Grad school or start my architecture business? (Viewer Question + a decision-making framework)


Hi, Eric here with Thirty by Forty Design
Workshop, today I wanted to answer a viewer question that was submitted from Marcel in
Wisconsin and he asks, “Hello Eric, my name is Marcel and I am a
39 year old MArch student in Wisconsin. I returned to school after spending 15 years
in the building industry as a carpenter doing residential homes. I am very interested in trying to form a design-build
business with my brother, and do simple, well-made and well-designed homes.” While I can get licensed now in the State
of WI, since I completed the BSAS degree at UW-Milwaukee – which is unaccredited – I thought
that doing another 2 years for the Masters degree – which would be an accredited degree
– would be the way to go in case I needed to pursue jobs out of state, or different
types of jobs that would require NCARB certification. My question is, what do you think about this
route? By spending another year and a half to finish,
I could essentially use that time to finish the ARE’s. If I am hoping to focus on residential and
some light commercial type design-build projects, I don’t really need the Masters degree however
I feel that I wouldn’t really have a ‘professional degree’ and for some reason this bothers me. My doubts arise from asking myself, why can’t
I just continue to do this on my own instead of hoping that the studio I picked for whichever
semester will shed more light on the things that I am really trying to learn? Bottom line is, I am trying to get from where
I am now to working for myself, hopefully building a design-build business that focuses
more on the end user, and delivers well built, well designed homes and spaces. What do you think? Is it worth getting the Masters to accomplish
this? Will it help in the longer trajectory or am
I just kidding myself and stalling from getting started? So, Marcel’s goal is to form a design-build
business but he’s torn between finishing his professional degree while taking the ARE and
just getting started. So, I wanted to respond to this not because
I think everyone will be struggling with this precise issue but rather because it points
out an important dilemma we all face. Marcel clearly states it in the last sentence,
“Will getting X help me get to where I want to be or am I just stalling?” Well, Marcel, my answer may disappoint you,
but the fact is, I don’t really know what the right thing for you to do is. You have very specific goals, which is a great
start. As you point out, there’s more than one path
to get there and I have an opinion on what I would do – which I’ll share – but what I
thought would be most helpful would be to offer you the framework and questions I use
when I’m making important decisions. So number one: Does this support my definition
of success? If you don’t have a short list of what actually
defines success for you, try to create one. For me, success is having three things: The
Freedom to do what I choose and control my time. Purpose; in other words I want something meaningful
driving me each day. And, relationships. I want to be surrounded by family and friends
to share my life with. Without these three things, I won’t be successful. Your definition of success will likely be
different than mine, but it’s essential to begin your decision process by explicitly
stating your definition so you can reference it as you evaluate your options. You don’t have to rely on the definitions
of others – the big house, extravagant vacations, expensive watches, etc. What’s important to you? Having done this, ask if each path forward
supports or undermines this success statement. Would you need a professional degree to be
successful according to your definition? Would not having one stand in the way? Would completing your degree leave you in
so much debt that you may not be able to achieve success? Maybe, maybe not. Here, you’ll begin to see the difficulty. You may find that both paths support your
definition of success, and then it’s a matter of figuring out which will make you happier. So number two: which route provides the most
optionality? When evaluating the choices consider whether
it selects for more options or fewer? As an example, when I travel if I’m looking
for optionality, I would travel to a city. More options, more things to do, more places
to eat, places to stay, a variety of sights to see, and many more people to meet. Options allow for alternate paths to similar
goals and make life interesting. However, simply maximizing for optionality
may not always get us what we want. If I want to go hiking in the wilderness,
maximizing for optionality wouldn’t necessarily meet that goal. For your situation, having a professional
degree is likely to provide more optionality. I say likely as the cost of an education and
licensure can reduce optionality in the form of debt. This is a personal question for you to answer. Number three, does choosing one option preclude
exercising the other or others at a later date? This builds on the optionality metric, but
it’s slightly different. Linear progressions tend to necessitate the
rejection of one path when choosing another whereas parallel progressions don’t. Licensure is an example of a linear progression. It’s a choice that necessitates certain professional
standards – in both education and practice – be met. If your goal is to become licensed, then there’s
really only one way to get there. If you want to practice large scale, public
architecture seeking reciprocal licensure as you point out may be important. Or, it may not. For example, you might choose to partner with
other firms for out-of-state work if this becomes important in the future. By contrast, choosing to start a business
today doesn’t mean you couldn’t return to school later if you decided you wanted or
needed a professional degree, right? Number four, what is the opportunity cost? Opportunity cost is the price difference between
options. What are you missing out on by choosing one
track over another? The opportunity cost of leaving school is:
missed networking opportunities with students and professors, academic education and all
the attendant energy and value that comes with it, more design exposure. The opportunity cost of deciding to stay in
school is: waiting to build your business, to develop a network of contacts, on-the-job
training which is different than an academic learning environment, project experience (remember
construction timelines are long), and real costs: things like lost revenue. As an aside, this is probably a good time
to mention another option you may not have thought about. Have you considered going to work for someone
else who is doing precisely the kind of work you want to do in your future business? Build an award-winning portfolio of under
the tutelage of an experienced practitioner. There’s much to learn outside of an academic
environment. Don’t get me wrong, school is fantastic for
teaching strategic thinking, design methodology, and for having meaningful conversations with
peers at 3am. There’s real value there. What I can’t say is how much that’s worth
to you. Alright, back to the rubric: So number five, is this a false choice? Is there only a single way of reaching your
defined goal? Is this a choice you even need to make? Could you do both? Could you – for example – stay in school while
creating your design-build business? Both paths can lead to similar outcomes, the
difference then is execution and of course talent. As an example, I play the guitar and I’m a
huge early Metallica fan the rhythm guitarist from Metallica is James Hetfield. Let’s compare a guitar in my hands versus
one in his it’s a completely different outcome, same guitar, same strings, same amp; completely
different result. Now, I may never achieve his down-picking
speed, or tone, but with consistent practice – the execution – I know I could come close. Consistent execution may not erase a talent
vacuum, but it’s the only thing I know that can even come close. So, that’s the basic framework; the simple
questions I ask when I’m trying to make an important decision. Having said all this and because you asked
for my opinion, my overall sense is that you’re stalling. However, the incremental cost of finishing
your degree will never be lower than it is right now. And so, neither choice in front of you is
easy. My sense is that school – for you – is a known
quantity. It’s comfortable, whereas the decision to
start your business is an unknown and it’s an intimidating one. I think at the core of your question — what
you’re really asking — is for permission to get started. And, naturally, to get started means you’ll
face the very real possibility that you’ll come up short; that you’ll fail. You won’t create the successful business venture
you’d intended, the one mapped out in your mind and your email. To that I say, “Yes, you absolutely will fail.” Hopefully many times! Each failure will make the business better. The thing you create is guaranteed not to
look like the one you’re envisioning. It might be better, it might be worse, but
it’s certain to be different. If it’s a financial failure, you’ll probably
conclude that you’ll need to find another job. Is that so bad? What’s the opportunity cost of that? Pretty low I would guess. We spend most of our time and mental energy
– as architects especially – optimizing for perfection. How many times have you tweaked and refined
something with no real goal other than to make it perfect. Instead of optimizing for perfection, we should
be optimizing for results. So, what does this mean? You could spend the next 18 months becoming
a better designer, perfecting those skills, but ask yourself if that time would be better
invested in generating results: testing, experimenting, and building your business? If it were me and I could afford it – I would
stay in school and lay the foundations of my business. This would meet my definition of success,
maximize optionality, it doesn’t preclude alternate future paths, and has little or
no opportunity cost. You can even start today. So, why would you wait? I want to end by saying that there’s no wrong
decision and this is only my opinion. You should take the best information available
to you and act upon it. And, I hope others will share their thoughts
in the comments and that you’ll let us know what you decide to do. I really appreciate these questions, they
force me to think about things more critically and if you liked this format please reach
out and let me know in the comments.

