In my experience teaching undergraduate and graduate students, students do not find much help in their programs/departments creating a portfolio for job applications, whether it’s for a summer job, internship, or for “the job” upon graduation. The portfolio is, of course, just one part of the application process. The cover letter, resume, and list of references are also items that many students do not understand how to organize, outline, and write in a professional manner.
Most universities have a career services office but I have found that they cannot attend to the unique aspects that design job applications demand. Some design schools offer portfolio courses (1-3 credit), workshops run by renowned portfolio gurus, and portfolio review sessions. All of these are terrific opportunities for students, yet many of them are typically “one offs.” Over the years I have been involved in these offerings in various ways but am always looking for ways to improve the means by which we educate our students about creating successful and meaningful portfolios, as well as the other components of the job application.
For many years I have provided students with one-on-one advice, critique, and support. Since I have a number of students who seek my assistance, I have coordinated portfolio review sessions and small group “get a job” gatherings to advise students about the application process. In the past, I have invited several local practitioners to come to campus, say a few words about portfolio “best practices,” and review student portfolios. Students have always found these sessions useful, but I often felt there was something lacking, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. So, this spring I decided to try a different tack.
What and How
This spring’s workshop was for my senior landscape architecture students and proved to be the most successful workshop I have ever organized or experienced. What follows is a break down of what I believe are important aspects of a successful workshop.
1. Work with former students.
One of the rewards of teaching is seeing former students mature into competent and successful practitioners, many of whom are actively engaged in their local design communities. Let them recruit capable and enthusiastic individuals to participate in the workshop and ask them to invite a range of early-career, mid-career, and senior professionals (such as principals). This also gives you the opportunity to meet your former students’ peers and supervisors.
2. Hold the workshop at a firm.
Having the workshop at a firm makes the event a bit more professional, giving the students the ability to make a conscious effort to attend rather than “taking a break from studio” to attend. This also gives the students the opportunity to experience what is happening at the firm during office hours. We held the workshop on a Friday late afternoon at Design Workshop, to catch people in the office before they left for the day.
3. Feed people.
People like to be fed – especially at the end of a long work week. The workshop began at 3:30pm, which allowed for people in the office to participate when they finished their work for the day. Since it was happy hour and all of the students were 21 or older, I provided beer and snacks.
4. Provide ample time + space.
A workshop will not be successful if people feel pressed for time or are crowded into a small, awkward space. We were lucky because Design Workshop had a very comfortable conference room and a gathering space where students could meet one-on-one or in small groups with practitioners. In order for everyone to feel relaxed, make sure there is ample time and space for both group discussion and portfolio reviews.
5. Be prepared.
It is important to prepare everyone for the workshop – starting with the students. We began the conversation about the upcoming workshop by developing a list of questions (developed by the students) to send to the reviewers. This is the first time I did this and it was eye-opening as I had no idea of what questions students had about portfolios. I did not edit their questions as I wanted the practitioners to read them as posed directly by the students. Next, I worked with the students to develop drafts of their portfolios, including cover letters, resumes, and lists of references. In order for the reviewers to be prepared for the student visit, I sent them the list of questions, organized into categories, and the agenda for the workshop.
6. Acknowledge and thank everyone.
I may sound old fashioned, but “Thank you’s” are important! It is important to acknowledge the time and energy people put into such events – we are all busy, and the various ways people contribute to such an event are often overlooked. Equally important is that we make the acknowledgements and thank you’s public; that is, we are modeling professional behavior for our students.
This brings me full circle, back to point #1: Work with former students. The students in the spring senior studio were clearly affected by meeting my former students. It is important that our students get a glimpse of their futures in our former students – to see the real potential in doing interesting and meaningful work. And, my students were impressed that I had such genuine relationships with former students – this kind of professional role modeling is important. Often times, our students see us in only one role – as an academic. So, it is important that they see us in professional settings interacting with our professional practice colleagues.
I learned a good deal during this session, and realized how important it is for academics to visit offices not only to see what work is “on the boards,” but also to talk with individuals of many experience levels involved in hiring and working with our students. One of the main reasons I think this workshop was so successful is because it was a conversation; that is, it was not a “dog and pony show” on either the part of the firm or the students. Critical to the success of the workshop was the conversational nature of the event, which started with a very genuine set of questions from students, followed by honest and direct responses from the practitioners. Everyone around the table was sincere about helping these students prepare for job applications and interviews. Additionally, having a range of entry-level to senior professionals in the room helped the students hear a wide range of perspectives.
3 things students learned:
▪ Application and portfolio submittal: The submittal process varies, which means you need to understand each firm’s process and follow their rules.
▪ The portfolio: A portfolio should only include your best work, show a range of capabilities, and start and end strong; don’t worry about page length, but rather create a portfolio that is easy to read and readily flipped through. Also, keep in mind that a portfolio is not a static document, but a document that is constantly evolving.
▪ The interview: Firms are not hiring a portfolio; they are hiring a professional! So, be prepared to talk with the people with whom you are interviewing, and be prepared with questions specific to the firm.
3 things I learned:
▪ The portfolio is, as it has always been, a means by which firms assess an applicant’s capabilities and unique interests and talents; therefore, portfolios (still) need to be uncluttered, well-crafted, and easily legible. Even though digital portfolios are commonly requested today, having a hard copy portfolio is a good alternative for viewing, and a good back-up plan. Designing a digital portfolio is not just a matter of a digital version of the portfolio, students need to think about how the digital portfolio will be viewed (e.g., powerpoint, isuu, pdf). For example, many firms now ask applicants to project their portfolios on a large screen, which means students need to think about resolution and formatting/sizing.
▪ I was reminded how necessary – and enjoyable – it is to continue to make connections with local professionals. I met some new people in a variety of career stages with whom I now have a relationship, whereby I can invite them to desk critiques and reviews, and ask their opinions concerning education and practice relationships.
▪ These workshops allow me the opportunity to see how my current and former students are navigating the profession. Not all of my former students are working in design firms; some work for city and county government, others for non-profits, federal government agencies, etc. Watching former students interact with current students, their peers, and with their bosses, helps me better understand who they have become since graduation. I feel proud, and I realize how important it is that we remain in contact!
There are, of course, benefits to the practitioners! Through these informal events, local firms can gain a better sense of local programs – the quality of work, work ethic, and strengths and weaknesses of the curriculum. In terms of hiring, firms can have a first contact with students before they apply for a job. I tell my students not to approach this as networking but rather as relationship building; these events are opportunities to get to know people in the professional world, and learn how it is you will best introduce yourself – your capabilities, passions, and strengths.
In the future, I envision holding the portfolio workshop once a year, but with some greater lead time so the students have the time to develop a portfolio that they are proud to present. First, I imagine holding a pre-workshop meeting with the students at the beginning of the semester. Second, a post-workshop debriefing session is critical. I met with the students a couple weeks after the workshop to discuss what they learned, and to discuss additional job application elements including cover letters, reference lists, resumes, and which firms they were most interested in applying for a job. Clearly this is an evolving multi-step effort, with many moving parts and multiple actors.
Thank you to all of the practitioners who participated in the review/workshop:
Robb Berg, Anna Cawrse, Sarah Cawrse, Jamie Fogle, Kathleen King, Drew LaBarge, Yishuen Lo, Cali Pfaff, Paul Stewart, and Jeffrey Zimmerman.
By: joni m palmer , Ph.D., ASLA, Visiting Associate Professor, Program in Environmental Design, University of Colorado at Boulder