IS STRUCTURAL ENGINEERING HARD

I’ve been a practicing professional Structural Engineer for over 16 years and I often hear this question from high school graduates looking to start their career path… is structural engineering hard?”.

Given the right personality and mindset suited to Structural Engineering, overall I would not describe my experience so far as being “hard” but “challenging”. There is a subtle difference between the two. Hard may be associated with not being fun or enjoyable. Where as challenging is more of an adventure, a competition or a journey. A worthwhile pursuit. You too may feel the same way about Structural Engineering if you:

  • Enjoy learning all the time and expanding your knowledge
  • Have at least a basic tolerance of mathematics and mathematical principles
  • Thrive on spending time living on the edge of your comfort zone.

Your perception of how hard Structural Engineering is is highly dependant on a number of things but I’ll give you my perspective on the art of Structural Engineering from what I’ve experienced on my own journey…

Is Structural Engineering Hard to get into?

Overall the general consensus is structural engineering is quite hard to get into compared to other university courses.

However when comparing the entry requirements for Structural Engineering with other disciplines which are involved with numbers and mathematics… its quite comparable. So if you have enjoyed mathematics through high school and want to continue down the numbers path, Structural Engineering is not an outlier in this sense as we will see later on.

To get an idea on the mathematics involved in Structural Engineering in the real world, check out THIS article for a beginners guide to truss design. For an example of something a little more advanced, take a look at THIS article about the collapse of the FIU pedestrian bridge in Florida.

In Australia, you generally don’t need a masters degree to be a successful practicing structural. However other parts of the world this is regarded as mandatory. You should check your local industry to see what the norm is where you live.

Lets use some raw numbers to rank how hard structural engineering is to get into from a University entrance perspective. We can check the ATAR score requirements to gain entry into some popular universities in Australia.

For those playing at home overseas…

The ATAR is a ranking of year 12 results that measures your overall academic ability compared with all other final year students in Australia. An ATAR score is ranked from 0 to 99.95 and is given in intervals of 0.05. The highest rank is 99.95. Universities use the ATAR ranking to compare the overall achievements of final year students graduating from high school.

The table below lists the ATAR score requirements for Structural Engineering against other courses (most instances are the minimum requirements to gain entry).

UniversityStructural EngineeringMechanical EngineeringArchitectureAccounting
Monash University86867575
Melbourne University85858580
University of Adelaide84808085
University of Western Australia80807580
University of New South Wales84848581

How Hard is Structural Engineering – Using the Dunning Kruger Effect

Have you noticed that mastering any new skill can feel like an emotional roller-coaster ride?

Your not alone in feeling this way, in fact there is science (or at least pseudo science) and studies to back this up… enter the Dunning Kruger Effect…

The best definition I can find on the internet to explain the Dunning-Kruger effect is:

“The Dunning-Kruger effect is a type of cognitive bias in which people believe that they are smarter and more capable than they really are”Source

Ok before you take offence to this back handed insult, lets dig a little deeper into this effect.

As they say, a picture says a thousand words, so lets take a look at the Dunning-Kruger effect in graphical format…

Whenever I see this curve, I chuckle a little inside and my career from University until now rushes before my eyes.

Lets use this model to explain the “hardness” of structural engineering. As you can see from the progression of the curve with the highs and the lows, the perception of how hard Structural Engineering is may depend on where you are on your journey…

Climbing the Peak of Mount Stupid

This phase I would say is your university years. There is quite a steep learning curve, through this period you will start to experience some of the following:

  • New terminology you aren’t used to
  • Depending on the University, the training wheels are off and you start to feel what its like to teach yourself a few things rather than being spoon fed information as it was in high school
  • You may realise you need to start to be self-motivated and manage your time more effectively.
  • Exposure to mathematics will be noticeable and at the beginning may be a little overwhelming.
  • Depending on your local laws, you may now legally be allowed to drink. Balancing recreational time and study commitments is an ability which you will need now and later in your career.

I look back at my university experience with a lot of fond memories. I wouldn’t regard the overall experience as being “hard” though. Sure at times it was difficult but the experience of learning things that I could see being useful in my future career was a huge motivator.

If you can manage your time effectively and enjoy learning you will get through this period in one piece!

