Structural engineers are similar to Orthopedic doctors. This does sound like an odd comparison doesn’t it? But it is true. Just as an Orthopedic doctor takes care of and mends bones of a human body, structural engineers take care of and design the bones of the structure. A structure (building, bridges, non building structures) no matter what type it is, is similar to the bones in our human body. If there are no bones we would all be like snakes slithering around.
Just as the Orthopedic doctors specialize in different parts of the body, the structural engineers specialize in designing certain structures. Seldom do you find someone who can do it all. The good thing about becoming a structural engineer is you don’t have to deal with the gore of blood.
The reason it is hard to specialize in multiple structures is because each type of structure is regulated by different sets of codes and agencies. Codes for buildings is very different than codes that regulate bridges. There are usually multiple levels of codes and each region of a certain country could be regulated by different codes because some areas get a lot of snow that the structures need to be designed for, some areas get a lot of hurricane force winds and some structures are built in areas that are prone to repeated earthquakes. A structure that is normally designed for wind may not necessarily do well in a seismic area.
Structural engineering is not outwardly glamorous like the architecture of the building but without structural engineers, the glamorous structures don’t stand a chance.
So if you are contemplating a career in structural engineering what do you have to study at school?
You should take advance level mathematics, statics, dynamics and make sure you understand what you are learning in undergraduate degree. Grades don’t mean anything if you don’t understand what you are learning. Try to enroll in classes for different building materials, may be specialize in wood structures, steel structures, masonry structures etc., during graduate school if you get a chance to continue graduate school. If you get an opportunity, go be an intern, even if unpaid so that you can get valuable insights into what real world structural engineer does.
But know that what you learn in school is just the beginning, the real learning happens when you start actually designing structures. Remember peoples lives depend on you doing a good job.