Advice for an Aspiring Civil Engineer

I am graduating high school this year and will be attending A&M in the fall to begin working towards a Civil Engineering degree. I have an idea of what I want to do, but I am not exactly sure how to set up my degree plan in terms of what I'd like to get. I originally wanted to major in structural engineering, however looking at my long term goals I realized I would need some type of education and experience with water resource and the environment. I know there are three separate degree plans to get your major in each one of those in civil engineering, but is there a way to combine, double major, or get my masters and minor to put a combination of the three together? And if not what is the best area to go in that has the most education to include the majority of those three things?
posted by Alyssa, Texas on April 26, 2014

Answer by Dr. Kara Kockelman

Howdy, Alyssa!

You have asked a great question, that really highlights the breadth of the civil engineering field.  It made me think that Texas A&M offers special degree programs, but Dr. Kelly Brumbelow (Asst. Department Head for Undergraduate Programs in CE at A&M) has set me straight.  She is the lead author of this joint response.

As you note, CE covers everything from analysis and design of structures using composite materials to engineered wetlands with specific biological functions to planning of transportation networks under uncertain future conditions and much more. All accredited civil engineering programs are required to include at least 4 different specialty areas in civil engineering, and some schools (like Texas A&M [where Dr Brumbelow works] and UT Austin [where I teach]) encompass significantly more than that. While individual B.S. curricula vary, all schools require study of the basics in multiple CE specialties. In other words, every CE student takes almost the same courses until their junior or senior year. After a basic level of familiarity with all CE subjects is completed, students can decide to specialize in a particular area or pursue a broader set of electives that includes some advanced courses in several fields. If a student proceeds to a Master’s degree, she will choose a specialty area for her studies and take most of her courses within it.

In your question, you asked about minoring or double majoring to do study in all these areas. That type of approach really isn't necessary. B.S. curricula in CE include all the specialty areas within the major (e.g., construction engineering, environmental, geotechnical, structural, materials & transportation – my field!).

It’s terrific that you already see the need to include multiple CE specialties in your education. A good example of why this is important is a project like a bridge to be built over a river in a coastal area. That project would require all of the following, at a minimum:

- Transportation engineers to assess traffic volumes & loads crossing the bridge (as well as boat traffic beneath, potentially)

- Water resources engineers to assess river levels under flooding scenarios and the potential for strong currents to undermine the bridge piers

- Coastal engineers to assess possible storm surge raising water levels from the seaward side

- Geotechnical engineers to design the bridge piers and abutment to avoid scour of the underlying soil and foundation failure

- Structural engineers to design the bents, trusses, beams, slabs, and other major components

- Materials engineers to specify steel and concrete able to withstand saltwater and spray

- Environmental engineers to analyze runoff of chemicals from the bridge deck and mitigate effects on downstream ecosystems

- Construction engineers to determine the actual process of converting plans into a practical sequence of building activities

So, it's valuable to have familiarity with all of these areas, even if you ultimately specialize in a particular one (during your senior year & graduate studies). I might mention that I didn’t settle on my final area of interest (transportation engineering) until my senior year as an undergraduate.  It didn’t become my passion under after I completed my BS degree (while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador).  So don’t worry about giving yourself some time, to get acquainted with multiple disciplines!

Good luck to you in your undergraduate studies.  I bet they’ll be exciting & varied. 

Kara Kockelman (& Kelly Brumbelow)