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What degree do you need to be an architect?

architect student building model for final capstone project

Architects must develop a broad skillset to be able to perform their architectural duties. Architecture degree programs are designed to equip students with these essential skills to set themselves up for their careers. Knowledge of mathematics, physics and building materials coupled with an eye for design and drawing skills are only the beginning.

"I would hope first that they have a love of architecture. That was always appealing to me—looking at spaces and buildings all around you and shaping that environment, then going inside buildings and finding spaces that may be inspiring, or that really get your creative juices going and that make you want to do something like that," said Christopher Osolin, a partner and principal architect for RHO Architects in Seattle, Washington. "Even in high school I was doing things to sort of lead me to being an architect, so I was taking a lot of art classes, a lot of drawing classes and drafting classes."

Architecture is a licensed profession, meaning those who wish to pursue a career as architects must satisfy minimum education and experience standards before they can be allowed to actually practice as full-fledged architects. The 55 combined U.S. states and territories each set their own licensing standards, which means the requirements can vary a bit from place to place.

Overview of architecture degrees

No matter the licensing requirements they have, all architects must receive an education in architecture through a formal degree program. Architecture students have several options to choose from, including bachelor's degrees, master's degrees and even doctoral degrees in architecture.

Not all architecture programs are created equally, however. Architecture degrees can be split into two categories: those that are accredited by the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) and those that are not.

NAAB-accredited degreesExamples of degrees not accredited by the NAAB
Bachelor of Architecture (B.Arch)Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BS) in Architecture, Architectural Studies or Architectural Design
Master of Architecture (M.Arch)Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Architecture
Doctor of Architecture (D.Arch)Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in architecture

To put it plainly, the B.Arch, M.Arch or D.Arch degree designations are exclusive to NAAB-accredited programs. Any program that uses something else (such as a BA in architectural studies) is not accredited by the NAAB—so why does this distinction matter?

In the majority of U.S. states, architects must earn a professional degree from an NAAB-accredited program to qualify for licensure. There are still many places where this is not true, including some highly populated states like California and New York. In these places, an architecture program that is not accredited by the NAAB may be a perfectly acceptable path to licensure. However, architects who pursue these degrees are limited in where they can practice.

Bachelor's degree: Bachelor of Architecture (B.Arch)

Bachelor of Architecture (B.Arch) degrees are the minimum degree level that can qualify someone for licensure in most states. They consist of a minimum of 150 semester credit hours or the equivalent for quarter terms. As such, they typically take at least five years to complete.

B.Arch degrees teach students foundational topics in architecture and provide hands-on practice, some of which students can count towards their Architectural Experience Program (AXP) log, which is another requirement for licensure in most places.

"Before I even went to architecture school, I worked for an architect doing drafting for him," Osolin said. "During my five years in school, every summer and every break I would go and work with an architect to get some of that experience."

Every B.Arch program's curriculum is going to be a little different. In general, you can expect to take courses in the following subjects as part of a B.Arch program:

  • Design studios that cover the fundamental principles of architectural design through a sequence of courses that build upon one another (e.g. Design I, Design II, etc.)
  • History and theory of architecture throughout the world
  • Materials and building construction
  • Physics, chemistry and/or engineering for architects
  • Professional practice courses that cover topics on the practice of architecture in today's society, including licensing, codes, standards, legal regulations, contracts, ethics etc.

Other bachelor's degrees

Bachelor degree programs that are not accredited by the NAAB generally cover these same topics listed above in their programs as well. These non-accredited architecture schools usually have more wiggle room for additional elective courses that give students the chance to customize their learning a bit more than the slightly more rigid curriculum of B.Arch degrees.

Because of this, BA or BS degrees in architectural studies may also prepare students for careers in allied disciplines like historic preservation, urban planning or construction management. The B.Arch degree, on the other hand, is a professional degree program meant to prepare students to become architects pretty much exclusively.

