A day in the life of a geotechnical engineer

Geotechnical engineers and engineering geologists shape the modern landscape. When you see roads, bridges, buildings, or any structure that is tied to the Earth, geotechnical engineering likely played a role.

If you ask them what a typical day of work looks like, you will possibly hear, “no two days are the same”, which may be appealing to some. A ‘typical day’ is also informed by the level of experience held, which at Douglas Partners will range from graduate engineer to Project Manager, Associate, Senior Associate and Principal geotechnical engineer for instance.

While the role of an engineer is diverse, it oscillates between two main areas; office/computer based work and onsite, or field work.

Douglas Partners is typically involved in large scale civil projects, servicing markets such as Property and Buildings, Transport, Land Development, Mining, Energy, Telecommunications and more. This means that our teams often engage with large companies and provide the full spectrum of geotechnical investigation services.

In a consultancy business like Douglas Partners, there are many components that form a ‘typical day’, here are seven of them:

1. Subsurface/field investigation and inspections

Field investigation

As the job of a geotechnical engineer essentially starts with the collection of soil samples from the project’s intended site, using bores and test pits, field work is an important component.

Depending on the complexity of a site, the engineer is often 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, this is a welcome balance from the 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. The familiarity with construction procedures and ground conditions developed on site provides an important, practical understanding that is valuable even for engineers who move into more analytical or office-based roles.

2. Computer analysis and assessment

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.

At Douglas Partners, our engineers employ a suite of digital and online tools to obtain relevant and current data for this purpose, including reference to over 50 years of past Douglas Partners investigation records for sites around Australia, using in-house databases and search tools integrated with published mapping and data.

While hand calculations and simple analysis methods play a valuable role in geotechnical engineering, more complex analysis by in-house or other software (eg SLOPE/W, WALLAP, PLAXIS or FLAC) may be required for sensitive analyses or design.

3. Coordinate laboratory testing

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.

Most of Douglas Partners’ 20 locations across Australia, are equipped with NATA accredited laboratories to conduct testing of these samples.

A laboratory testing facility will provide soil and/or rock properties needed to perform geotechnical analyses and develop geotechnical models.

4. Report writing

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. Effective communication of investigation results and subsequent advice and analysis, is an important and valuable skill.

Learn more about the complexities of the geotechnical report in our related article here.

5. Proposal writing

Proposal writing

Whilst 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.

6. Training and development

training and development

Graduate/junior-level engineers receive training from their senior peers, some at Douglas Partners have more than 30 years of industry experience.

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 of our 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.

Douglas Partners’ in-house training includes an annual technical seminar for all consulting staff, to share the expertise and experiences with our team across Australia. This is reinforced by regular technical presentations during the year.

7. Research/academia

Engineers can have a natural curiosity for things, a quality that lends itself well to their equally important problem-solving natures. Some even devote this curiosity to research and academia, developing insights that can lead to advancements and improvement in design and construction practices. Several of Douglas Partners’ Principal Engineers have published research findings and papers in recognised industry journals and present at national conferences and forums.

Engineering researches

The work of a single geotechnical engineering investigation cannot be achieved by one single person. The practice is built on collaboration, learning, testing and optimisation for future improvements.

While no two days look the same, our purpose at Douglas Partners is always the same:

“‘Delivering expertise from the earth’s surface down and find practical solutions that enhance outcomes for our clients, community and the environment’.”