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Navigating a Nontraditional Path in the Civil Engineering Industry

By Rebecca Hendrickson posted 04-20-2020 05:47 PM


A career path in the engineering industry tends to follow a linear trajectory. The educational programs are clearly defined, and there is a strict roadmap that allows one to pursue their Engineer in Training certificate followed by their Professional Engineering license.

But what if you deviate from the traditional path? The good news is that you can pursue a career in the engineering industry even if your background or experience is unconventional.

Unlike most of the engineers I know, I did not receive my bachelor’s degree in engineering, but instead in physics and mathematics. Afterward, I attended graduate school for a master’s degree in civil engineering (structural engineering).

Here are three pieces of advice that have helped me navigate a nontraditional path in the engineering industry.

  1. Be your own advocate

There were times when I was told that I was unqualified because my educational background differed from standard engineering coursework. It could have been difficult to take a specific design course if I had not learned the required material from a previous course. However, I did not let that hold me back and instead viewed it as a strength. I advocated for my skills as a fast learner and hard worker, emphasizing that my diverse background would bring a unique perspective to any role.

Advocate for your strengths and embrace what makes your experiences unique to create a memorable and lasting impact.

  1. Do your research

Being prepared is essential to proving that you are qualified and an ideal candidate for the position you are looking to pursue. When it comes to education, most course descriptions and criteria are available online. Research which courses and specific skills are required to earn the degree you need for the position you are interested in.

While there are rules and regulations involved with obtaining engineering licensure, the expectations vary from state to state. Most states allow you to obtain additional experience and apply for licensure even if your education and career path are nontraditional.

Do your research during each stage of your education and career, and know which skills make you a marketable candidate for the role you are pursuing.

  1. Be open-minded and willing to put in the necessary effort

Once you are equipped with the knowledge that you need to be successful, you will then need to be willing to put in the work required to meet your goals.

When coming from a nontraditional background, this extra work may look like an additional engineering course, extra time studying, or having to learn on the job when accepting a new position. By being aware of any gaps in your knowledge or training, the effort you put into your career can be directly focused on these specific areas.

For example, I quickly learned that physics and math degrees were often overlooked so I enrolled in a drafting course in order to be qualified for work that I would need to do as an intern. I made sure to highlight that experience on my resume and was able to secure a position even though I did not necessarily meet all of the coursework requirements.

Remember that your career path does not always have to be linear and each experience is valuable. Be open-minded and willing to put in the effort to stand out among your peers.

As an engineer, there is a certain amount of liability associated with the work you perform. Therefore, certain fundamental knowledge is required in order to be successful. Regardless, it is possible to reach your end goal even if your background or experience is different from that of a traditional civil engineer.

Rebecca recently took on a new role as academic editor specializing in scientific language editing for civil engineering research. By combining her experience in the civil engineering industry with her academic research background, she has cultivated a career path that helps ensure that engineering research ideas are communicated fairly and accurately. 

Following a nontraditional engineering career path, Rebecca pursued her master's degree in civil engineering with an emphasis in structural engineering after completing her bachelor degrees in physics and mathematics. As a graduate student, her course work focused on structural design while she performed research on the behavior of asphalt pavement for low-temperature applications. She then worked as a structural engineer in the power delivery industry, specializing in the design of transmission line structures. The variety in her educational background and experiences has been crucial to her success in her current role as a scientific language editor for civil engineering research. 

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07-31-2020 05:35 AM


05-11-2020 11:40 AM

Thank you for your valuable thought, it really illuminate us and shows a right path in civil engineering field.
Once again Thanks for your effort of sharing.

05-06-2020 01:17 PM

This is some great advice. I also took the non-traditional approach (BA in Geography), but with hard work, dedication, the right mentors, and a whole lot of studying I passed the EIT and PE, and went on to complete an MSCE.

04-28-2020 12:18 AM

Hello Rebecca,

Thank you for this message, it encourages me to believe I will still make it into the job I want. I want to get into infrastructure advisory, It has been challenging with my few years of experience but still putting in the effort to prepare for the day that opportunity comes along.