Master's degree: Master of Architecture (M.Arch)

Master of Architecture (M.Arch) degrees take a deeper look at advanced topics in architecture and are one possible pathway to licensure for hopeful architects. They are at least 168 semester credit hours or the quarter-hour equivalent, but the number of credits you must complete as an M.Arch student can differ depending on your prior education. For this same reason, they typically take anywhere between one and three years to complete.

If the B.Arch degree is enough to get your architect license (in most places), then who is the M.Arch degree for? Although the admission requirements for individual programs can vary, the M.Arch degree typically has two entry points for people that have either:

  • A bachelor's degree in architecture (B.Arch, BA, BS, etc.)
  • A bachelor's degree in a field other than architecture

It's common for M.Arch programs to have more than one degree track available depending on the student's prior education. Students that already have a bachelor's degree in architecture may be put on a two-year track, while those that have a bachelor's degree in another subject may be put on a longer, three-year track.

It's important to note that although some programs can admit students with B.Arch degrees, some M.Arch programs specifically do not admit B.Arch holders to their program.

The curriculum for M.Arch programs typically consists of graduate-level design studio courses and advanced topics in the following:

  • History and theory
  • Visual representations/studies
  • Preservation issues
  • Sustainability
  • Environmental challenges and tectonics

Like most graduate programs, students in an M.Arch or other master's degree program should also expect to complete a thesis and or practicum project at some point in their studies, usually in their final year.

Other master's degrees

Beyond an M.Arch degree, there are many MA and MS degrees in architecture available as well. These can be great for people that have a B.Arch degree and want to expand their skills and expertise. Always remember to check out the licensing requirements of your state, but the bottom line is that you shouldn't immediately write off these other degree programs that are not accredited by the NAAB.

Doctoral degrees in architecture

Some architects may wish to advance to the apex of their field by pursuing a doctoral degree in architecture which typically takes between three and five years to complete. By earning a doctoral degree, architects may have a platform to make significant contributions to their field.

There is only one Doctor of Architecture (D.Arch) program in the United States, which is offered by the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Their program is designed to, "prepare students for active and critical engagement to advance the quality of the built environment, including design and professional practice, teaching, research and civic leadership."

Other schools offer Ph.D. programs in architecture which are research degrees primarily designed to prepare students to teach in academia and/or conduct research within the field. Some doctoral students may also go on to hold positions within the government or nongovernment organizations (NGOs). Ph.D. programs usually have a specialization or area of focus that dictates the direction of the research students conduct and their dissertation topic.

The curriculum for doctoral degree programs can depend heavily on whatever research topic students choose to investigate, but usually include courses on the following:

  • Research methodologies
  • Advanced architectural design, methods and history
  • Courses based on the degree specialization, such as history & theory, design computation, urbanism or sustainability
  • Courses in a secondary discipline (such as psychology, history, engineering, sociology and more) which, in combination with architecture, act as the basis for one's research

Other relevant degrees

Current and prospective architects alike may find other educational opportunities helpful in establishing their career and specialization.

Associate degrees in architecture

Many schools, particularly community and technical colleges, offer associate degrees in architecture. These programs teach the very basics of architectural design, history, technology and more.

An associate degree in architecture is not enough to get licensed on its own, but an associate degree can be a good option for people who wish to dip their toe in the field without committing to a four-year program. If you decided you wanted to go ahead and get your bachelor's degree, the credits you earned during an associate program may be able to count towards that degree.

Associate degrees in architecture may also make sense for people who want to then get their bachelor's degree in a related field such as civil engineering, urban planning and the like. 

Dual degrees

By combining an architecture major with another discipline, you could cultivate a particularly useful set of skills and expertise. Having these specialized skills could open up additional job opportunities or perhaps help boost your salary as an architect. You could complete a double major in your undergraduate studies or pair a bachelor's and master's degree of different subjects (e.g. a B.Arch degree with a master's degree in urban planning, or a BS in construction management with an M.Arch degree).

Disciplines that pair well with an architecture major

The possibilities are practically endless—so long as you satisfy the licensing requirements to become an architect, your educational journey is truly your own and can be tailored to your unique interests.

