Ask Anthony: What If I Didn’t Major in Civil Engineering as an Undergrad?

August 21, 2019

“My question to you is, have you met any engineers pursuing a master’s degree in civil engineering after an undergraduate degree in a different engineering discipline, while also pursuing licensure years after their undergraduate degree? Any advice, feedback or encouragement you can give me is appreciated.”

I recently received this question from a listener of The Civil Engineering Podcast and thought it might be helpful to respond through this column should others be taking a similar path.

First, I want to say that I have met many successful professionals in the civil engineering field who don’t have a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering.

But to do this, you will need to build your civil engineering skills. Here are some steps you can take to do this:

1. Pursue a master’s degree in the discipline of civil engineering you are interested in working. One of my colleagues, who was one of the best stormwater engineers I knew, had an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and then pursued a master’s in civil engineering with an emphasis in hydrology.

2. Take classes at a local college in different areas of civil engineering that might help you. You don’t necessarily have to only take courses toward a degree. If you are interested in working in transportation, enroll in a highway design course at a nearby college or university. Just be aware of any prerequisites that you might need to get the most out of each course.

3. Work in the field. Most civil engineers will tell you that they absorbed the most important technical knowledge on the job. I worked in land development, which included residential and commercial site design. I learned very little about site design in college. I also became an expert in septic field design, and honestly, I didn’t know what a septic field was when I graduated college with my B.S. in civil and environmental engineering.

4. Find a mentor. The benefits of a mentor in your career in general are too many to list here, but finding one (or multiple) is even more important when you are a little behind the rest of the field in terms of your civil engineering knowledge. You can find a mentor through professional associations like ASCE or through colleagues within the firm you work for. Here’s another article I have written on this topic.

5. Attend conferences in the industry. Attending conferences is a great way to do all of the above. You can attend technical sessions, network with peers, and even learn about some of the new technologies that are surfacing throughout the industry.

6. Practice problems. Seriously? Am I really advising you to practice engineering problems at home at the kitchen table in your spare time? Why not? If you haven’t had the repetition of doing these during your undergraduate years, why not do them now? Practice makes perfect. Studying for the FE or PE exam will also force you down this path.

7. Read books. Last but not least, good old-fashioned reading. When I was a young civil engineer (I still consider myself a relatively young civil engineer), my manager gave a me a book on the topic of land grading. I read it one weekend and doing do immediately improved my ability to grade sites.

Finally, please believe in yourself and know that YOU ARE NOT THE FIRST PERSON TO GO DOWN THIS ROAD!

Many professionals have done this before, and so can you.

Anthony Fasano, P.E., M.ASCE, is the founder of the Engineering Management Institute (previously known as the Engineering Career Coach), which has helped thousands of engineers develop their business and leadership skills. He hosts the Civil Engineering Podcast and he is the author of a bestselling book for engineers, Engineer Your Own Success. You can download a free video series on his website that will give you the tools needed to immediately improve your networking and communication skills by clicking here.

He has also recently started the Engineering Management Accelerator to help engineers become more effective managers: www.EngineerToManager.com.

3 Comments
  • It was my first experience on a very large dam project.
    When I got into the workshop I was so scared after about a week that I decided to learn everything experimentally and use my science at university to advance my career.
    These suggestions are important for progress

  • My undergrad degree was in Mathematics, and I was a high school math teacher for 4 years before going back to pursue a masters in structural design. For me, the hardest part of engineering was “un-learning” the mathematician’s way of thinking of problems, and realizing that the things we design have tolerances. The first task I was ever given as an intern (before even starting my 2nd degree) was to find some cut/fill volumes for a roadway project. I was given cross sections, and quickly realized that what I needed to do was basically a 3-dimensional trapezoid rule kind of problem from calculus. I set up a spreadsheet and then gave my results to my supervisor who immediately started laughing. I didn’t understand what was so funny… he reminded me that this road was going to be built by people with bulldozers, excavators, graders, etc. and that measurements to the nearest 0.001 cubic foot were not necessary – I should round everything to the nearest whole cubic yard instead.

    That was my first wake-up call that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Pi was no longer to be thought of as an irrational number with an infinite decimal expansion… 3.14 is probably good enough. I have to admit, even after 8 years of doing bridge design, I still fight this battle on a daily basis!

  • Avatar David E Booth, Jr., P. E.

    As a non-degreed licensed engineer, I would also recommend someone pursuing this path work in as many different facets of civil engineering as possible. Although my emphasis and greatest expertise is in hydraulics and hydrology, I consider the time I spent working as a junior designer and construction inspector in a firm doing underground conduit for C&P Telephone, my time working as a bituminous concrete plant inspector, and six months spent as a rodman on a survey crew an invaluable education.

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