Geotechnical or structural engineering involves how large-scale man-made structures are supported by and interact with the Earth. Geotechnical engineering includes knowledge of soil mechanics, numerical analyses and materials testing. Programs in civil and/or structural engineering, some with concentrations in geotechnical engineering, can be found at the bachelor's, master's and doctorate levels. After graduation, new geotechnical engineers typically need to gain licensure as professional engineers.
Prerequisites for a bachelor's degree program include a high school diploma and high standardized test scores. For postgraduate degrees, a bachelor's degree in math, physical science, engineering or a related field is required, as are GRE scores.
Bachelor's Degree in Structural Engineering
Students in bachelor's degree programs explore geology, material science and mathematics, in order to design embankments and retaining walls. Structural engineering programs require students to work on team projects and take laboratory classes.
In order to design foundations that are able to hold the weight of skyscrapers and withstand earthquakes, students need to understand materials science, physics and computer science. Topics of study include:
- Computer-aided design (CAD)
- Fluid mechanics
- Soil mechanics
Master's Degree in Structural Engineering
Structural engineering graduate programs teach students to design and oversee the building of dams, building foundations and tunnels. Many graduate-level programs offer specific geotechnical engineering concentrations. Geotechnical engineers are the professionals called in to assess potential risk of landslides and earthquakes. Students experiment with computer models to investigate the effects of extreme conditions on the subsoil elements of constructed facilities.
Graduate-level geotechnical engineering concentrations teach students advanced concepts in rock and soil mechanics and testing. Topics of study in these tracks include:
- Earthquake engineering
- Foundation engineering
- Probabilistic models
- Soil mechanics
- Structure-soil interactions
Doctoral Degree in Structural Engineering
Doctoral-level structural engineering programs train students through courses, seminars and research to plan and oversee the construction of augured shafts, harbors, pipelines, rock-fill dams and spread foundations. Programs allow students to tailor research towards a dissertation in geotechnical engineering. Prior to completion of the program students must defend their research and dissertation. Doctoral-level degree programs in structural engineering take 5-6 years to complete including the writing of a thesis.
Doctoral students of structural engineering learn to use computational models to analyze the stability of subsoil and potential risk factors of placing a building in a given location including earthquakes. Programs offer such courses as:
- Graphical information systems
- Material dynamics
- Numerical modeling
- Structural mechanics
Bachelor's degree holders found work in the following positions:
- Construction engineer
- Project manager
Graduates of doctoral programs are qualified for mid- to senior-level engineering, research and teaching positions in industries ranging from construction to academia. Job titles include:
- Environmental engineering consultant
- Geotechnical engineer
- Project manager
- Structural engineering professor
Employment Outlook and Salary Information
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that 329,200 people were employed as civil engineers across various fields, as of May 2019. A large portion of civil engineers work in engineering and architectural services; other major sectors of employment include the federal and state governments, as well as nonresidential building construction, according to the BLS.
The BLS expected the number of jobs for civil engineers to grow 2% from 2019-2029. In May 2020, civil engineers earned a median annual wage of $88,570, according to the BLS. The highest paying industries for this field include oil and gas extraction and waste collection.
The National Council of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors administers the civil engineer examinations for state licensure as a professional engineer. To qualify for initial licensing exams, a graduate must complete an ABET-accredited engineering program. After gaining four years of experience, engineers qualify for the Principles of Practice of Engineering Exam. Some states require additional examinations to earn a secondary structural engineering license, as of 2011.
Structural engineers stay informed of changes in technology, the industry and building codes, by taking continuing education classes. Many universities offer individual geotechnical engineering continuing education courses.
Individuals interested in geotechnical engineering training may find a bachelor's, master's or doctoral degree program in civil or structural engineering a good fit for their educational goals. In order for engineers to practice professionally, they must have completed an accredited four-year education program and pass a state licensing exam.