Here are just some examples of disciplines that could pair well with an architectural degree:

  • Business
  • Design
  • Urban planning
  • Civil engineering
  • Construction management
  • Mathematics
  • Physics
  • Materials science
  • Environmental studies

And if you can't or don't want to get a degree in another subject, Osolin said that it can still be very useful to take classes in these areas to give you additional skills that can help you as an architect.

"For me, I didn't take business classes. I didn't take more technical classes, understanding for example how mechanical systems work," Osolin said. His particular B.Arch degree, he said, put a lot of emphasis on design more than anything. Even though that wasn't a bad thing, diversifying your coursework in these areas could be very helpful down the road.

Importance of school accreditation

Accreditation is the process in which postsecondary institutions and their programs are evaluated (separately) for minimum educational quality standards by an accrediting body. Institutions and programs that meet these standards are considered "accredited." Accreditation ensures that you receive a high-quality education and is necessary to qualify for any federal financial aid.

In the U.S., the Department of Education (DoE) does not accredit individual schools and programs, but it does oversee and recognize the accrediting agencies themselves. The NAAB is one example of an accrediting body. Most states require that architects graduate from an NAAB-accredited program to qualify for licensure. Even if you don't need to attend an NAAB-accredited program, the program and architecture school should still be accredited by some other accreditor approved by the Department of Education for the same reasons mentioned above.

Selecting the right architecture school

Once you've determined your state's licensing requirements, you can get an idea of what kind of program(s) you need and want to take. After that, the first few factors you probably want to consider when selecting a program are things like geographic location and cost. These should help you narrow down your list to a handful of viable programs, at which point you may want to start to consider the following:

Institutional reputation:
What is the graduation rate for students at this school and within the program? Does the school offer a variety of student support services? Will you be learning from highly qualified instructors?
What courses are you required to take? What elective courses are available? Do they have classes that allow you to explore topics and ideas that interest you?
Opportunities for internships and fieldwork:
Does this program provide internships or other hands-on opportunities to learn outside of the classroom?
Does the program offer ways to meet and network with fellow students as well as program alumni?

Speaking with program advisers is one of the best ways you can get to know a program and find out if it's a good fit for you and your career goals. These people know the program and its curriculum inside and out, so they can probably answer most questions you have. They may also be able to help arrange any campus visits or possibly connect you with current students who can tell you about their experiences in the program.

The future of architect education

As the profession of architecture has evolved over the years, so too has architectural education. Perhaps the most glaring example is the use of technology and computer software within the field. Architects used to draw everything by hand, and while these skills are still important, architects today must also learn how to use Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software programs to digitize their designs.

In addition to learning more technological skills, classes in the following subject areas have become more commonplace within program curriculums:

  • Climate change and sustainability
  • Urbanization
  • Social and cultural issues related to architecture

Additional resources

To start your search for NAAB-accredited programs, you can check out their program directory online. For all other architecture programs, it's important to make sure that the school and/or program are accredited by another accrediting agency approved by the Department of Education.

Scholarships and funding opportunities for architectural students

There are lots of scholarships available for qualified architectural students to help fund their education. Applying for these funding opportunities could significantly ease the financial burden of school, if awarded.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has information about scholarships as well as grants and fellowships for architecture students on their website, among a host of other career resources for practicing architects.

As an organization created by and for students, the American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) also has information on relevant scholarships, grants and fellowships for students pursuing an architecture degree.

Wrapping it up

Your degree program is the very foundation of your architecture career. The classes you take can allow you to start building the skills necessary to be a competent designer, gain exposure to the different areas of architecture you may be most interested in and familiarize yourself with the latest in architectural technology and standards.

Once know understand which degrees are available to you—especially for the sake of both licensing requirements—you can start to search for programs that meet your needs and cater to your interests.

kendall upton

Written and reported by:

Kendall Upton

Staff Writer

With professional insight from:

Christopher Osolin, Partner and Principal Architect

RHO Architects

Architecture Education & Career Guide