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Education and Outreach : What is an Earthquake Engineer?
What is an Earthquake Engineer (and How Do I Become One?)

Should I become an engineer?

Professor Ian Buckle
Civil & Environmental Engineering
(University of Nevada, Reno)

[Watch video]

Earthquake engineers are engineers, chiefly civil engineers, who apply their knowledge and skills to the many problems posed by earthquakes.

Civil engineers can choose to specialize in earthquake engineering, focusing on seismic events and their effect on buildings, bridges, roads, dams and other man-made structures built to benefit the public.

Civil engineering includes:

  • structural engineering, how to design the structure of buildings, bridges, and other construction

  • geotechnical engineering, practical geoscience applications to the soils and foundations aspects of construction

  • risk engineering, or considerations of the probability that a negative event such as an earthquake in a particular place might occur and what losses would be caused by the damage it would do.

Other professionals in the field that is broadly called earthquake engineering are geologists, seismologists, architects, land use planners, and economists, when they apply their skills to earthquake problems.

An earthquake engineer can do his or her work in several different kinds of occupation.

  • in a university as a professor: This requires majoring in civil engineering as an undergraduate in college, then getting a master's degree (another year or two), and doctoral (PhD) degree (approximately another three years). When initially hired by a college (which grants undergraduate degrees) or a university (which also grants graduate degrees and conducts research), the first position, the entry level, is assistant professor. After two or three years, assistant professors who have been productive in their teaching, and also with regard to the publications they have produced, can be promoted to the position of associate professor (with more long-term job security) and then full professor. It is also recommended that professors obtain a professional engineering license and stay familiar with the practice of engineering.

  • in the private sector as a consulting or practicing engineer: For buildings, typically the architect is selected by the owner and then the architect selects a consulting structural and geotechnical engineering firm to join the design team. A degree in civil engineering (preferably the master's degree), work experience, and passing a state licensing examination are required.

  • For a government agency involved in earthquake-resistant construction or research: Some engineers work for building inspection agencies, ensuring that the design documents are carried out. Those documents include the verbal descriptions of materials, products, and other details spelled out in the specifications, and the working or construction drawings ("blueprints"). Others work for state or federal agencies that carry out research programs. Educational preparation, work experience, and licensing are the same as for the private sector engineer described above.

To become an earthquake engineer you should take a full load of mathematics and science courses in high school.

The next step after high school on the path to becoming an earthquake engineer is to attend a college that has a department of civil and environmental engineering. To major in that department, high school math and science classes are a prerequisite. Physics is especially relevant to civil engineering.

Typically, in your first year in college you would already have made an initial decision to major in civil engineering, usually called a Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, though it is sometimes possible to change majors during the first or perhaps second undergraduate year and still graduate on schedule. Within that major, there are often concentration or minor areas in which a student must take prescribed courses, such as structural engineering or geotechnical engineering (the primary specialty areas for earthquake engineering), water resources, transportation, and construction management.

The student will have other university-wide requirements for taking a variety of courses. Getting a well-rounded education in addition to engineering training is the best preparation for a future engineering career. In particular, the ability to write clearly is a valuable skill: engineers have to write documents such as reports, construction memoranda, and papers submitted for publication in engineering journals or conference proceedings.

After receiving an undergraduate degree, a master's degree, which takes one or two more years, is increasingly recommended as good career preparation. The highest degree, PhD, which requires several more years, is a prerequisite for becoming a professor, and some PhDs also work for practicing engineering firms or for government agencies.

Sources of Information

The website of the Consortium of Universities for Research in Earthquake Engineering has links describing the earthquake engineering educational opportunities at its University Members:

Other recommended viewing on: How to Become a Civil Engineer

Gregg Brandow
Brandow and Johnston

Mel Green
Structural Engineer

Chris Poland
Structural Engineering

See also: What is Structural Engineering?

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Consortium of Universities for Research in Earthquake Engineering
last updated 02.27.16