Advice for international students wanting to work abroad
Updated: Sep 23
Yann is a Qualified British Architect with over 17 years of international professional experience in the UK, China & the Middle East as well as teaching experience in Thailand and Korea. His architectural professional practice (corporate) experience includes involvement in projects such as the West Kowloon Station (international high-speed rail terminus) in Hong Kong, The Star (Performance Arts Center) in Singapore and the Discovery Museum (refurbishment of a listed building) in the United Kingdom. Yann kindly agreed to answer some questions and hopes that some of his own experiences and his teaching will inspire young architects to pursue a career as an international Architect.
Can you give a brief introduction into what you do and your professional working history and where you are now? In which countries have you practised as an architect. Which languages have you worked in?
First of all, thank you for taking the time to create this interview. I am an Architect RIBA ARB (UK) by training, professionally I have accrued over a decade worth of professional practice (corporate) in the United Kingdom and Hong Kong. For the last few years, I have been working in academia, teaching Architecture. Currently, I am based in Bangkok working at King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang (KMITL). With regards to communication in the workplace, English has been the primary language used amongst staff of different nationalities within countries.
What are some of your highlights working in foreign countries?
The main highlight for me is the exposure and immersion of different cultures and customs in various countries.
Do you have a favourite project?
Whilst I was working at Atkins (United Kingdom), I was the Project Architect for the refurbishment (creation of a new archive facility) of the Discovery Museum in Newcastle. It gave me immense satisfaction, to renew a heritage building, and breathe a new life with a new function. Until this day, Norman Foster’s HSBC building (HK), remains my favourite new-build project, it epitomizes what modern architecture should be.
What are some of the challenges you have faced in your career?
Communication can become a barrier, due to language differences. To deal with this, it is vital to take a step back and look at things from a wider perspective. What I found useful is to use email communication (essentially letter writing) for more detailed matters/subjects.
We have talked recently about challenges being opportunities, can you expand more on that philosophy.
To summarize my belief simply, within the good there is the bad and within the bad, there is the good. It is important in any situation to keep pushing forward. Carpe diem remains my life motto.
When it comes to communication can you give your top 5 tips for communicating in a meeting with a client?
Always look presentable, professional and refreshed.
Ample preparation prior to the meeting is vital.
One is providing a service to the Client, hence listening to the Client properly is important.
Be flexible within the meeting and do not enforce a specific outcome.
Taking good Meeting Minutes is a key skill that should not be overlooked.
Do your tips change with the context, say for example in working with an Engineer?
The same 5 tips apply. When working with other building professionals, a certain respect for the other discipline needs to be in place. Good design is a multidisciplinary approach, hence everyone has something to bring to the table.
You’re now working as a lecturer at KMILT in Bangkok, Thailand. Can you tell us about some of the units you teach?
I specialize in teaching Architectural Design. Last semester I partook in the module of Design Methods for Innovation, essentially teaching Design Thinking to Engineering Students. I found it interesting to teach students that were not accustomed to Design Thinking, at the end, I felt they acquired a new skill set that can be applied to their discipline.
What are the biggest challenges teaching people when English is not their mother tongue and how do you overcome these challenges?
The biggest challenge for me is that students will be of varying levels, in terms of English language proficiency level. To overcome this, I assess the student group at the beginning and determine which students need help the most. If students can not speak English well, I ask them to prepare hand-written notes, so I can read what they want to convey. A lot of the time, students are very good at listening but need more practice for speaking.
What advice would you give to university graduates who are seeking work in English speaking countries? What sorts of things should they do to prepare?
A good CV and cover letter (tailored for each job application), still stands the test of time and allows a potential employer(s) to assess certain key skills prior to the interview. Excellent communication (speaking and writing) is important and is often an overlooked aspect.
What do you find to be some of the differences between practising as an architect and working at university?
Professional practice (Architecture) consists of the act and process of designing buildings (new-build/renewal of existing buildings) commissioned by the Client. Academia is consists of the act of transferring knowledge to students and generating new knowledge via research.
What is your area of expertise?
I would like to hope that I am a good Project Architect for the institutional buildings category. My current focus is: High Speed Rail (HSR) and Transport-oriented Development (ToD).
Design thinking is a topic that has gained more traction in recent years. Do you think once students graduate, they participate enough in important dialogue around design thinking?
More and more Design Thinking (DT) is becoming more prevalent within sectors other than design related. The Architectural Design Process (ADP) is a linear design process, albeit more detailed than DT. If a graduate is serious about Architecture, one must work on projects that get built and oversee all stages (inception, design and completion) of works to gain a full understanding of the ADP.
How do you think we can encourage more debate and discussion?
Setting up small groups (4-6 persons), discussing/debating a chosen topic (40-60 mins) and presenting findings to other groups. I have used this method within my teachings at the university level and is beneficial to students. Students find this method helpful and talking amongst themselves, increases confidence.
How has COVID impacted on the way you teach at university? Do you think you will implement some of the things you have adapted more long term?
The current pandemic has affected many sectors in many different ways. For the tertiary education sector, there has been a shift towards an online delivery method for lectures. At the end of the day, health and safety are paramount and each situation needs to be assessed with the right measures put in place. I have slight reservations with regards to 100 per cent online communication, as this can not replace the positive aspects of face-to-face interaction. In these testing times, we should pro-actively test new ways of communication and be mindful of where improvements can be made.
Anything else you want to add that you think ads value to people who want to work in an English speaking country or office but English might not be their native language?
English can be relatively easy to learn but difficult to master for non-native persons. Acquiring a certain level of proficiency will aid the advancement of careers. With a continued shift to more virtual methods of communication, it becomes vital to be able to express clearly and concisely (speaking and writing skills).
Thanks, Yann for your insightful ideas and thoughts.