Working in Geotechnics

What is geotechnics?

Geotechnics (or ground engineering) is the civil engineering specialty which overlaps with geology and deals with rock, soil and any part of a structure that is placed under ground. It is the work of these civil engineers and scientists which makes many amazing civil engineering structures possible.  For many construction projects, geotechnical specialists are the first civil engineering professionals to become involved. Before any design work proceeds, they assess the ground where the work is to be done, so that they can determine the underlying geology.

The type of work that NZGS members undertake is summarised here.  We are involved in everything from the design of tunnels and roads to foundations for bridges and skyscrapers.  A geotechnical professional designs and checks the supports for the bridge you cross every day and the dam that stores the water you drink.

Why work in geotechnics?

Those working in ground engineering get to enjoy a rewarding and varied job which is fundamentally about making the world a better place to live.  Geotechnical professionals get to design and build the infrastructure which keeps our society ticking over and the buildings in which we live and work.  They also identify future hazards such as landslides and design ways to prevent them occurring, or stabilise them once they've happened.

As the population of the world increases and we increasingly have to adapt to a changing climate, our need for infrastructure renewal or expansion is growing, and with it our need for good geotechnical professionals. This is a niche that cannot be easily outsourced or replaced by an algorithm; there is no substitute for engineers and geologists who understand and interpret the properties of soils in support of design, remediation, or other beneficial uses of our land. The demand is expected to increase in the years ahead. This is an intellectually challenging, honorable, and rewarding profession.

To see Forbes' take on why ground engineering is a great career option, check out their article here.  As they put it:

The daily practice of geotechnical engineering requires excellent communication skills. In fact, a large part of the job is writing clear, concise, technically accurate reports. Moreover, one must be able to verbally articulate site characterizations and excavation and support analyses in universally understood English. Finally, one must be able to dream. Because, at heart, a great geotech creatively extrapolates from raw data to what can be structurally conceived.

Typical day-to-day duties of a geotechnical professional include:

  • Site visits to assess the suitability of the site for development or to assess stability problems, including meeting with clients to provide specialist advice
  • Planning, designing and supervising ground investigations using drilling rigs, geophysical testing or mechanical probing to assess the engineering properties of the ground
  • Creating a 2D or 3D visualisation of the sub-surface using modelling software or hand-sketches
  • Assessing the impact of the ground on construction projects and clearly and concisely explaining these in reports and presentations to non-specialists
  • Using computer-aided design tools and specialist software to generate engineering designs
  • Supervision of the construction of major projects
  • Inspection and certification of high-risk structures such as bridges and dams

Many people are attracted to the ground engineering professions by the mix of fieldwork and office-based design work.  The amount of time spent on site varies according to personal preference and chosen career path, but for a typical person might be in the order of a quarter of their time.  In general, less time is spent on site by those with the most experience or who specialise in the more analytical or management side of design, which is mostly office based.   

Disciplines

There are a number of overlapping sub-disciplines within geotechnics.  Often people will start out within one of these disciplines and later branch out into the others.  All these disciplines require strong analytical and communication skills and an ability to think in three or four dimensions.

Geotechnical engineers

Geotechnical engineers are specialist civil engineers who analyse, plan and construct foundations and support structures. These professionals use engineering principles and applications to ensure a structure's stability and longevity. Geotechnical engineers often work in offices; they also conduct site visits and field work.  The principal objective of the geotechnical engineer is the protection of life and property against damage caused by various geological conditions by careful design of underground or ground supporting structures.

Find out more here.

Engineering geologists

Engineering geologists are specialist earth scientists who apply the geological sciences to engineering study to account for geological factors regarding the location, design, construction, operation and maintenance of engineering works in the design. Engineering geologists provide geological and geotechnical recommendations, analysis, and design associated with human development and various types of structures. The principal objective of the engineering geologist is, by careful investigation and characterisation of the ground, the protection of life and property against damage caused by various geological conditions.

There is a large overlap between engineering geology and geotechnical engineering.  In simple terms, engineering geologists identify and define a problem, then geotechnical engineers design the solution.  

Find out more here.

Hydrogeologists

Hydrogeologists are specialist earth scientists who investigate how groundwater (water below the ground surface) moves and interacts with the geological conditions.  Hydrogeologists assess the impact of construction and water use on natural systems and help engineers to manage the risks associated with groundwater.

Find out more here.

Career paths

To become a geotechnical engineer or engineering geologist, most people will require either a bachelor or master’s degree in engineering, geology or geotechnics.  Although possible to enter this career through experience, this route can take many years or even decades.

Suitable courses are available within New Zealand at the Universities of Auckland, Canterbury and Waikato, or at many high-quality overseas establisments.  Applicants who wish to become qualified geotechnical engineers are recommended to look for a Washington Accord accredited course.