How to Become a Structural Engineer
Structural engineers play a critical role in shaping the modern built environment. As specialists in the broader field of civil engineering, structural engineers are trained to assess the soundness, safety, and efficiency of the structures that surround us. They ensure that bridges can bear the loads required of them, that roofs in snowy climates won’t buckle under pressure in winter, and that skyscrapers can withstand the windiest conditions. They also assist in the design process, finding creative ways to build functional, durable structures that will meet the needs of local communities for generations. With such significant responsibilities, structural engineering can be a satisfying and rewarding career for those interested in improving the safety and design of various types of infrastructure. To thrive in this career, individuals need to prepare themselves with the right blend of education and work experience.
Working as a Structural Engineer
Before embarking on the path to become a structural engineer, it’s crucial to understand the duties of the job. The role requires its practitioners to handle a wide variety of responsibilities—from communicating with supervisors, peers, subordinates, and clients to reviewing technical project details. Structural engineers must be fluent in their state’s current standards and regulations to ensure that their structural plans are in compliance. They must also be deeply familiar with various types of building materials in order to select the best options for safety and sustainability. Melding these duties requires structural engineers to think creatively, enjoy working with other people, and be proficient in using software and standard industry technologies.
Often, structural engineers specialize in a particular type of structure, such as buildings, pipelines, tunnels, or bridges. Those who choose buildings as their specialty may focus even more specifically on a particular material, such as steel, wood, or concrete. Alternatively, they could focus on one type of building, such as residences, schools, offices, or hospitals.
Structural engineers work in a variety of contexts and for a range of entities. Some are government employees, reporting to local, state, or federal agencies and focusing their skills on public structures. Others work in industry and may oversee the design and construction of facilities for a corporation and focus on securing the necessary construction and operating permits. Structural engineers also work for consulting firms, both large and small, which offers a chance to work with a range of clients and projects.
Whatever their role and for whomever they work, structural engineers need to collaborate closely with other professionals to see their projects to completion. They work alongside architects and many other types of engineers—including civil, transportation, and nuclear—to share expertise and ensure the design and structural integrity of their projects. In addition to strong communication and collaboration skills, structural engineers also need to draw on their creative, mathematical, and technical abilities. The best structural engineers are top-notch problem solvers and project managers, having a firm grasp of mathematics, science, and operations analysis, as well as programming, design, and quality control analysis.
Although structural engineers’ salaries depend on their level of expertise, education, leadership role, and employer, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Salary Survey from 2017 pinned the median annual salary of structural engineers at $90,000.
Suggested Steps for Becoming a Structural Engineer
Opportunities for employment and advancement in the structural engineering field often depend on factors such as educational background, work history, and leadership experience. These are some common steps that one might follow to become a structural engineer:
All structural engineers must hold a bachelor’s degree, ideally in an engineering field such as civil engineering or project management for engineering. Students can further refine the skills they developed in undergraduate programs and through work experience by pursuing a graduate degree with a specialization in a particular field of engineering. For example, earning a master’s degree in civil engineering with a focus on structural engineering can better position professionals to compete for high-level roles with leadership responsibilities.
For those who are eager to advance through the ranks in the engineering field, it is important to understand that both graduate-level education and on-the-job experience can be crucial to reaching that goal. The practical knowledge that structural engineers are exposed to on the job, such as using industry software, analyzing technical plans, assisting in the design process, and the ability to network and collaborate with multidisciplinary teams are all valuable components of real-world work experience. Whether engineers have several years of full-time experience or none, enrolling in a graduate program can help them focus and strengthen their leadership skills as they prepare to move on to the next step of their careers.
Licenses and Credentials
To work as a structural engineer, it is necessary to earn a license, though the exact nature of the license varies from state to state. The Structural Engineering (SE) exam is for engineers who practice in jurisdictions that issue separate licenses to structural engineers and other types of engineers. The SE exam tests candidates’ ability to safely design structures while accounting for various risk factors, such as earthquakes and high wind. The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying lists licensing requirements for each state on its website.
The Benefits of Earning a Master of Civil Engineering
Current and aspiring structural engineers can gain specialized skills and prepare for senior roles in the field by earning a Master of Civil Engineering degree. Norwich University’s online Master of Civil Engineering program provides advanced instruction in engineering and leadership principles that can help structural engineers excel in their careers. Structural Engineering is one of four concentrations students can choose from in this 18-month program, and the following courses within this concentration help students develop key skills for the profession:
Classical, Matrix, and Dynamic Analysis of Structures provides in-depth instruction in how to use standard industry design software to analyze structural integrity. Structural engineers must have a thorough understanding of these design applications to help ensure that their projects are safe and structurally sound.
Design of Steel and Timber Structures focuses on the principles of structures made primarily of wood or steel. Students learn standard techniques for 2-D and 3-D framing while accounting for wind and seismic conditions. The course also prepares students to analyze structural strength and serviceability issues.
Design of Reinforced and Prestressed/Precast Concrete Structures provides specialized instruction in concepts related to the design of structures made with reinforced concrete, such as beams, slabs, and columns. The course also prepares students to formulate proposals for their capstone design projects.
Master of Civil Engineering programs can teach valuable career skills for structural engineers, benefiting those who are new to the field as well as professionals who have several years of work experience. The degree can lay the groundwork for graduates to compete for leadership positions in a variety of sectors, such as government, industry, and consulting, and to take on the responsibility of safely and creatively designing the landscape of the future.
As the nation’s oldest private military college, Norwich University has been a leader in innovative education since 1819. Through its online programs, Norwich delivers relevant and applicable curricula that allow its students to make a positive impact on their places of work and their communities.
Norwich University offers exceptional opportunities to help advance your knowledge, target your skills, and gain greater proficiency as a professional civil engineer. The online Master of Civil Engineering program at Norwich University is designed to enhance your technical knowledge, management skills, and engineering competence by delivering a modern, practice-oriented education that fosters creativity and critical thinking for problem-solving and innovation.
2017 ASCE Salary Survey, American Society of Civil Engineers
Career Paths in Civil Engineering, American Society of Civil Engineers
What Civil Engineers Do, Bureau of Labor Statistics
Structural Engineering (SE) Exam, National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying
Structural Engineer, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy