Architectural Internship in India – Gita Balakrishnan and Vidhya Gopal opine

Editing and Curation: Anupriya Saraswat

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Student internship is a quintessential part of an architectural education. However, it is increasingly becoming an unmitigated ordeal for many within the community. Affecting both students and practicing architects, the workforce imbalance and issues of ineptitude have created an unfavourable – and often exploitative – situation.  

Inviting the opinions of architects, educators and students, we strive to start a conversation about what can be done to improve this situation. Below, Gita Balakrishnan and Vidhya Gopal of Ethos India share their opinions  about the issue.




“Tell me and I forget,
Teach me and I may remember,
Involve me and I learn” – Benjamin Franklin

A major step towards such learning, for an architecture student, is an Internship. This important step, however, has its own set of challenges and obstacles, such as:

  • An ever-increasing number of architecture colleges
  • The depleting quality of the teachers hired to meet the demand of these numbers (leading to a marked drop in the quality of education)
  • A general lack of awareness about the course and the field amongst prospective students, leading to less interested and ill-suited pupils.

This period of learning is crucial to the making of good professionals. However, while colleges charge full tuition fees during internships, they take very little onus to oversee the process. There are some good efforts being made, although few and far between. A college hosting an exhibition of its students’ works and inviting local firms (often alumni) to review, interview and hire is one such heartening example.

In the current Indian scenario, there are primarily three kinds of firms that hire interns:
  1. The ones which give mechanical work to the interns such as drafting, measured drawing, collecting data and other such tasks. Interns in such firms often barely acquire or learn any extra skill.
  2. The ones which take up the cream from the best of colleges. These usually hire interns with the intention of absorbing them later into the firm.
  3. The ones who truly spend time and effort in teaching and training their intern. Such firms look out for students with a desire to learn who may not necessarily be high-achievers.

However, there are a large number of firms that do not hire interns at all. Some of the reasons  for this are low efficiency of interns, lack of basic know-how of the industry among students, time that is spent by the firm on teaching them, lack of work ethic and seriousness amongst interns, and also the hands-off policy of the colleges that these interns belong to.

With this being the case, how do prospective interns better their chances?

Here are three main steps to a good internship: preparation, application, and the role(s) played at the internship.

Preparation

The current curriculum covers a wide spectrum of subjects that come under the realm of architecture. However, college can only offer a sneak-peek into the vastness of each of these topics. During the course of the curriculum – leading to the internship period – colleges should encourage students to understand and identify his/her strengths, weaknesses and interests in these subjects. This will be an essential step towards deciding the nature of the internship one would apply for. Whether to play to their strengths or to work on their weaknesses depends on the individual.

Another vital subject that seems to be amiss in the curriculum is Architectural Appreciation. The existing works around the city, country and the whole world need to be studied. This study helps one understand the style and/or architect one identifies with.

With architecture colleges opening up in the remote corners of the country, we are facing the challenge of reduced exposure to contemporary architectural work.

Architecture is a multi-faceted subject, which involves various skills – technical, analytical, interpretational, organizational as well as soft skills like communication. We need these just as much as creativity and design abilities. These skills, if honed by the curriculum before an internship, will make students more viable for the firms they work under.

Application

There are certain “dos and don’ts” when it comes to this phase of the internship:

Dos
  • Where? One must apply to firms and offices on the basis of one’s strengths, weaknesses and interests. One must also keep in mind where they would like to work after college, while sending out applications.
  • Why? After one shortlists the firm(s) one would like to apply to, a personalized cover letter should follow. It should talk about why one is applying, what it is about the firm that interests them, and what they would like to learn. It should also mention what one can offer to the firm. This establishes a firm-specific interest which is often reciprocated positively.
  • When? Once decided upon where and why, one should begin applying. Often, international firms demand an early application. Ethos often receives a flood of emails right at the brink of internship, wherein it becomes impossible to connect them to appropriate firms.
  • How? There are some thumb-rules in the building of a portfolio: the best work should come first to leave a lasting first impression, graphics always speak better than words, the content should be clear and articulate, spell-checks are essential etc. Keeping the size of the file small is also of great importance since the servers of some firms do not allow large files. Some firms, further, do not choose to download large files.
    Once interest has been established, more details can be sent as required.
Don’ts
  • Often, students send across a blind copy to over a hundred firms. This immediately puts off the firm and their interest level drops. It can also come across as a lack of commitment.
  • One’s code of conduct is an important part of image building. Confirming a firm’s internship offer and eventually joining another leaves a tainted impression of not just the individual in question but interns in general.
  • The above also applies to interns leaving before their committed period is over, sometimes without giving notice. If the college was invested in the process, such misdemeanours could be checked.
At the internship

This period is the coming together of the teacher, the student and the industry professionals.

Since an intern is still technically a student, the college should share in the responsibility of creating a successful internship period. Faculty members must be assigned to assess the essential stages of internship. These stages include the preparation, application and securing of internship as well as progress and outcome. Once the college is invested, it becomes possible to monitor the quality of learning being availed by the intern. Most firms would welcome feedback from the college so they can review the process and implement necessary changes.

Students should take ownership of their merits and demerits and have something to offer to the firms that hire them. A sincere work ethic during the internship period is highly appreciated.

The industry professionals have a responsibility in absorbing these interns and preparing them for the future. The same applies to the alumni as well. However, if colleges and students do not take up responsibility prior to an internship, it is unfair to expect the industry to welcome a flood of under-qualified interns with open arms.

A word of advice to all students applying for internship – curiosity and the passion to learn precedes skill!

I have no special talent,
I am only passionately curious” – Albert Einstein.


Gita Balakrishnan is a graduate of School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi, and the founder of Ethos India. She has trained under Dr. Volker Hartkopf at the Centre for Building Performance and Diagnostics of the Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh. She started working with AVAS (Association for Voluntary Action and Services), a Bangalore-based NGO, in 1991, and is now a trustee. She founded Ethos India in 2002, and is currently the Chairperson of The West Bengal Chapter of Indian Institute of Architects.

Vidhya Gopal, a 2012 graduate of the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, is also a trained musician. She is based in Mumbai and has carved herself a unique path in the exploration of both architecture and music.  At Ethos, Vidhya discovers the different aspects of architectural education and the impact a curious and well-informed student community can have on the construction industry. Vidhya has co-founded Chaturangana, a performance art project which dwells at the confluence of Indian classical music, dance, architecture and literature.

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