WILA Interview Series: The Choice

image: iStock © aydinynr
image: iStock © aydinynr

The Women in Landscape Architecture Professional Practice Network (WILA PPN)’s focus for 2015 is an interview series developed around being women landscape architects, life/work balance, and mentors. The WILA PPN leadership team developed 17 interview questions, and then found willing landscape architects to participate in the interview process. The following is an in-depth look at responses to the first three interview questions.

This group of questions demonstrated how diverse and personal discovering the career of landscape architecture is for everyone, even in a focus group of women. One common theme is how the majority found landscape architecture as a second, and sometimes third, career choice or discovered it in college as a second degree path. Very few knew from the beginning that landscape architecture was the career for them.

Question 1: How did you choose landscape architecture as a career?

When asked this question, most of us have a story to tell of how we found landscape architecture or how it found us. Whenever I meet another landscape architect, I love to hear their story. Of the 20 women interviewed, these are some of the reoccurring comments when asked this question:

  • Many discovered their career choice via contact with another landscape architect or similar design professional.
  • The career choice was discovered through a school guidance counselor or college degree advisor.
  • A few were lucky enough to learn about landscape architecture early on and knew it was the career choice for them.

Quotes:

  • “I knew that I wanted to be a landscape architect probably by 6th or 7th grade. It seemed to combine my love of plants and my love of art.”
  • “I have always loved plants, gardening, and art. I didn’t realize that I could combine all of these things into a career until I was watching This Old House and saw that they had a landscape architect designing the improvements on one of the houses they were working on. I was in the 10th grade at the time, and decided that this is what I wanted to do.”

One interesting note: three women described finding landscape architecture by accident or landscape architecture finding them:

  • “By accident–got a summer job after graduation as a gardener and worked with a landscape architecture student.”
  • “By accident. I took a one credit filler course at UVA which showcased each of the professors giving a lecture on their specialties. Harry Porter, then Ben Howland sealed the deal.”

Question 2: Where are you in your landscape architecture career?

This question prompted many different kinds of responses. Some simply stated chronologically where they were in their career. Others described their present status and how they reached this point in their career. Generally, the interviewees were either at the beginning of their careers or nearing the end. Listed below are some of the interesting responses of note.

About half of the women interviewed were 30+ years into their careers, and some were near or in retirement:

  • “34 years of private practice.”
  • “30 odd years into it.”
  • “Older than dirt. Close to retirement.”

A third of these women are partner of their firm or own their own firms:

  • “Principal at a well-established design firm, on track for ownership transition with a partner.”
  • “Principal Landscape Architect.”

All but one work in the private sector:

  • “I’m on the upswing of my career in landscape architecture. I’m lucky to say I’m right about where I imagined I’d be at this point.”

Of those who own their own firm, most mention having more flexibility for family as one of the reasons for having their own firm:

  • “I worked for three years and got licensed. Then had my own business specializing in estate planning and landscape property management for 22 years while raising a family. I went back to work full time at age 50 for a large multidisciplinary engineering firm where I have been for 10 years.”
image: iStock © amanalang
image: iStock © amanalang

Question 3: How is where you are now different than where you pictured yourself when you chose landscape architecture?

Almost every response to this question involved some variation on the theme “no, I’m not where I pictured myself.” However, the reasons for this mismatch between expectations and reality varied greatly. For some, the reason was a matter of scale, like doing design work with a small landscape architecture firm versus a large interdisciplinary firm. For others, the differences were larger, like starting and running their own business. The biggest reason for feeling they were not where they pictured themselves was that they weren’t designing in the traditional sense. Here are some quotes from the interviewees:

  • “Went in to business entirely by accident after first child—didn’t expect to have my own business but know I can’t imagine not having it now!”
  • “I thought I’d work for developers on housing developments. But after “discovering” construction, I was sold on being in the field. I now have my own firm of 11 focusing on construction management for public spaces in NYC.”
  • “I imagined living and working as a LA in an urban area.”
  • “I’m in public practice rather than private practice.”
  • “I always assumed I would be doing more standard, general landscape architecture as opposed to environmental work. I also figured I would enjoy working for a large LA firm, as opposed to an interdisciplinary one.”
  • “I don’t remember having a particular vision of what being a landscape architect would be like; I just felt that that training would sharpen my abilities in work that I enjoyed. Now I am much more aware of what landscape architecture can offer in these increasingly planetarily perilous times.”

Stay tuned for next month’s summary on career challenges. For more information, check out ASLA’s Career Discovery page.

by Christa Wollenzien, ASLA, WILA PPN Co-Chair

2 thoughts on “WILA Interview Series: The Choice

  1. Dawn August 1, 2015 / 5:34 pm

    Is it practical to pursue LA later in life, that is, if you are a career changer and much older than the typical graduate student, does this field makes sense? Also, does age play a role in the likelihood of obtaining employment in the profession? Moreover, is it delusional to believe that if one has education, talent/drawing ability, maturity and strong work ethic, one has a very good chance at being hired…regardless of age?

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