What is a Structural Engineering Degree?

Structural engineering is concerned with the conception, design, construction, and analysis of civil, mechanical, aerospace, marine, naval, and offshore structures with focus on load resistance from internal and external forces.

The work demands that structural engineers have a thorough knowledge of the behavior of solids including concrete, soils, rock, metals, plastics, and composites; fluid mechanics, the study of fluids and how forces affect them; structural dynamics, the behavior of structures subjected to dynamic loads such as people, wind, snow, waves, traffic, earthquakes, and blasts; mathematics for structural modeling and numerical analysis; and computer science for simulation.

So next time you are stuck in bumper to bumper traffic on a bridge, you can thank a structural engineer for making sure that it can support the enormous weight of itself and the cars and trucks on it. Next time you look up at a skinny skyscraper on a windy day and wonder how it’s not swaying or toppling over, you can thank a structural engineer for calculating and designing the giant counterweights placed at the top of the building. And if you find yourself endlessly fascinated by these and other similar engineering feats, the field of structural engineering may be calling you.

Program Options


  • It is important to select structural engineering programs that are accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).
  • Programs may be offered as a concentration within the civil engineering major.

Bachelor’s Degree in Structural Engineering – Four Year Duration
Bachelor’s programs in structural engineering typically begin with coursework in math, chemistry, and physics. They then emphasize the commonality of engineering structures in materials, mechanics, analysis, and design across the engineering disciplines of aerospace, civil, naval, and mechanical engineering. The curriculum integrates laboratory experimentation, numerical computation, and engineering design.

Here is a snapshot of a structural engineering bachelor’s program:

  • Introduction to Structures and Design – the fundamentals of structures and how they work, structural behavior, and the structural design process; lessons learned from structural failures; the role and responsibility of structural engineers; professional ethics
  • Computer Graphics for Engineering Design – use of computer aided design (CAD) software to communicate engineering designs; visualization, sketching, 2D and 3D graphics standards, dimensioning, tolerance, assemblies, and prototyping / testing; project / system management software including building information management (BIM)
  • Algorithms and Programming for Structural Engineering – introduction to the Matlab environment, an interactive mathematical program that allows mathematical / statistical calculations as well as visualization of this data
  • Mechanics – statics, dynamics, and vibrations
  • Introduction to Computing for Engineers – interpolation, integration, differentiation, ordinary differential equations, nonlinear algebraic equations, systems of linear algebraic equations, representation of data in the computer
  • Structural Materials – the structural properties of engineering materials; stress and strain, strain measurement; stiffness, strength, toughness, fatigue resistance, and creep; cement and concrete, woods, aluminum alloys, steel, engineering plastics, and composite materials
  • Solid Mechanics – concepts of stress and strain in the mechanics of deformable bodies (bodies that change their shape and/or volume while being acted upon by any kind of external force
  • Fluid Mechanics – the response of fluids to forces exerted upon them

Following these foundational courses, students take classes such as those listed below. The four course titles shown in bold also refer to specialization options offered by some schools.

  • Methods of Structural Analysis
  • Machine Learning for Structural Engineering
  • Design of Civil Structures
  • Design of Composite Structures
  • Aerospace Structural Design / Aircraft and Space Vehicles
  • Aerospace Structure Repair
  • Aerospace Structural Mechanics
  • Design of Steel Structures
  • Design of Reinforced Concrete
  • Design of Pre-stressed Concrete
  • Design of Timber Structures
  • Structural Health Monitoring and Non-destructive Evaluation
  • Signal Processing and Spectral Analysis for Structural Engineering
  • Structural System Modeling and Testing
  • Earthquake Engineering
  • Geotechnical Engineering / Soil Mechanics
  • Application of Soil Mechanics to the Analysis, Design, and Construction of Foundations for Structures
  • Ground Improvement

Master’s Degree in Structural Engineering – Two Year Duration
At the master’s level, programs in structural engineering are hands-on and interactive. Students spend a lot of their time working on individual and group design projects for real-world structures, conducting laboratory tests, attending seminars from leading engineers, participating in field trips to projects under construction, and completing an externship at a structural engineering firm. Master’s candidates must hold a bachelor’s degree in a related field and submit their GRE (graduate record examination) scores. Many schools allow students to choose between a thesis and a final project as the degree’s culminating requirement.

