Sunday, June 09, 2013

So you want to study Civil Engineering?

The one thing I probably know well in life is how to study for civil engineering courses -- not doing actual engineering, mind you, just going to school for it. Yes, I have a bachelor's degree from one of the top schools in my country for civil engineering. And I also have a graduate degree (course based, but I did a research project) from that same school. Combined, I did six years of schooling in civil engineering with four of those full-time and the rest part-time.

Can't say I have anything remotely interesting to say about my time at school. No wild antics, no acting out, or "having fun", just six years of straight studying -- I'm a boring person.

If you're reading this, you might be a 17 or 18 year old still in high school trying to figure out what to spend your next four years doing. Or you're looking for a career change and think it'd be cool to be an engineer because the people on the TV keep saying that's where the jobs are.

Hopefully, I can shed some light on what civil engineering generally involves and what one may study in university.

What did I know about civil engineering at age 18, 19, and 20?

My university life started at around age 18. The only reason I got into engineering was because university was "necessary" and my best friend in high school was going into mechanical engineering. No school accepted me for that despite a high school average in the mid-80s, so the choice was between civil, environmental, and a general entry option. The local schools gave me civil, and my desire to "experience" another city just wasn't there.

I suppose you could say that I knew nothing about civil engineering when I signed up. Something about construction, math, science, and "OMFG, engineering program". The fact that you're reading this suggests that you aren't winging it like I did, so good on you. My misconceptions or just plain ignorance did not change until late in my second or third year of studies.

My Undergraduate Experience: Or how it took four years to figure it out...

First year
When I finally got to school, my first year of study was generic, and all it really did was play into my misconception and ignorance about the subject. Many called this the "weed out" year with generic classes filled with engineers across many branches or specializations. This may not be the case everywhere, so do your research on curriculums at specific schools. If I remember correctly, subjects included calculus, linear algebra, computer programming, technical writing, materials science, statics (only civil specific), social studies, chemistry, and one technical elective. I chose mechanics/dynamics and found out exactly why I wasn't accepted as a mechanical engineering student.

Second year

In second year, we finally started to specialize somewhat with foundation courses related to civil engineering disciplines. And most of my classes were filled with civil engineering students. Subjects included fluid mechanics, engineering math, solid mechanics, engineering materials, probability and statistics, hydrology, drafting (i.e. AutoCAD), transportation design, and some social studies. Okay, I was starting to understand that this field involved water, rain, and roads -- so not just building buildings and bridges. Cool?

Third year

Then third year happened. Sorry to mislead you, but it wasn't that exciting or enlightening of a year. We studied surveying (in the field), soil mechanics, more engineering math, some economics, structural design codes for concrete and steel with a tad on timber, more transportation design, construction scheduling, and water infrastructure like sewers and water mains. Now things were starting to come together, but it still sounded like the emphasis was on buildings. The newest discoveries were public transportation and municipal water infrastructure.

Fourth year

And then there was fourth year when things finally started coming together. This was the year when we were finally allowed to choose the majority of our own courses -- not just social studies and humanities courses. There were still some mandatory courses though.

Alright, so fourth year opened everything up with all the options. However, still being clueless, I mostly chose structural design courses for buildings. The mandatories covered building science and foundations. So, yes, more buildings, but different aspects of buildings. Also, the final requirement was a full year design project where you were supposed to put everything you learned together and design something big. We did get to choose our field of study and, you guessed it, I chose structural design for a bridge. Luckily, I didn't get it and got water treatment design, which turned out to be the second best "accident" after not getting into the mechanical engineering program. It turned out that I loved water treatment and building science.

What is civil engineering then?

It took four years, but I finally figured it out -- I think. Civil engineering generally involves the design and construction of infrastructure that makes the basics of modern society possible. How I would summarize the main subfields and specializations in civil engineering:
  • Building Science: the movement of air, heat, moisture, and water within a building. One uses this knowledge to design insulation and building envelopes to keep these things inside or outside the building.
  • Construction Management: the efficient planning and administration of construction projects.
  • Environmental: the conveyance of precipitation (e.g. stormwater), groundwater and soil remediation, fresh drinking water, waste water, and the treatment of all of the above.
  • Foundations & Geotechnical: can be lumped with structural except these generally focus on underground structures supported by soil or rock. These can be standalone designs or in support of larger structures.
  • Geomatics: the accurate use of surveying and other geospatial locating methods.
  • Structural: the safe design of structures such as buildings and bridges using various materials.
  • Transportation: the conveyance or movement of people such as public transportation, roads, and highways.  
Overall, almost every subfield or specialization overlaps with another. A construction manager may oversee a bridge or building project. Both require foundations, surveyors need to map everything out accurately, and structural engineers need to design the structures so they stay up. A building science engineer may then design the envelope of a building, and a bridge or new building may require roads to be realigned or widened to bring people to/from them.

Graduate Studies

I had the best time in graduate school even though I held down a full-time job and worked my ass off. The focus of my studies was on building science and environmental engineering. I did some research with a professor for credit, and my classmates were great. Most people in graduate school want to be there, as opposed to people looking to get that all important piece of paper. There was just a different attitude in myself and my classmates. Class sizes were smaller too.

What should you study?

I have no idea. As you can see, there are numerous subfields and how much you can specialize may depend on the school's program. Some schools may not offer specializations because they do not have professors with the proper background. It's onto graduate school then maybe.

Demographics-wise, I noticed that environmental engineering classes usually had a larger proportion of female students. Most of my other classes throughout undergrad were about a 25/75 split between females/males.

Things I'd Do Differently: Scenario A

Knowing what I know now, and assuming I still went with civil engineering, I would actually study more rather than wing most of it. Talking to my professors would also have been a good idea to build a network, learn more about the field, and have a good pool of references available for graduate school. During the summers, jobs or internships in engineering would have been a priority to explore the profession, build a resume, and make myself more employable too. Doing some research with professors may also have been fun and helpful. And maybe I would have kept down a part-time job somehow -- despite the heavy workload -- for money, experience, and something to do.

If I Could Start Over at 18: Scenario B

Eff engineering -- woops, was that out loud?

Yes, I got a job with the degree related in the field, but I am actively looking for a way out after two related degrees. It's just not for me and I have numerous other reasons on why I hate it after spending years in the field -- I'll leave these words unspoken.

Oh right, did I mention I'm underemployed? I do a job that only requires a two or three year community college diploma in civil engineering, which would have meant a lighter workload and less than half the tuition. The year I graduated was in the midst of the economic meltdown too.

However, much of the blame lands on me: I didn't prepare or research, didn't do any internships or summer jobs in the field, and have not tried looking for better jobs at other companies. The big epiphany was probably that I did none of the above because I just don't like it, so I have absolutely no motivation. How much the recession factored in, I don't know and can't confirm, but there's a good chance that it did matter. The first survey from my month asking me where I was and what I made after four months went unanswered. Yes, shame.

Evading the question, huh? If I could start over at 18, I would take an extra year to stay in high school and work part-time on the side. This would allow me to study a bunch of things I never would have thought of doing in high school. The job would be good for money, building a network, and just learning to grow up.

Then, I'd go to school and do a bachelor of arts majoring in anthropology and psychology. Maybe with a minor in a language. There's a good chance that my employment prospects would be terrible after graduating, but I could go back to community college, do a technical diploma, and be exactly where I am now. My finances would be similar too because engineering school is more expensive than both a bachelor of arts and technical diploma combined. Having more free time may have allowed a part-time job to offset the opportunity cost of the extra year or two of schooling. And who knows what that network would have done for me.

So, ya... Follow your dream?

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