Has anyone successfully transitioned out of the Landscape Architecture field?

Landscape Architecture for Landscape Architects Forums GENERAL DISCUSSION Has anyone successfully transitioned out of the Landscape Architecture field?

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    Andrew, RLA

    This is a 2 pronged inquiry, so please bear with me:

    I know this may sound negative, but I have been at a crossroads for a few months now, and I am not sure which path to take.  I am a Licensed/Registered Landscape Architect in USA and Canada and have a BSLA.  I have around 8-9 years of experience in professional offices in varying project types, generally master planned landscape architecture, and some hospitality based projects, in a project manager role.

    I personally left my last position of 4 years to relocate to SF and spend some time with my family and support their career choices.  Well I have applied at 35 offices over the last 90 days.  All I have to show for this is 2 chance interviews, and subsequent “not a good fit” emails.  When I send out applications, I link my portfolio through bitly so I can see how many click throughs I get.  I have applied at jobs through personal connections, linkedin, land8, asla, and just seeking out work on company sites.  Of my 35 applications my portfolio has 8 click throughs, so it isn’t (just) that my portfolio stinks, it is no one is clicking the link.

    In each application, I write a brief email, with a link to my portfolio and an attached Cover Letter and CV/Resume.  Each Cover Letter and CV is customized for the office I am applying.  It takes a bit of time to edit these, but I feel it is more personal with the hiring manager’s name, my interest in said firm/field, and the current date, so on so forth.

    I come to the question at hand, since the LA field is either only hiring personally recommended people, or the first / best candidate (and I am neither it appears) what can I do outside of Landscape Architecture?  I have also applied at multiple technology firms in Silicon Valley, in real estate/facilities/campus departments as well as general IT support (as I am somewhat savvy with technology/IT) and they disregard my applications as well, since hiring managers most likely have no idea was a BS of Landscape Architecture is, or what the past few firms I have worked at do…

    So, if there are no openings for me in LA/Planning or IT, then what have others found as a secondary career?

    I myself am considering a few options, going back to school, MBA, or doubling down with a MUP, or working at a fast food restaurant.  I was about to take take the exam for LEED AP, but not sure I should even invest in time or money in that.

    Thank you, I would love to discuss options or path ways you have taken.

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    I can empathize with you as someone who did not have an easy path in landscape architecture. I was unable to get a traditional LA career off the ground – partly due to geography and partly due to “not being a good fit” (I don’t hand draw well), and partly having gone to school in Idaho and living in the shadows of Harvard, RISD, URI, and UMass. Long story short – I accidentally found myself in a small local civil engineering/land surveying office not realizing that the two LAs in the office , now ASLA multiple award winners, both went their separate ways. Anyway, the land surveyor explained that to me, but gave me a tour of their office none the less. He said that if I had no luck with LA offices he might have a drafting job for me at some point. Nine months later, he called me and hired me. It worked out great. I started with little plot plans and quickly moved on to civil site plans, conservation restoration plans, affordable housing, municipal buildings, … I left for a while to finish my required time under an LA in order to get licensed. I left again for two years to work for a design/build contractor as an LA (I was the only LA)., went back to civil work full time after a serious injury, but kept doing LA work part time.

    Now I combine the two skill sets and work for myself as a residential LA. I’m  getting work by being on a few “design teams” that supply me referral work because I’m easy to work with due to my deeper than average knowledge of local regulation and inner workings of civil offices so that I make the CE’s work a lot easier than other LAs might.

    Basically, it comes down to this. Not many people make much money as an employee in an LA office, but self employed LAs do much better if they are positioned well to get work. Your career success can’t be left to be determined by how much someone else wants to pay you. You have to take whatever opportunity presents itself and squeeze out whatever can benefit you later on. That means observing what there is a demand for, where the work is coming from (or where it is going), try to figure out why, and make yourself know to anyone and everyone in professions that interact or even skirt this profession.

    Anything that you can do that makes other people’s lives easier or makes them more money is going to increase your value when you are out on your own.

