How to Become an Architect

March 31, 2022
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What is an architect?

An architect is a licensed professional who plans and designs buildings and other structures and often oversees their construction. They undergo extensive training in the art and science of building design. Licensure is a requirement for architects as they are responsible for public safety. Architects work on a wide range of projects depending on their specialty which can include everything from building skyscrapers to schools. Architecture is a rewarding career path with competitive salaries and the unique opportunity to create innovative spaces that will benefit current and future generations.

What does an architect do?

Architects do much more than design aesthetically pleasing buildings. They are involved in every phase of a building’s construction, from its conception to the ribbon-cutting ceremony. On any given day, an architect might meet with clients, prepare construction documents, or visit a worksite. An architect’s specific responsibilities change from project to project, but common duties include:

  • Consultation - Architects meet with clients to determine a project’s requirements, objectives, and budget.

  • Design - Architects develop construction plans, which illustrate the structure’s appearance and outline the construction details. 

  • Documentation - Architects use advanced computer technology, such as CAD, to translate their drawings into feasible designs.

  • Construction - Architects oversee the construction of their structures and visit construction sites to ensure compliance with the architectural plans.

Architect vs. Civil Engineer

Architecture and civil engineering are similar professions with key distinctions. Both architects and civil engineers plan and design buildings. However, architects concentrate on the aesthetics of the structural work, including the look, feel, and functionality, whereas civil engineers focus on the structure’s safety. Architects and civil engineers often collaborate on projects, and both roles perform critical functions. Salaries for the two professions vary depending on factors like location and experience, but according to U.S. News & World Report, civil engineers earn a higher median salary than architects.

Skills Needed to Be a Successful Architect

Architects wear a lot of hats in their day-to-day work, so the skills needed to be successful as an architect are diverse. Some key skills you need to work as an architect include:

  • Design skills - Architects must combine visual appeal with functionality and have a deep understanding of design processes.

  • Numerical skills - Architects are responsible for designing safe and functional buildings, so they must possess an advanced understanding of math concepts, such as geometry and physics.

  • Problem-solving - Problems will inevitably arise during architectural projects. Being able to resolve design-related problems or legal issues is a crucial skill for architects.

  • Attention to detail - While attention to detail is important for most careers, it is especially critical for architects. Even the smallest miscalculation or overlooked detail can set a project back months.

  • Communication - Architects work within a team and often collaborate with experts in related fields. Strong interpersonal and communication skills will help architects effectively interact with others on the job.

  • Teamwork - Architects must collaborate with internal and external teams to complete a project. The ability to work well with others, whether it’s with clients, contractors, or construction managers, is another important skill for an architect.

  • Leadership skills - Architects have to take ownership of their projects and often manage junior architects and other contractors. Strong leadership skills will help architects motivate their teams to do their best work.

How long does it take to become an architect?

How long it takes to become a licensed architect depends on various factors, including your location and which degree program you choose. Architecture degree programs can take five to more than seven years to complete. According to data from the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), the average licensure candidate who completed their final requirement in 2020 took 12.3 years. 

How to Become an Architect

Requirements to become an architect depend on where you’d like to be licensed and the specialty you are pursuing. In general, you need to fulfill three requirements to become a licensed architect: education, experience, and examination. Below is the step-by-step process for becoming an architect.

1) Earn a degree from an accredited architecture program

The first step to becoming a licensed architect is to earn a degree from an accredited architecture program. There are two options for earning an architecture degree. The fastest way to become an architect is to earn a five-year undergraduate degree in architecture, known as the B.Arch. Alternatively, you can complete a two or three-year master’s program in architecture, the M.Arch, after earning an undergraduate degree in any subject. Whichever path you choose, ensure your program is accredited by the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB).

2) Gain work experience hours in an architect internship

All U.S. states require architecture students to participate in an internship known as the Architectural Experience Program (AXP). During the AXP, interns work under a professional architect and get exposure to processes, technology, and all the other technicalities involved in the profession. The intern will need to document a total of 3,740 required hours across six areas:

  1. Practice Management

  2. Project Management

  3. Programming & Analysis

  4. Project Planning & Design

  5. Project Development & Documentation

  6. Construction & Evaluation

The AXP is an excellent way for architecture candidates to learn about the daily realities of working as an architect, make professional connections that may lead to job opportunities, and refine their career goals.

