Top Salary for Entry Levels (and the like)

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    Being a student with ALOT of debt before even finishing undergraduate study and no apparent safety-net after graduation I must start at a decent salary. What advice could experienced individuals offer to recent grads looking top-paying jobs in Landscape Architecture?

    Do designers get great (financial) opportunities? Or is the money mostly reserved for the rainmakers and diplomats among us?

    Should I just learn to do everything?

    Eric Galvin

    As i originally looked for jobs a few years ago, i found very little diversity in entry level salaries. There was a difference between areas that seemed to go along with different prices of living however. Smaller firms (2-6 employees or so) will only be able to pay a certain amount no matter what, while at the larger firms you will have a little more bargaining room, not to mention opportunities for hard workers to move up the ladder. That said, i still personally like the smaller places because i was able to find more work where i was an actual designer and not just a cad monkey. Having an amazing portfolio will help you to ask for a little more money, but they still will have there limits on entry level employees. i guess we dont go into landscape architecture to be millionaires, but there are financial opportunities, i just think they come a little later in life unfortunately . Good luck.

    Matt Landis

    There is more money coming right out of school at state and federal offices (such as National Parks, or a local/regional planning office). However….these jobs tend to level off at a much lower pay scale than in private practice. Private practice jobs out of school are typically lower…and as was discussed in the string of discussion “obsatcles facing our profession”….typically the more well known firms (Hargreaves/MVV/Martha Schwartz)….realize the benefit of having their name on your portfolio and do not pay near as much as some of the national firms.

    Some of the national firms such as Design Workshop, EDSA, EDAW, SWA….are part of an ASLA round table on salary. This basically means that all of the larger national firms agree to set limits on what they are paying certain levels to make the playing field a little more even between them. It is kind of like having 4 gas stations at an intersection….they are usually all around the same price per gallon. By agreeing to pay all new hires coming out of school within the same range…these companies are going to rely on their reputation as design firms to attract employees instead of just big salaried jobs.

    The other avenue that is worth exploring is working at an engineering firm. I know someone who went to work at one of the world’s largest engineering firms as an LA straight out of school….and he was making almost double what the rest of us were making at design firms.

    I guess the long and the short of it is….with the exception of a few lucky people….the “average” salary is going to apply to most. Take a look at the link below…the ASLA salary chart. Average starting salary for a BLA is 37K…..and for an MLA is 43K. If you look at the overall “average” for LA’s…the pay is around 75K…but this includes the top salaries being earned…which after 20-30 years, can be quite high.

    Unfortunately…this really isn’t a profession that is going to break the bank….we are definitely not competing head to head with wall street.


    Thanks Matt,

    I realize I’m probably not going to make much, comparatively, right out of school and have taken a look at the recent salary survey. Still, in Denver I’ve known new hires starting at anywhere from 35-48K right out of the same school (CSU). I’d like to think that those people that spend the extra time in the studio and the even fewer perhaps that spend their summers working for offices, getting experience will receive some immediate reward come graduation. Then again, how would a firm consider a new graduate with three plus “summers” of professional experience and a great portfolio compared to say, a graduate student or other undergrad entry levels?

    As an aside, I worked residential design-build for four-five years prior to coming to school for my BSLA, how does that experience factor? It seems I’m making a big loop in my career track as far as compensation being as my last design-build job paid around $18-20/hour. I realize though, by completing the program I will have opened many doors in the future and perhaps thats the key.

    Sorry, I know this is alot of questions and rambling..



    Matt Landis

    I think what you are mentioning can definitely play into more compensation. Experience counts…without a doubt. Again, most of what I mentioned was an “average” situation. I had a friend in grad school who did Landscape Construction before getting his masters (he is on Land8Lounge)….and he was extremely surprised that after having completed a masters program…he would likely make much less than he did when working as a contractor. He ended up working for an engineering firm and making significantly more money than most of us at design firms….and I also believe that his prior experience in contruction played into this.

    I also have had some former students making quite a bit more than average coming out of school…but these were the exceptions to the rule. Sounds like you have as good of a chance as anybody to break the mold. Even with this economy…there are still plenty of jobs out there…but it has definitely become more competitive. Hold out for a good offer…and once again, don’t be afraid to make a counter-offer. The worse thing that could happen is they could say “no”….they are not going to take back their offer. Be confident with your counter…be sure to play up your experience. Good luck!

    Eric Gilbey

    Nick, I would agree that any experience will help in boosting your starting salary, but the key change will be seen when you take on project management experience and registration. As you may suspect, entry level positions will be working on the projects that project managers are handing off to them to complete in production. The best way to quicken the climb of the ladder is to nudge yourself into project management time. If you had such experience while working in the contracting side, make sure you make that obvious in your resume/application…but don’t fake it if you didn’t as they will notice very quickly if you do not handle the management responsibilities that are delegated to you. Most firms would like to see your experience in practice before they do that anyways…so the best advice is to find ways to get that experience, and make it a top priority…even if you can take CEU classes in a business college, or professional workshop kind of setting. Being aggressive at this may earn you the respect and salary you are seeking much quicker. Good luck!


    Thanks Eric,

    I’ve heard that there may be different “tracks” for more design-minded people and those who may be more inclined with project management and that these two avenues could be separate with similar compensation. I guess I’m a bit worried that I am not the most organized person, but feel I have strong graphic, written, design, and technical abilities.

    Some of the project managers I’ve been around seem like they’re spending most of their time delegating work and running interference with contractors and consultants rather than performing the design and production, which I suppose is basically what you said. Is this just a phase in project management that one grows through or does it stay that way until one reaches further up the corporate ladder, such as principal, when they take a more active role in design again?



