John Cary | Opinions

Architecture's Internship Requirement Needs a Redesign

Robert Adam–designed spiral staircase at Pitfour Castle, St. Madoes, Perthshire, Scotland. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

“My interest in architecture goes way back,” the familiar voice begins. “There was a time when I thought I could be an architect, where I expected to be more creative than I turned out, so I had to go into politics instead.” The crowd in front of the podium laughs, and architects nationwide swoon.

So began a recent speech by Barack Obama, as he presided over the prestigious Pritzker Prize ceremony earlier this year. Smart or determined as he may be, it’s doubtful even the president understands what becoming an architect might have entailed — years of school, followed by a multi-year internship and a costly seven-part exam. With roughly a third of architecture school graduates or fewer jumping through those hoops, the president’s odds of having become an architect are even slimmer than those for his reelection.

Last month, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), the little-known but powerful gatekeeper for the architecture profession, again announced changes to its postgraduate internship program, to be unveiled next spring. The program is long overdue for a revamp, if not elimination.

Over three decades old, the Intern Development Program is more an exercise in arithmetic than experience, with aspiring architects required to pay hundreds of dollars and record a staggering 5,600 hours across various tasks. They’re asked to do so in lieu of demonstrating creativity, competence or any other attribute one would associate with their profession. The purportedly three-year program takes an average of five years to complete.

Few within the profession and fewer beyond its walls are aware of the roots or evolution of architecture’s internship requirement, first piloted in 1976 in the state of Mississippi as a roadmap to a well-rounded experience. When it debuted some 35 years ago, 15 components represented the various aspects of architectural practice; since that time only one area has been added (around community service), although the practice of architecture has expanded substantially. The program has barely evolved, yet all the while it has been adopted as a requirement for architect registration in all 50 states with virtually no alternative paths.

Further, the program was designed for volunteer participation. It remains voluntary for employers to participate — by signing off on timesheets and providing the various experiences that NCARB recommends at their sole discretion — but mandatory for graduates seeking to become registered architects. This creates a troubling power dynamic with little recourse, and has led to falsification of the timesheets, creating a generation of first-time cheaters, as the sociologist Beth Quinn has written in the Journal of Criminology.

For decades, the program — even while adopted and required by states — has evaded critical review. The lone independent study, commissioned in the late ’90s by NCARB and conducted by Quinn, compared graduates who participated in the program with those who did not (in states where participation was not yet mandatory). Quinn consistently found “no significant difference” among their experiences, although the program was designed to provide experiences to which aspiring architects might not otherwise have access. Based on her findings, she recommended that architecture’s postgraduate internship period be eliminated as a requirement.

NCARB promptly buried Quinn’s study. Its findings have resurfaced in several journals as part of her scholarly work, and to this day, it remains the only professional research on the effectiveness of this decades-old program.

While physicians’ training has undergone extensive critiques in recent years, architecture still has much to learn from medicine. Unlike engineers and lawyers, who need fulfill no postgraduate requirement before their qualifying exams, doctors must perform a residency administered by an accredited and heavily regulated teaching hospital. No such accreditation of firms exists to support the administration of architecture’s internship program, much less across firms made up of anything from a single architect to a staff of thousands.

Architecture’s internship program also inherently limits a practice that offers much beyond the design and construction of buildings. Aspiring architects are effectively given the option of being tutored by a registered architect for years on end or leaving the profession. There is little space in between.

Imagine if graduates didn’t have to decide between devoting their formative years to serving the public, for example, and obtaining their license. Virtually every leader of the growing public-interest design movement made that difficult choice, and the public is better off for it, but the profession is missing out — disassociated from their extraordinary work. Further broadening the settings recognized as suitable experiences is a necessary first step.

