An Interview with Sean Beatty, Masters of Architecture Student

by Cathy Sivak
An Interview with Sean Beatty, Masters of Architecture Student

January 5, 2006

When it came time to apply for college, Sean Beatty knew he wanted to attend school in a different environment than his Fairfax, Va., upbringing. He also knew he was interested in a creative field... the ability to snowboard was a definite plus.

Sean landed at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash. He explored the arts, and then decided the ability to make living was also important. He joined the school's architecture program, which is accredited by the National Architecture Accrediting Board (NAAB). He joined the school's architecture program and upon completing his BS in architectural studies in 2005, he went on to the masters of architecture program, which he is slated to complete in 2007.

As an architecture student, Sean has received recognition in the annual WSU Masonry Design Competition as well as for his work on the Pullman, Wash., Urban Student Housing Project. He has become actively involved in the American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS), and served as the WSU chapter vice president. In addition, he has taken on national and regional leadership roles on the AIAS National Board of Directors and as the AIAS Western Quadrant Director.

In addition to his dedication to the field of architecture, Sean also managed to find time to be part of the WSU men's varsity polo team and of course, to hit the slopes with his snowboard.

Upon completion of his education, Sean plans to become involved with real estate development, which he notes is, "A field which ultimately possesses more power than architecture to affect the built environment. I would like to advocate for responsible development which is not only environmentally sensitive, but also promotes healthy social conditions."

Education Information & Advice

How did you initially decide to study architecture?

When I was in high school, my primary academic interests were in both the technical and traditional arts. Classes such as technical education, computer graphics and ceramics became not only my best subjects, but also havens for my creative output. Interest in these fields led me to consider a variety of major choices upon my arrival at Washington State University. My choices were initially focused around the fine arts, but evolved into the decision to choose architecture, primarily out of the desire to make a living.

How did you choose the Washington State University architectural studies program as an undergrad? For your masters studies?

I chose WSU primarily because of its geographical location rather than because of an architectural reputation, though all the research I conducted while choosing a school suggested that WSU's architecture department was of a high caliber, which is an important factor when choosing an architecture school.

Growing up in Northern Virginia within walking distant of both my elementary and high schools, I longed to venture as far from home as economically possible. In addition, the desire to be able to drive cross-country and to be located within reasonable distance to quality snowboarding was, at the time, a must. This was how I initially chose WSU for my undergraduate education. Once I had completed my BS in architecture, there were some distinct advantages for me to stay at WSU for my masters: the application process was very easy, I didn't need to take the GRE exam or solicit letters of recommendation before applying; the program's duration was only 1.5 years; and I was able to continue relationships with faculty members I had come to know well during my undergrad years. The ability to remain in my current apartment without relocating was also appealing.

What do you like and dislike about your architecture education thus far?

I love the ability to stretch my current knowledge and understanding of building construction in a theoretical manner. Being able to explore the most extreme built forms and concepts without concern for budgetary or client concerns gives me a freedom I will never have in practice. On the other hand, one of my biggest criticisms is that there is no acknowledgement there will always be a budget and client. Ultimately, there needs to be a balance which allows for a great amount of creative freedom with the understanding of the limiting factors which ultimately affect a building's construction.

What were some of your favorite classes and why?

My favorite classes were the ones in which I was able to be hands on with the work; classes such as design studio and furniture design are always the most appealing to me. For me, this appeal comes from the ability to create something with my own hands and to see how it is constructed.

You are active in your school, regional and national chapters of AIAS. What led to your interest in the organization? How is your participation augmenting your education in the field? What should students expect from AIAS membership?

My initial involvement came out of the need to supplement my education and become involved within the architectural student body at my school. At the time, I wasn't completely sure what I would get out of joining the AIAS, but after attending my first national conference I began to understand how powerful membership can be. This has augmented my education by creating a network with likeminded architecture students from around the country and by serving as a forum for ideas and knowledge concerning trends affecting the profession as well as the world at large. An extremely important tool which the AIAS has given me is the ability to have a voice able to address concerns affecting architectural education.

