Young Architect Guide: How to Survive Your Summer Internship

An architecture internship can be extremely valuable for both parties, the employee and the employer. So make the most of it!

Stephen Ramos Stephen Ramos

Steve Ramos is passionate about design and architecture. He is the founder of the BUILDINGS ARE COOL blog, an Architect for LS3P in Charleston, S.C., and is working on his first book, Breaking the Box: Explode out of Architecture School to a Successful Career as an Architect.

For my first summer internship, I worked for a firm in Baltimore called Marks Thomas Architects. It was a fun summer, and I did learn a lot, but I feel like it could have been more valuable. One of the common threads on Buildings Are Cool is me looking back and saying “I wish I knew then what I know now.” If so, I would have gotten a lot more out of that three-month stint.

Many of you may be in the middle of a summer internship, or you have been hired full time as an architectural intern. I have gathered four of the most valuable lessons I learned over my time as an intern and architect. This advice will come in handy and allow you to make the most of your internship. Good luck!

Congratulations! You have been hired for a summer internship.

For three months, you will be at the disposal of an architecture firm before you head back to school. You will gain valuable experience, learn new skills and hopefully develop esteemed contacts. This short gig has the potential to serve as the launching pad for your career.

So how do you make the best of that time?

After all, it is only a couple of months.

Before I get into my list, I think it is important for you to understand two facts. Just a warning, part of this may sting a little bit.

You are GREEN. This is a polite way to say that you don’t know anything yet because you are likely to have little to no professional experience. It is important that you understand that your new employer has taken a risk on you and now has the challenge of trying to make you productive in just a few months. It is possible that half of that time will be spent in training and just when you become useful, they will ship you back off to school.

So be thankful. Be thankful that this firm has invested in you.

You are valuable. But wait … Steve, you just said that we suck. Well, kind of. Although you start with little experience, you do have the potential to be one of the most profitable employees in the firm.

How so? It is simple. You are not getting paid much. You are likely getting an hourly rate of about 15 to 20 dollars per hour. Your firm can bill a client anywhere from 60 to 90 dollars per hour for your time. At four to five times your pay, that is a very handsome multiplier. A multiplier of three is more typical for a firm.

“Cash rules everything around me, C.R.E.A.M. Get the money, dollar dollar bill, y’all.” — Wu-Tang Clan

Now, if you are cleaning out old drawings or arranging the supply room, your time is not billable. Only when working on specific projects are you earning fees for the firm.

Confused yet? My goal with confusing your value is to highlight that an internship can be extremely valuable for both parties, the employee and the employer. So make the most of it!

1. Be Proactive

There is a possibility that during your internship you will get pigeonholed into one or a couple specific tasks. For example, it is very common for new interns to be given a stack of redlines of construction details. You may be stuck on redlines for several days or even weeks. If the firm can teach you one task and get you doing it very well, they may not be motivated to train you for a second task. It is up to you to break that.

So what do I recommend: At the very beginning of your internship, have a talk with your direct supervisor. Ask the supervisor how you can best get a well-rounded experience. Tell them that your goal is to get a general understanding of the practice and that you’d like to have experience in a variety of categories, schematic design, construction details, construction administration, etc. Ask them if you can attend meetings with clients and consultants.

Your supervisor will respect your motivation and will be more likely to spread you around. What’s the worse that could happen?

2. Be a Social Butterfly

“Be a social butterfly? What? I’m here to work, Steve,” you may be saying. This may sound counterintuitive, but plugging in your headphones, putting your head down and working for eight hours straight is not why you were hired. Nor is it in your best interest.

This is something that employees at all levels suffer at: being social, being human. It is OK to take breaks. It is OK to get up, walk around and talk to people. We are not robots!

These social encounters could be the most valuable parts of your internship. By the end of your summer internship, you want everyone in your office to know you. The more people in your office that know what a rockstar you are, the more likely you are to get invited back the following summer or for a full-time gig. You will also have many people to call on for future recommendations if you decide to go elsewhere for employment. If you have your head down for three months and only speak when spoken to, then you are just missing out.

