Finding & Preparing for a Successful Architecture Internship
Architect and mentor AnRa Hong Buchanan offers her thoughts on how to secure an internship whether it already exists or not.
Build relationships within your current context as a student. Don't wait until after you graduate to find out about what kind of work your professors are involved in or if they have local practices outside their academic work. Connect with your GSIs. Graduate students are a good resource because many of them have had internships by the time they are grad students. Once you are out of school, it's too late. They are involved with a new batch of students. Get to know them as professionals and as people in addition to knowing them as your teachers. Express your interests to them. Most educators are very supportive of students who show interest and initiative, and they know a lot of people in the field and willingly make introductions or suggestions if a student has shown interest and initiative above and beyond class work.
Broaden your contacts and relationships outside the realm of school. The College of Environmental Design (CED) has a Mentorship Program. This is not an internship program, but it's a great way to get to know real practitioners in the field. Take advantage of it. Don't wait for attention from the mentors, pump them for everything they are worth professionally. Call them, invite them to coffee or lunch, and ask if you could make an office visit, etc. After all, they volunteered to be mentors. Be interested in their work, try to find out their view of the profession and who else they know who might be able to talk to you about the profession. Express your interests, uncertainties, and so on.
Don't be shy about trying different mentors. A reason you could give for changing after a year would be that you would like to find out about large firms after experiencing what it's like at a small firm. If this particular program doesn't work for you, take advantage of other mentorship programs offered through the university, your home community or through various corporations, even if they are not specifically designed to be mentorships in your particular field of study.
Why? Mentorships are one of the best ways for students to meet real world/non-academic professionals who care about students. Remember, architects and design professionals don't live in a world by themselves. They practice in a world filled with people of other professions and businesses and cross paths with them all the time. While mentorship programs are not intended to be internship programs, they often lead to possible internships. For instance, if your mentor is not in a position to offer an internship, she might know someone or have been involved in a situation that you would have never known about, which she could suggest to you to pursue. Do not expect a mentor to give you an internship.
When applying for an internship, first think about your own interests. Do you want to work in a big firm or a small firm? What type of work interests you the most - single family residential, commercial, green architecture, etc.? You may not get to choose your situation in this current economic climate, but at least you can have some clarity in your pursuit. You might actually be wide open to any possibility. That's ok, too, but it should help you reach a clear goal. Vagueness does not inspire employer confidence.
Write down what you are good at. Ask your friends and former employers to describe your strengths and your areas needing improvement. Include those points in your cover letter to a potential employer phrased as areas of competence and areas you would like to develop.
Research firms you are going to apply to. Know what kind of work they do, what their reputations are, and what their attitudes are. Where can you research this? Ask friends, get on the internet, research the professional magazines for articles on the firm, call American Institute of Architects (AIA) offices, ask your professors or grad students, and call the office and ask directly about the firm. Show some genuine appreciation and interest in the firm's work in your cover letter. The employer is always more receptive if you show genuine knowledge and interest or excitement in the firm's work. Research benefits you too because there is no point in asking to work for someone you don't want to work for or feel that you wouldn't be learning from. After all, the point of an internship is for you to learn about the profession in a meaningful way, not just to pad your resume.
Start your search early. Don't wait until the first day of summer. Ideally, give yourself a few months to look for an internship.
Don't stress too much about portfolios. The perfect portfolio is not your entry ticket to a first time internship. Most offices understand that you are developing as students in your field and don't expect to see polished portfolios when you apply for your first internship. It is important for you to convey that you have some real skills, but more importantly, strive to demonstrate potential for adaptability and the ability to learn on the job.
An internship involves someone at an office devoting a tremendous amount of energy and time into training an intern. Showing that you have organizational and interpersonal skills is as important as a beautiful portfolio. AutoCAD capability is important to the actual day to day practice in an office; however, students who can draw well are valued as they are becoming a rare breed.
If you are especially skilled in computer hardware and software maintenance, be sure to mention it. Smaller offices often don't have a designated person in that role, and many times students are the ones who are on the cutting edge of the new technologies.
Last, but not least, use the telephone book. If all else fails, don't give up on the phone book. I do know of people who have gotten internships by looking up companies in the telephone book and calling them, or who have crossed paths with a kind soul who has referred them to someone he knows is hiring.
Always respond to anyone who helps you along the path with a gesture of thanks. It gives that person that warm fuzzy sensation that makes all the difference. Seriously, that is an important gesture to make, whether you get an internship or not through that person. Be sincere, interested, open minded, and confident that you can learn and improve, and don't lose hope. In the end it's all about people. We make buildings for people, though it seems we forget that sometimes. The more people you get to know within the profession, in and out of school, the better your chances of a lead toward an internship. And that is the best anyone can hope for.