All You Need To Know About Structural Engineering

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated September 8, 2021 | Published February 25, 2020

Updated September 8, 2021

Published February 25, 2020

Structural engineering is an important field that focuses on the design and development of safe and stable structures. This civil engineering specialty is ideal for those who have strong math, science, critical thinking, analytical and problem-solving skills. If you're interested in an engineering career, you should consider exploring the career path of a structural engineer.

In this article, we explain what structural engineering is and what structural engineers do, plus how to become one.

What is structural engineering?

Structural engineering is a type of civil engineering that addresses the impact of physical force on force-resisting elements. The field of structural engineering assigns numerical quantities to physical forces and evaluates how different structural elements will respond to these forces. To successfully complete any type of structural engineering project, professionals must go through a lengthy process of analysis and design. The engineer analyzes known forces, designs elements that should withstand them and tests the design for accuracy and performance.

Structural engineering applies to any type of structure that withstands vertical or horizontal loads. Vertical loads are known as gravity loads. These include the weight of all components within a building such as the flooring, walls, mechanical systems and furnishings. The occupants within a building or the vehicles on a bridge add to the gravity load as well.

Horizontal loads are referred to as lateral loads. Lateral loads include wind, explosions and earthquakes. These are often unexpected, yet structures must feature a stable design that will equip them to withstand these forces.

What do structural engineers do?

Structural engineers are responsible for designing structures that can withstand pressure and force. Buildings, bridges and other types of structures must be flexible enough to handle high winds yet stable enough to maintain their integrity in earthquakes, storms and other types of hazardous conditions.

Structural engineers must consider the way different materials twist, bend and vibrate. They apply scientific and mathematical principles to their designs to make sure that each construction project is safe and stable. These engineers research and evaluate various materials, building methods and structural approaches to develop more efficient, cost-effective and safe ways to design and build essential structures.

A structural engineer's duties may include:

  • Calculating the pressure and stress that a building may encounter

  • Researching and evaluating the hazards in an area, such as waves against coastal structures

  • Creating and testing models using computer software

  • Evaluating older buildings for structural integrity

  • Recommending repairs, additions and other changes for existing structures

  • Constructing and testing models for safety and stability

  • Monitoring construction of new structures

  • Meeting with contractors to ensure structures are built properly

  • Developing construction budgets

  • Evaluating materials for new construction projects

  • Collaborating with architects and other engineers on building design and construction

  • Making sure structures meet the appropriate building codes, legal regulations and health and safety requirements

Where do structural engineers work?

Structural engineers typically work as either consultants or contractors. Those who work as consultants spend the majority of their time in an office environment. They develop plans, manage projects and generate blueprints or reports. These engineers spend most of the day at a desk and typically work a standard weekday schedule. They may work overtime occasionally to meet a pressing deadline. They will occasionally visit construction sites, but this takes up only a small portion of their time.

Structural engineers working as contractors spend most of their time on the construction site. They handle the hands-on aspect of engineering, managing construction teams and closely supervising projects as they're built. These structural engineers may work with subcontractors for portions of the project. They're at the head of the team, directing activity and overseeing all activities on-site as structural designs become reality.

Structural engineers usually specialize in a particular industry. This allows them to become familiar with the distinct challenges and requirements in their area of expertise. Some of the common industries that structural engineers can work in include:

  • Airports

  • Coastal and marine structures

  • Buildings

  • Bridges

  • Energy and power plants

  • Railways

  • Highways

  • Tunnels

  • Water and public health structures

Read More: 12 Jobs in Construction That Pay Well

What's the difference between a structural engineer and civil engineer?

Structural engineering is a type of civil engineering. Civil engineering contains many subdisciplines including environmental engineering and transportation engineering. You can become a civil engineer with a minimum of a Bachelor's Degree in Civil Engineering. Structural engineers may need to further their educations with a postgraduate course of study in structural engineering. Structural engineering is an advanced discipline that builds on the core education provided to civil engineers.

Read More: Learn About Being a Civil Engineer

How to become a structural engineer

Structural engineers need a specialized education. The following steps will prepare you for a career as a structural engineer:

  1. Earn your bachelor's degree.

  2. Consider a graduate degree.

  3. Pass the Fundamentals of Engineering exam.

  4. Complete an engineering internship.

  5. Pass the Principles and Practice of Engineering exam.

1. Earn your bachelor's degree

Structural engineers must have a bachelor's degree in either civil engineering or structural engineering. If your school doesn't offer structural engineering as a bachelor's degree, focus on structural engineering electives or look for a structural engineering subspecialty within your civil engineering degree program.

2. Consider a graduate degree

You can improve your employability by pursuing an advanced degree, such as a Master's Degree in Structural Engineering. This will give you the advanced knowledge that's necessary to remain competitive in this field.

Read more: The 10 Best Master's Degrees for Finding a Job

3. Pass the Fundamentals of Engineering exam

The FE exam is the first step to earning your engineering credentials. You can take this exam shortly after graduation or as you near the end of your college education.

4. Complete an engineering internship

You must spend at least four years working as an engineering intern under a professional engineer. This will qualify you to sit for the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam.

5. Pass the PE exam

Upon completion of the PE exam, you may qualify as a licensed engineer. The exact requirements for licensure vary by state, so you should check with your local licensing board to determine exactly which tests are required. The 16-hour Structural Engineering exam counts as your PE exam in most states. This exam includes tests on vertical forces during the first day of the exam and tests on lateral forces during the second day.

Some states do not accept this structural engineering exam as a qualification for the PE license. In these states, you typically have to take the eight-hour PE Civil exam. This covers five depth modules in the morning and provides a specialized test on one of the modules in the afternoon. Structural engineering is one of the depth modules that you may choose to specialize in.

Explore more articles