Now of course you need to be productive and get your work done, but just a few things I recommend: Take off the headphones from time to time. When people walk by your desk, look up, say hello. Don’t just stay glued to your desk. Get up throughout the day and walk around. Ask folks what they are working on. Maybe it is a project that you can help with. Ask them how their weekend was. Small talk is OK.

These simple interactions will create opportunities to learn new things, opportunities to work on different projects and foster new mentors.

This may sound like flaky advice, but the truth is that people want to work with people they like.

“Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.” — Dr. Seuss

3. Be Flexible

Remember that pigeonhole thingy. You may find yourself getting yanked out of that pigeonhole. Cool, right? Except to find yourself being yanked by multiple people in the office. We call this the intern tug-of-war.

As a deadline-based industry, we like to shift labor around where needed. Your supervisor has told you that you are committed to working on wall sections for that middle school renovation for the next four weeks until the deadline. Then out of the blue, one of the principals pops by your desk and asks if you can do a Revit model of his garage addition. Now you are thinking, which do I do first? While pontificating, another architect pops by and says, “Hey, I heard you are good at Photoshop … Can you fix this rendering so that it shows red brick instead of yellow brick and add a bunch of people and cars while you are at it? And I need this by noon.”

Is your head about to explode? Welcome to the career of architecture.

This will happen — and this is a good thing. This means people like you and trust you. This is the fun part. So what do you do? I would recommend you talk to each person who has called on you and let them know of all of your tasks. Work with them to prioritize your time.

Whatever you do, don’t say no to work. Never say no. Remain nimble. Remain flexible.

4. Embrace Where You Are

I am now 10 years into my career. As a project architect and associate principal in my firm, my role involves lots of juggling. And it’s the kind of juggling where you’ve got a bowling pin, an apple and a flaming chainsaw.

I typically work on about five projects at a time. They are all incredible projects, and I feel very lucky.

It also comes with a lot of stress. Managing deadlines for that many projects is a challenge. My email box is constantly sending me messages that it is full, the voicemail light on my phone is always blinking red. It’s a challenge.

Sometimes I feel like I am skiing down the mountain and there is an avalanche behind me. Thankfully I always stay just ahead of that avalanche. This is the life of an architect. It can be stressful.

Now, let’s look at you.

The amount of work stress for an intern is minuscule. I don’t mean to criticize, I just want you to embrace your lack of stress. Embrace your empty email mailbox. Embrace the fact that your phone doesn’t ring.

You are at the top of the mountain. You have a brand-new pair of skis attached to your feet or a snowboard if that is your fancy. You are looking down the mountain. The sky is blue, not a cloud in sight. No one is on the mountain but you. The powder is fresh. All trails are open. The mountain is yours. That is where you are in your career. It is pretty amazing. You can chart your own course.

The mountain is yours … Go!

Wrapping Up

When you started reading this article, you may have thought I would have recommended becoming a wizard at some computer program like Revit or Photoshop or some other more technical advice. There is no doubt that some degree of technical mastery will propel you in your career. That expertise will eventually develop, but it would be foolish for you or your employer to expect that to occur in three months.

Your employer is more interested in learning if you are a valid candidate for full-time employment. And they want to know what kind of person you are. And you are there to get a taste and to start building a foundation.

By being proactive, you will guide your internship and steer it in the direction of your choice.

Being flexible will make you valuable to your firm and allow you to gain a broad experience.

If you become the social butterfly that I recommend, then you will quickly find those mentors that will help you now and in the future.

Embrace the open mountain. In a short time, you will be speeding out of control, dodging trees, trying to stay ahead of the avalanche. It will be a blast.

This post first appeared on Buildings Are Cool. Top image via iStock, credit: ronstik;all sketches by Stephen Ramos. Enjoy this article? Check out more of our Young Architect Guides:

The 7 Secrets to Happy Interning

7 Tips for Getting Hired After Graduation

Building Great Architecture Models

Architectural Redlines

5 Lies Told About the Profession You Must Ignore

How to Convince Your Audience With a Powerful Project Narrative

How to Write About Architecture

5 Specifying Tips for First-Time Architects