Sample Courses

  • Advanced Mechanics of Reinforced Concrete
  • Analysis and Design of Steel and Composite Structural Members
  • Analysis of Structures in Fire
  • Behavior and Design of Blast-Resistant Structures
  • Behavior and Design of Earthquake-Resistant Structures
  • Behavior and Design of Fire-Exposed Structures
  • Bridge Systems Design
  • Condition Assessment of Existing Structures
  • Life Cycle of Structural Systems
  • Random Vibrations
  • Structural Safety and Risk
  • Structural Optimization
  • Advanced Foundation Engineering
  • Behavior of Soils as Engineering Materials
  • Advanced Project Management

Sample Projects

  • Design of a lateral force resisting system using self-centering, concentrically-braced frames
  • Evaluation of a bridge
  • Case study of a parking garage helical ramp collapse
  • Design of an airport hangar used for plane de-icing
  • Design of a suspension foot bridge
  • Post-tensioned concrete walls for seismic resistance
  • Roller coaster design
  • Post-fire strength of pre-stressed steel tendons
  • Design of a timber frame house
  • Design of a mixed-use office, retail, and residential building complex above five stories of underground parking
  • Design of a 63-storey residential tower located above existing subway tunnels

Sample Structural Behavior Lab Experiments

  • Under-reinforced, over-reinforced, and shear failures in reinforced concrete beams
  • Compression and bending / compression failures in concrete columns
  • Bending in concrete two-way slabs
  • Tension failures of bolted steel connections and welded steel connections
  • Plastic hinge formation in steel continuous beams
  • Plastic hinge formation in steel moment beams

Sample Seminars by Structural Engineers

  • Case Studies in Forensic Structural Engineering
  • Trends in High Rise Systems
  • Design of Long-Span Structures
  • Understanding Geotechnical Reports and Case Studies of Complicated Foundation Projects
  • Super Tall Building Design Approach
  • Moveable Bridge Design
  • Historical Restoration and Preservation of Bridges
  • Antiquated Structural Systems

Doctoral Degree in Structural Engineering – Five Year Duration
The structural engineering doctoral program prepares students for careers in research, teaching, and advanced practice in the areas of civil and aerospace structures, earthquake and geotechnical engineering, composites, and engineering mechanics. Candidates must pass a qualifying exam intended to determine their ability to pursue a doctoral level research project and must fulfill a mentorship and teaching experience requirement. The program is focused on research in preparation for defense of the doctoral dissertation.

Degrees Similar to Structural Engineering

A degree in architecture will appeal to individuals who have an interest in and appreciation for both the sciences and the arts. This is because architecture is itself the art and science of designing and engineering structures and buildings. It is a field with a foundation in creativity, technology, and social and cultural trends.

Civil Engineering
This degree field is focused on the processes of design and planning of civil infrastructure like roads, tunnels, bridges, dams, railroads, and airports. In their work, civil engineers are concerned with such things as how much weight a structure can support and the environmental issues presented by construction. The emphasis of civil engineering degree programs is math, statistics, engineering systems and mechanics, building codes, and statistical analysis.

Construction Management
Construction managers plan, organize, direct, control, supervise, and evaluate construction work. Construction management degree programs teach the various aspects of the occupation, which include preparing cost estimates and contracts, budgeting, hiring subcontractors, managing staffing schedules, enforcing building codes and safety regulations, labor relations, liaising with clients, and overall project management.

Environmental Engineering
Students of environmental engineering learn how to apply principles of engineering, soil science, and chemistry to environmental protection and restoration. They examine issues like climate change, pollution, deforestation, the supply of energy resources, and population growth.

Mechanical Engineering
Students of mechanical engineering learn how to research, design, develop, and test mechanical and thermal devices, including tools, sensors, engines, and machines. These devices serve many industries, including the aerospace, medical, energy, and manufacturing sectors. In addition to coursework in engineering and design, degree programs in the field include classes in mathematics, life sciences, and physical sciences.

Naval Engineering
Naval engineering encompasses the research, design, construction, operation, and maintenance of ships and other watercraft. Programs incorporate coursework that prepares students for careers as naval architects, who design ships, and marine engineers, who monitor and maintain shipboard systems and machinery. Foundational classes include engineering sciences, electrical technology, and industrial chemistry.

Urban Planning
Degree programs in urban planning teach the processes involved in designing communities, towns, and cities. Students learn how to make decisions about the need for and placement of infrastructure like roads, highways, tunnels, bridges, airports, railroads, dams, utilities, parks, and other urban projects. Coursework includes environmental planning, which considers environmental, social, political, and economic factors.

Skills You’ll Learn

  • Analysis – analyzing projects and correcting problematic structures
  • Organization – understanding and implementing the order of project procedures
  • Attention to detail – is vital in the design of structures that hold a building in place
  • Mathematics – understanding math and physics principles are essential in designing structurally sound projects
  • Problem solving – finding solutions to flawed building plans or issues with existing structures
  • Leadership – is key for structural engineering project managers
  • Communication – the role entails communicating designs, reports, and project statuses
  • Computer skills – structural engineers use computer aided design software

What Can You Do with a Structural Engineering Degree?

The focus of structural engineering – understanding and predicting how structures support and resist self-weight and imposed loads – is relevant to the design of buildings, bridges, dams, machinery, vehicles, aircraft, spacecraft, ships, oil platforms, and other structures. This versatility and the analytical foundation that a structural engineering education provides open many career doors to graduates in the field.

The structural engineering degree is eminently adaptable to working in:


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