What I Do For A Living

It’s pretty standard to ask, “So what do you do?” which I never mind answering when it is asked of me. But when I respond there is often a follow up of, “…so, what does that mean?” which can be hard to answer unless someone is willing to hear a several minute explanation (they don’t).

So. I’m a structural engineer. To get here, I got a bachelors degree in Architectural Engineering that is actually a complete bullshit degree, but it got me into a great engineering school where I got my Masters of Science in Civil Engineering with courses concentrating in Structural Engineering.

With this educational background I could have gone a few different routes: I could have geared my masters degree towards research and stayed in academia to continue researching and teaching in my field (no! no!); I could have taken courses more towards highways and bridges to do what we call “horizontal” structures and most likely end up working for a state highway association in the government, or a private firm that does mostly bridge and highway work (eh, nah); or what I actually did- take courses in buildings (vertical structures) and found a job doing nearly exactly what I imagined I’d want to be doing: working in multiple areas of building design.

When I went into college I actually started off as an architecture major. When I was in one of my design classes sophomore year I was changing the design of my building to allow for more columns (ya know, so they damn building could stand), and my professor told me that I shouldn’t worry about that. I decided that I did in fact want to worry about columns, and changed my major by the end of the semester. Even though I switched to engineering, I knew I wanted to work with buildings and in building design, and was interested in working directly with architects, just not as an architect. I count myself very fortunate that, even though it took over 6 months after I received my masters degree, I was able to find a job where I do just that.

On a typical day I get into the office in the morning and catch up on a few emails while eating breakfast and drinking my coffee. From there I will typically open up one of several design programs. I either draw by hand or using a modeling software to create documents that show plans and details of how to construct or revise a building or structure to perform in the way that is required by its user. I have worked on a project where an existing office building was to be remodeled into a library, which required nearly ever single steel beam and joist be reinforced (I had to design each of those reinforcing details). I have worked on wood-framed senior living facilities that are four-stories tall (alongside senior engineers with literally 10x more experience than me, of course).

There are also many days where I am on a site or int he field instead of in the office. I have carried 40-foot extension ladders into empty warehouses to take measurements of existing steel beams and joists. I’ve spent weeks walking through fields of coal to inspect the structures used to transport the coal to and from massive ships that carry it around the world, then spent the weeks compiling a report on the condition of these structures. I have been in a steel box that a crane has picked up and swung over top of a building to look down into masonry chimneys. I have climbed across steel trusses to document the existing roof structure. I have climbed on lots of things at tall heights that make my mother’s heart beat faster.

Roof Truss Climb
This is me climbing on roof trusses with rock climbing gear.

Some days I am using computer software to model new or existing structures. Some days I use software to compile calculations for design or for analysis. Some days I write reports. Some days I do drafting. Some days are interesting. Some days are boring.

I almost always feel challenged and come home mentally tired… for better or worse. Some days I feel in over my head, other days I am bored and staring at the clock. But from what I can tell, that’s how it is at almost any job. For the most part, it’s not the same thing day-in and day-out, which I’m thankful for.

But anyway. That’s what I do. What do you do?


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