What It's Like To Be A Structural EngineerCareer Advice from the Experts

A dam across a river built by a team of structural engineers

Structural engineering is broad, we do all kinds of things. As a structural engineer I have worked on wide variety of projects including all manner of building, bridges, power plants, parking structures, art installations and more. The specific tasks are varied, so…

Sometimes I am busy designing structures, using the latest in engineering techniques and computer software;

Sometimes I am busy creating computer drawings and models of structures to be built;

Sometimes I am busy reviewing shop drawing submittals or visiting a construction site to make sure work is going smoothly, or helping fix a problem;

Sometimes I am on the phone working through issues with my clients;

Sometimes I am busy on the phone networking and digging for new work;

Sometimes I am busy at meetings where the scope of a project is being discussed and different parties (architects, owners, other engineers, concerned citizens) are representing their view points;

Sometimes I am climbing around on a rusty fire escape 20 stories in the air, or digging through a dusty basement looking at cracked floor joists;

Sometimes I am writing proposals, inspection reports, contracts;

Sometimes I am functioning as an office IT expert, the office furniture mover, or the guy who isn’t afraid to get rid of the big cockroach in the backroom…

Sometimes I am on the rooftop of my office building enjoying a cool drink with co workers and playing bean bags.

Lessons on Becoming a Good Structural Engineer Based on my Career

  • Study hard while in school. Try to master every class. Focus on both your grades and on learning the material in a deep, profound way. Learn why things are done, not just how

  • Study things that aren’t taught in school. Classes in school tend to focus on very technical matters and theory. To be a great structural engineer you need to be a great builder. You can’t only learn about buildings as abstract models. Joists, beams, columns, etc. are not lines on pieces of paper with triangles on one end and circles on the other, they are physical objects with real dimensions. You must learn how buildings are constructed, learn connections, and details. Learn how structural engineering interacts with architecture and other engineering disciplines.

  • Develop your skills in communicating and writing. Part of being a master of any subject is possessing the ability to communicate effectively about that subject, to teach others. Helping others learn structural engineering will help you be a better structural engineer. Their questions will help you find gaps in your own knowledge. Be humble. learn to say ‘I don’t know’ when you don’t know something, but don’t use this as an excuse, always follow this statement with ‘I will find out’.

  • Work Construction and visit construction sites often. This will give you the best feel for construction techniques and detailing, and how things really come together. It will also give you a sense of construction limitations.

  • Befriend your classmates, professors, coworkers and employers. Become a part of the structural engineering community. Join structural engineer organizations such as the SEI, ASCE, or the equivalent organizations in your country.

  • Read engineering journals, trade magazines and stay abreast of the latest developments in the industry. As a structural engineer, you must always be aware of changes occurring in the industry, ranging from new code developments to new construction techniques and new materials.

  • Become a licensed structural engineer. Pursue this with rigor and make it a goal to become licensed.

  • Become passionate about your work. This should not be difficult, let it take over, in a positive way. Structural engineering is not a job, it is a career. Enjoy the opportunity to discuss structural engineering with colleagues, family, and friends, at all times. This is not a 9-5 job, in which once the clock turns you shut off your brain. Instead it is a way of life. You are always a structural engineer, even when you are not working. When I walk into any building, ever, I’m always looking for weaknesses, failures, mistakes, I’m looking to see how it was built, picking up new techniques. If I see a steel connection, I count to see how many bolts are present. I look for cracked welds, spalled concrete, deflecting walls, sagging floors. I do this all the time, it never turns off.

I love being a structural engineer, and if those things sound interesting, you might like it too.

This article was first posted as a response to the questions on Quora here and here. This has been republished here with the author’s permission.

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Isaac Gaetz is a licensed structural engineer. You can follow Isaac on Quora