    This is a profession of patience, fighting frustration, and self reliance. If you think like an employee, you won’t get to far. Think like an owner – it will give you more opportunities as an employee and it will make the transition much easier.

    You can go out of the profession to position yourself to do better in the profession. That is what I did ….. accidentally, but always knowing where I wanted to be.


    It might also be your geographic area.  I started my urban planning career in Chicagoland, where I grew up.  EVERYONE wants to do planning in Chicago (like Portland and Seattle).  Competition was fierce for jobs, and I refused to get a masters in planning as I had all of formal training needed (planning ain’t rocket science).  Even after I earned my AICP I was still told I was unqualified for entry level work there.  I was hired for a job in Wichita, KS and they lured me with a decent relocation bonus, but when I was let go a year later there weren’t any jobs AND i was in Wichita.  Fast forward to 2014, and I have been successfully working in Houston doing large scale site design, which is generally landscape architecture.  I think there are a shortage of qualified designers here, and my current employer pays me above the market average when you factor in two bonuses a year.  Last I heard, Chicago and Wichita are still suffering form the ongoing slump.  


    As usual, love andrews response.

    ‘Start thinking like an owner…’ I think this came naturally to me as before I even set out on a formal education in la i knew I wanted to own  a business. I think this attitude, if you can call it that, both earned me opportunites while simultaneously closing doors in other areas. An candidate employee with an owner state of mind can freak out potential employers. Savvy employers will hire the attitude and train the skill set. Im not sure any firm outside of cambridge and berkeley really seek out great designers. They want managers, rain makers, and people who make their lives easier. Designer types are unwieldy. The more successful businesses I see in my region hire production that doesnt talk or managers that dont draw (produce). Any combination of the two starts to smell like competition. 

    Whatever side you tend to lean toward, thinking like an owner should lead you somewhere positive, even if its toward another career.

    Good luck..

    Ernst Glaeser

    What I’ve read above and putting my career path against it I find that it is full of similarities.

    Take it, you are not alone. You are at a point where you need to prove to yourself that what you want to do and what you are doing is are satisfying your professional believes as well as feeding your commitments outside of work.

    Here a brief of my vita: arborist, natural gifted urban planner, LS construction company, LS design, LS site supervision, self employed LS construction and nursery, warehouse worker, LS design, LS design development, LS PM/CM, and all in 10 cities (towns) and 7 different countries spread over the globe (states). This is a yo-yo life or roller coaster.

    I read the other day someone stating that one door closes and the next is opening. The pain in the .. is the hallway.

    Mark Di Lucido

    Don’t know the intricate details of hiring practices for LA firms in SF, but in this economy ninety days is not an abnormally long time to not be able to land a job. Between 2009 and 2012 I couldn’t find an LA position to save my life. Granted, I lived in one of the areas hit hardest by the downturn and was also in a very small market, but three years!? During that time I tried several other ‘careers’ and ended up either not making enough money or detesting the work or both. But because I like to eat and I have a mortgage etc., I took whatever job I could find—the big joke between my wife and I was an $8 paycheck (for a two week pay period) I got from one of these jobs.

    I think Andrew’s ‘think like an owner’ can be good advice though it might be less effective for those of us that don’t like residential work. And as nca points out, many firms don’t want ‘thinkers/owners’ they want someone (usually disposable) to do the tedious stuff and make them money. So if you’re perceived as ‘a nail that won’t be pounded down’, then you’re probably not going to get the job but then do you really want to work for short-sighted firms like this anyway?

    I’m always hesitant to give advice about employment because each of our situations is so different. That said . . . I found going back to school at age 36 to be a great respite from the work-a-day world—it gave me a chance to ‘decompress’, learn, and ultimately helped get me employed as an LA. But, if school loans were required to do this nowadays it’d be a deal-breaker for me. 

    Andrew Garulay, RLA


    There is a big difference between thinking like an owner and acting like an owner. The last thing any principal wants is an inexperienced person trying to tell them how things should be done by acting like they own the place.

    Thinking like an owner is to try to understand their perspective and then try to execute your own job in such a way that is in sync with the owners perspective.

