How to Choose a Firm

It’s “career day” season! So we know there is a lot weighing on future graduates’ minds.

On the one hand, you need a job. On the other hand, you will be at this job 40 hours a week, 50-ish weeks a year and would prefer for it to be an enjoyable experience. You don’t want to be miserable, but you aren’t sure how picky you can actually afford to be….especially if you have very little professional experience.

Here are 10 questions you should ask yourself when applying to firms to help you find the perfect job for your current circumstances.

*Pretty much every question requires a list, so grab some a pen and paper (or a phone)!





1) What are your values?

This is the most important question. Do you value diversity? Sustainability? Equal pay? Hard work and good design? Do you value community involvement? Make a list of values that you absolutely cannot compromise and begin your selection process that way. Eliminate all the firms you feel will conflict with your core values. Your work and time should be a joyful reflection of what is important to you. If the values of the firm you are a part of conflict with that, you will find yourself in a constant state of stress.






2) What are your immediate needs and how urgent are they?

Some people don’t have the luxury of taking 6 months off post graduation and finding their dream firm. They have bills or dependents, or an immediate need for more income. Make a list of your needs in order of urgency. See if any of these firms can help you with these needs. Do they offer daycare and good healthcare? Do they offer a sign-on bonus or will they cover moving costs?  If you need to take a job that isn’t necessarily your  dream job first, to get on your feet, that’s okay! You can gain valuable experience for a couple of years and then shoot for the moon when you have the resources to do so.






3) What are your short term and long term goals?

If you had an internship during school, you may have a more clear idea of what you want to pursue than someone who has had no experience. Make a list of short term and long term goals. With having never had an internship, your short term goal might be to simply gain professional experience! You can’t really get an idea of where you want to go until you learn how the profession truly works. If you have had experience, your short term goal may be to expand on something you are passionate about. Maybe you figured out that you are very into sustainable design. Your short term goal could be to learn more about it, which might mean you want to work at firm that has a sustainable initiative.

Once you have established short term goals, you can begin working on your long term goals. Do you want to become a LEED fellow? Do you want to own your own firm? Is your dream to design a building for the New York skyline like Ted Mosby?  When you’ve determined these, you can then choose firms that you feel will provide with you the credentials you need to reach your ultimate goal. If you aren’t experienced enough to come up with long term goals that’s okay! Start with short term goals and learn as much as possible, you’ll find your personal passions through experience and time.






4) What work interests you?

Even without experience, you probably have a gist of the type of work you might be interested in. Some people go to architecture school with the sole intent of learning how to design single family residences, others graduate without having a single clue where their interests lie. Make a list of projects you would absolutely not be interested in, and then a list of projects you dream about. This may help you choose between a couple of firms. However, I think you need to be careful especially early in your career. You may be surprised to find a project type you love that you never expected. If you are unsure, you might want to choose a firm that does a wide variety of projects, so you can get experience in multiple building types.






5) What can you offer a firm?

This may seem like a strange question, but it will be really helpful in your interviews if you can find a way to answer it. Everyone cultivates skills during school. Some of your skills are going to be stronger than others. If you leave school being a Revit mastermind, you probably don’t want to work in a firm that refuses to use Revit, but you may be the PERFECT candidate for a firm who is transitioning from Auto CAD to Revit. You have a valuable skill that the firm needs, and they will pay you for it. Think about what skills you have to offer and the skills you enjoy, and than look at the firms you are interested in and see if they have a place for those skills..and even better… a need for those skills!






6) What can the firm offer you?

Firms and employees should be a give/give relationship. You provide value to the firm, they provide value to your life. Most firms do this with benefits (and paychecks), which are very important to your quality of life. Some benefits shouldn’t be compromised on, like healthcare. Other benefits are just really nice to have. Make a list of things that you think would be essential for a high quality of life. Do you want to bring your dog to work? Do you want your firm to pay for your tests? Do you want a firm with flex time so you can work half days on Fridays in the summer? Eliminate the firms that won’t contribute to your quality of life, and pick the ones that will make you feel like they care about you as much as you care about their projects.






7) How is the surrounding location/ commute?

A firm might seem perfect, but if you can’t afford rent in the city and you have to commute in stand still traffic for 2 hours a day you might find that it’s just not worth it. Two hours a day, 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year, that adds up to 520 hours of traffic! Make a list of absolute musts for location and transportation. Do you want to live in a big city? Do you want to walk to work? Do you want to live in a city that supports your after work activities? Eliminate the firms that will have too great of a cost of living and too long of a commute, and pick one that is in a place that will spark joy! (Shout out to Marie Kondo)







8) How much will they pay?

Do your research. Figure out what the average pay should be in the city the firm is located in for your level of experience, assess what value you can bring, and don’t settle. If a firm is okay with underpaying you and not compensating you fairly for the value you add, then it’s not worth it. If you have multiple offers on the average pay line or above, then you need to refer to your previous answers in order to choose. Maybe you have a small firm interested who is offering less than the bigger firm. However the small firm aligns with your core values and is offering you the experience you want. In this case, choosing a firm that pays a little less might be worth it. Or maybe you have a ton of student loans and they are going to be a really big burden. Then you might consider choosing the higher paying firm and working there for a few years as you gain experience and pay off your debt. It’s all about figuring out which job is going to bring the most fulfillment and relief in all categories of your life, not just the 40 hours you are working.






9) How big is the firm?

Smaller firms often offer a wider range of experience. With small teams you will have more responsibility, and a greater chance of being a part of every phase of a project. Large firms often offer you the chance to specialize and work on much larger projects. You may be on a purely schematic design team or a “production” team. Or you may be on rotating teams and get to work on several projects and project types at once.  Small firms also may feel more like a family, you’ll really get to know your firm and be a part of the firm’s journey. In larger firms you might not ever have a relationship with the leadership. Consider what is important to you. Some people want to go to work and work hard and go home. Other people want to be a part of a tight-knit community. Choose the firm that most aligns with your lifestyle.






10) How is the firm culture?

My personal favorite part of my job is the culture our firm has cultivated. Culture, to me, is the vibe or energy you feel in the firm throughout the day. It’s the firm’s personality. Do you want to work in a high-energy collaborative environment or somewhere more traditional? Do you want to dress casually or in formal wear? Do you want to have an open office space or something more structured? This is the category where your individuality really plays a part. It’s the “which firm is most like me?” question. Some firms are active together and promote healthy lifestyles. Some firms love happy hours and have beer Fridays. Other firms do community volunteer events together. Our firms allows dogs and loves karaoke, so that’s really a win win for me. It’s the culture aspect of a firm that creates the best memories and leaves you feeling like you’ve really tapped into something special.




So you’ve made A LOT of lists now. You’ve simplified and organized your wants, likes, loves, and needs. You know where you want to be in the future and where you want to start. You know what you won’t compromise on. Now it’s time to begin researching firms and comparing them to your new found self awareness. We at Smith Gee hope you find a place that makes the 2000 ish hours you spend at your job yearly seem less like a chore and more like journey.

Happy job hunting!


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