Free Intern

An experiment in methods of seeking employment.

Read below first, then see the pamphlet here.

In 2010 I couldn't find a job to save my life. Okay, that’s not entirely true. Being discouraged by the 13.9% unemployment statistic making its way around, I (at first) didn’t try as hard as I could have. It was easier to be a victim of a struggling industry than to daydream about defying any odds that were clearly against me.

As I was minutes away from sending online applications to clothing retail stores so I could try and make a penny, I contacted a mentor of mine to ask about using him as a reference. He called me within two minutes and told me to stop what I was doing, find the top 5 or 10 firms I would want to work for in Dallas, and work for free. I can't lie--it sounded like a horrible idea. More terrifying was his recommendation that I should walk into the offices of whichever firms I had selected and ask to speak with one of the partners. (Quick disclaimer: this is not always a good idea. It could really work in your favor or really not. But when you’ve got absolutely nothing anyway, and certainly nothing to lose but fear, it’s better to risk one job that you didn’t have in the first place in the name of audacity and little bit of stupidity. Good mentors will encourage you to take highly uncomfortable risks; I recommend following their instruction.)

After getting off the phone with him I spent the afternoon searching through the websites of nearly 300 firms in Dallas/Fort Worth area, narrowed the list down to 10 firms whose work and philosophies I valued, and decided to create a pamphlet to illustrate my work, resume, and personal aspects of my life in one folded up, double-sided, 13x19 sheet of paper. I titled it FREE INTERN. Each pamphlet was tailored to the respective firm; that is, the firm or architect’s name was printed on the front of the pamphlet. So I printed, found directions to the firms, and began walking into offices (without making appointments or phone calls, as advised) asking for partners or principals. The first office I walked into hired me (for free). I have opinions on the ethics of free work, but I was desperate to find something, anything, to get my foot in the door. Of course, the idea of free interning is nothing new, and free can't sustain itself but for a short time, so I only worked for the firm for about eight weeks until I decided to try something different.

Same song. Different tune. The FREE INTERN pamphlet turned into the CHEAP INTERN pamphlet and I began round two of walking into firms looking for part-time freelance work. If a physical office building didn’t exist or the architect was based out of a house, I made cold calls, left voicemails, and sent the pamphlet by mail, again, tailored to the architect. I also kept some auxiliary pamphlets nearby in case I ran into an architect who I recognized. On more than one occasion, at various architecture events in the city or trips to galleries and such, I met architects whose faces I recognized from the “about us” section of their website. I introduced myself and started conversation. I asked a lot of questions. And, as we all know quite well, architects love talking about themselves and their work. It was no trouble getting people to talk.

In short, same result; I got 10-20 hours a week of work for each of the four or five architects that hired me. I worked freelance at offices and at home for about four months (at 50-70 hours/week) until I was hired full-time by a different architect to whom I'd given a pamphlet months prior but never heard back. I worked there for about a year and a half.

One last point worth mentioning: I always had my portfolio and a (multiple) resumes on hand. More often than not they didn’t touch either unless they needed it for their file but they’re extremely important to have with you. The most action the portfolio got was a simple glance or a push to the side. The idea behind the pamphlet was to show everything I needed to show in one document, then let questions be answered later in more detail if necessary.

Finding a job can still be quite a challenge, especially if you're an architecture graduate. But, take heart; if you are looking for work and can't find any, try something unconventional, or call a mentor that you trust. The discomfort and unease of taking what feels like a huge risk is worth it. Usually you'll find that what you thought you were risking was really never at stake. Even better, beyond the traditional "finding" of a job, you may actually end up creating for yourself work that didn't exist before. Gem Barton, prominent writer, lecturer, and architecture blogger on archdaily says it perfectly in a recent post titled The B-Side: Death to the Resume:

" order to stand out from the crowd, you didn’t just need to be different – you needed to be seen and heard to be different. This of course will vary from person to person, from artist to sculptor, from architect to painter, from photographer to ceramicist, and it’s not about the big gesture or shouting the loudest, it’s about identifying your goals and forging a constructive path towards them... you could become the personification of your resume – wear your talents outwardly, exercise them daily, be confident about your indispensability. In doing so you will make your own chances and create yourself a career, not just a job."