    Pok Kobkongsanti

    The only landscape designers who do great financially is the ones who have their own company.
    If you just graduate, in my oipnion, I think you better look for the firm that can give you good experience first.
    No way you can pay your debt in your first couple years.
    Why don’t you work with famous designers, learn your lessons, and finally work on your own?
    This case I think you can pay faster.


    Hi Nick —
    As I am looking at getting into the profession, I recently met with a San Diego area landscape architect who owns his own firm to find out more about the profession. I asked him about salary numbers, and he was refreshingly frank. Here’s what I learned.

    His firm pays on the high end, but he said his salaries are just on the high end of average for our area. MLAs with no experience (and no business experience in other careers) earn 45-55k out of school. The mid-level guys make around 85k. The top guys in his firm make 160k.

    His impression was that a lot of professors give a gloomier outlook on salaries than is necessarily true. His firm had about 18 LAs, and did mostly international hotel projects with some real estate projects and very little civic work. Hope that helps.


    Tracey, thanks..

    While the professors have generally offered low numbers when asked, I have kept in touch with some recent grads (BLA undergards) and the numbers in Denver for a similar situation as you mentioned (substitute undergrad no experience) numbers conflicted slightly with ASLA’s salary survey and were fairly broad. I have been hearing anywhere from 35k-48k in the same metro area, some on the lower end had experience in small offices while in school and were very talented individuals, while some on the higher end had little or no experience, but in some cases were slightly older or greater financial obligations. I guess it may be all in how the interviewer perceives you and what they can get you for.

    Eric Gilbey

    Having been in the industry for about 15 years, I would suggest recent graduates should take into consideration the other benefits offered by employers to “sweeten” the deal. When we thought my wife was going to be able to work from home to watch our first (and soon afterward our second) child, we couldn’t afford daycare, but my employer allowed me to bring my daughter to work with me until we had arrangements for my wife to be able to stay home (almost a year). If you consider the amount of money this saved…it could have been at least 5K a year…if I had asked him for that same 5K on top of my salary, it wouldn’t have happened. Sometimes, you can find value in flexibility and other perks, when the rest of the deal doesn’t sound so great. This doesn’t help you swiftly eradicate your college loans, but it helps you in ways you would never expect…when interviewing, find out their total benefits package and see how that translates into money you would have earned, but would then have to pay for out of pocket.
    Regarding the desire to stay in design as opposed to project management…don’t sell yourself short and know that being able to design responsibly and efficiently comes more from the nuts and bolts (and contracts and budgets). The knowledge of this side helps get you past the exam, too.


    Thanks Eric…

    I think we’ve got a pretty good discussion going. I’m hoping some recent grads or close-to will chime in..

    Thanks everyone for the great insight and info.



    Okay, here’s my 2 cents worth…at our annual career fair we’re averaging 30 firms coming from around 8 states entry levels $38-45K for BLA with MLA’s beginning around $45K. Interns beginning $10-12. While your in school get your hands onto anything that will give you experience regardless of what year you are in. First year, fouth year, grad it doesn’t matter just make sure that it is in your best interest and your resume..if your not sure ask a professor. I’m sure there are many opportunities available at each college. Any experience you have get it on that resume and portfolio before you forget. Keep it current to look like your on top of things and ready to post on this website for recruiters. The more experience better the salary. I’ve seen students walk out beginning at $45 with a signing bonus and moving expenses with just a BLA. Other things to consider is what is the firm paying for that your not seeing in your check…life insurance, matching funds for 401K’s, training, etc. Really look at the benefits they are offering and the cost especially health insurance make sure its worth the money. You also need to weigh in what you take home and the bills that follow it. Look at the cost of living…you maybe making tons but the area your in is costing more.
    Your career coordinator should be recruiting and building relationships with firms. The coordinator should have a library of firms ranging to small shops of 4 to EDAW. If your looking for mid then they should have a continuously updated list of contacts to give you. My suggestion for internship…work at your dream job or firm. That way you can determine if it is really right for you. After a day or two of drawing pipelines you may decide that the small firms may offer a better opportunity. People change their happens. That way your not wasting your time, costing you money and stuck somewhere you don’t want to be.


    I’ve been confused about this for some time…I have worked side-by-side with MLA’s at charettes. I have heard that in general MLA’s will start significantly higher than BLA’s. If both are five year first professional degrees, what’s the difference, unless you’re talking about people with an undergrad, five years of experience, and a second professional??

    I guess the next part of this question I would ask is how many firms offer aid for second professional degrees?


    Yes, understood. A second Professional degree is 2-3 years, not talking about those people. I know several which fall into this category that are far beyond my level of experience and qualifications due to both professional experience and continued education.

    I was referring to people who have degrees in Biology, say, and decide to Master in Landscape (5yr track). In my mind, it’s nearly the same as a second undergraduate degree as far as professional qualifications for practice of LA.

    What automatically qualifies these folks for slightly higher salaries beyond the possibility of greater financial expense in tuition? Maybe some of the grad professors can chime in and convince me to attend grad school ­čÖé

    nrschmid said:

    MLA programs are 2-3 years, depending on if you have a previous design degree or design experience. In my firm, there are two landscape designers with an MLA (the other five, including two principals, have just a BLA). Both of the MLAs went to grad school straight from undergrad (both have bachelors degrees in ornamental horticulture). However, one of the MLAs is in mid-level position because he has about 5-10 years of experience from working a previous design job. The other MLA is entry level and this was her first job (she actually just left to work for a rival design firm a week or two ago, so if anyone is looking for an entry-level opening in Illinois please let me know). I have no idea that they were paid (and honestly, I don’t want to know).
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