Graduating in a Pandemic? Don’t Panic.

Recession-tested professionals offer advice for the Class of 2020

12 min readMay 27, 2020

For students graduating this year with the global economy on pause, “commencement” might feel more like entering limbo. But while today’s crisis is unique, it’s not the first recession within memory. Many architects and designers at SOM have faced periods of uncertainty and often learned valuable lessons along the way. We asked them to share their stories.

Houston Drum

Associate, Los Angeles

I finished grad school in 2009, right in the heat of the Great Recession. After searching for work for 10 months, I was ready to accept anything. A lot of my classmates weren’t able to find work for another year after I did, and many left the profession altogether. I finally found an opportunity through an old professor, at a California-based firm focusing primarily on K-12 education and healthcare projects. It was certainly not my first choice, but I learned a ton, made some lifelong connections, and had an experience that set me up for my dream job at SOM.

My advice: Take any opportunity you can, regardless of your perception of the company, and even if it is not related to architecture at first. This crisis will end, and the “ride up” when recovery starts to occur is awesome. As hard as it is, be patient and diligent in your search. Most importantly, make relationships! They are everything in a recession.

Meredith Bostwick-Lorenzo Eiroa

Director, New York

A mentor and friend once told me: Carve your goals in stone and sketch your plans to get there in sand. This idea has resonated with me throughout life and my career as an architect. If there is one thing we can count on, it is change.

I chose to pursue my graduate education directly after finishing my undergraduate studies during an economic recession in 2001. Learning does not stop at the classroom; it takes an entire campus, real world experiences, and an entire lifetime beyond that to truly learn all that you can. My advice to young graduates, as well as to prospective students: Lifelong learning is requisite. Embrace this mindset and it will enable you to adapt to change.

Keiko Murayama

Associate Director, San Francisco

When I graduated in Boston in 2004, it wasn’t a great time for foreign students in the U.S. to search for a job. The cap on H-1B work visas was reduced to one-third of what it had been. By the time I started searching, the quota had already been reached, and my conversations with most firms dropped off once they realized I needed visa support.

Still, some firms were open to an interview, which gave me hope to continue. When I flew to San Francisco to meet with several firms, I walked in to the SOM office and asked a receptionist to pass along my resume and work samples to the urban design studio. (I didn’t have an appointment, and there were no job openings posted at the time.) Soon after I left, SOM called me back for an interview.

Even though I had no offers at that point, I kept the communication active, following up by phone and email to show my continued interest. The situation changed when the Bush administration allowed for an additional 20,000 H-1B visas for advanced degree holders. Suddenly the door was open, and my conversations were back on track.

You never know what the future holds, so never give up.

SOM was first on my list. I was back in touch with the urban design studio in April 2005, and I finally got an offer — on my very last day in the U.S. I changed my flight from Logan Airport to San Francisco, instead of flying to Tokyo the next day. I am still very thankful for those who were patient enough to talk with me, for making time during their busy work day.

The visa situation is constantly changing and my own experience may not apply to the current circumstances. But I would offer a few words of advice to graduating students: Follow your passion. You never know what the future holds, so never give up. Be professional whatever circumstance you are in — your professional life has already begun.

Michael Archer

Architect, New York

The situation was not completely dire when I graduated in New York in 2011, but it was still difficult to get my career started. Many firms that had survived the Great Recession were not hiring the way they were before. Some firms had disappeared altogether. My applications seemed to get lost in the void.

It wasn’t until I heard the following two kernels of wisdom that my search really took off. First, remember that getting a job is itself a job. Treat it as such. Start each day as if you’re heading to the office. Wake up on time, get dressed, have a winning mindset. Do more than email your resume to the firms that you really care about. Give them a call, or do what a colleague of mine did and drop off your resume in person! He’s a partner now in California — was it his attitude or luck? Set up a phone call with someone who is doing exactly what you’d like to be doing in five years. Do what you can to make yourself known to the firms you are passionate about working for. While they may not hire you today, who knows what their needs will be in a month?

