Geotechnical engineering is one of many sub-disciplines of civil engineering, which also includes environmental, transportation, structural, forensic, and urban engineering. All of these sub-disciplines share some characteristics: the work of civil engineers is typically limited to public works projects like the planning, construction, and maintenance of roads, bridges, airports, and sewage treatment systems. Additionally, their work typically emphasizes public health and environmental sustainability.

Course work for a geotechnical engineering master’s degree online program predominantly concerns natural materials and the problems they cause, such as erosion or earthquakes. Much of their effort goes toward successful collaboration with other engineers, social scientists, and chemists. Geotechnical engineers rely heavily on skills in computational analysis, mechanics, and geomaterials to complete everyday tasks. They often work on projects such as earth dams, tunnels, and waste disposal by burial. Additional tasks include characterization of in situ (Latin for “in original position or place”) contamination, contaminant transport, and natural hazard assessment and mitigation.

Why a Master’s Degree in Geotechnical Engineering?

While this advanced course of study educates students about the field of geotechnical engineering, the master’s degree is not a prerequisite for employment as a civil engineer. Therefore, most students who enter a master’s program in geotechnical engineering do so to secure a managerial position (or other position of authority) or pursue a job in academia.

All civil engineers must have a degree from an ABET-accredited geotechnical engineering graduate school or work experience equivalent. Civil engineers with at least a bachelor’s degree must be licensed in order to sell their services publicly. Furthermore, licensure is necessary for project leads and those who manage other civil engineers and technicians.

The licensing process varies by state, but it is generally demanding. In most states, civil engineers must pass the Fundamentals of Engineering Examination (FE), then the Principles and Practices of Engineering (PE) exam. They must also have eight years of professional experience under the direction of a licensed engineer.

Getting Into a Geotechnical Engineering Master’s Program

Applicants to geotechnical engineering graduate programs must first complete a bachelor’s degree in geotechnical engineering, materials science and engineering, or another related field. Some competitive programs only consider candidates who have an undergraduate GPA of 3.5 or higher. Other common prerequisites include:

  • Application and fee (if applicable)
  • Statement of Purpose
  • Three letters of recommendation
  • Transcripts

Inside a Geotechnical Engineering Master’s Degree Program

Graduate programs in geotechnical engineering require, on average, nine months to complete. During their intensive training, students complete course work in fields like engineering mechanics, fluids systems, mathematics, and statistics. Some geotechnical engineering graduate programs at universities like UCLA allow students to focus their studies on specific disciplines like ‘Soil Mechanics and Foundation Engineering,’ ‘Soil Dynamics and Earthquake Engineering,’ or ‘Geo-Environmental Engineering.’ Geotechnical graduate programs are usually divided between the classroom and practicum sessions held in laboratories or in the field. In the lab, students will analyze samples, conduct experiments, and perform tests to determine the specifications of a given project. Fieldwork projects may have students investigating soil mechanics, or testing groundwater using geotechnology.

Common courses for geotechnical engineering students include ‘Earth Retaining Structures,’ ‘Geotechnical Earthquake Engineering,’ and ‘Numerical Methods in Geotechnical Engineering.’ In addition to completed all required courses, students must complete a master’s thesis in order to graduate.

What’s Next for Geotechnical Engineering Master’s Degree Holders?

Most graduates begin practicing after they have received their degree and state license. Graduates who earn full licensure are often considered for managerial positions. Some may choose to sell their services publicly; in this case, they must be licensed in all states and the District of Columbia.

Others will continue with their education as they work toward an occupation in university-level education or research. These students will need to apply to a doctorate program in geotechnical engineering or related civil engineering field. Other degrees to consider include the master’s or Ph.D. in engineering management.

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS), the median salary for civil engineers was $77,560 in 2010. The projected rate of change in employment between 2010 and 2020 is 19%, five percentage points higher than the average growth rate for all occupations.