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If you are thinking of pursuing a master's degree in Engineering & Construction with a specialization in civil engineering and are wondering how to approach the process, the answer is simple--approach it the way you would an engineering project. This means you start with careful planning. Outline the major steps, and then work through each step in the right sequence to complete the process efficiently and effectively.

Civil Engineering

This guide can help you do that by describing the key steps involved in making decisions about a master's degree in civil engineering, including:

  • Considering a master's degree in civil engineering. Any project should be motivated by a clear understanding of the benefits involved in the outcome. A look at career prospects in civil engineering and how they can be enhanced by a master's degree can help you decide whether the benefits of earning that degree are motivation enough for you.
  • Researching an MS in civil engineering. An M.S. in civil engineering--the master's degree most directly applicable to the profession--is offered by a great many graduate programs. There are schools all across the country which offer this degree, and you could also choose to earn a master's degree online. With so many options, you need an efficient way to gather information on master's programs, and this guide lists some key resources that can help you do that.
  • Evaluating graduate civil engineering programs. Once you have access to information about master's programs, you need a systematic way to narrow the field down to a few finalists. This guide lists a number of criteria you can use to select the programs that are the best fit for you.
  • Applying to graduate schools in civil engineering. Having identified the master's programs to which you want to apply, your next step is to get the application process organized so you can meet the relevant deadlines..
  • Enhancing your MS in civil engineering. Earning a master's in civil engineering is an important step, but it is not the only step toward a successful career. This guide closes with some ideas on other things you can do to make yourself more attractive to employers.

    To begin this process, this guide looks at some of the benefits of earning a master's in civil engineering.

    Considering a Master's Degree in Civil Engineering

    If you are considering a master's degree in civil engineering, which most likely would be an MS in civil engineering, chances are you already have a bachelor's degree in engineering. You may even have accumulated some work experience. So why commit to civil engineering in particular, and why take the next step of earning a master's degree?

    Civil engineering is considered one of the oldest engineering disciplines, and given modern society's fundamental reliance on various forms of physical infrastructures, it is a career that is not going to suddenly disappear. Indeed, since physical infrastructure is inherently local, it is not a profession that lends itself heavily to outsourcing, so it is a solid career choice.

    Within a civil engineering career, you have a variety of choices. You can specialize in any of the following fields:

    • Structural engineering
    • Geo-technical engineering
    • Transportation engineering
    • Construction engineering
    • Environmental engineering
    • Hydro-engineering

    Prominent employers include design firms, construction firms, and government agencies. There are also careers for civil engineers in academia or as a consultant to law firms and insurance companies. As you weigh the possibilities, consider the following ways that a master's degree might help your career.

    • More than one-third of civil engineering graduates go on to earn master's degrees, so earning your MS in civil engineering would help you stay competitive in the job market and when promotion opportunities open up.
    • Government jobs often have very specific job requirements, so earning a master's degree would reduce your chances of being shut out because you lacked the necessary credentials.
    • Jobs in academia, such as teaching or research, frequently require master's degrees.
    • Independent design and consulting firms seek employees with strong credentials in order to help attract clients.
    • People whose credentials are a little stronger than those of their peers are often seen as better candidates for supervisory roles.

    Again, if you look at pursuing your master's degree the way you would look at an engineering project, considering the benefits should tell you whether the project is worth undertaking. If you decide that it is, you can move on to the information-gathering phase of the project.

    Researching an MS in Civil Engineering

    There are about 300 accredited civil engineering educational programs in the United States, the third most among any area of engineering. These programs are located at colleges and universities all over the country, and there are also numerous ways to earn a master's degree online. In the abstract, choice is a good thing, but as a practical matter, how can you gather information on so many different master's programs?

    The following resources can help you research master's programs comprehensively and efficiently:

    • Online college guides and directories. In addition to information on online master's degree programs, WorldWideLearn.com offers information on a variety of topics related to your graduate education, such as financial aid and standardized test preparation.
    • Published reviews and rankings. Publications such as US News & World Report and Kiplinger's regularly publish extensive reviews and rankings of college and university programs.
    • The U.S. Department of Education. The U.S. Department of Education is a rich source of information on a variety of topics relating to education. In the context of pursuing your master's degree, two of the most valuable sections would be the ones relating to college accreditation and to applying for federal financial aid.
    • The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). The ABET sets the accreditation standards for engineering programs. You can visit their Web site to find out more about the accreditation process and to research the accreditation status of specific programs.
    • Individual college and university Web sites. As an initial step, you probably want to start with more generalized data on engineering programs, but as you move along and identify specific programs that you want to research in greater depth, institutional and departmental Web sites should be good sources of more detailed information.

    Information is a valuable raw material. The next step is to process that material effectively to turn it into an informed decision.

