How to Prepare for Architecture Work Experience or Internships

I was recently contacted by a second year architecture student who is about to embark on two weeks of work experience with a firm. He had enjoyed the previous article about why you should maintain three notebooks, and wondered if I had any further advice for making the most of his experience. I was keen to put together some further ideas for him, and share them more broadly with all of you.

I’m a big fan of work experience. I did a week in an architecture firm during high-school and it was invaluable in providing real insight into the industry and confirming that it was the path for me. As a University student, work experience can provide similar insight but also build new connections and maybe even result in a paid job. Below are my ten tips for making the most of work experience or an internship.

1. Do some background research

Research the firm you will be visiting, including their philosophy, key projects, and team members. This gives you a head start in asking useful questions, remembering names, and seeking deeper insight into their practice. It will also likely impress your co-workers (but don’t ‘advertise’ your knowledge.)

2. Set clear expectations

When you are arranging the work experience, try to be clear on what is agreed between yourself and the firm, i.e. working hours, what you need to bring, what you should expect, and what they expect from you. You could reiterate some of these points on your first morning in the firm if you’re not clear.

3. Arrive tidy and well rested

Be respectful about the opportunity given to you and arrive clean, dressed appropriately for the firm, and well rested. Being late or hungover is very disrespectful and will likely affect your whole experience.

4. Understand the firm’s sacrifice to have your there

Taking on work experience students is a financial sacrifice for any firm, and usually taken on due to a sense of responsibility architects feel to assist young architects in the industry. Even if you feel you’ve done useful work filing or organising the library for several hours, the one hour that a senior staff member has spent with you would probably cost the firm more than the gain of the work you’ve done in a day. Be sensitive to this fact. However, also recognise that it was the firm’s choice to take you on, so don’t feel guilty or burdensome.

5. Be respectful and grateful above all else

With the above point in mind, be respectful to all team members and grateful for the opportunity even if the work seems boring or different to what you’ve expected.

6. Do everything you are asked with enthusiasm

You’re doing work experience, so hopefully you’ll be given an opportunity to do some fun activities like tag along to site visits or try your hand at some design. But you may also spend a large portion of the week making coffees, filing, or reorganising the office library. No matter how boring the task, do it with enthusiasm and to the best of your ability. This kind of attitude will be noticed and may be rewarded with being taken to an interesting project or even staying on their mind for future student positions.

7. Observe everything (don’t put headphones in!)

You’re there to experience the office – so don’t shut yourself out by sitting there with headphones in, even if other staff members do this. Listening to phone calls and conversations in the office can be very insightful and will enrich your experience.

8. Hang around for lunch

When I did work experience, I was only 16 and was too shy to hang around for lunch, so I would always go out somewhere. I regret this, as it was a valuable opportunity to build relationships and discuss the profession with colleagues.

9. Build relationships

Approach your experience as an introduction to people who you may continue a relationship with, run into at various networking industry events, or even call upon to ask a question one day. Try to remember names and communicate like you’re starting a job there, rather than assuming you will never see them again. When you leave, ask if you can contact them in the future.

10. Ask lots of questions!

Ask questions about business structure, projects, clients, consultants, builders. Inquire about day to day tasks and what being an architect is really like. Try to work out people’s different roles in the office, what they like about their job, how they got there, etc. BUT – remember points four and five; don’t be annoying. Read the room and be sensitive to whether the person is inviting you to discuss things further or is keen to get on with their work. Car trips to site visits, and lunchtime are perfect opportunities to ask questions. If there’s a certain person that you would like to learn more from, offer to buy them a coffee or lunch. Your respectful enthusiasm will hopefully impress them enough to say yes, but don’t take it personally if they say no.

Some treat work experience like a boring week of menial tasks, but with the right attitude and approach it can be five days of valuable insight into an industry you will spend your working life in. You never hear of people doing work experience once they have a graduate job, so make the most of this opportunity to take a sneak peak, engage with peers and maybe even get a foot in the door! 

If you don’t yet have work experience lined up, check out our FREE Job Seeker Workbook for advice than can be applied to approaching firms seeking such experience. 

EDIT 01/02/2019:
We would like to clarify that in some situations, employers must legally pay a work experience candidate. To confirm whether your situation is genuine work experience, or should be a paid employee relationship, refer this useful information sheet.