Structural engineering is a specialization within the broader field of civil engineering. Structural engineers apply scientific knowledge about the impact of traffic, winds, and weather toward building and maintaining safe infrastructural components like bridges, dams, buildings, and roads. Some structural engineers find work with a bachelor's degree in civil engineering; however, obtaining a master's degree in structural engineering increases the likelihood of acquiring management positions in the field.
Why a Master's Degree?
Online master’s degree programs in structural engineering provide graduates with advanced knowledge of the design, mechanical theory, and structural dynamics required to supervise complex civil engineering projects. All states require all engineers to obtain the Professional Engineering certification to consult; the coursework and experience gained during the completion of a master’s degree program qualifies graduates for this certification. Online programs designed for working professionals generally can be completed within three years, though some educational institutions allow up to five years for completion.
Inside a Structural Engineering Master's Degree Program
Those who enroll in structural engineering master’s programs online may go on to earn either a Master of Science (M.S.) in Structural Engineering, or an M.S. in Civil Engineering with a concentration in structural engineering. These programs combine theory, design, analysis, and practical skills application and culminate in a thesis project. Core classes focus on engineering and science fundamentals, and students may choose elective courses in particular areas of interest.
Typical courses in these master’s degree programs include:
- Advanced Structural Engineering: Heavily based in mathematics, this course approaches problem-solving in the construction and maintenance of vertical structures.
- Plastic Structures: The properties of plastic and its usage as a building material are taught, including analysis, design and weight-bearing capacities.
- Materials: Common and uncommon construction materials used in infrastructure are examined. Specifications adherence and budget considerations are also covered.
- Element Analysis: This course builds on engineering fundamentals taught in bachelor’s degree programs and examines heat transfer, stability, plane stress and dynamics.
- Computer Modeling: Simulated computer design programs, particularly Computer Assisted Design (CAD), are taught in this course.
- Nonlinear Systems: Also very heavily based in mathematics, this rigorous course delves into chaos theory, dynamic systems, differential equations, fractals, bifurcation and periodic motion.
- Traffic Analysis: This course explores traffic patterns, traffic theory and traffic analysis, including in international applications.
Elective concentration courses may focus on city planning, traffic planning, engineering management or computer programming. Degree candidates conduct a supervised research project near the end of the program; written theses may or may not be required, depending on each program’s requirements.
What's Next for Structural Engineering Master's Degree Holders?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects steady job growth in this sector of engineering. Aging infrastructure in much of the U.S. is expected to continually drive a need for maintenance or replacement. Master’s degree holders will enter the job market with the qualification to manage these complex projects, many of which will be government-operated. Job growth is projected to reach 8% between 2014 and 2024.
Structural engineers in management positions can expect to analyze survey reports, perform tests on job sites, calculate cost estimates, present findings and plans to local officials and project stakeholders, and manage a staff of lower-level engineers. In 2014, the mean annual salary of civil engineers was $82,050.
Engineers who wish to continue study may elect to pursue a Ph.D. in Structural Engineering. While these programs are relatively rare, the prospects for graduates are encouraging. As the field expands, there will be an increased need for professors to teach undergraduate and master’s degree courses. Aside from the salary increases that a Ph.D. may find in industry, these individuals are also well-situated for consulting with private agencies, research and development firms, large laboratories, and government agencies of all stripes.