Graduation often leaves a void in a new architect’s life. After five years or more (lets face it, usually more) of being with the same friends, colleagues and teachers, it’s only natural that the transition from academic to professional life is accompanied by a feeling of nostalgia for long discussions in college corridors, late nights designing together, parties, and, above all, a student routine.
The most common route after receiving a degree is facing the (savage) job market. Finding an internship and becoming an architect, finding a job in a new office, and spending some time getting to know the insides of studios, offices, and architectural firms seems to be one of the options that most interests new architects. The idea of starting your own business in the long-term future seems to be adequate compensation for those years of dedication to projects that are not always tasteful or aligned with the ideals of those who have just left college.
There are, however, other possible paths for a new graduate, and for those already in college involved in research projects and scientific investigation, a master's degree can be an interesting alternative. As a broad and multi-dimensional field, young architects have many options for lines of research that are within the remit of architecture. Technology, housing, design, landscaping, urban design, urban politics and environmental comfort are just some of the most established areas within the discipline that offer themselves to research. However, if the goal is to distance oneself from the most consecrated paths, architecture is open to other fields, such as set design, theater, photography, and cinema.
That is exactly what I did. After graduating in March 2013, I began to split my time between working for ArchDaily, designing projects with friends and fellow architects, and video production—an interest I've had since college and which was part of my Course Completion Work. A year away from academia was enough to arouse my interest in starting a masters course, and in mid-2014 I entered a selection process with a research project that sought to merge my interests in cinema and architecture.
It worked! Or, I thought it did. Now, after almost two years of post-graduation and close to completing my dissertation, I'd like to share some lessons I have learned on this journey that may be useful to those who wish to go back to studying.
1. You Cannot Research Something That You Are Not Interested In
It may seem obvious, but it isn’t. To begin any type of research (either central to or on the edges of the architecture field), the theme in question needs to be of some interest to you. This applies to everyone, from students already involved in research fields to those who have never been involved in academic research: if there is no interest, you cannot complete the research.
Thinking about something requires being open to that thing, vulnerable to it, that is, sensitive to the object in question. Only then can there be some reflection on the subject and therefore research. With that said, the next step is to identify whether the interest is really something internal or whether there are other issues involved—for example, if the research project is the continuation of a boring scientific inquiry. Believe me, your research will be much more fruitful if your interest comes from some internal motivation.
2. Nobody Will Tell You What to Do
There's a common idea that the only task of a master's student is to carry out their research. However, just as when you are an undergraduate, there is a range of subjects to be studied. It may vary between institutions, but there are usually no scheduled requirements, and it is up to you to choose which courses to take. No one will tell a graduate student which disciplines to choose; a counselor may give suggestions but the responsibility is all yours.
This is an important point and one that took time for me to adapt to. This time around I had much greater autonomy than as an undergraduate, and this applies not only to study but also to research. The advisor participates in the process from beginning to end, discussing and suggesting readings, but if you do not do what is to be done, no one else will. Which brings us to another topic: proactivity.
3. You Must Be Proactive
1. Characteristic of someone who seeks to identify or solve problems by anticipation, in advance; Promptness, diligence;
2. The act of foreseeing problems and acting, in an efficient way, to avoid or ameliorate them;
3. Change a present situation, thinking about future events.
In short, proactivity is a quality that will help you a lot by avoiding, among other things, the accumulation of tasks at the end of the course. (Incidentally, this is a useful quality as a student and in any job.)
4. Academia Is About More Than Just Becoming a Professor
This topic is not often discussed as it discourages architects to return to academia. I have heard from several architects, recent graduates or experienced designers, who have no interest in a master's degree because they do not want to teach. Well, though it is true that a master's and a doctorate are steps along the journey to becoming a university professor, a grad student isn’t limited to just that.
In my case, the prospect of teaching in the future is very pleasing to me, however, I see the master's degree as an opportunity to work on matters of interest that can also be applied in the job market. Studying the relationship between cinema and architecture could, if it were my interest, give me the necessary input to work with scenography, for example. Someone focused on research into materials that improve thermal comfort in homes, in turn, would also find a promising niche in the market.
The message in both examples is the same: doing a master's or a PhD doesn’t necessarily mean that your future will be the classroom.
5. You Have to Follow Your Intuition
This is something I learned the hard way and writing out the whole story would take way too long. Briefly, I entered my master's program with the idea of studying the relation between cinema and architecture. Today I have to try to think of something more comprehensive than that. In my own defense, the idea was to specifically address the production of architectural videos. But since I had a personal interest in the subject as I said earlier, there was a potential for research regardless.
At some point during my studies my advisor suggested, for various reasons, a shift not only in the focus of my research (architectural videos) but in the entire structure of my research—meaning practically everything that I’d done up to that point was essentially useless. For several reasons, I accepted the change and spent about three months dedicating myself to this "new research," however, there was no longer any interest on my part, so, as you may guess, there was no further research.
It was difficult to decide to return to the previous subject, that is, to redirect the research to what I was really interested in. However, it was just as difficult as it was important because this decision not only helped me find more specific resources but also helped to identify an incompatibility between my mentor's vision and my ideas.
6. There Is Always Time for Change
Do not take this tip seriously. There is not always enough time for change. However, it serves to summarize the story I was telling. In identifying the incompatibility between my mentor's ideas and mine, my first impulse was to expose my uneasiness and try to convince him that resuming original research—only more clearly specified—was the most efficient way to complete my master's degree.
This strategy ended up not working and instead of resuming the original research with my advisor, I presented my ideas to another teacher, who became interested in the research and ended up taking over as my advisor. As you can see, just as the interest of the student is essential, the professor also needs to be interested in the subject in question.
7. It's a Long Journey. Try to Enjoy the Ride
Two years isn’t much time to dive into any one subject and at the same time do your other classes (which usually means preparing articles and presentations), so a valuable tip is to move away from the idea of trying to make the best dissertation in the world or the best master's of the year. It may seem frustrating to read this but it's just the opposite. By avoiding the idea of reaching the highest academic level with your dissertation, it takes a huge weight off your back and you can work without pressure (or at least without this particular pressure)—reducing your frustration.
One of the most valuable lessons I learned while getting my Master’s in Architecture was to try and have fun while I worked, and I can only have fun working if the focus of my work is in my personal interest. This does not mean that the work is easy or that the only thing that matters in a master's degree is to have fun, or that the opinion of your advisor (or any other teacher or colleague) can’t go against yours. On the contrary, academia is a place of conflict, and from that conflict of ideas, research can arise, as it did for me.
These tips come from my personal experience and I must state that I am yet to complete my master's degree. I firmly believe that my experiences so far are useful to anyone who is thinking about entering post-graduate studies for architecture (or even in other fields). However, everyone is different and my experiences do not necessarily apply to everyone—although they have helped me time and time again in this complex environment called academia.