Structural Engineering Degrees: Masters, PhD & Online Course Info

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What will you learn in a structural engineering degree program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of a master's and PhD degree and potential careers.
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Studying Structural Engineering: Degrees at a Glance

While earning your graduate degree in structural engineering, you'll learn to design and evaluate structures like buildings, highways and bridges. In addition, you'll study specific engineering problems, like designing skyscrapers to withstand earthquakes. Typically, you'll need a bachelor's degree from a program approved by ABET (formerly called the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) and several years of supervised experience in order to obtain state licensure and begin working as a full-fledged engineer. A master's degree is usually necessary for career advancement or admission to PhD programs. If you'd like to work as an engineering professor, you'll typically need a PhD in the field.

Structural engineers usually work in civil engineering, which is projected to experience average job growth from 2010-2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Job growth for university engineering professors is also expected to be average.

Master's PhD
Who is this degree for? Students or working engineers who would like to improve their career prospects Those who wish to work as university professors
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary) These positions usually require licensure:
- Structural engineer (entry-level, $53,000; 2-4 years' experience, $68,000; 4-6 years' experience, $88,000)*
- Project engineer (entry-level, $62,000; $121,000 with 10+ years' experience)*
- Engineering manager ($115,000 - requires about 8 years' experience)*
- Chief executive ($167,000 - typically requires extensive industry experience)**
Same positions available to master's degree holders, as well as the following:
- Postsecondary engineering teacher ($91,000)**
- Dean of university engineering department ($205,000 - experience is usually required)*
Time to Completion Usually 1-2 years full-time or up to 5 years part-time Approximately 3-5 years full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - Thesis or project
- Comprehensive exam
- Comprehensive exam
- Qualifying examination
- Teaching experience
- Doctoral dissertation
Prerequisites - A bachelor's degree in engineering or a related subject, like physical science or math
- GRE
- Most programs require an MS degree for admission
Online Availability Some online master's degree programs in civil engineering exist, and they usually allow you to specialize in structural engineering None at this time

Sources: *Salary.com (May 2012) and **U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011).

Master's in Structural Engineering

A master's degree program in structural engineering can prepare you for careers in industry, consulting and government, and it can also provide solid preparation for PhD candidacy. Students may choose to enroll in a Master of Science (MS), Master of Engineering (MEng) or Master of Civil Engineering (MCE) degree program. MEng and MCE programs are typically designed for students who want to pursue practical careers in engineering, as well as working engineers who want to improve their qualifications. MS programs are appropriate for both aspiring engineers and those who want to go on to earn their PhDs. All three programs generally consist of 30-45 credits.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • A master's degree may improve your prospects for career advancement
  • Some master's degree programs in structural engineering offer financial support to students
  • You'll have the opportunity to gain more specialized knowledge than you typically get from undergraduate programs

Cons

  • A master's degree isn't necessary to gain employment in this field (a bachelor's degree is sufficient)
  • Earning a master's degree alone won't qualify you for licensure - you'll still need to fulfill other state requirements
  • This degree won't qualify you for most university teaching positions

Common Courses and Requirements

Most master's degree programs in structural engineering require you to take certain prerequisite courses, like structural analysis and material mechanics, if they weren't included as part of your undergraduate coursework. If you need to complete any prerequisites, it will generally take you longer to earn your degree. Most structural engineering degree programs require you to enroll in core courses like these:

  • Structural dynamics
  • Random vibrations
  • Probabilistic modeling
  • Advanced structural analysis

Although some programs allow you to graduate upon completion of your coursework, you'll usually have to submit a thesis or final project to graduate. You might also be required to take a comprehensive examination in addition to or in lieu of these requirements.

Online Degree Options

Online degrees in engineering subjects are not yet widely available; however, there are a few online master's degree programs in civil engineering that allow you to specialize in structural engineering. You will complete coursework similar to what is required in a traditional master's degree program, and admissions requirements are generally similar as well. Some programs require students to be present on campus for brief periods.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

If you're earning your master's degree, you're already taking an important step toward standing out in the field. However, you can take additional steps depending on the area in which you plan to work. For example, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) suggests that you try to take supplemental courses in areas like project management, safety, estimating and risk management if you want to work in the construction sector. It also suggests that earning a Master of Business Administration (MBA) or Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree could be helpful for some students - these degrees can be earned separately or along with your engineering master's degree as part of a dual degree program.

PhD in Structural Engineering

Another graduate degree option in the field of structural engineering is the PhD, which is usually completed after the MS degree. Since PhD programs prepare you for academic jobs, they feature a strong research emphasis. You'll usually take 8-10 courses, which will prepare you to complete an original research project in your area of specialization. Most programs require you to take at least one exam prior to beginning your dissertation, and some programs require two exams: one to test your knowledge of fundamental engineering concepts and another to assess your readiness to complete your dissertation research.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • You'll qualify for more career options than you would with just a master's degree, since you can pursue an academic career
  • Most engineering PhD programs offer financial support to their students
  • If you choose to pursue an academic career, you're likely to have a flexible schedule and the ability to research topics that are interesting and important to you

Cons

  • A PhD isn't necessary for most structural engineering jobs
  • You'll most likely spend about half a decade in school after finishing your undergraduate work, including the time required to finish the MS and the PhD
  • Competition for tenure-track university positions is intense

Courses and Requirements

There is usually very little required coursework for PhD programs in structural engineering, since it is expected that students will have attained appropriate fundamental knowledge while earning their MS degrees. Students usually select their courses from both engineering and outside departments in conjunction with their advisor or dissertation committee. In addition to coursework, students must pass the required exams and dissertation defense before being awarded their degrees. Here are some sample courses that you might take while earning your PhD:

  • Monitoring structural health
  • Seminar in earthquake engineering
  • Laminated structure mechanics
  • Computation of structure-fluid interaction

Online Degree Options

At the present time, it is not possible to earn an online PhD in structural engineering. Though there is a coursework component to this degree program, much of the work of a PhD candidate consists of original structural engineering research. In many cases, this research will require the use of campus-based equipment. In addition, students must be on campus in order to fulfill any teaching obligations they may have.

Stand Out with This Degree

If you plan to pursue a career in academia, it is imperative to keep up with current research and trends in the field. In addition, a strong publication record and participation in academic conferences can boost your employment prospects. The BLS also notes that teaching experience is often valued, so it may be a good idea to obtain some even if your program doesn't require it. If your aim is to work in the government or the private sector, it may be beneficial to join a professional association, such as the ASCE.

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