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02.17.2014
Fast Track
University of Minnesota program to halve the time to get licensed.
Steven Holl's College of Architecture building at the University of Minnesota, where a new program aims to shorten the time it takes aspiring architects to learn the trade and attain a license.
Jan Uy / Flickr

Between coursework, internships, and on-the-job learning, it can take as much time to become a licensed architect as it does to become a brain surgeon.

The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) last year released data showing the average time from graduation to completion of the mandatory Intern Development Program (IDP) is 6.4 years, plus another 2 years to complete the exam and actually receive a license to practice. That’s more than 14 years after high school graduation for many students.

Renée Cheng, a professor at the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, wanted to shorten the time it takes aspiring architects to enter the field as licensed practitioners. That’s why she and Tom Fisher, the college’s dean, helped develop a new M.S. in Architecture with a concentration in Research Practices degree. The one-year MS-RP program aims to help B.Arch or M.Arch graduates achieve licensure within six months of graduation, potentially receiving their diploma and license at the same ceremony.

“We believe it’s unique in the architectural field,” said Fisher. “We said if pharmacists can do this why can’t we?” The goal is to cut the amount of time from high school to licensure in half, from an average of 14.5 years to 7.

Students in the University of Minnesota’s program spend 25 hours per week in a research practice internship based out of a local architecture office, in addition to completing coursework in research methods and analysis. The firms pay students for 15 hours per week, while the university provides research assistance for the other 10, in the form of tuition breaks and stipends.

But Cheng stressed that the program isn’t privileging technical skills over a broader education. “It’s less about the conventional skills that are currently taught and more about these research skills,” she said. “It’s more than just speeding up the conventional way of doing things.”

In partnership with students and faculty, participating firms and non-profits choose topics like sustainability research, integrated project delivery, or developing a new digital fabrication strategy. This “consortium,” to use the university’s term, “creates a robust knowledge loop” of mutual benefit.

“Even though they are competitors and the firms are sometimes competing with one another for projects, they also know that we’re able to achieve more together,” said Cheng. “It’s a shift in the culture.”

The firm generally keeps the intellectual property developed during the internship, while IP for work done in the academic setting “would normally be shared between the University and the student,” according to the school’s website.

This fall marked the inaugural year for the program, but Cheng and other faculty members tested out a pilot version two years ago. In its first official capacity, seven firms and four interns participated in MS-RP. Cheng said she was expecting two to four students in the spring term, but has already revised that estimate.

MS-RP may not be for everyone, Fisher said, but he expects other universities will start similar programs.

Chris Bentley