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Pursuing A Degree In Structural Engineering

written by: John Moehring • edited by: Lamar Stonecypher • updated: 6/29/2011

A degree in structural engineering can be the start of a rewarding civil engineering career for dedicated engineering students. Many areas of specialization are available and qualified graduates may pursue exciting careers with existing structural engineering firms or as independent consultants.

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    Undergraduate Degree Programs

    Much of the undergraduate coursework required to obtain a degree in structural engineering centers around a civil engineering or mechanical engineering core curriculum. This would typically entail training through advanced mathematics including differential and integral calculus, numerical methods, vector and spatial analysis, and solving system equations of arrays and tensors. The importance of this training stems from the required understanding of how stresses and strains are distributed in non-trivial structural geometries, which can require analysis of simultaneous systems of modeling equations. Study of material properties would also be typical including stress and strain analysis, strength, elasticity and viscosity, ductility, brittle and plastic behaviors, crack propagation, fatigue, and other modes of material failures. Coursework in technical report writing and data interpretation is also beneficial, as even the best analysis becomes meaningless if the work cannot be communicated effectively. Laboratory materials testing, fluid and solid mechanics, physics, thermodynamics, statics, and dynamics would round out a typical structural engineering curriculum for most undergraduate engineering programs.

    Some institutions offer specific undergraduate degrees in structural engineering. These programs generally will have greater emphasis on structural design and load response, numerical simulation, and advanced laboratory testing and design of structural systems. Construction engineering management, sustainable design techniques, and environmental design awareness may also apply toward these degrees.

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    Graduate Degree Programs

    Advanced M.S. and PhD degree programs provide additional focus and training on specific structural engineering topics. Customized, intensive coursework and independent study helps prepare advanced students for the demands of real world structural engineering challenges. These topics may include seismic design, plate, slab and shell analysis, reinforced and pre-stressed concrete techniques, structural steel design, masonry and timber design, finite element and advanced numerical techniques, computer aided design, architecture, dynamic analysis, and advanced forensic techniques to name a few.

    Greater practical experience and hands on research projects are also pursued at this level of instruction. Students may engage in designing actual structures such as experimental bridge constructs, alternative building construction, earthquake resistant elements, or any number of cutting edge structural engineering developments. Dedicated research centers and test facilities are available to provide practical experience in many areas of specialization.

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    Career Opportunities

    Opportunities abound for degreed structural engineers. A bachelor’s engineering degree is typically required for most entry level jobs, and with the addition of an M.S. degree a multitude of specialized careers are available including, but not limited to, design and construction of buildings, bridges, roadways, oil rigs, pipelines, wind and seismic design, forensic investigation, even aerospace applications. Finally, a PhD will additionally open many opportunities in research and development on the cutting edge of structural engineering. At all levels, training and expertise in computational methods and programming are expected to be in high demand for many years to come.

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    About The Author:

    John Moehring is a practicing Engineering Technologist in civil, geological, biological, and electrical engineering fields. And one of these days he may actually get it right.

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