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34 thoughts on “Grad school or start my architecture business? (Viewer Question + a decision-making framework)

  1. You have made it so much easier for me to determine what i want in my career and the different ways to achieve it and things to consider. thanks a lot

  2. Great! I had a similar question. I finished school 6 years ago, and I've been working for a firm that has not been doing much work for the last 6 years. I'm not where I think i should be experience-wise because of the lack of work. So I'm contemplating starting my own business and gaining more experience, while working on my license to practice locally. Any advice?

  3. Great video, I've seen recently most of your videos and they've helped me a lot when I design. I am a architecture student and I have lots of questions but thanks to your videos I got a better way to think architecture. I would like you to talk about what to think when we are designing a public space like a cultural place in a historic enviroment like mexican downtowns, what to think? How would this place be? How to site the building? How to get an architectonic concept? Things like that. Anyways great videos please don't stop doing them!! Cheers from Mexico!

  4. Do you suppose critical thinking is a gift or talent innately imbued or is it something that we can develop, and if the later, how?

  5. I love the method you have explained. I have a similar method, but your perspective has definitely shed some new light on it.

    I have started my own business and have seen tremendous value in viewing the options before making a decision. In that I mean that while I am looking at the exact problem, many times I have ended up with many different options which sometimes include a combination between different options.

    Thank you for your insight.

  6. I am a recently graduated architectI and I found your channel by chance and have been fascinated. Thank you for the contribution you won a loyal subscriber

  7. Your values of success are mine. You are brilliant, man. And your genuine heart for the architecture and art inspires me. Keep up the work.

  8. This must be the most underated architecture channel ever! The videos in total don't even reach 2 million views!

  9. Sir I am from India and wanted to become architect. And I am average at mathematics ….. Can I be a good architect. … And I am In 10th grade.. 17 years old…

  10. If your practicing in the US, my experience working with architects is to go for license in all states as soon as possible and get that out of the way. Even if you think you may not work out of state. That can change in the future. Opportunities come and having access to opportunities that may be out of state can push your career.

  11. Oh MG! This is my situation and I resolved with the same answered. This is my confirmation to do it! Thanks a lot!

  12. This is EXACTLY the dilemma I'm in now, only in a slightly different sense (was a Carpenter, now on the GC side, finishing up my interior design degree in a couple years and want to start a D+B Firm, but wasn't sure if I should continue and get a MARCH or not). This video really helped expand my thought process on my decision. Thanks, Eric!

  13. I also needed to hear this coz I face the same difficulties in decision making but thanks so much especially with that question "what would be my definition of success?"

  14. Hey I'm only 12. I have been watching you video's when. I get to be older I want to be an architect. I love art building and designing it's just so relaxing to me your videos are very helpful thank you for making these videos. PS I'm a good drawler

  15. One point Eric mentioned but passed over quickly- if you have a client opportunity, partnering with an architect in another state or region can make sense, larger firms do this all the time. Getting licensed in other states is a very slow process. If, say, I had an existing client who asked me about a project in Maine, I would try calling firms there to discuss teaming up with someone who could be the Architect of Record and bring a lot of local knowledge to the design and the budgeting.

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