At present, architecture treats its education, internship and exam as separate acts with little overlap. Internship is arguably the broken middle link. To be relevant, it should be redesigned and seamlessly integrated with the exams to focus on the acquisition of skills, no longer just time spent doing a task. (A seven-part exam, however imperfect, is already in place to test for competency.) This would also lift the artificial minimum of three years to complete the program, which, again, takes an average of five years.

Firms must also be held to higher standards, as schools are through accreditation. Teaching hospitals, charged with administering doctors’ residencies, provide a model. And rather than developing interns, as its name implies, what if the program were truly geared toward developing architects, and ideally those prepared to serve society? It would bring new meaning to “health, safety, and welfare of the public” — the mantra used by the architecture establishment and state licensing boards to justify the architect registration process in the first place.

Back in the days when he was known as Barry, President Obama might have gotten lucky and navigated his way through the licensure process to become an architect. The odds, however, are not in Obama’s favor. Now consider the vast majority of architecture students and graduates, bright as they may be. They, the architecture profession, and our country deserve a better, more reliable and more contributive postgraduate experience.

Posted in: Architecture, Business, Education

Comments [15]

As John so rightly points out, "architecture treats its education, intership and exam as separate acts with little overlap." In reflecting on my own career as an architect I recall a staggering difference between my academic experience and my professional one, akin to living in one kind of foreign country for several years then moving to a new one where the language, culture, and values were quite different.

A thoughtful internship program might have helped smooth that transition, by better integrating the realities of client service, budgets, and building codes that dominate professional life into the world of pure design, theory, and history that dominate academics. But instead of placing the burden for this on an internship program, I'd instead shift the focus back to the issue of architecture education, and demand that more attention be paid to teaching real skills (general management, strategy, finance, human resources, etc) and addressing real desires (contribution to the public good through volunteerism, alternative career paths, etc) while students are still students.

Even the medical profession (again, as John points out) is leading the way by complementing student coursework in molecular biologywith classes on interpersonal skills like effective diagnostics and bedside manner (the Standardized Patient Program at UCSF is a great example).

A revamped IDP program is indeed needed, but only if it is in addition to - not a substitute for - changes in architectural education.
Laura Weiss

I think all too often the difficulties experienced in the architecture profession are pushed onto accredited schools. Yet, the curriculum at these schools is already pushed to the brink due to the overwhelming number of requirements necessitated by NAAB (requirements that make IDP seem a bit tamer). The professional organizations (NCARB and the AIA in particular) need to understand what their actions mean for the current generation of young designers and for where architecture is heading. IDP is the reflection of a time long gone and ought to be completely reconsidered for today and tomorrow's architects.

Thank you for this thought-provoking article!

One need only look at mountaintop removal sites in central Appalachia to see that architectural science and education and execution isn't far reaching enough.
jamez clay

After 5 years of full time study earning a B.Arch degree with honors I was unable to find a firm willing to hire me in order to fulfill my internship requirements. Therefore I never became an " Architect". Instead I am a designer who works with Architects.
I am quite sure that had I been allowed to take the ARE I would have passed them.
Classmates of mine who had worked for firms during the school year were able to finally complete their mandated hours and take the ARE.
It would certainly make more sense to reformulate the intern system with the medical system. Match an intern with a firm and set up a program that tests the intern after completion of of a segment of the program.
In addition the curriculum in ALL architecture schools should include courses that require students to actually design, build and then live in a structure. Too many students graduate with only a theoretical understanding of construction. Very few understand the implications of their design details e.g. water leaks, difficulty of construction.
There seems to be a disconnect between concept and construction.
Too many students believe that once they complete their architectural design that their job is over and that they will then hand it over to the engineers to " work out the small details ".

In medical and dental school the training includes not only book knowledge but hands-on experience.
Can you imagine going to a doctor who never had clinical experience?
Architects should be forced to go through a similar process.

In this economy a lot of recent graduates have chosen to go where the work is......china. I am one of these graduates.

