My Journey from MIT Architecture Grad School to the Startup Institute

A younger version of myself thought I would have it all figured out by the age of 24. I never thought that by this point I would know who I wanted to spend my life with and not what I wanted to do with it.

What I have learned is that things don’t always turn out the way you imagine they would. You can either wallow in self-pity about the twists and turns of your journey or you can embrace the past and look forward to designing your future.

I started at Yale undecided in my major and changed my mind about my field of study daily! The world was so vast and possibilities were endless. The dice landed on architecture and I embraced it for its challenge.

The journey from logical, scientific thinking to a more right brained approach was exhilarating. Learning to operate in a world without a clear answer taught me creative thinking and in my liberal arts education I was able to combine my differing interests in the pursuit of architecture.

Reality turned out to be different from what I expected. Contrary to popular belief, an architect does not necessarily have a detailed understanding of structures, construction, physics and math. They will design space, create forms and select color but it takes many years to get to that level of responsibility. My friends in architecture spend their long workdays staring at construction drawings, designing handrails and laying out toilets. Some live in New York City on $38,000, some work for free.

I gravitated towards project management to get a deeper understanding of how things get built after the design process and after a year of work experience started at MIT’s architecture program. At MIT I was hoping to work on development issues and challenge the boundaries of what we currently conceive of as possible.

The Masters of Architecture degree is a 3.5-year endeavor and the first 1.5 years are preselected courses. I felt a strong current of formalism where design was art rather than problem solving.The culture of the department was to push you beyond what you thought your capabilities were so instead of being asked to develop a couple of ideas deeply, you would be asked to create 10 concepts.

This led to work for the sake of work, often with little thought behind it. The constant negativity, pressure, and the lack of emphasis on ideas and concepts left me uninspired. It all seemed preparatory-where students are taught to suffer because that is what the industry would ask from them- until such day when they start their own firm.

The culture of grad school also spawned a kind of suffering for the sake of this art. People stayed up three nights in a row- proud that they hadn’t showered- or of how many cups of coffee they drank. For me, the result of that work (often a pretty rendering- or good line weight) was just not worth their effort. The emphasis on how something looked as opposed to how something worked did not resonate with me. These long hours led to architects rarely spending time with people from outside of their department. I didn’t realize how strange our lives were until some MIT engineers came into studio and were shocked at how much work we did relative to what was produced.

An aspiring photographer and graduating student told me that in 3.5 years he had not had the time to explore and photograph downtown Boston. Architecture students should be drawing inspiration from their environment. To see them holed away in their studio spaces not engaging with the world demonstrates a big problem with current education models.

For more details about architecture read:

The larger university of MIT is incredible but the investment and time I was forced to pour into uninspiring architectural quicksand was too high. This may have been a dream come true for someone else but it was not where I was supposed to be. I woke up every day with a heavy heart, with no desire to face the world with a strong motivation to keep sleeping.

I knew that I wanted to a make a difference in this world- that is what drives me- and I had chosen this path to take me there. I now started feeling that there were other avenues that could take me to my goal. However, with a degree in architecture, experience in project management coupled with a difficult job market I found the path to change careers daunting and fraught with obstacles.

I was afraid of leaving such a prestigious institution. I was afraid of disappointing my family, my husband, and my friends. I was afraid of jumping off into the unknown with no plan. Everyone advised me to stay and to find opportunities using the system. Logically their arguments made sense, but intuitively I knew I needed to make a change.

Making the leap and jumping off without knowing what was next was the best decision I ever made. It was scary to find myself without next steps but I tried to be proactive. I set up informational interviews with people in fields I thought would be interesting- I went to meet-ups and discussions and told friends and strangers where I was trying to go. A professor once told me “if you don’t tell people where you are going, how can they help you get there?” As a result, more and more, I meet people who are trying to help me achieve my dreams- and I try to help them achieve theirs.

I heard about the Start-up Institute and applied about a week after leaving MIT. This program has proved to be one of the most inspirational environments I could have ever imagined. I am surrounded by 60 other people, all taking control of their lives. They are ex-consultants, mid career professionals, recent graduates and founders of companies who are searching for the right next step for them. Everyday they are challenged, motivated and inspired and each of them has the agency to find out where they fit. There is no shame in not getting it right the first time. No one has the answers and everyone is searching.

The Start-up Institute empowers me. This is the time in history when young people are taken seriously in their endeavors to make a positive contribution to the world. The start-ups who come in to talk to us embody this idea. As an employee, as a human being, you matter and you can make a difference.

Learning in this environment is also geared towards a practical application of skills, so as I am studying product and design, I am using design to solve problems. There is an emphasis on the end user and recognition that design is not just pretty colors and beautiful images. Design is a process, a way of thinking and organizing, to make a product that is functional and as a result of that functionality also beautiful.

The start-up environment values good design but more importantly it values trying, failing and iterating. Producing an MVP (minimum viable product) allows you to test your idea and then improve upon it. It is this emphasis on testing and prototyping that keeps the problem solving within design.

Everyone has their own motivations and their own path to follow. MIT architecture may be someone else’s destiny- it just wasn’t mine. My advice to you is to listen to your heart- because you will know when you are not following it. I am on a journey that finally feels right. I feel alive again


Zheela Qaiser is a writer, designer, traveller and a life long learner. She loves effective communication and working with others to produce work that is bigger than single individuals. Always ready to create positive change and make an impact!

More About Me. // @zheeq