirements and courses that focus on architecture topics.

In addition to general education courses, the curricula in architecture degree programs include subjects such as:

  • mathematics
  • physical sciences
  • construction methods
  • building structures
  • technology like computer-aided design and drafting (CADD)

An architecture student’s education extends beyond book learning to include hands-on work in a design studio. This culminates in drawings and models.

The bachelor’s in architecture degree is likely the best architect college degree and the highest level of formal education required to start working in the field of architecture. However, for established architects seeking to further their education for career advancement, higher levels of education exist. The National Architecture Accrediting Board also recognizes over 90 master’s in architecture degree programs. These programs require between one and five years of study. Additionally, students may complete a Doctor of Architecture degree (D. Arch). Currently, there is only one program accredited by the National Architectural Accrediting Board that offers a doctoral degree in architecture. The University of Hawaii at Manoa is the only school to offer this advanced degree.

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Beyond Education for Architects: Training, Exam, and Licensure

Earning a college degree is only the first step toward becoming a full-fledged architect. Additional required parts of an architecture career include:

  • getting hands-on experience through an internship
  • passing a qualifying examination
  • obtaining a state license

Students in nearly every program of study wonder if they need to complete an internship, but for aspiring architects, an internship period is generally mandatory. In most states, students must gain three years of experience working with architectural firms. Some of this can be completed while the student is still in school. Upon completing the relevant training requirements, students take the Architect Registration Exam and apply for state licensure.

All states require licensing for architects. In addition to licensing requirements and the license itself, states may also ask for continued education to keep a license. These continuing education requirements vary by state but generally involve additional education acquired through:

  • conferences
  • self-study and university courses
  • workshops
  • other sources

While there are many steps on the path to becoming an architect, don’t let the process overwhelm you. Start out by applying to an accredited Bachelor of Architecture program that appeals to you. Plan to devote the next five years to learning the fundamentals of architecture. Work hard in school and retain the information you learn. This process will help you find an internship and succeed in your training. It will also serve as preparation for the Architect Registration Exam. Though each step in the process is important and necessary, doing well during your college career is imperative to your future success as an architect.

Other Important Qualities for Architects

In addition to education, internships, and licensing, successful architects possess certain qualities. According to BLS, there are six different qualities that are important to the role of an architect. Some of these skills may be obtained during the education process, while others are more innate. Below are several necessary skills and qualities for architects.

  • Analytical skills: Architects must understand mechanical systems and how they impact building operations. They must be able to read plans and put them into practice. Analytical skills are important to architects, as they help them to implement designs.
  • Communication skills: Communication skills are important in any professional occupation, but especially critical for architects. Architects must present their ideas to clients in both written and oral form. They work with teams of professionals, including other architects, to help prepare plans and drawings. They then give presentations to help explain their designs.
  • Creativity: It takes creativity to plan and design the overall look and aesthetic of a house, building, or structure. Architects are creative by nature. The job requires them to be able to create a final product that is:
    • appealing
    • attractive
    • functional

While some may argue that creativity can’t be taught, it can be honed in the classroom and through experience.

  • Organizational skills: Architects must be highly organized as they:
    • juggle deadlines
    • manage contracts
    • maintain detailed records of each project

Architects must oversee important aspects of a project, such as building costs, materials used, and progress made. Organizational skills are essential in this role.

  • Technical skills: Since architects utilize CADD technology to draft, plan, and create, it is important for them to have solid technical skills. These skills are necessary for the role of an architect and are often used when dealing with building information modeling (BIM).
  • Visualization skills: Being able to visualize a finished project before it has begun takes skill. Architects must be able to envision how certain parts of a structure relate to other parts. They must also be able to envision how a structure or building will look when complete.

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Job Outlook for Architects

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that employment for architects should grow three percent through 2030. This rate of growth is slower than the average for all occupations, but it is stable. While limited growth is anticipated, the Occupational Outlook Handbook published by BLS does indicate that approximately 9,400 openings for architects are projected annually over the next 10 years. The openings are expected to result from architects who exit the workforce through retirement or job transfer to different occupations.

Since employment growth for architects is projected to increase slowly, competition for openings may be fierce. Certain areas of architectural design are expected to show more growth than others. Design and planning will be strong for the construction of:

  • healthcare facilities
  • homes
  • schools
  • other structures, especially in areas of sustainable design

As a result, more architects will be needed in sustainable design. Also, architects who are skilled in building information modeling (BIM) software and measuring technology will be needed. Individuals with specialized training in these areas should see the best job prospects.