However, working within an international firm I find that the IDP system is putting me and other fellow Americans at a huge disadvantage. For example: my Spanish coworker graduated with a masters degree in 2008 (same as me), but upon graduation she received her architecture license. In the office I find that we are equal in our experience and understanding of architecture, but all of the projects and major decisions bypass me landing directly on her desk.

What's more frustrating is that I do not work under an American architect, meaning that my ability to accumulate IDP hours is dramatically hindered.

Essentially IDP has hamstrung me from afar. If I were able to count all my experience, I would be close to finishing. Instead I am stagnant. I am gaining invaluable experience in many other ways, but it means nothing without being licensed.

I am not suggesting that the ARE's should be abolished, but IDP is actually hindering my ability to progress as an architect and designer. Also, IDP is in no way a measure of what a person understands about architecture....unless it is modeled after the medical profession, as George suggested above.

Thanks for listening.
The Other Way

It’s amazing to me that only one component has been added in 35 years. Have any other changes been made to NCARB in that time? John’s point about the odds being stacked against Barack Obama, if he had chose to become an architect, is an interesting one. Having seen many of my intelligent and talented graduate school classmates (I graduated in 2007) get laid off over the past few years and questioned whether they wanted to continue on the architecture path, I often wonder if the profession (and the world) suffers from a high turnover of architecture talent. It’s interesting to read this article in conjunction with the recent Architect magazine article, “The 50-year-old Intern” (http://www.architectmagazine.com/architects/the-50-year-old-intern.aspx). That article cites a 2009-2010 AIA/NCARB Internship and Career Survey that showed that of approximately 10,000 respondents, 27% were laid off In 2010, compared with 5% in 2007. Of those, 30% said they were unsure about returning to the profession. Given the cost of the NCARB program, the increasing disconnect between the NCARB training requirements and contemporary practice, and the average 5-year licensure process, I agree with the article that we are giving young architects yet another major and unnecessary reason not to continue with a career in architecture. What are the implications of loss of talent a time when - I believe - architecture and design thinking have a critical role to play addressing many of the world’s most pressing social, ecological, and public health challenges? NCARB’s mission (to protect, “the public health, safety, and welfare,”) is ironic in this light.
Brad Leibin

As someone who has recently completed the IDP process (in three years) and has peers from the same 2006 B.Arch class that have completed their licensing exams, I know that becoming licensed is achievable in the current system.
At the time I joined a (20 person) office it was a different economic climate than today, but at that time I was able to work on projects through all phases of design and construction administration. Architecture doesn't happen overnight. An 8.000 SF project (pretty small really) might take 1 1/2 years or more for all design phases and construction. I would not have been able to move through IDP on track if I had not been involved in all phases of design and construction. That is a testament to the attitude of the firm and I am fortunate to have participated in all phases on 3 built projects. Many of my peers have not had that experience. Often, the infamous pigeon hole; working on marketing, redlines, plan details, renderings and graphics become the role of first year interns and may be where some timesheet misrepresentation occurs. Those tasks are major contributions to the process, but are only pieces and miss the holistic understanding and oversight of a project. Working for 5 years in an ideal situation and completing 3-4 projects still isn’t that much experience. There are new lessons with each new experience. I think it will go on like that forever, but that’s the nature of the profession and why a 70 year old architect is considered to be in his prime.
I really think the experience gained during internship is key. What defined my internship was working on all phases of the design process and then getting to do construction administration on my own design work and learn from my own mistakes. Each intern experience is different, but one solution might be to revise the system to consider specific project experience at all phases of design and construction. Perhaps an upload of design document excerpts, construction images and a self evaluation at the end for a set number of projects… Of course then you’d have to consider project types that could range from chicken coops to skyscrapers.
I don’t think there is one good answer here, but the total project experience helped me get through.