Sliding down the Peak of Mount Stupid

Once you have successfully finished university with good enough grades, you’re ready to enter the profession of Structural Engineering. For an in-depth look at how exactly to become a structural engineer, take a look at THIS article where I go through the step-by-step process, including accreditation sand taking your qualifications to the next level.

The good news is that the demand is very high in most parts of the world for Structural Engineers. If you present yourself well you shouldn’t have too much difficulty finding a job!

During your first year being a Structural Engineer in a real consulting firm you may find yourself sliding down the slippery slope on the bad side of Mount Stupid. You will make mistakes, you will be challenged. This may be the most difficult part of you Engineering journey.

You will notice a distinct shift in pace going from University to designing in a firm. Engineering firms just like other organisations need to make money (that’s how you get paid after all). Time is money so you may find yourself with less time than what you had previously been used to…

But don’t worry, you will be given the necessary tools to help you succeed in this environment. If the consultancy is established enough, they will have processes, standard design approaches, in-house spreadsheets and analysis software to help speed up the process.

You will hopefully also choose an organisation with a structured graduate program and mentor/buddy system to help you transition into you working life. To learn more about what to expect and how to prepare for your Structural Engineering job interview, I highly recommend taking a look at THIS article. In this article I go through what questions you may be asked as well as key questions you should ask to make sure the organisation is the right fit for you.

Some things that may be going through your mind during this period may be:

  • Wow that Engineer designed a concrete column in ten minutes which took me a whole semester at University to complete.
  • Why aren’t any of these buildings square and regular like the ones we looked at during University?
  • How come I’m not using much of what I learned at University?
  • If feels like all these people are talking a different language
  • Should I already know this? Should I ask this question? Will I look stupid if I ask this? (pro tip… yes ask that question! and ask as many questions as you can!)

This is definitely a tough period in your journey. To succeed during this period the key is to ask as many questions as possible (hence the RED emphasis on the last dot point above). Don’t be concerned about “looking stupid”, this is your opportunity to learn as much as you can, as quickly as you can. Failing to ask questions will make Structural Engineering hard for you!

Those that don’t ask questions during this period find themselves still having these same questions when they become more senior engineers. It’s a very bad look asking a question as a senior engineer that a graduate should already know!

Back to Reality in the Valley of Despair

Around year 2 and 3 of your career you may find yourself in the depths of the Valley of Despair. You may have worked on a couple of projects from start to finish. Through this exposure, you begin to realise just how much you don’t know about Engineering and how much you still need to learn. The learning curve has been extremely steep up until this point so this realisation may become quite overwhelming.

If you are an engineer in your second or third year of your career, you may be interested in THIS article where I explore a list of things that all Structural Engineers should know after 2 or 3 years of working experience.

Around this period, a lot of Structural Engineers may find that this career is not for them and decide to move on to other things. For those that move on, the time until now has not been wasted at all. The Structural Engineering degree and qualification is very diverse and opens up opportunities in the following career paths:

  • Project management
  • Design management
  • Construction management
  • Real estate
  • General management roles

At this point you are at a cross-road in your career. You can either try different avenues in the construction industry or surrender yourself as a pupil of Structural Engineering and begin the long journey towards mastery.

The best way to start this phase of the journey is shift your mindset towards the path of learning and realise that your learning will continue all the way up until your retirement.

At this stage in my career I’m still constantly learning every day. This has now become one of the main reasons why I love Structural Engineering. The day I stop learning is probably the day I will retire. Although I’m sure with advancements in technology (both in design and construction techniques) I’m sure there will be no shortage of new learning material from now until eternity.

So put simply, to thrive in this period and beyond you really need to enjoy learning new things. Also you need to be comfortable in advancing your knowledge and living life near the edge of your comfort zone. With this mindset, you will never find Structural Engineering “hard” but rather a challenge.

Notice the different weight those two words carry; if something is hard we deem it not fun or enjoyable. Whereas if something is challenging it becomes a little more exciting, like a competition or a journey, a more worthwhile pursuit. This would be the best word I would use to sum up my Structural Engineering experience from university until now… Challenging.

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Quentin Suckling is our founding director.  Prior to starting Sheer Force Engineering, he spent almost 2 decades working as a practicing Structural Engineer at Tier 1 engineering consulting firms delivering multiple billions of dollars worth of projects and managing large multi-disciplinary engineering teams. View More Posts

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