Kara Kockelman

Kara Kockelman

Professor of Transportation Engineering
University of Texas at Austin
Austin, TX
Kara Kockelman
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Professor of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering and William J. Murray Jr. Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, Dr. Kockelman is a registered professional engineer and holds a PhD, MS, and BS in civil engineering, a Masters of City Planning, and a minor in economics from the University of California at Berkeley. She has received an NSF CAREER Award for faculty research and teaching (2000-2004), a Ford Fund CAREER Award (2002), a U.C. Transportation Center “Student of the Year” Award (1998), U.C. Berkeley’s University Medal (1991), and the NSF and Berkeley Fellowships for graduate study (1993-1998). In 2002, MIT’s Technology Review Magazine identified her as one of the world’s Top 100 Innovators under age 35, and the Council of University Transportation Centers awarded her its inaugural Young Faculty Award. In 2006, the Regional Science Association International presented her with its Geoffrey J.D. Hewings Award (for exceptional promise as a young regional science researcher). Dr. Kockelman received ASCE’s 2007 Harland Bartholomew Award, to recognize her many transportation planning contributions, including her novel credit-based congestion pricing theory. She also received the Heart of Texas’ Women’s Transportation Seminar’s 2007 Woman of the Year Award and was made a WTS-HOT Honorary Member in 2012. In 2010, Dr. Kockelman received ASCE’s Walter L. Huber Research Prize in Transportation Engineering, for contributions in the areas of data acquisition and analysis to facilitate decisions in transport planning and policy-making. Between her undergraduate and graduate studies, she served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the rural Andean region of Ecuador, managing the construction of potable water systems and other sanitation infrastructure. She continues her public service through her research and interactions with a variety of Austin groups, including student and alumni associations and professional societies. Dr. Kockelman's primary research interests include the statistical modeling of urban systems (including models of travel behavior, trade, and location choice), energy and climate issues (vis-à-vis transport and land use decisions), the economic impacts of transport policy, and crash occurrence and consequences. She has taught classes in transportation systems, transport economics, transport data acquisition and analysis, probability and statistics, design of ground-based transportation systems, and geometric design of roadways. For several years, she advised the student chapters of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and Engineers Without Borders (EWB) at the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Kockelman chaired the Transportation Research Board’s (TRB) Travel Survey Methods committee for three years (2007-2010) and served on the Transportation and Land Development committee for 11 years (1999-2010). She also serves on the organization’s Committee on Transportation Economics, Committee on Statistical Methods, and Integrated Transportation and Land Use Modeling subcommittee. She has been a member of the two National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) panels and one Transit CRP panel, and recently served as a member of the National Research Council’s Committee for the Study on Relationships among Development Patterns, VMT, and Energy Conservation. She sits on the editorial advisory boards of Transportation Research (Part B, Methodological), Journal of Transport and Land Use, Journal of Regional Science, International Regional Science Review, Economics of Transportation and Papers in Regional Science. In 2005, she was elected to the North American Regional Science Council, and in 2009 she chaired the annual North American meetings of the Regional Science Association International. In 2010, Dr. Kockelman was appointed to a three-year term as a member of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Advisory Council on Transportation Statistics. In 2011, she was appointed to a two-year term on ASCE’s national Awards Committee. Dr. Kockelman is primary and co-author of over 100 papers across a variety of subjects, all of which involve transportation-related data analysis. She has conducted research for the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Cooperative and Strategic Highway Research Programs, the University Transportation Centers program, the North Central Texas Council of Governments and the Texas and Oregon Departments of Transportation. Recent and current projects include NSF grants for spatial econometric models of discrete response and studies of plug-in-electric-vehicle ownership and use, an NSF IGERT on the power grid, an NSF RCN on sustainable cities, an EPA STAR grant for land use, transport, and air quality models, NCHRP projects on demand modeling of non-motorized travel and tolled roadways, and TxDOT projects for holistic evaluation of competing network improvement projects and the development of a transportation economics reference for practitioners.

U.C. Berkeley BS, MS & PhD in Civil Engineering, Masters of City Planning, Minors in Economics & Statistics
  • I am willing to be contacted by educators for possible speaking engagements in schools or in after school programs or summer camps.
  • I am willing to be interviewed by interested students via email.
Answers by Dr. Kara Kockelman

Civil engineers have all types of terrific opportunities after completing a master’s degree!  Those with a strong business sense and novel ideas may start their own company. Others may join a large or small consulting firm, a city’s public works department, a state’s department of transportation, and so forth.  A Master’s degree conveys a wonderful level of specialization that allows engineers (and those in other fields) to go farther and deeper, so they can really follow their passions and make more meaningful contributions that are much harder to make with simply a four-year degree.  In the U.S., an MS degree in engineering may one day become the “base degree”, rather than a B.S. degree, because our fields have pushed the envelope of innovation further and further, so our knowledge runs deeper and deeper. It is very hard to get close to that envelope of understanding in just four years (taking a wide range of classes, not just engineering courses, of course!).  

