So You Want to be a Civil Engineer?

July 29, 2022
6 min read
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Civil Engineers are possibly the coolest people on the planet. These are the people who design and make construction plans for pieces of infrastructure to serve the needs of clients and communities while preserving the health, safety, and welfare of the public. In layman's terms, they design what people need so they can build it and improve their lives. Things like housing, places of business, roadways, rail lines, parks, sports fields, schools, etc. Who wouldn't want to make the world around them better and safer for the public? That was the exact thought I had five years ago when I applied to college.

Now five years later, I have graduated from college, am an EIT (Engineer in Training) and am on my way to becoming a PE (Professional Engineer). So, for those who are thinking about pursuing a similar career, as a recent college graduate, I am going to give you my two cents about my academic experience. This is a bit of a long Newsletter, but I am going to try to sum up five years of college education, so bear with me. Also, as a bit of a disclaimer, not every school is the same and this is just my experience, so take from it what you want.

Anyway, you first need to apply to an ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) certified school and be accepted. Most all schools that offer Civil Engineering are certified by ABET, but it's always good to double check because otherwise, you would be in for a very expensive waste of time. I applied to Drexel University in the Fall of 2016 (when I was a senior in high school), and they accepted me (which still surprises me to this day).

Drexel is a Co-op school meaning that the whole program is five years, but for my middle three years, I alternated between going to school for six months and working for six months. To be completely honest, I learned more in my time on co-op than I did in the classroom. While I am a bit biased, this program is fantastic. It allows students to work in different sectors of the industry, try out small and large firms, or find out that the industry is not for them. I could go on and on, but that is a topic for another newsletter.

Year 1

So, I arrived at Drexel as a freshman in 2017 and was met with several prerequisite classes meant to separate those who want it from those who don't before we got into the real meat and potatoes. Some of the notable ones are Calculus (1-3), Physics (1-3), Chemistry (1 and 2), Biology, and Computation Lab (computer programing using MATLAB). In addition to these classes (which are pretty tough), I also had some easier and more creative classes. My favorite was Engineering Design Labs 1, 2, and 3. Each of them is different, but one of them involved teams building a bridge out of K'Nex where each piece cost a certain amount of money. The whole class competed for overall strength and cost per pound supported. While it did feel a bit like we were in elementary school playing with K'Nex, we learned a lot about how to think like an engineer and admittedly, it was fun. My team didn't win anything, but it was cool seeing the big brain-building techniques of some of my classmates.

Year 2

Sophomore year came around and it was time to put on some big boy pants and pass some harder classes. This was the year of Linear Algebra, Differential Equations, Thermodynamics, Fundamentals of Materials and Mechanics of Materials. These were some of the toughest classes of my college career and were the deciding factor for many that engineering was not for them. There were some other easier engineering classes and electives mixed in, like Presentation of Experimental Data and Microeconomics. These classes were a breeze compared to the others on my schedule.

Year 3 and 4

For my Pre-Junior and Junior years, the "engineering" students separated and took classes that applied more to their area of study. During this time, the difficult classes were Geology, Soil Mechanics (1 and 2), Statics, Structural Analysis, Structural Design (1 and 2), Construction Materials, Structural Material Behavior, Fluid Flow, Hydraulics, and Hydrology. These classes were not quite as tough as the ones before, but they are not to be underestimated. Additionally, these years had some easy engineering classes and electives mixed in but like Sophomore year these classes were a breeze compared to the others.

Year 5

After trudging through 4 years of school, the gas was let off a bit senior year and the focus was on "Professional Electives ." There was a wide range of classes to choose from, which were geared toward specific industries within Civil Engineering. This year I took classes like Transportation Planning and Capacity, Pavement Design, Geotechnical Engineering for Highways, Heavy Construction Principles and Waste Water Treatment. These were some very interesting classes but still required full-time effort to pass. In addition to these classes the whole year is spent working with a group and a faculty advisor on a Senior Project. My team and I worked on a project titled "The Marsh Creek Hydroelectric Project ." We prepared a set of design plans, three lengthy reports and three presentations. Our work on this project is interesting (to me at least) and worth a newsletter. During this year, I wrote the longest paper of my college career. It was 17 pages and was titled "Redefining the Design Storm: An investigation into the changing rainfall patterns of the American Coastal Mid-Atlantic and the adequacy of current design storms ." This could also become a newsletter because it is important to know where the design storms come from.

Fundamentals of Engineering Exam 

As if the five years of school were not hard enough, there is still one more thing you should pass before you finish college, the FE (Fundamentals of Engineering) exam. This is a 5-hour and 20-minute, 110-question multiple choice exam on EVERYTHING I learned in college. This tested me on topics like mathematics, statistics, ethics, statics, dynamics, mechanics of materials, fluid mechanics, structural analysis/design, geotechnical engineering, transportation engineering, environmental engineering, construction management, and surveying. Passing this requires weeks of studying, hundreds of practice problems, and the endurance to take a test for over 5 hours. I remember submitting my exam with 40 seconds left on the clock.

After you pass this test and graduate from college, you are an EIT. This is where I am right now. Then, after working under another PE for four years and passing your PE exam, you become a Registered Professional Engineer. As a Professional Engineer, you are undoubtedly an expert in your field and you get a fancy stamp that you use to certify plans you worked on. Once I am at that point, I will have dedicated nine years of my life to pursuing a career to engineer a better world. It will be a great moment when it comes, and I am looking forward to the future.


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