Careers in Civil Engineering: What Is Geotechnical Engineering?

Civil Engineering

Anyone who builds structures understands the importance of what's underneath — and in civil engineering projects, that's usually soil or rock.

A geotechnical engineer's job, then, is to make sure entire civil engineering projects are on a sound foundation.

Geotechnical engineers study rock and soil dynamics, identify potential risks and create practical solutions to those geotechnical risks. It's an important discipline: nearly all of the physical infrastructure that makes our modern life possible is built on rock and soil. It also makes for a highly engaging and rewarding career.

What geotechnical engineers do

Geotechnical engineering is the branch of civil engineering that focuses on earth materials: soil, rocks, minerals and water. Geotechnical engineers apply principles from geology and hydrology to the practical challenges of modern construction projects.

A geotechnical engineer's involvement starts at the beginning of a project because each site has unique soil. As such, the first thing a geotechnical engineer does is subsurface investigation. This may involve digging pits or drilling into the soil and rock layers to collect samples, performing field tests and researching soil quality. The goal is to determine the stability and stress-bearing capability of the ground beneath the construction site.

While fieldwork is an important part of geotechnical engineering, lab testing is also critical. Geotechnical engineers use computer analysis to analyze the data collected at the site, model future soil conditions and evaluate potential hazards. This analysis plays a critical role in minimizing hazards to people — sinkholes, landslides, rockfalls and even earthquakes — as well as environmental impact.

Geotechnical engineers design building foundations, earthen structures and pavement sub-grades to account for the unique soil conditions and needs of the individual construction project. 

Perhaps most importantly, the job also includes a great deal of communication with stakeholders on each project. Geotechnical engineers have to identify what is and is not feasible, navigate competing agendas and conflicting schedules, explain cost increases and work with stakeholders to find practical solutions to geotechnical problems.

The past, present, and future of geotechnical engineering

In some form, geotechnical engineering has existed for thousands of years. We have archeological evidence of dams, dykes, canals and other structures that depended on rock and soil dynamics as far back as 2000 BCE. As humans started to build larger and more complex structures, the need to take into account the soil's ability to support those structures grew. However, this was more art than science, and builders often got it wrong: think of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which started to tip to one side during construction because of the weak, unstable subsoil underneath the foundation.

In the 1700s, engineers and architects began to take a more scientific approach toward soil mechanics. For example, in 1717, French engineer Henri Gautier recognized the concept of the "natural slope" of different types of soil; today's engineers call this the "angle of repose." Over the next two centuries, engineers and scientists studied foundational geotechnical engineering concepts like stress distribution, cohesion, earth pressure and the flow of fluids through the soil. The history of geotechnical engineering as a modern discipline began in the early 1900s with Karl von Terzaghi, an Austrian engineer and geologist. Terzaghi's rigorous study of the properties of soils allowed him to formalize the study of soil mechanics, which brought geotechnical engineering out of the realm of experience, guesswork and trial and error.

While geotechnical engineering may not be as visible as the architecture above the surface, it plays a vital role in nearly every construction project. Massive structures like the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, and the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, the longest bridge in the United States, would not be standing were it not for incredible work by geotechnical engineers.

The outlook for geotechnical engineers

Again, because every construction site is different, the importance of geotechnical engineering can't be overstated. Today's geotechnical engineers need to contend not only with soil and rock but also with larger and more complex structures needed to support a growing and advancing society. Larger buildings and more complex transportation networks need more structural support, and geotechnical engineers are tasked with meeting those challenges.

The scope of geotechnical engineering is quite broad and will only become broader with advances in construction and architecture. While geotechnical engineering per se is a branch of civil engineering, geotechnical principles also have applications in military, mining, coastal and marine construction. Geotechnical engineers work not only on roads, bridges and buildings, but also on hydroelectric dams, offshore projects, excavation projects and more. 

Geotechnical engineering is at the forefront of some of the biggest changes facing the world in the 21st century. The rise of self-driving cars, for example, will require geotechnical engineers to rethink how our roads are designed and built to meet the needs of robots in addition to (or instead of) human drivers. Even more fundamentally, climate change affects the soil, and structures will need to be built to withstand the loss of soil stability from melting permafrost and changing temperatures.

In short, geotechnical engineers have a significant role to play in humanity's future. 

Job and salary outlook

Given the importance of geotechnical engineering, it's not surprising that the job outlook for the profession is strong. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, civil engineers (including geotechnical engineers) have projected job growth of 8%, which is in line with the national average and slightly above the projected growth for engineering jobs in general. The median salary for civil and geotechnical engineers is $88,570 per year.

Geotechnical engineers can work in a wide variety of settings, from private engineering and construction companies to government agencies. There are opportunities to move into administration, design, research and even teaching. It's a job that often includes travel, participating in interesting projects and earning a quite comfortable living.

Is geotechnical engineering right for you?