3) Pass the architect licensure exam

The final step to earning licensure is passing the Architect Registration Examination, or ARE, developed by NCARB. This multi-division exam tests your skills and knowledge of architecture. The current version of the exam is called ARE 5.0 and features six divisions. These divisions may be taken in any order but must be passed within five years to qualify for architecture licensure. Visit Kaplan’s ARE Exam Resource Center to learn more about the ARE 5.0.


Studying for ARE 5.0? Our NCARB-approved ARE 5.0 Exam Review includes advice, tips, and strategies to prepare you for exam day.


4) Apply to become a licensed architect

Once you’ve completed all the requirements for licensure, you can apply to get your license. It is illegal to call yourself an architect or perform architectural services in the U.S. without an architectural license. The basic process for obtaining your license is similar in all states and territories, but requirements do vary. Be sure to check your state’s licensing requirements to get the most current details and procedures. You’ll need to transmit your NCARB record, submit an application, and pay the required fees to the jurisdiction where you would like to be licensed. 

5) Apply for architect positions

After earning your licensure, you can apply for architecture jobs. You may already have a job lined up through connections you made during your AXP, but if not, you can see opportunities on job boards like Indeed or Glassdoor. There are several different career paths for architects which are detailed below. Experienced architects can choose whether they work for a firm or be their own boss and start a private practice.

6) Earn an NCARB certification 

Licensed architects can earn additional certification through NCARB to advance their careers and qualify for new employment opportunities. This is an optional credential that more than 45,000 architects have chosen to pursue. Benefits of earning NCARB certification include free continuing education courses, the right to add the “NCARB” credential in your title, and the ability to apply for reciprocal licensure in all 55 U.S. jurisdictions.

7) Consider a master's degree in architecture

If you’ve already earned your five-year B.Arch degree, you do not need to pursue a master’s in architecture to become a licensed architect. Most B.Arch graduates choose to enter the job market immediately after completing their undergraduate degree. However, earning a master’s degree in architecture (M.Arch) is a great choice for architects who want to work in a research or teaching capacity. Individuals looking to switch to a career in architecture can supplement their undergraduate education with a master’s in architecture. The M.arch can take one to three years to complete, depending on the student’s undergraduate degree. 

What degree do you need to become an architect?

To become a licensed architect, you need a professional degree accredited by the NAAB. You can earn a five-year undergraduate degree in architecture, the B.Arch, or after completing an undergraduate degree, you can pursue a master’s degree in architecture, the M.Arch. Some students choose to earn both the B.Arch and the M.Arch; however, this is not a requirement for licensure. If you have a four-year bachelor’s degree in architecture or another discipline, you can earn an M.Arch and qualify for architecture licensure.

What courses are needed to become an architect?

Architects are highly trained professionals, and there is a wide range of courses a student will need to complete to earn a degree in architecture. Prospective architects can start preparing for their careers as early as high school. While most high schools lack programs specific to architecture, taking AP courses in subjects like calculus and physics will help you build a strong foundation for the rigorous coursework ahead of you. During an undergraduate program in architecture, students take courses like design, freehand drawing, history of architecture, environmental systems, and advanced mathematics. A post-graduate program in architecture will build on those courses.

Do you need a degree to become an architect?

Most U.S. states and territories require a degree to become an architect. However, in some U.S. states, you can become an architect without a professional degree in architecture. For example, Hawaii, Colorado, and Washington don’t require formal education in architecture. To work as an architect in these states, you must have intensive work experience and pass a licensing exam. Experts recommend having a formal degree in architecture as it will help you qualify for licensure more quickly and can improve job prospects.

How do I become an architect without a degree?

Becoming an architect without a degree is possible in some U.S. states. The first thing to do is to check your state’s licensing requirements to see if you can qualify for a license without holding a degree in architecture. Aspiring architects without a degree will have to complete the AXP, pass the ARE 5.0, and have additional years of experience to obtain their license. 

An alternative way to be eligible to practice architecture is to complete NCARB’s Education Alternative program. NCARB offers two options for qualified candidates. Both paths enable architects to satisfy the education requirement for NCARB certification. 