Students who join the AIAS can only expect to receive what they put into the organization. Student who simply join but never attend meetings or get involved at either the local or national level will get very little out of their membership. On the other hand, a student who is very active within their local chapter as well as nationally will receive benefits which will last a lifetime. Student who are proactive in meeting other students and attending as many events and conferences as possible will benefit the most from their membership.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing an architecture school? Are there different considerations for those who know that they want to specialize in a certain area of the field?

I feel that above all other factors, students should consider the learning environment which the campus and surrounding area have to offer. If a student is unhappy with their living or social situation, then their studies may suffer accordingly. Beyond that, students should research a program's curriculum to ensure it coincides with their professional goals, and this may mean the inclusion of fields which may be considered specializations.

What led you to purse your masters' degree in architecture?

To become a licensed architect, you need a professional degree, which currently means a five-year bachelor's degree in architecture or four-year undergraduate degree in architecture plus a two-year master's degree. NAAB is currently trying to essentially get rid of the five-year degree in favor of the masters, and my class at WSU was the last class in our university to have the option of completing the five-year degree. I chose the masters over the bachelors because it is only an additional semester; in addition it is a graduate degree, unlike the five-year bachelors, which is considered an undergraduate degree.

What benefits should potential post-graduate students expect from attaining their masters in the field? When is a good time for students to pursue their masters?

The benefits which students can expect will vary a great deal on a case-by-case basis. Many factors such as institution attended, strength of work, connections within professional practice and work experience will affect a student's job prospects. One major benefit of attaining a master degree is the ability to teach at a university after some time in practice, though professional experience is not always required and may vary on a course by course basis.

Many students decide to pursue a graduate degree after working for a firm, but some (like myself) choose to pursue one immediately following the completion of their undergraduate degree. The decision is ultimately up to the student and varies on a host of factors.

What are considered some of the most respected and prestigious architecture schools, departments or programs?

Though the official rankings vary, here a link which lists some of the best schools of '03 [from DesignIntelligence]. While the exact order may vary from year to year, these schools are frequently mentioned as the best for architectural education.

How can prospective architecture students assess their skill and aptitude?

The ability to think creatively is one of the most important skills which a student should possess. Also the ability to write well and concisely is a frequently undervalued skill necessary for success in architecture. Unfortunately, many high school counselors know nothing about architectural education and misrepresent what students will actually face in architecture school. People assume that math is a large portion of the curriculum and this is simply not the case; writing and English is much more important than math to an architect, a fact that few understand before entering the curriculum.

Students should be creative, artistic and inquisitive; they should enjoy reading and must be able to write well. These are the fundamental factors for being successful in architecture.

What can students applying to architecture schools/programs do to increase their chances of being accepted?

When applying to any university program out of high school, the basic standards apply and don't necessarily vary between majors. A high GPA and SAT score will always be the most important factors; extracurricular activities are another initial consideration. If a student would like to showcase their artistic abilities through the use of a portfolio displaying art and design work, this can be beneficial, though most schools don't require it. If a student could gain experience at an architecture firm during high school, it would be awesome but unusual for a young student.

These are the basic and not so basic considerations for applying to architecture school, but some overlooked and underutilized considerations to increase a student's chance for acceptance are letters of recommendation and the legacy factor.

If a student has worked for or personally knows a noteworthy individual who can attest to the student's excellent character and propensity to excel in the field of architecture in a letter of recommendation, this can be helpful.

When applying to college, students should check with relatives and find out what universities their family members have attended. Often students may be admitted on legacy when they would otherwise be rejected based on academic performance alone. This is why President Bush got into Harvard, but not the University of Texas at Austin. One side note on legacy: I have heard of students who have turned down admission to Ivy-league schools granted based on legacy because of the fear of astronomical tuition costs. This should never be done unless they genuinely don't want to attend that school, as there are many ways that a student may be aided financially. They may have greater debt in the short term, but the opportunities which these selective institutions afford their graduates will pay far themselves many times over in the long run

Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about architecture in order to be successful as a student of the field? As a professional?