Pay for Architects

According to the BLS, the median annual wage for architects is $82,320. Pay for the highest 10% of earners in this occupation is over $136,000. The pay for architects is nearly double the average annual wage of $41,950 for all occupations combined. There are three industries that pay the highest wages for architects. These industries are:

  • government
  • architectural
  • engineering, and related services
  • construction

Government architecture jobs offer median annual wages of $97,960, a number that places it as the top-paying industry for architects. The second-highest-paying industry, as reported by BLS, is architectural, engineering, and related services. In this industry, architects can expect median annual wages of $81,320. In construction, architects can expect median annual wages of $79,840.

In most architect roles, full-time hours are required. Architects typically work additional hours, especially when deadlines approach. A self-employed architect may work more flexible hours, though more work hours can be expected when the architect is facing deadlines. It’s not uncommon for architects to exceed a traditional forty- to fifty-hour work week.

Just as industries cause wages to fluctuate for architects, geographic location also impacts earnings. In fact, the Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics published by BLS lists high earnings for architects in certain states and metro areas. The top-paying states for architects, excluding landscape and naval architects, include the following:

  • District of Columbia
  • New York
  • Minnesota
  • New Hampshire
  • Alaska

In D.C., architects see an annual mean wage of $109,540, according to BLS. As a result of these earnings, the District of Columbia is the highest-paying “state” for this occupation. The second-highest-paying state for architects is New York. Here, architects can expect an annual mean wage of $101,650. Other high-paying states include Minnesota, which offers an annual mean wage for architects of $100,650, and New Hampshire, where architects earn an annual wage of $98,920. The fifth-highest-paying state for architects is Alaska. In Alaska, architects earn an annual mean wage of $98,240.

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In addition to high-paying states, there are also certain high-paying metropolitan areas for architects. In these areas, architects earn $25,000 to $31,000 more than the average earnings for this occupation. However, architects working in these high-paying metro areas must account for the higher cost of living. BLS reports that the three highest-paying metropolitan areas for this occupation are the following:

  • Sacramento, Roseville, Arden, and Arcade (California)
  • San Jose, Sunnyvale, and Santa Clara (California)
  • Santa Rosa (California)

These metro areas offer annual mean wages between $114,930 and $112,110 for architects.

Other high-paying metro areas outside of California include:

  • Eau Claire, Wisconsin ($111,320 in annual mean wages)
  • Ithaca, New York ($103,900)
  • Savannah, Georgia ($103,570)

If you don’t want to live in metropolitan areas, but still want to make top wages as an architect, there are also several high-paying non-metro areas. In fact, these non-metro areas offer higher-than-average earnings for this occupation. BLS reports five top-paying non-metropolitan areas for architects and their corresponding annual mean wages as the following:

  • West Northwestern Ohio non-metropolitan area — $89,680
  • Alaska non-metropolitan area — $88,790
  • North Valley and Northern Mountains region of California — $88,610
  • Western Wyoming non-metropolitan area — $86,460
  • West Montana non-metropolitan area — $84,060

Work Environment of an Architect

Once you’ve earned the best degree for becoming an architect, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the work environment required for this role. According to BLS, there are two major employers for architects.  BLS reports that 71 percent of all architects work in architectural, engineering, and closely related services. The second-largest employer for this profession is self-employed workers. Approximately 17 percent of architects are self-employed. Other notable employers include government and construction. Both of these employers take on three percent of all architects.

As an architect, you’ll spend most of your day:

  • working in an office
  • meeting clients
  • working on teams with other architects and engineers
  • developing reports and drafts or drawings

While most of the daily work is completed in an office, architects do visit construction sites. At construction sites, architects review the progress of projects and ensure client objectives are being met. In some instances, architects may work from home, except when visiting a construction site.

Most architects work full time, though additional hours may be required when facing tight deadlines. Self-employed architects may have more flexible work schedules than their colleagues who work for architectural or engineering companies.

The career of an architect can be long and rewarding. After earning the proper degree for architect roles and completing years of experience, architects can advance to management roles. Beginner architects go on to become architectural and engineering managers. They advance from working on smaller projects to overseeing ever larger construction projects. They may also advance from overseeing small teams of engineers and architects to overseeing larger teams of professionals.

BDP Staff
December 2021

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This concludes our article on the best degree path to becoming an architect.

Brenda Rufener
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