John’s article gives us a great deal of food for thought. Internship and the profession will surely be enhanced by this type of attentive consideration. For further discussion of public-interest internship, please see Bridging the Gap: Public-Interest Architectural Internships (available at www.lulu.com). As editors of this essay collection, we share John’s enthusiasm for these valuable learning opportunities. The nineteen essays included in the publication present diverse ideas and points of view. We are confident that they will enrich the discussion of how the architecture discipline and our communities will benefit by creating internships for fledgling professionals to train in practice while serving the public good. We add our voices to John’s passionate call to action.
Georgia Bizios and Katie Wakeford

Nice timely article. I believe it may be a dangerous assumption (staarch) to say I did it and it was great. Right time, right place maybe.
A lot of recent grads have become victims of not only the system, but the current economic climate. How does the profession think it will survive if the talented and willing new graduates have no avenue for an internship because no one is hiring? Could it be 10-20 years down the road there will be so few licensed architects that the profession will belly flop? Maybe there needs to be a little flexibility to insure a continuous supply of dedicated professionals.

I agree that we need to raise the standards of architecture firms, if they are to guide interns through a "development" process. If design is a constant editing process, I don't see why we should re-evaluate our own licensing programs. Another question this article raises for me is how is NCARB aware of the concerns of architecture firms? If the NCARB council is not better in tune with practicing firms, how can they improve communication? Part of the development process also goes back to the accredited universities. Unfortunately, internships are not required at all schools. I would like to see an architecture apprenticeship of some sort where employers become better connected with students. As a note to the author: perhaps there is a more related anecdote to use for your article than President Obama.

I am convinced the IDP, first and foremost, serves itself.
The very high barrier in terms of time and money to enter the profession as a licensed architect in the US, creates a pool of talented, trained, license seekers which are beholden to the gatekeepers for a length of time that compares to the amount of schooling it takes to graduate with an architecture degree.
The loss of parity wages implicit in the process can amount to a subsidy of the industry by those seeking the license; pay the school, then pay for the IDP in various ways, the pay for the exams.
I believe this will be found to have a profound and negative effect on the profession through loss of talent, diversity, smaller firms, and sole practitioners.
It is time for the IDP to go. It is a feudal system masquerading as a beneficial standard. The US needs to have a process that more closely matches that of other countries and similar professions such as medicine.

i completely agree with "The Other Way". the current IDP system puts postgraduate designers who work abroad at an extreme disadvantage. mind as well stay 'home' in america, never get exposed to the outside (design) world, just to keep accumulating hours for a couple years. by the time you fulfill the hours you will be bored with the profession. this does not mean i don't understand the importance of learning country/state specific legal requirements and design experience. but designers after school should be able to work anywhere they want without getting their IDP compromised.

Tdechs what you say about the current economic climate is absolutely true. I just graduated last spring and out of my entire class of 50 a paltry 5 to 10 have a job at a firm. It is true. Why would a firm that is struggling to even find work hire someone with absolutely no office experience when they could hire someone who is licensed and has decades of experience? It has been absolutely ridiculous looking at want ads for internships because they all require years of experience at a minimum. So I have to have had an internship just to get an internship.

I recently read an ad for an internship that specified applicants must have at minimum 6 to 8 years of experience. I don't know about that guy but after 6 to 8 years of interning I would I would expect to already have my license. Maybe that's a pipe dream now seeing as how I can't even get an internship. It definitely is a right time, right place situation. I have professors who graduated in the building heyday of the 80s at right

And right out of school they had firms clamoring for them. I guess I graduated in the wrong decade.

Being an architect has been life-long dream for me. Considering all the various aspects of architectural practice, I tend to believe this is one of the most rewarding profession. The fact you create something that is there to stay for years and may be centuries must be really satisfactory. This is may be the main reason for my deep respect towards the architectural science and education.

John  Cary John Cary is editor of PublicInterestDesign.org and author of The Power of Pro Bono: 40 Stories about Design for the Public Good. He writes widely on design, architecture, public service and social justice. Twitter is @johncary.

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