Of course, this is true for any career. People who are not passionate or have little conviction are rarely successful at anything.

You & Your Career

Tell us about your career plans in the field of architecture. What area do you plan to specialize in?

I plan to become involved with real estate development, a field which ultimately possesses more power than architecture to affect the built environment. I would like to advocate for responsible development which is not only environmentally sensitive but also promotes healthy social conditions.

What are some of your personal and/or professional goals?

Well of course I would like to be well compensated, but I would also like to have a positive impact on the way the United States thinks about urban planning and development. We are at a distinct turning point in our planet's history, a point that requires the world's population to reevaluate how we live and how we consume energy. The United States has set a horrible example that China and India are beginning to follow, a lead which could be catastrophic to our planet.

Describe your dream job. Nightmare job?

My dream job would be as the owner of my own business which has been successful in changing the public's opinion on how we can increase our quality of life and be environmentally responsible through careful planning and management of resources.

My nightmare job would have me working as an intern at an architecture firm where I am chained to the computer all day working on CAD making $10 an hour. Unfortunately this is the position which many recent graduates from architecture schools find themselves in.

Tell us about your experience with Vector Marketing Corporation. What kind of work did you do? How do you expect your work experience to bolster your career goals?

This job was the best business experience I have had to date and taught me a host of skills necessary to any profession. Vector is a company which employs many college students during summer breaks and this is how I heard about it; I sold kitchen cutlery. While this may not sound glamorous, it was an excellent experience and Vector is a company I sometimes consider going back to work for. This experience increased my confidence and communications ability by a large margin, and continues to positively impact my architecture education. Selling a product to a homeowner is no different from selling a building to a client or general public. The most successful individuals in business and architecture are also successful salesmen.

In general, how available are internships in the field? Any tips for seeking out internships/landing internships?

The availability is usually directly related to the strength of the economy and building industries demand. Students should attend career fairs, ask relatives and pester firms for internships; being persistent pays off. Ultimately I landed an internship on my ability to sell myself, not my architectural skills, an ability which came from my days as a sales manager.

What hot architecture specialties are expected to develop through 2010?

Sustainability, engineering of mechanical systems, planning, and mixed-use development/renewal are all areas of projected growth.

Are there other trends in play that could help architecture students plan for the future?

Understanding how buildings use energy and how this consumption can be limited is one of the most important factors for prospective students to consider. Also important is taking into account the energy necessary for the creation of a buildings materials and components.

What further advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in architecture?

Above all other fields, architecture has the ability to impact the way we live on this planet in a positive or negative manner. Currently less than 5 percent of the buildings constructed in the United States are designed by architects, within this percentage only a fraction of the architects involved are well known, 'star' architects. Chose architecture if you care about your surroundings and want to make a positive impact on the way we live our lives, use resources and protect other species. If this doesn't sound appealing, you may choose to focus your creative talents on theoretical aspects of the profession and the infinite nuances of the design process. Individuals who follow this path may become university professors who teach the next generation of architects. Don't become an architect if you only want fame and fortune, because you likely will not reach your goal.

Closing Remarks

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your education, your career plans or the field of architecture that would be interesting or helpful to students?

I have learned a great deal about the profession through my time in school as well as my involvement with the AIAS, which has created a shift in my career goals. Upon the completion of my master degree, barring some extraordinary job offer, I plan to attend law school the following fall. I have chosen to receive a degree in law as well because it will allow me opportunities to impact public policy in ways that may be limited to an architect. In addition my compensation will be substantially higher with a law degree, money necessary to start my own company.

Editor's note: If you would like to follow up with Sean Beatty personally about his educational experiences, click here.

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