Remember that getting a job is itself a job. Start each day as if you’re heading to the office.

Second, I would strongly encourage new graduates to communicate the contributions they can make on day one of their new role. How can you add value to a firm the minute you arrive? What is it about you and your way of thinking and doing, your skill set, that can provide immediate value? The best way to be selected for a team is to demonstrate how you can elevate them now, while also showing your potential for the long run.

Danei Cesario

Architect, New York

Understand the value of both hard skills and soft skills. Hard skills tend to be those that are taught at university — drawing, rendering, technology — while soft skills mostly arrive through experience. Soft skills will help you stand out in a stack of resumes, so use this time to develop these. Look for educational resources on leadership, presentation skills, collaboration, and interviewing tips. Take notes!

Never look for a job when you need one — start early. The people you interact with are your best references. My first job in 2010 came to me through several degrees of separation: my friend tutored a child whose mother worked in the legal department of an engineering firm. But everyone I met knew without a doubt that I was avidly looking!

Technical skills in REVIT, Bluebeam, and CATIA are widely sought after by hiring managers. Ask your university if you can get access to student versions, or check their websites for free trials. Bluebeam has been offering a great series of webinars.

Be flexible. Accept that the economy could push many people to entertain offers they wouldn’t have before.

Create a LinkedIn profile — it’s a game changer. The people hiring for the jobs you want are there, looking for brilliant candidates like you. And use this time to work on your portfolio. When hiring committees review hundreds of applications, the well-crafted ones rise to the top of the pile.

Keith Boswell

Partner, San Francisco

I graduated during a recession and at a time when inflation was very high — double whammy. About six weeks before graduation, I drove 800 miles for an interview that took weeks of phone calls to set up.

I get there, I’m waiting in a conference room, and the partner who I was to meet with walks in with a newspaper. The front page headline says “PRIME RATE HITS 20%” in massive font. He lays the paper on the table and says, “Good morning.” Subtle hint… So, I figured, what do I have to lose?

The enthusiastic interview went for over an hour. As he started to wrap things up, I asked for a tour of the office — sheesh, I thought, if you’re gonna drive all that way, might as well look around. He agreed. After that, I got in the car and drove 800 miles back to school.

I wrote a thank you letter and waited three days — then I called him back. He said: “Received your letter, enjoyed the interview, your work looks great, we don’t really have an opening… so, can you start in June?

When you really want something, set your sights and do everything within your control to get there. I learned so much at that office for the two years before coming to SOM, and made contacts that I maintain to this day. Be enthusiastic, be confident, trust in yourself, and enjoy what you do.

Ellen Abraham

Senior Designer, New York

After graduating in 2010 I had a few interviews, but no offers right away. A mentor advised that I should not limit my search to traditional opportunities, but should also consider architecture-adjacent roles. I quickly realized that design was all around me, and not solely produced by architecture firms.

My love for retail pushed me to apply for design positions within companies like Macy’s, Duane Reade, Foot Locker, and H&M, to name a few. These entities have in-house teams who conceptualize, design, and build out commercial spaces — nationwide and globally, too.

I finally accepted the role as Store Planner for Duane Reade (later bought by Walgreens) in New York. Over the next four years I collaborated with an incredible range of professionals: architects and engineers, construction teams, vendors, merchandisers, real estate teams, marketing and product development teams, pharmacists and doctors, client user groups, and more. This experience was invaluable — I learned not only about design and construction build-outs, but also about persuasive design strategies for purchasing and the business and real estate drivers which affect these decisions.

It’s important to accrue a range of experiences that complement your design interests.

My mentors were all fluent in design, strategy, and business, so I later decided to pursue another degree to bring these interests together. I graduated from Northeastern University in 2016 with an MBA, specializing in International Management and Innovation Entrepreneurship. I believe that this direction helped make me a stronger candidate for the job I have now at SOM.

It’s important to accrue a range of experiences that complement your design interests. In the long run, it will allow you to become a well-rounded architect and professional, and you will be better equipped to thrive during an economic downturn. Stay inspired.

