How to Become a Transportation Engineer: Steps toward a Dynamic Career in Civil Engineering
Transportation engineering is a branch of civil engineering that deals with aspects of engineering related to the planning, design, maintenance, operations, and analysis of transportation systems. This includes transportation systems such as roads and highways, bus networks and busways, railways, light rail and subways, pedestrian networks, and aviation, among others. It is a dynamic discipline which has evolved and will continue to evolve as transportation networks and technology change over time. Of particular importance for the future is the design and construction of more sustainable transportation networks and infrastructure, and transportation engineers can play an important role in this development. In recent years, the field has seen the development of intelligent transportation systems (ITS) and an evolution in the use of ridesharing platforms, autonomous vehicles, and other technological developments. How does one pursue a successful career in the evolving field of transportation engineering? This blog will discuss the path to licensure and realizing one's career goals in the profession.
1. Transportation Engineering Begins with Civil Engineering
As transportation engineering is considered a branch of the broader discipline of civil engineering, the typical path toward becoming a transportation engineer begins with enrollment in a civil engineering undergraduate program. Even before college, if a student is interested in the pursuit of engineering as a career path, there are now many high schools across the country that focus on STEM education (STEM being an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). In any event, a strong background in these areas of study is helpful in beginning studies in civil engineering.
2. Undergraduate Engineering Programs
Most undergraduate programs in engineering begin with courses in the general sciences and mathematics before beginning courses, which are more specialized towards the specific engineering discipline being pursued-in this case, civil engineering. Within many civil engineering undergraduate programs, there is the opportunity to have a concentration in one or more branches of civil engineering, including transportation engineering. Other branches of civil engineering include structural engineering, geotechnical engineering, water resources engineering (including hydraulics and hydrology), environmental engineering (including wastewater treatment), and construction management. The best way to begin your career in transportation engineering is to take courses offered by your program with a focus on topics in this area of study. These may include courses on highway geometric design, traffic analysis and signal design, transportation infrastructure planning, or other topics in transportation studies. Certainly, attending graduate school allows for the opportunity to take such specialized courses and obtain an advanced degree in transportation engineering, as well as the ability to do research which helps shape the future of the profession. Obtaining such an advanced degree gives an obvious advantage in finding work in this field, but it is also an opportunity to gain the specialized knowledge which one will need to specialize in this branch of civil engineering.
3. Obtaining Work Experience
Whether or not an advanced degree is obtained, it is necessary to gain work experience in an engineering office, typically for at least four years, as a requirement towards gaining licensure as a professional engineer. Even while still in school, it is a good idea to seek out internship opportunities to start gaining work experience, obtain familiarity with the profession, and to begin building a professional network. An additional benefit to working as an intern is that firms often rehire former interns for full time positions after their graduation.
4. Finding the Right Engineering Firm
It is important for emerging transportation engineering professionals to find the right engineering firm for them. There are many factors to consider in choosing a place of employment. Ideally, one should seek out a place of employment where mentorship is taken seriously and there are opportunities to work on project types in which one is interested. It is all too easy to get sidetracked from the pursuit of one's professional goals if one does not seek out the support necessary for career development. It is best to seek out a company which is known for their expertise in transportation engineering and which also has senior engineers willing to provide mentorship and guide your professional development. Many firms have regular employee review meetings, and these are great opportunities to discuss professional goals with your employer.
5. Taking Exams
Along with the work experience requirement (which varies by state), engineers must pass both the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam and the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam. The FE exam is the first of the two exams to be taken. Among other topics, the Civil FE exam includes questions on transportation engineering, specifically on geometric design, pavement system design, traffic capacity and flow theory, traffic control devices, and transportation planning. It is advised for recent graduates to begin planning their approach to studying for and taking their Civil FE exam within the first couple of years of graduation if possible. This allows for many of the exam topics to still be relatively fresh in one's mind from one's studies so that with study one can reinforce one's knowledge and be well prepared for the exam. Regardless of when one chooses to take the FE exam and the PE exam (and it is never too late), one should take advantage of the many study resources which are now easily available, including online courses, study guide books and e-books, and practice questions and exams.
6. PE Exam
The Civil PE exam is typically taken after completing the necessary years of work experience required by the state in which one is pursuing licensure, though the rules may vary by state. The Civil PE exam is a "breadth and depth" exam meaning that candidates are tested on a breadth portion which tests their broad knowledge of the various areas of civil engineering and a depth portion which is specific to a particular branch of civil engineering. The transportation depth version of the exam covers topics including traffic engineering, horizontal and vertical geometric design, intersection geometry, roadside and cross-section design, signal and traffic control design, geotechnical and pavement, drainage, and alternatives analysis.
7. Obtaining Licensure
Obtaining licensure as a civil engineer is only one step in the process of becoming a successful transportation engineer, albeit an important one. It is important to continue to keep professional development goals in mind and discuss them with your employer regularly. An employer will likely be keen to assist in your professional growth and advancement. It is important for emerging professionals to use their early years in the profession to develop a strong knowledge base. Whether one chooses to pursue a management position or a more technical role in the later years of one's career, this foundation will be invaluable for one's development and future success. It is also beneficial to cultivate one's skills in both written and verbal communication, as well as one's ability to work on teams. Develop a sense of curiosity and seek out opportunities for learning all aspects of the profession, from planning and design to an understanding of construction issues. This will make you valuable as an employee but also establish you as a well-rounded professional. Continuing education is also necessary both to maintain licensure as well as to remain informed of continuing developments in the field. Joining professional societies and attending industry conferences are additional ways to gain industry knowledge and network with other professionals.
In summary, though there are several steps necessary to becoming a transportation engineer, this should not be a deterrent to those seeking a successful professional career in this area of practice. With careful planning, goal setting, and the thoughtful use of professional development resources, one can put oneself on a trajectory to a long and successful career in this dynamic field.
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