What’s in a Name? The Great Intern Debate

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). 

There are three kinds of people in the world. Architects, people in the process of becoming architects, and everyone else. We know what to call licensed architects—well sort of. There's the whole jurisdiction issue: what does an architect who’s only licensed in Minnesota but living in Washington call himself? Okay, I have an answer for that dilemma, which you can read here. Anyway, even when we gloss over differences between state boards, we still struggle with what to call everyone else.

Part of this confusion comes from lumping everyone with an architecture degree in one big mass, regardless of career aspirations. This is why we all hate the word intern. It's not that it’s a demeaning term, it's that it’s so confusing. The word intern doesn't hint at abilities, experience, education, responsibilities or even at authority. It's just a catchall that tries to avoid other misnomers.

Architect in Training: A Period of Transition

I got engaged between my junior and senior year of college. My fiancée, Carolyn, was studying civil engineering while I was studying architecture. Sometime toward the end of our senior year, while all the architecture students were putting portfolios together and thinking about our fifth year of Rice University's B.Arch program, all the engineering students sat down to take the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) Examination. Once they graduated and passed the exam, they were each officially called an Engineer in Training (EIT). Carolyn passed that horribly long test (eight hours with a one-hour lunch break, in case you were curious), graduated, and began working toward becoming a professional engineer. Meanwhile I finished school and got my first "real" job.

My wife worked for a big oil company in Houston and then a structural engineering firm in Minnesota. Both of these experiences helped her meet her work requirements to sit for the Professional License (PE) Exam. Her business cards displayed the simple designation EIT, and all of her coworkers and clients understood what that meant. She performed all the duties of an engineer, but under the supervision of a PE. She wasn't an engineer, but would be someday. Or at least, that was the plan.

Around the time I was nearing the completion of IDP and gearing up to take the AREs, Carolyn left the world of engineering and entered the publishing industry. After switching career paths, she decided to drop the EIT designation. Her engineering background would continue to influence her work on a daily basis—because of her education and past experience, not title.

The acronym EIT is well respected, and it's understood that while an EIT is not yet a licensed engineer, she will be. We should rally around the title of Architect in Training (AIT) and what it represents. If we align with the engineering profession, then those intent on becoming architects should be called AITs.

The term AIT passes my “cocktail party rule:” explaining one's job must be easy. If you are asked what you do at a party and you answer, "I'm an AIT, you know, an Architect in Training," everyone will understand that you’re involved in the design of buildings, but are not yet an architect. All the other terms I come across fail this test. Everything else obfuscates the situation or seems designed to placate the impatient.

If someone is not en-route to their architecture license, then they are something else. To me, if you don't have an architecture license then you are not an architect. Simple. If you don't have a license but are in the process of getting one, then you are an AIT. If you have the education and the experience but haven't gotten around to taking the ARE—I don't care if you're 25, 55, or 75—if you still daydream about getting licensed then you're an Architect in Training.

The Third Kind of Person: Everyone Else

But for many of us with an architectural degree, things don’t always work out the way they did for my wife. At some point, some of us decide to continue working in the field without getting licensed. These individuals are the source of a lot of the confusion surrounding the term intern. Personally, I don't mind the title—simply because its horribleness is one more motivation to complete the IDP and ARE.

Here’s when things get complicated. What do you call someone who isn't an architect and isn't in the process of getting licensed, but dedicates his/or career to the design and documentation of buildings? 

If someone doesn't have a license and isn't in the process of getting one, then he/she is something other than an architect or AIT. And as long as it's not some term that tries to soften the disappointment that they're not licensed, then I don't care what they call themselves: designer, building designer, drafter, modeler, design professional, design lead, design manager, project manager, floor plan wizard, house artist, renovation and imagination specialist, artist-builder, artisanal shelter visionary. Whatever they choose. There are many dignified terms that accurately describe what these unlicensed individuals do. Those titles just shouldn't include the word architect, because that is a term that should be solely related to having earned a license.

Why Licensure Matters

If it's important to have the term “architect” in your job title, then there's a surprisingly simple solution: get on the path to licensure. There are a lot of crises plaguing architects in the 21st century. It seems almost silly to fret and spend energy on the term "intern" or who can call themselves an architect. But there’s actually great value in this debate.

Once we set up this tripartite grouping, we will be able to more clearly see if the lines that separate the architect, the AIT, and “everyone else” needs revision. Because maybe it will. But we aren't in a place to make that decision, yet.

It’s important to recognize that the term AIT is one of transition; it is a temporary state en-route to becoming an architect. One should be an AIT for as short as possible. By acknowledging that those on the path to becoming licensed deserve a special term—a term that differentiates them from those who aren't interested in getting licensed—more architects may start to see the importance of mentoring. When an architect is mentoring an intern, it’s easy to think of them as an eternally junior coworker. But when an architect is mentoring an AIT, there is a constant reminder of this younger staff’s career goal (both for the boss and the AIT). Finally, when new graduates accepts that they are an AIT, they will see themselves within the spectrum of architects, rather than someone currently working in architecture who will maybe, I don't know, probably stay in the field, and I guess get licensed—you know, if it happens.

When we begin to recognize emerging professionals’ aspirations and hurdles, they may be more likely to join the profession. The next generation of architects can help reinvent the profession, propelling the industry into the 21st century. With multi-generational cooperation, we can then better turn our focus to the bigger issues of maintaining relevance as a profession. We will be able to focus on developing a shared vision of what it means to be an architect, and what being an architect means to the rest of the world.

What do you think an alternative title for intern could be? Let us know in comments.

Editor's note: The use of the term “architect” is regulated by each jurisdiction. For more information, please contact your state board.

About the Author

Jared Banks, AIA, is a Seattle-based writer, lecturer, and architect (licensed in Minnesota). He has written articles for Architect Magazine, DesignIntelligence, and CLOG, as well as ArchDaily, Graphisoft North America's BIM Engine, and the AIA CRAN Chronicle. His blog, Shoegnome, focuses on the struggles of being an architect in the 21st century and how BIM and other technologies are affecting the industry. You can follow him on Twitter at @shoegnome.