Architecture students are constantly beset by questions concerning where they want to work, and for what type of firm – and these two questions often boil down to a decision concerning the size of the firm they want to work for. This article, originally posted on Arch Shortcuts thankfully makes this difficult choice a little easier. In it, blog Co-Founder Udit Goel reviews the pros and cons of big firms and small firms, including compensation, expected working hours, and responsibilities. Read the full article, after the break.
One of the biggest decisions we face coming out of architecture school is what kind of job to apply for. Most of us aren’t fortunate enough to be able to choose from multiple offers in this economy, but we normally have an idea of the type of company we would like to work for, mostly in terms of its size. However, is there actually a pay-off for working for bigger architectural companies, or vice-versa? I have found that there are many misconceptions on the topic through my experiences in Asia, which I believe can also be valid to firms worldwide – particularly in the business capitals of the globe, where such companies coexist.
1. Scope of Responsibility
Many architectural students and graduates believe that larger firms tend to assign less responsibility to the juniors because of the vast senior resources. However, most large firms are actually composed of numerous smaller teams, allowing for more opportunistic distribution of the work than perceived. I’ve found that the scope of responsibility however, varies drastically between juniors. What differentiates them is the ability that architectural graduates demonstrate, how dependable they prove to be to the management, and most importantly, the initiative and interest the graduate shows in taking responsibility.
On the flip side, many graduates find smaller firms more attractive because they believe that they will be given more tasks of significant value due to fewer resources to delegate work amongst. However, I’ve seen some juniors in such firms often doing menial tasks, no different to what they believed to have avoided in larger firms. Hence, I believe that the previous rule applies here. If you want more responsibility as a junior architect, then show that you are capable and willing to take it on. Otherwise, the seniors will simply delegate it to someone else in the team. Ultimately, no matter what firm you work for, the more reliable you prove to be, the more responsibility will be put on your side of the table.
2. Work Hours and Pace
Larger companies generally tend to take on a greater number of large projects worldwide. This results in employees often pulling overtime to achieve their daily hit list in the fast pace of these multinational firms, a fact that puts many graduates off. The unsung advantage to this though is that a massive amount can be learnt in a short time. Yes, you often work double the work hours than required by your contract to complete tasks, but this also means double the amount of experience and learning in the same timeframe, given an optimistic attitude.
In smaller firms, graduates usually work on just a couple of projects in comparison. From my experience in Asia, there is a more achievable to-do list in such companies, and the employees rarely have to stay overtime to complete their tasks, which is a major plus for most people. The slow pace also allows for more time to learn at the individual’s pace, so they aren’t overcome with new responsibilities and tasks as easily and understand assignments thoroughly due to a less stressful environment. However, saying this, remember that the amount of overtime undertaken is dependent on the individual’s ability and efficiency.
3. Project Size, Scope and Variety
Since larger firms tend to bring in a greater number of projects, working for one can often lead to a broader scope of work experience as it provides the opportunity to work on various types of projects. These tend to be, from my experience and understanding, extremely design focused. This variety allows graduates to discover and hone their individual interests, which can be pursued at a later stage during further studies or experience.
In contrast, smaller architecture companies generally tend to handle a fewer number of projects, but often see their development through to later stages of the design process, possibly even to construction. The advantage is that this experience on detailed/construction drawings and on site is very valuable, and can result in a more coherent, deeper experience. However, these projects can often be smaller in scale and limited in number, potentially meaning a narrower architectural experience.
I feel that this factor really depends on what the individual would like to achieve and experience at this point in his/her career. Personally, I would advise to experience a wider range of projects so that interests can be identified for later, when a deeper understanding of this can be pursued, but that’s just my opinion.
From what I’ve generally found through working in Hong Kong and discussing with architectural professionals, multinational companies’ compensation tends to be higher than boutique firms. Excluding exceptions, the salaries they offer, along with medical benefits, etc., tend to be more attractive. This might be relevant worldwide, but remember that with this higher pay comes an expectation of longer hours and more commitment in comparison to their smaller counterparts. But don’t expect to be paid overtime, especially in Asia! This is rarely a clause in contracts here, since overtime is expected of employees in general.
One of the biggest advantages of working in a multinational company, in my opinion, is the networking opportunity. One tends to constantly be surrounded with numerous successful architectural professionals. These contacts can prove invaluable in the future for job prospects, for example, but only if they see you as a worthy investment. As a result, I encourage you to try to stand out with your work and interpersonal abilities. Keep in mind though, that at a large firm, one might have to work harder to be noticed within the large pool of people, but the advantage of doing so is tremendous in terms of networking and personal development.
In boutiques however, the networking possibilities are a bit more limited as teams are smaller and there are fewer people in the office. However, this means that you are more likely to be recognized for your contributions in the team, and can possibly build deeper connections with your coworkers. Additionally, the fewer work hours (as discussed earlier) opens up time to go to networking events instead, providing the opportunity to build your network outside the company if you really want to.
Whilst both have their advantages in terms of networking, I feel that the larger firms tend to hold more potential to be able to build your architectural circle. In my experience, if one can be fortunate enough to be noticed in such companies, it can open doors elsewhere and perhaps even secure jobs in the future; it’s all about meeting the right people and making connections.
Udit Goel is the co-founder of Arch Shortcuts, a website aimed at providing advice and insight into the architecture industry for young architects, with a focus on China.