Thus, many new graduates with a B.S. degree (who typically are just 22-years old) do not feel that they know enough to have the depth of career that they need to be intellectually satisfied.  A large share (perhaps the majority) want to head back for an M.S. degree, so they can specialize (in transportation engineering, environmental engineering, geotechnical engineering, structural engineering, or construction engineering, for example). A professional engineer’s license is also very important for civil engineers, since our work is so public in nature (and therefore public safety is regularly affected by our design decisions), and an M.S. degree really speeds up that licensing process.  Many people in industry and practice want an M.S. degree to be the starting degree for civil engineers, and 5 years of undergraduate studies is typical in France and several other countries for a first degree in civil engineering.  Thus, I encourage everyone for whom education is enjoyable to be ready to pursue an M.S. degree before too long after graduating with their B.S. degree. It really pays off, in many ways!  A world of opportunity opens up with an M.S. degree. 

Thanks for the question, Moira!  “Contractor” normally means someone who works under contract, which is how most of us work: we sign a contract to perform specific work/deliver specific work products (like a building, a report, a new device, accounting services, etc.).  This is how we get paid.  “Consultant” simply means an expert or semi-expert in a topic area who is consulted for advice.  They provide services, rather than hard products (e.g., travel demand forecasts for a region, rather than a new bridge over a river).  They also work under contract.  Thus, a contractor is more broad than a consultant. 

Many people think of construction work when they hear the term “contractor”, and you may have that idea in mind too!  Those who are contracted to construct something use math (for shortest-time construction paths and net present values of project investments, for example), but not as much as those contracted as consultants on other, more complex civil engineering topics (like traffic forecasting 20 years forward, wave speeds in an ocean against a port facility, the chemistry of air pollution formation, earthquake forces on rooftops). 

Civil engineering is an incredibly diverse field, from water and air quality to structural strength, materials hardening to transport logistics, bridge construction to soil liquefaction, and much more. You can do as much contracting and math as you want (or don’t want).  We look forward to having you in the discipline!  Good luck with your coming studies.

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)

Lauren: Thanks so much for the great question! Engineers can do anything. Really. So a civil engineer may end up as a major policymaker (we have an engineer mayor right now in Austin), head of construction crews (directly engaged in the earth moving, concrete pouring testing, etc.), designer (largely in an office but also on site regularly to see exactly how the structures are going up [to ensure they meet the design specifications]), regulator or review consultant (inspecting construction, trying to diagnose any weaknesses or failures), and so on. If you really like be on the job site, civil engineering departments generally have subsets of faculty ( & classes) focused on construction management. If you want a mix of design in there (which I can recommend, given your stated interests and abilities), then you would find that job type quite easily within design-build firms (which are the biggest civil engineering firms out there - so there are tons of graduates headed into these firms every year). I teach a senior-level design class for roadways. I have several colleagues teaching such courses for buildings. Others for bridges. Some for brick buildings, others for steel, and still others for wood. We have several materials engineers in our department, focused on concrete, asphalt, and so on. (Note: I am at the University of Texas at Austin.) Such variety and strength in multiple areas is very common, especially at bigger public universities. Let me know if you have any other questions! We hope to see you in engineering soon! Best wishes, Dr. Kockelman

Dear Stephen:


I am not sure what school you are graduating from or how strong a student you were (or how much tuition you invested!), but civil engineering is a wonderful profession that weathers most any economic storm. Civil engineering contributions are so basic to society, that local, regional and global communities cannot do without such talent. Thus, hiring in our industry probably never ceases.

I have not heard of any slow-down in hiring recently. (I work in transportation engineering, but I imagine construction engineering and structural engineering design opportunities slowed down, along with most hiring [in any discipline], a few years ago.) Texas is also a great place to be looking, and Houston, with its tremendous population, will have more CE options than almost any other U.S. region.

As a more mature (re-entry) student, you probably will have even better prospects, everything else constant. (Maturity counts for a lot, in my experience!) I hope you attended a public university, where great civil engineering educations happen and students regularly graduate without any debt. I would not worry about “connections”. (I have seen none of that in our industry, thank goodness. Engineers tend to offer positions based on very fair competition, in my experience.)

Congratulations to you & your wife! (It sounds like you have a doctor in the family. What a nice combination of talents in a single household.)

Dr. Kockelman

Dear Hilori: I'm so glad you're thinking of these terrific professions. I really enjoy teaching at the university level, in civil engineering. Civil engineering makes good use of chemistry expertise, through its sub-discipline of environmental engineering (as well as materials and pavement engineering, for example). You'll notice that most departments of civil engineering are now titled Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering -- so your joint interests will fit in very nicely! Environmental engineering emphasizes water, air and soil quality and contamination. You could be modeling air pollution outside or in a home, ground water flows from a reservoir, drinking water quality, remediation (clean-up) techniques, and so forth. Of course, a Department of Chemical Engineering is another option that also will marry your two interests. (There the focus tends to be much more microscopic, at the level of atoms, and how molecular reactions proceed, I believe.) Good luck with your quest! Let me know if you have further questions. Sincerely, Kara Kockelman