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What it takes to secure your first job

Written by: RIBA Jobs
Published on: 10 Jan 2024

Woman at work

RIBA Jobs offers some do’s and don’ts for Part 1 architectural assistants looking to secure their dream role.

There may be a few months to go before the next crop of third-year architectural students finish their final exams and head off to the world of work. But it’s never too early to start thinking about that all-important first job and how to land it. 

Certainly, sharpening up the CV and presenting interesting, well-designed and easy-to-navigate portfolios are important in impressing potential employers, but that’s only part of the story. Doing your homework on architectural practices, demonstrating enthusiasm for design and displaying those much-in-demand soft skills that give employers confidence that you will fit nicely into the team will also go a long way in making a good impression. 

RIBA Jobs has been asking those who regularly place jobs on the job site, to share what they look for in new graduates. Mark Kemp, a director of Place Architects in Cornwall is looking for progression, and how a student’s approach to projects has developed between years 1 and 3. Listening skills and comprehension were more likely to impress Mark than a detailed knowledge of building regulations and planning laws. Personality and enthusiasm for the job are high priorities for Karen Mosley, managing director at HLM Architects, based in Sheffield. Meanwhile, Helen Taylor, director of practice at Scott Brownrigg, wants architects who are determined, inquisitive, and well-prepared, but who also have a great passion for design. 

Though individual priorities will be different for different practices, here are some key do’s and don’ts for third-year students looking for the first step on the career ladder. 

Research the market 

It may sound obvious but anyone looking for their first job needs to research the market and think about the sort of practice they want to work for – large or small – and the type of work that might appeal to them. Then, be well-versed in the work the practice does: tailor your CV to suit the practice and think about the values and design flair that you could bring to the practice should you get an interview.  If there are practices that you are particularly interested in working for, contact them directly making it clear why you would be interested in exploring opportunities and what you could bring to the practice. 

Use your contacts 

At this very early stage in their career architecture graduates are unlikely to have a wealth of contacts but they should use those they have made – tutors, guest lecturers, architects they might have met at talks or through work experience – to look for openings.  

Make the most of RIBA Jobs

Search RIBA Jobs and check for part one vacancies. It is useful to do this before you start applying as it will give you a feel for the market. Half of the jobs on the site for early-career designers are with chartered practices, which sign up to high professional standards for ethics, equality, diversity, inclusion and pay fairly. Many prestigious practices advertise jobs on the site, including Foster + Partners, dRMM, Mole Architects and Chetwood.  

You can register to receive job alerts of vacancies that suit your specifications. 

Polish up your CV  

A well-presented CV that can showcase your ability and flair within the projects that you’ve undertaken at university can open doors to interviews. But it must be more than that – it should also reflect your values and a positive attitude. It is worth tailoring for each application. Look at the tasks that you will be expected to undertake as a Part 1 and customize your CV for the practice. 

This free downloadable architectural CV template has been specially designed and formatted for Part 1 positions.

Keep the design elegant and readable, with a minimum of graphics. And stick to a maximum of two pages.  

It is also important to check your grammar and spelling. Ask someone else to proofread to spot any typos you may have missed. 

Make your portfolio stand out 

A well-designed portfolio reflects your style and communication skills. When you are compiling your portfolio, it is really important to make it easy to read and navigate. You can do this by including a timeline of key experiences at the beginning of your portfolio. Provide a fact sheet for each project with key information. For those who are a little further on in their career and have worked on live schemes, talk about the location, talk about the client, whether it came within budget, or if not, why not.  

Like your CV, the style should be simple but elegant and use compelling images. The work should do the talking and not be overshadowed by loud graphics.  

Including examples of extra-curricular activities you enjoy, like drawing, pottery or photography for example, can be a great way to close the portfolio and showcase your creativity and may set you apart from others applying for the job. 

Prepare for the interview 

It’s impossible to predict everything likely to come up during an interview but a surefire topic according to Ann Parker, a director and founder for Intervention Architects in Birmingham, is ‘Why this practice?’ She says, “If you don’t have a good answer to this one, you probably don’t have a real chance of actually selling yourself and winning that job.”  Her key message is that practices are seeking candidates who are interested in their work. Referring to the work of the practice, its latest news or blogs, or projects can demonstrate your interest.  

Be prepared for questions that can provide employers more insight into you and your competency. Helen Taylor, from Scott Brownrigg, says, “We apply competency-based questions to assess the candidates against a range of criteria, including communication skills, understanding of the design process and self-management.” 

Such competence questions are likely to start with a ‘who, what, and why’ process and are likely to be framed: ‘Give me an example of when you achieved something within a timeframe or tell me how long it took you to achieve budget or give me an example of.’ These are less technical and more about the kind of person you are and whether you would fit in with the business. 

It is worth searching for ‘competency questions’ to give you a better idea of the line of questioning and think about how you might answer them by drawing on experiences from university, working environments or scenarios you’ve encountered in everyday life. 

Don’t rule out apprenticeships  

Level 7 apprenticeships might not be for everyone but could be worth exploring in more detail before you rule them out. Apprenticeship programs aim to create an equal alternative route to qualification for those interested in a career in architecture, allowing them to achieve RIBA Part 2 and 3 while earning a salary in practice. Many firms now offer this route to qualify as an architect. 

There is plenty for third-year students to start thinking about before they graduate to make job hunting less daunting. The overarching message is one of thorough research and preparation and then articulating why you want the job and what you can bring to the practice. 

To learn more, watch the webinar on How to prepare for your first job in architecture.

For more advice and information about studying architecture and getting your Part 1 and Part 2 qualifications, check out RIBA Future Architects, a network and community for emerging architects.

Good luck!