Asking the All the Right Questions

September 23, 2010

I was recently approached by high school student with some great questions about my chosen profession as a structural engineer.  He must have been prompted by a teacher.  At any rate, he asked some great questions, and I thought that you might also be interested in my answers.

1. What are the specific skills that are required to be a structural engineer?

A comfortable level of understanding physics and mathematic principles is a starting point.  It’s also important to be able to visualize objects in your head and then represent them on paper.

Being a successful structural engineer now days also requires some skills that people might not associate with engineers. You need to have good communication skills in order to work in a team environment with people from many different backgrounds.  That means explaining your work to architects, building owners and the general public.  I do a lot of writing and also meet with clients on a regular basis.

Increasingly, structural engineers must be very computer savvy.  Computational design programs have been around for quite a while.  Now we’re getting into more and more 3-D modeling and parametric design.  The latter means using special computer platforms to write programs that automatically assess building parameters and self-generate building geometry.  Soon, these programs will even be able to analyze environmental data, like the movement of the sun and wind patterns.

2. What is the work environment like?

I work in a typical office building downtown Chicago.  Our office takes up the 15th floor in a high-rise right between the Chicago River and Trump Tower.  I have my own work space, but only the top people in the company have their own offices.  The office layout is fairly open – no cubicles.

I spend about 75% of the time in the office and the rest visiting project sites or meeting with clients in their offices.  Some structural engineers spend all of their time on construction sites; some like to stay in the office.  I like the mix.

Most of my work is done in Chicago, but some of my peers have had to move over seas for their projects.  I spent six months working in Copenhagen a few years ago.

3. What courses did you take in college to prepare for this career?

I had to take the typical math and physics sequence.  Since structural engineering is a subset of civil engineering, I also learned about water resources, environmental engineering, and construction management.  The most useful classes for my chosen career were steel, concrete and foundation design.

I took a couple of electives in the architecture department.  Those courses have actually helped me to communicate with our clients.

I also recommend doing independent studies that allow you to work on project teams (i.e. steel bridge, concrete canoe) or something like Engineers Without Borders (volunteer engineering work in poor countries).  Study abroad is tough to work into engineering a curriculum, but it’s totally worth it.

4. Are there any licenses that you were required to receive in order to
work in this field?

In order to stamp and sign drawings for permits in my state, you need to be licensed.  Not every state has the same rules, therefore I actually have two credentials.  I’m a licensed Professional Engineer and Structural Engineer in Illinois.

You can work under a licensed engineer, so licensure isn’t really a requirement to get a job.  However, it’s a strong statement about your commitment to the profession to be licensed.

The first step in getting your license in all states is to first pass the Fundamentals of Engineering exam.  Most people do this at the end of the Junior or Senior year of college.  Then you need 4 to 5 years of work experience.  Finally, you’ll have to take another set of tests.  The SE exam in Illinois is two days long!

This would be a great ongoing feature of the blog, to include similar answers for all types of civil engineering disciplines.  Please leave your own answers in the comment line or contact me about contributing to a full blog.  Thanks.

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