Like thousands of architects today, Merritt Palminteri is out of work, a victim of the severe economic downturn. 'Every single job we had last year was put on hold,' says Palminteri of her former firm, New York's Anik Pearson Architect. Even though she saw the writing on the wall, it was no use: her headhunter was laid off, too. 'It was kind of ridiculous,' says Palminteri.
The Princeton School of Architecture
Photo ' Paul Warchol/courtesy Architecture Research Office
The Princeton School of Architecture (pictured above) has seen a 50 percent increase in applications this year.

Now, like many of her colleagues, the 29-year-old is applying to graduate school. Though higher education is a time-honored method of weathering a recession, this year it’s even more so: schools are seeing record-setting spikes in applications, increases that are higher than any prior economic downturns.

“These kids feel they should get school out of the way now because they won’t be missing a lot,” says Belle Gallay, a recruiter who for 18 years has matched architects with architecture firms. And her analysis is based on first-hand accounts: About 30 architects stream through her office every week, to mull their options, up from three a week a year ago. “I have never seen anything like this,” Gallay says.

While some applicants are putting off a tough job search, educators say, others are merely speeding up their own timetables by enrolling now instead of doing so in the distant future. 

Though enrolling can be a pricey proposition—each year of a master’s program at a top school can cost $35,000—a tidal wave of new students may ultimately leave the profession better off, educators add.

Unlike with, say, doctors or lawyers, architects often practice without any post-graduate schooling under their belts. And, though master’s degrees are not necessary, or a sure-fire indicator of success, it’s estimated that only half of working architects hold one. In that sense, more formal learning may have benefits, educators say, even if that belief might be slightly self-serving

“A better educated work force is not a bad idea,” says Stan Allen, the dean of Princeton’s architecture school, which has seen a 50 percent increase in applications, to 600 this winter, from 400 in 2008.

Similar rises are reported at peer institutions. Thirty-three percent more people have applied to Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, which trains landscape architects and urban planners, since last year, according to spokeswoman Deborah Johansen.

At Clemson University, there’s been a 57 percent rise, to 180 from 115, most of them in the two-year’s master’s program, says associate chairman Robert Hogan. The University of Illinois, meanwhile, has had a 28 percent increase, to 485 from 380. The increase is evenly spread between its one-, two-, four-year and Ph.D. programs, says associate director Robert I. Selby, FAIA.

“Architecture is the most optimistic of professions,” says Mary Comerio, chair of the architecture department at the University of California at Berkeley, which has had 40 percent more applicants. “But students see this as a temporary downturn, and they’re hoping by the time they are out it will have turned around.”

What’s unclear, though, is how many would-be architects are so pessimistic about the profession’s long-term prospects, based on the depth and longevity of the current slowdown, that they’re opting for entirely new careers altogether.

Dimitrios Katehis, for one, is moving on. Laid off in December from RKT&B, a New York firm where he had worked for two years, Katehis has decided to go to business school and is currently studying for the GMAT, which is the required standardized test.

“After five years of struggling through undergrad, I only made $40,000, and I can make 40 Gs flipping burgers,” he says. The federal economic stimulus program might create short-term jobs, Katehis adds, but it won’t do much to address a fundamental problem: the profession is too cyclical, and there will always be work shortages in down periods. “Even the stimulus,” he says, “won’t resolve the problem that the field of architecture is facing in the long run.”