David Diamond

Associate Director, San Francisco

I graduated with my master’s degree a couple of years before the recession of the early 1990s. I started working in San Francisco at a mid-sized firm and I enjoyed the work, but the economic downturn took its toll. I was laid off, and I spent the next 11 months in and out of temporary consulting jobs. Over the first five years of my career, I worked at four different firms before finally landing at SOM — and here I am, 25 years later.

My advice to those facing a tough job market: Any experience is good experience. You can learn something from any job, even if it’s not your dream job. In one of my early jobs at a healthcare firm, I was assigned to do the punch list on a large hospital project, which at the time felt like a “banishment” to a remote job site. I ended up learning more about construction than I would have by staying back in the office. A few years later at SOM, when I was asked to do the punch list on a magnificent historic courthouse renovation, I already knew what to do.

You can learn something from any job, even if it’s not your dream job.

Don’t underestimate the importance of networks, especially personal ones. I got very few interviews, and none of my job offers, without having actual contacts. These can come from many different sources — former colleagues, friends of friends, sometimes from people not even related to the profession, but they are invaluable in humanizing you and separating you from all the other candidates.

Be persistent, and don’t take disappointment personally. Things will turn around, and limited job prospects are not a reflection of your abilities.

Kevin Conway

Associate Director, Los Angeles

I hit the job market in September 2001. I didn’t know where to start, given the circumstances. It turned out that starting with people was the key. Who did I have a good relationship with? Who could advise me?

I landed my first job with an architect I met through the AIA mentorship program at my college. He was not my assigned mentor — my mentor never showed up to our meeting. But I had tagged along with my girlfriend when she met her mentor. We ended up getting along very well. Later, when I called him asking for advice, he offered that I come in to interview with him. A positive relationship turned into an unexpected job interview. He was the campus architect at the local college — it wasn’t my dream job, but it was a start. I took that on, and always kept in touch with my old professors, classmates, and others. Soon enough, those connections led me to my next job, my graduate school recommendations, and my first post-graduate job, which ultimately led me to SOM.

Build strong relationships and keep in touch. You never know when one thing will lead to another!

Lindsay Bresser-Payler

Architect, London

After working for four years following my B.Arch degree, I left an incredible job at Luce et Studio in San Diego, California, and moved to London, knowing no one, to attend graduate school in 2007. (Some still think I’m crazy.) We submitted our thesis projects in February 2009, amid the fallout of the financial crisis. I worked at a local pub while applying to hundreds of firms in an attempt to stay abroad and just make rent — never mind beginning to pay off my student loan debt.

I managed to get a handful of interviews, but with my student visa expiring in May, I had to return to the States, flying home to live with my parents (broke and at the age of 28 — yikes). On the day I left, I received a call from the firm that would eventually employ me for the next seven years, AL_A.

After several phone interviews and a job offer, contingent on the arrival of my visa and an in-person meeting in London — I had to portray super-confidence that my visa was just awaiting delivery (even though it was still in the approval process) and that I already had a return flight (I didn’t) — I eventually started my new job in August, six months after my courses ended.

Have confidence, be optimistic, and just keep trying.

I don’t have any sage words of wisdom or enlightening prophecies. My advice would be to just keep applying. Apply to as many places as possible, in as many ways as possible (hard copy, soft copy, to multiple contacts within the same firm if you can find them). Prioritize your preferred firms, but do your research to find hidden gems. In addition to a cover letter carefully tailored to each firm, I provided two or three glowing letters of recommendation from former employers and professors (only include these if they are exceptional — my letter was so personal and heartfelt, it is likely half the reason why I landed interviews at all).

It may take longer now to find your dream job than you were expecting when you began your studies. You might have to take some not-so-dreamy paths for a while. If you take a job in an alternative industry, perhaps do some additional training for LEED, BREAM, or WELL on the side. But don’t lose hope. Have confidence, be optimistic, and just keep trying.




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