    Evaluating Graduate Civil Engineering Programs

    There are hundreds of institutions offering civil engineering degrees, but you can narrow down the list by process of elimination if you work through an evaluation of the following characteristics:

    • Accreditation. You should not waste any time considering civil engineering programs which have not received proper accreditation. As noted above, the ABET is a widely-recognized accreditation organization for engineering programs. You can also learn more about accreditation from the U.S. Department of Education.
    • Admissions standards. Many schools publish statistics on the average undergraduate grades and test scores of students in their programs. You can use this as a guide to assess your chances of acceptance into a particular program. It can be rewarding to aim for admission to a prestigious and challenging program, but if your grades and test scores are clearly below the range acceptable to the program, you might be wasting your time. At the very least, you should have a fallback plan in that situation (i.e., also apply to at least one school with standards more similar to your qualifications).
    • Cost. Don't frustrate yourself by applying to a program you won't be able to afford, but don't rule out any program because of cost until you've explored all your financial aid options. If you are currently working for a civil engineering firm, don't overlook your current employer as a potential source of financial aid. For example, they may be willing to help pay for you to earn a master's degree online while you continue to work for them.
    • Convenience. Convenience is a function of location and scheduling flexibility. Civil engineering programs are plentiful, but still, they are more accessible in some parts of the country than others. Also, some schools offer evening and weekend sessions to accommodate students who are currently working full-time, while others do not. One way to overcome some of these convenience issues is to earn a master's degree online.
    • Faculty. Faculty quality can be a highly subjective characteristic, but you can look at metrics like student/teacher ratio and percentage of departmental faculty with PhDs to get more of an objective take on the issue. The publishing histories of faculty members can also give you a feel for how they are regarded in their field.
    • Reputation. As with faculty quality, reputation is a fairly subjective criterion which nonetheless does have some more objective measures. Published rankings are one example, and job placement statistics for program graduates can help you get a sense of how the institution's degrees are perceived by the marketplace.
    • Campus environment. You may have a bias toward smaller or larger schools, or favor one part of the country over another. On the other hand, you might also choose an online master's degree program to make campus environment a non-issue.

    Applying to graduate school can take time and money. By using the above characteristics as a basis for narrowing down the number of your target schools, you can make the application process more manageable.

    Applying to Graduate Schools in Civil Engineering

    This guide has likened the process of preparing for a master's degree to an engineering project, and at the application stage of the project, you get to apply your time management skills. As with any project, there are multiple elements to keep track of and important deadlines to meet.

    Each individual school is likely to have a slightly different set of application requirements, and each of those in turn may represent a different set of deadlines. In general though, the following are some of the components you are likely to encounter in the application process:

    • Application forms. Increasingly, these may be completed online. The important thing is to read the instructions carefully, and take the time to prepare each response thoughtfully.
    • Financial aid applications. In addition to federal programs, your state may offer financial aid, you may be eligible for aid through group affiliations that you have, and each school's financial aid office may be able to point you to some sources of scholarships or grants. All of that adds up to several potential sources of financial aid, but it may also represent a large number of applications. Don't be discouraged, though, because earning aid can be well worth the time involved in applying for it.
    • Academic transcripts. Before you forward you undergraduate transcripts to graduate schools, take a few moments to review them to make sure they are accurate.
    • Standardized test score results. If possible, allow yourself enough time to re-take an exam if you are disappointed with the initial results. Especially if you have been out of school for a few years, it may take a couple tries before you get back into test-taking mode.
    • Letters of recommendation. When asking for a letter of recommendation, it is always a good idea to brief the person writing on your behalf about what aspects of your background and abilities would be most relevant to the subject at hand.

    You can manage the deadlines for all of the above elements by making a calendar of due dates, and then a work schedule based on how long it would take to complete each task.

    Enhancing Your MS in Civil Engineering

    Along with earning your MS in civil engineering, here are some things you can do to make yourself more attractive to potential employers:

    • Read, and if possible, publish articles in trade publications.
    • Gain as much relevant experience as you can.
    • Join a professional association such as the American Society of Civil Engineers.

    A career in civil engineering gives you a variety of employment choices, a steady long-term job market, and the opportunity for a good income. Earning a master's in civil engineering can enhance those prospects, and the same project-management skills that good civil engineers possess should help you approach decisions about your master's degree rationally and knowledgeably.

    Sources

    • "Statistics." Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology
    • "Civil Engineering Careers." American Society of Civil Engineers
    • "Careers in Civil Engineering." New Jersey Institute of Technology
    • "Engineers." Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition. United States Bureau of Labor Statistics
    • United States Department of Education
    • "Careers in Civil Engineering." ilil University of the Pacific

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