Heidi Machul, an architecture intern who graduated from Ball State University four years ago, has her eye on the prize—a professional license. Most people in her position are still racking up internship hours. But by industry standards she's ahead of schedule, having already taken and passed three parts of the Architect Registration Exam (ARE). For her, getting registered is the light at the end of the tunnel. “I don't know if I'll work in architecture forever,” says Machul, Associate AIA, who works for Richard Taylor Architects, Dublin, Ohio. “But once I have that license it can't be taken away from me.”

By contrast, a talented and ambitious architecture-school graduate, now 40, knew early on in his career that he wanted to design houses, and a license isn't required in his state. Spurred by the confidence of a cherished mentor, he came out of the blocks and never looked back. Along came marriage, children, a principal position at a large residential architecture firm, and then the big leap to a startup. “I'm leading a fast-paced professional life, but the exams are a bird on my shoulder,” he says, speaking anonymously. “I've played with the idea of registration being my last accomplishment—I'll be the old guy getting the license.”

In between earning a degree and retiring, life happens to architects. They set up shop, hire employees, have kids, and pretty soon they're too successful to pause and sit for the exams. Practically speaking, it's been easy enough for the architecture graduate to thrive without a registration number: He maintains his own office while partnering with a licensed architect on liability insurance and client contracts. It's hard to balance a professional and personal life these days; time is money—and memories. “Do I really want to go to my wife and kids and say I won't be around for awhile because I want to put this label on my back?” he asks. On the other hand, he says he'd be proud to call himself an architect. Psychologically, the missing label looms large.

dreams deferred About half of those who graduate from architecture programs go on to get licensed, a figure that has remained steady for the past 20 years. Lenore M. Lucey, FAIA, executive vice president of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) in Washington, D.C., says that every year roughly 5,000 people finish school and about 2,500 start the ARE. She'd like to see more people get licensed while they're in the groove and have the support of peers. Even if they change careers later, she says, they'll have the credential.

Dale Mulfinger, FAIA, of SALA Architects, Excelsior, Minn., agrees but points to fundamental flaws in the system. Once young people graduate they want to tell the world they're an architect. To call themselves an intern or a draftsperson is inadequate given how much effort they've put in. But other than the public persona, there's no short-term incentive for getting the job done. The work they do the day after getting registered isn't much different from the work they do the day before. Neither is the pay: It's a title change, not a skill change. And registration is a milestone that most firms don't celebrate.

Other professions seem to have an advantage on this score. There's a recognized nuance to the shift that occurs when a law student passes the bar exam, for example, or a medical student completes an internship. Law school graduates take the bar before or shortly after they start their tenure with a firm—and celebrate when they're sworn in. Medical students emerge from an internship with a new position and a gigantic pay raise. But an architectural license has no such symbolism. “We don't have a heralded transition point,” Mulfinger says. “When I finish my test I might tell a few people and get to change my business card; that's about it.”

The drawn-out registration process itself is an obstacle, coming at a time when students are already burned out from the study-and-test cycles of six-year master's degree programs. “Not a lot of students are doing this in three years; it's more like five to seven years,” Mulfinger says. “Our whole cycle of time from the start of college to the end of registration is too long.” Architectural interns have also put off a lot of things during school—earning decent money, buying or remodeling a house. For women who want to start a family, the architecture title often gets deferred.

Dan Haden, AIA, a principal at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Philadelphia, recalls that he boomed through the licensing exam in a day or two in 1977. Now it's organized into many different parts, causing people to string it out over a longer period of time. Whereas divisions such as contracts, specs, and client relations can only be fully understood after a few years of practice, Haden wonders whether other parts of the exam, such as structures, could be dealt with right after school.

Reflecting on the long process, Mulfinger agrees that an internship is indispensable and brainstorms another idea: While it would be impractical to legislate, what if architects tweaked the medical model, giving their interns a four-year contract? If they don't complete the exam during that time, they're terminated. But by then a firm has invested in the person, he counters, and in many offices there's not enough incentive to have staff registered. There's another side to that argument too: “You don't have to be an architect to design homes,” he says. “If interns lose their job, they can go out on their own without registering.”

Ben Ames, Amestudio, Alexandria, Va., is one of those people who started a practice sans license, but not because of a job loss. His life simply outpaced the registration process. After graduating with a master's degree in 1994, he breezed through the Intern Development Program (IDP) while designing airport projects for a large, multidisciplinary firm, and by 2000 he had passed five of the nine exam divisions. Ames says his employer, Washington, D.C.–based HNTB Architecture, gave interns a $1,500 bonus when they completed the exam. The incentive worked both ways, since the firm could charge clients a higher hourly rate for work done by registered architects. Study time dwindled, however, when Ames and his wife had a son and he left HNTB in 2000 to hone his residential skills. After subcontracting with Robert M. Gurney, FAIA, for awhile, he launched his own business in 2002.

Ames, who is 38, is chipping away at the architecture license. Last summer he passed the sixth test and plans to finish up this year. One motivator is the fact that many design awards programs aren't open to nonregistered folks. An even bigger issue for him is liability protection. Debbie Capallo, CBIZ Benefits and Insurance Services, Severna Park, Md., confirms that most insurance carriers won't even consider coverage for her architect clients unless someone in the firm is licensed. “They would need to set up an LLC or partnership with someone who's registered,” she says.