    To think like an owner, among other things, empowers you to perceive what you should do in the position that you hold to maximize your contribution for the benefit of the owner. This should increase your value to the owner. Conserving company resources, looking for ways to make things easier for your coworkers, and adding to a positive office culture are good habits to build. 

    Then there is observing how everything works like an owner. What kinds of work is actually going on? Where is that work coming from? Who is getting it? What seems to be the mechanism that is keeping some firms busy while others limp along. You don’t have to try to tell your boss how to run his business, but the more you observe and the more you learn, the better is your mind set for preparing to fill a more viable position within the company or somewhere else.

    You never should attempt to tell your boss how to do things, but you can talk about your observations and ask if they perceive the same things. The discourse is going to be beneficial because you’ll learn how your employer thinks about things. He or she may give you more information that may confirm your understanding or maybe give you more insight based on their experiences that teaches you something new altogether. Either way, you’ll gain a lot more knowledge than you will from banging out tasks and waiting for someone to give you better tasks. 

    The whole point of the two years under an LA, in my opinion, is not to get better at doing tasks, but to get the chance to observe and learn how the business works from the inside as you are doing those tasks. 

    If you find yourself in a peripheral job situation like I did,  take the knowledge that you can from it. It was in a civil office where I learned what others like about certain LAs and what they did not like. I learned why some were referred and others were not. I saw all kinds of projects done by all kinds of professionals and non-professionals and learned how each fit in the big picture. Eventually, I learned enough to see where I could carve a niche where I had the most competitive advantage.

    I draw the same plans I drew 10 or 12 years ago. You don’t advance by how long you do the same tasks. You advance by understanding the actual market around you and positioning yourself to get sucked up by it. You can do that any way that you can.  If you can do that in an LA office, great. If you can do that in a civil engineer’s office, just as good. You can do it sitting as a volunteer on a regulatory board in your community. …. and other places, too. Some places are easier than others to figure out what is going on. You have to be patient and relentless.

    I’m not sure about the rest of the country, but here in Massachusetts, a very heavily regulated state, you can have just as much success without a stamp as with a stamp. I suspect it is more the norm than not.

    Jay Smith

    I’m in a similar boat as you and I can confirm that you aren’t alone.  The market for L.A.’s really never recovered from 2008 and I suspect that those with experience are at a disadvantage to those with little experience who can be paid lower salaries, are more hip to the latest 3d graphics software coming out of school, and don’t have to be untrained of habits from previous firms.  

    You mentioned you were considering an MBA.  I’m curious as to why this is something you are considering and what do you think you would do with it?  From what I’ve researched on MBA’s, it looks like something that would be more valuable to someone who is trying to move up within a specific field.  I’m not aware of any L.A. firms looking for people with MBA’s.  And if you used it to do Management Consulting in another field, I would think your background as a Landscape Architect would be a hard sell to those looking to hire you for your services.  I could be all wrong on this, just sincerely interested in how you would plan to use it.

    Justine Heilner


    You are right that most firms will hire a “known quantity” – someone who is recommended by someone they know.  

    I would also like to add something – I was the person who screened all the incoming job applications at one of my former offices – having a link to your portfolio may not be the best idea.  I would look at and print any folios that looked promising so that the partners in the office could review them – they get too many emails and don’t want to be bothered to click on a link.  Keep it brief and show only your best work.  You should be able to make a PDF in a size that is email-able.  

    That said – it is just hard to get hired right now – you really need to figure out how to package your talents and who can use them very specifically. 

    Good luck.


    Andrew, RLA

    Most applications/listings say NO mail and NO calls.  My portfolio is around 20mb, (at the smallest legible quality) so I share via a dropbox link. That being said, I have found most principals are unable to understand technology even at a basic level and clicking a link to download a single PDF is too complicated.  For example, my first internship in 2003, was to print emails and handwrite voicemails for the owner as he didn’t understand all that technology. And that is a shame. UGH, you may be right.

    I have written personal emails/cover letters to principals and individuals I have connections to, no one even responds.

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