Why Structural Engineering?
In a previous post I talked about how it came to be that I started on a career in architecture. But now I work as a structural engineer. How did that transition come to be?
In my third year toward getting my bachelors in architecture, we took two courses to better our understanding of how buildings stayed up. The courses were Statics and Mechanics of Materials. Now, I’ve always been very good at math. I’ve always placed in the top ten percent. I’ve also always been a fan of physics and problem solving. I used to work on those books of logic problems when I was a kid. So it came natural to do quite well at these two courses. The following year we took courses about the design of steel and concrete structures. I did very well in those courses also.
When I got to grad school, I had a decision to make. The Masters program in architecture at the University of Illinois in Champaign/Urbana is set up differently than most architecture programs. Usually you follow the traditional architectural design program where you create a final design project and present it in front of a jury at year’s end. But at U of I there are many options available. The variety of different concentrations include: traditional architectural design, historic preservation, architectural history, construction management, and architectural engineering. Although I really enjoyed the problem solving aspect of architecture, laying out and organizing spaces, I wasn’t that great at it and I wasn’t a very good designer. I also enjoyed architectural history, but I’m quite bad at writing papers. Construction management and historic preservation were of less interest for me. But I did not choose architectural engineering by default, I did really enjoy working out the solutions. So I entered into and completed that option.
After graduation, I went abroad for a year and that was probably a good thing since the economy was not doing well in the construction industry and graduates where having trouble getting good jobs. Even when I came back I was able to get quite a few interviews, but I ended up with only one job offer. Initially I marketed myself as being able to do both architecture and engineering. Then I tried each separately and eventually went to work as an architect. At the time it did not matter whether I went into architecture or engineering because my hope was still to become licensed in both so I would have to work in each profession eventually.
After a year working as an architect, my wife also started working as an architect in a rival firm. Our firm was strictly architects, but her firm also offered mechanical and structural engineering services. She talked with one of the structural engineers, Bob, while they were working on a project together and she mentioned my background in engineering. Bob mentioned his interest and she made a point of introducing me to him at their summer outing. Bob was very interested in hiring me and we went through a formal interview soon after. Unfortunately their workload slowed down and they were not in a position to hire for a good year. But then some internal politics exploded at the firm and the engineering departments were eliminated in their entirety. About a month later, I received a call from Bob saying that they had all joined another firm and were looking to hire. Within a month I was working at the new firm trying to remember my schooling from three years before.
After a couple years of experience I was able to sit for the structural engineering exam in Illinois. Despite the fact that I do not have a degree in engineering, the licensing board recognizes the architectural engineering program at U of I as a program which provides people with what they need to practice as competent engineers. After taking the exam three times I passed and became a structural engineer. It’s a very difficult two-day exam which only one out of eight people pass.
I’m often asked the question whether I prefer structural engineering or architecture. My answer is that I don’t have a preference. I spent most of my life thinking I would become an architect and it became my identity. I enjoy structural engineering and it’s now what I do. I know if I were an architect it would be on the less glamourous side of the profession and I would most likely be on the technical side. Both professions involve problem solving and both are involved in the process of constructing buildings. So I could be happy doing either.
But as I’ve seen both concerning career and where you live, you don’t know where life will take you next.