Geotechnical engineering is a multi-disciplinary field that requires flexible thinking and a broad set of skills. If you're prepared for challenging and rewarding work, the opportunity to grow as an engineer in multiple disciplines, and plenty of time spent meeting people and working outside, you may be cut out for geotechnical engineering.

Some of the qualities geotechnical engineers need are:

Communication skills, leadership, and advocacy: Almost by definition, the geotechnical aspects of a project tend to fly under the proverbial radar. Geotechnical engineers need strong, proactive communication to advocate for the safety and stability of the entire project. 

Conceptualization and visualization: Effective geotechnical engineers understand the situation on the ground and can use visualization to describe the problem and the solution for others. 

Collaborative decision-making: Geotechnical engineering requires balancing multiple, sometimes competing or contradictory priorities. You need to keep a level head, take all the evidence into account and make practical recommendations to keep a project moving forward, drawing from multiple perspectives. 

Math and computer skills: Soil is a surprisingly complex material with numerous variables: grain size, strength, cementation, behavior and more. Analyzing what the soil under a building will do under different conditions requires a lot of math and a lot of computer-based models. 

While geotechnical modeling per se is a distinct field, it's closely linked to geotechnical engineering. Geotechnical engineers need a high level of comfort with technology to use specialized software tools as well as the math skills and analytical ability to interpret those results. Learning modeling in some proficiency is a good idea.

Broad technical and practical interests: Again, geotechnical engineering is multi-disciplinary by nature. Geotechnical engineers draw from ocean engineering, structural engineering, petroleum engineering, material science, geology, hydrology, and more.

Flexibility: Being a geotechnical engineer means splitting your time between on-site work, usually outdoors, and office work. The hours worked can also fluctuate widely, especially as a project nears a deadline, and the job may involve significant amounts of travel and work with numerous teams. 

How to become a geotechnical engineer, as explained by a geotechnical engineer

Geotechnical engineering requires a broad base of knowledge across several disciplines in both engineering and geoscience. As such, the path to becoming a geotechnical engineer starts with specialized education.

Geotechnical engineer and mine hydrologist Joey Dean started his career after graduating college with a bachelor's degree in hydrology, then went back to school to earn his Master of Civil Engineering at Norwich University while working full-time. "I recognized there were things that I missed in the realm of engineering fundamentals that I didn’t get as a geoscience major," he explains. "With the completion of each course, I instantly became a better hydrologist and engineer."

According to Dean, the key is to take courses on topics that are directly relevant to geotechnical engineering, such as soil dynamics, hydraulics and fluid dynamics, and to get as much hands-on experience as possible. "Do as many internships as you can while in school," he says, because "it gives you a leg up in having work experience." The only way to learn the skills needed to be an effective geotechnical engineer is to pair academic knowledge with hands-on experience.

That means drilling into new skills in the field until you've mastered them — literally. "Learn about drilling," Dean says. "We often cannot see what ground conditions are, so we must drill to determine the factors we need for our designs and knowledge base. Drilling professionals are coming up with new ways to deal with subsurface conditions so we can learn as much as possible to make informed decisions. Sonic drilling, for instance, has grown in leaps and bounds over the last 10 years."

Just as important as those technical skills, though, are communication and teamwork. "No more being an introverted science and engineering nerd," says Dean. "Relationship and people skills are key. Solutions are best determined with the team, and often more heads are better than one."

For Dean, the payoff has been a highly rewarding career. "I get to help humankind progress with the responsible use of our natural resources through best practice management and environmental stewardship. I love solving problems and seeing progress, so being a mine hydrologist and geotechnical engineer is the perfect place for me to be."

Is it the right place for you? "If someone likes being outside, looking at rocks and dirt and meeting great people along the way, then this is for them," Dean says.

Take the next step in your geotechnical engineering career online at Norwich University

If you're exploring a career in geotechnical engineering, your choice of a master's program is critical. While you don't need a master's for entry-level engineering roles, a master's degree is typically required to move into senior or supervisory positions. 

Moreover, a rigorous master's program will make you a better engineer by equipping you to make better, more informed decisions. Joey Dean says that as he proceeded through his master's program, "my ability to conceptualize the real-world conditions through knowledge of fundamentals made problem-solving so much better because I knew why a certain solution should be used, as opposed to doing it because that what I was told in the past. I was also able to think outside the box more because the 'box' became bigger."

The best way to get knowledge that you can apply in those real-world conditions is to learn from professors with real-world experience. "A really great part about this program was the faculty that are, or have been, industry professionals, not just academics," says Joey Dean. Professors who have done engineering work in the field are well-positioned to explain how to apply fundamental engineering principles in real-world conditions and prepare students for the day-to-day challenges of geotechnical engineering work.

In short, if you're ready to become a geotechnical engineer, choose a program where you will learn from experienced faculty in a supportive, flexible environment that can be tailored around your personal and professional commitments. Learn more about the online Master of Civil Engineering program at Norwich University.

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