Thinking about studying an engineering degree but don’t know what are to choose? Or maybe you’re an engineer thinking about changing disciplines? Maybe you’re only just now hearing about geotechnical engineering? Whatever the case, we’ve put together the following so you can find out a bit more about what life is like as a geotech and what you’ll need to study to become qualified.

What is geotechnical engineering?

Geotechnical engineering is the science that interprets the mechanics of soils and rocks and its engineering applications for civil construction projects.

In the early days, the practice of geotechnical engineering was applied by trial and error, through observational experience and experimentations. After all, engineers are largely curious individuals who like to take lessons learned from the misfortune of others to foster continuous improvement. Take for example The Leaning Tower of Pisa, this impelled geotechnical engineers to adopt a more scientific approach to explore the subsurface before laying a mere three metre foundation in topsoil…oh, how far we’ve come!

So, what exactly does a geotechnical engineer do?

Today, geotechnical engineers, AKA geotechs, AKA mud doctors, design and supervise the construction of foundations and earthen structures related to Civil and Mining Engineering infrastructure. This includes shallow and piled foundations for structures, excavations and foundations for buildings and dams, earth and rock fill dams, tailings dams, mining waste rock dumps, tunnels, and open pit and underground mines. Geotechnical engineers are also involved in the analysis of slope stability, load-bearing capacity and deformation of ground works and structures.

What is a day-to-day life like as a Geotech?

While the role of an engineer is diverse, it generally fluctuates between office/computer based work and onsite, field work. In a day you’ll be doing the following actions:

Subsurface/field investigation and inspections
The job of a geotechnical engineer essentially begins by collecting soil samples from a project’s intended site by using bores and test pits. Depending on the complexity of a site, the geotech is usually present onsite when a project is in its construction phase. This is typically for excavations, foundations and mass grading, to provide additional recommendations or to define which section of the geotechnical report is most relevant, or to identify unexpected conditions that may need specific treatment and advice.

Field work has its challenges, it can require long hours spent outdoors in all climates and can often result in getting a bit dirty. For some engineers, however, it’s a welcome balance from time spent in the office.

It is an industry norm for graduate engineers to spend a large portion of their initial years in the field as it is essential that they become skilled in all areas of geotechnical site investigation.

Computer analysis and assessment

To assist with planning for ground investigations, the engineer will usually collect existing data and literature related to the project area. A desktop study compiles all available data and is a valuable source of information as it allows a better understanding of the nature of grounds and type of challenges that will likely be encountered for specific projects.

Geotech engineers may be asked to use a suite of digital and online tools to obtain relevant and current data, including using in-house databases, or by in-house or other software (such as TabLogs, AutoCAD, Plexis etc) to complete sensitive analyses or design. If you’re relatively tech savvy, and have good problem-solving skills, computer analysis and assessment will be no trouble for you as a Geotech.

Coordinate laboratory testing

Geotechnical engineers supervise the collection of samples collected in the field. It is crucial that these samples are carefully obtained, well labelled, appropriately stored and sent to a laboratory for testing intact. A laboratory testing facility will provide soil and/or rock properties needed to perform geotechnical analyses and develop geotechnical models. You’ll want to have good organisational and communications skills to ensure your samples are collected and sent for testing accurately, and received in a timely manner.

Report writing

Geotechnical engineers and engineering geologists are always busy writing reports.
It is a requirement after completing any geotechnical site investigation, to present test results, interpretations, and recommendations in the form of a written document for the client and relevant stakeholders.
The investigations are done to determine how the ground will interact with a proposed construction. Being able to effectively communicate investigation results and the subsequent advice and analysis is one of the most important and valuable skills you can have as a Geotech.

Proposal writing

While not specific to the engineering discipline, proposal writing is the cornerstone of business growth and is therefore a necessary component from a commercial perspective.

This is often the responsibility of more senior engineers.

Proposals require engineers to understand the requirements of the client, possible geotechnical constraints of the site as relevant to the proposed development, and the interests of various stakeholders, including regulatory and approval bodies.

Training and development

In almost all consultancies, graduate/junior-level engineers will receive training from their senior peers. This skills transference is not only from an engineering knowledge perspective, but also for developing commercial skills such as building effective relationships with clients, and other stakeholders, and managing end to end projects.

Many engineers will also continue their professional development by completing their master’s degree and once eligible will seek their Chartered Engineering status, a globally recognised indicator of engineering excellence and commitment to continuing professional development. For this reason, it’s imperative that you have a passion to continuously be learning and improving your skills, even once you’ve started working.

Research/academia/entrepreneurship

While not a requirement, some engineers choose to go into research and academia, to develop insights that can lead to advancements and improvement in design and construction practices. Some even start their own businesses when they identify areas for improvement.

What do I need to do to become a Geotech?

This can change depending in which country you intend to work in. But for the most part, you’ll need to have successfully complete a Bachelors in Civil Engineering (with a major in geotechnical engineering). Some universities also offer specific degrees in geotechnical engineering.

For example, in Australia, students may choose to study a Bachelor of Engineering (Hons) (Mining and Geotechnical) or a Bachelor of Engineering (Hons) (Civil and Geotechnical). You can check out what courses you’ll be studying throughout these degrees here. It’s a good idea to find out what these courses entail before embarking on any degree to determine whether becoming a geotechnical engineer is the right fit for you!

No matter what or where you choose to study, becoming a geotechnical engineer will almost always require at least four years of full-time studying.

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