  1. Two Times AXP: Document double the hours of the AXP’s requirements, a total of 7,480 hours.

  2. NCARB Certificate Portfolio: Submit a portfolio of your work to NCARB that demonstrates your learning through your experience as a registered architect.

Architectural registration, licensure, and certification

Architectural registration, licensure, and certification are often confused. Below we break down what you need to know about each of these credentials.

  • Architectural registration - To qualify for architectural licensure, you must first pass the Architect Registration Exam, or ARE. The current version of the exam is called ARE 5.0 and is developed by NCARB.

  • Architectural licensure - Your state licensing board will grant you a license to practice architecture after you meet all their requirements.

  • Architectural certification - Certification is granted by NCARB. This is an optional credential you can complete after earning licensure. NCARB certification offers additional benefits that will help you advance your career in architecture.

Architecture Career Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the job outlook for architects between 2020-2030 should increase by 3%. This is slower than the average rate for all occupations. Despite the limited employment growth, there should be 9,400 job openings for architects each year over the decade. Furthermore, job security for architects tends to be better than the national average for other occupations.


Preparing for ARE 5.0? Test your knowledge with a free ARE 5.0 Sample Quiz.


Architecture Salary Potential

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for an architect was $82,320 in 2020. Depending on location, education, and experience, architects can make $63,420 to $106,680 annually. U.S. News & World Report lists the District of Columbia, New York, and Minnesota as the best-paying states for architects.

Pros and Cons of Becoming an Architect

As with any profession, there are pros and cons to becoming an architect. Architecture is a challenging but rewarding profession that attracts passionate and creative individuals. Here are some common benefits and challenges of being an architect: 


✔ Architecture is a respected profession with good income potential.

✔ Architecture offers a healthy mix of office work and hands-on work.

✔ Architects work in fast-paced and creative settings.

✔ Architects improve the lives and living spaces of other people.


✖ Clients can be demanding or hard to work with.

✖ Architects must complete rigorous and ongoing training.

✖ Architects work long hours and overtime is often unpaid.

✖ Working as an architect can be stressful and competitive.

Different Types of Architect Career Options

There are several different career paths that fall under the umbrella of architecture. If you’re considering a career in architecture, be sure to do your research so you choose the specialty that’s right for you and review the education requirements for each career path. Some different types of architect career options are listed below.

Residential Architect

Residential architecture is among the most popular career paths for architects. A residential architect specializes in the designing and building of homes for residential use, including single-family homes, townhomes, condos, and apartment buildings. Some of the world’s most famous architects, like Frank Lloyd Wright, worked in residential architecture, and their homes are now designated UNESCO World Heritage sites. Successful residential architects have the ability to think outside the box and are highly collaborative. They work closely with clients throughout the process, so having strong communication skills is essential for this career path.

Landscape Architect

Landscape architects plan, design, and manage public outdoor spaces such as parks, cemeteries, and campuses. Their goal is to create green spaces that are functional and aesthetically pleasing. These architects play an important role in environmental protection and assist with the restoration of natural places such as wetlands and streams. Landscape architecture is an ideal career for artistic and innovative individuals who appreciate nature and enjoy working with their hands. 

Commercial Architect

Commercial architects design larger commercial properties such as skyscrapers, schools, or anything that’s not a residential home. In some ways, commercial architecture is more complicated than residential architecture because commercial architects need to have a deeper understanding of building codes and engineering. Individuals who enjoy learning and are especially adept at business and computer literacy will thrive in this profession. Commercial architecture is an especially rewarding career because the buildings these architects create usually have a long legacy in the cities in which they are built. 

Interior Architect

Interior architects are licensed professionals who focus on the art and science of designing an indoor space. They possess strong interior design skills and technical knowledge of building methods and construction. Interior architects strive to make buildings beautiful and practical. Unlike interior designers, architects have to consider building codes, like plumbing and electrical systems, to make a safe and habitable living space.

Green Design Architect 

Green architecture is a philosophy of architecture that advocates for building with the environment in mind. Green design architects use sustainable energy sources, design efficiently to reduce energy use, and update existing buildings with new technology. They choose eco-friendly building materials and construction methods to safeguard the environment. For architects interested in creating spaces that minimize the harmful effects of construction projects, green architecture is a fulfilling career path.

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