Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering
Assistant Professor of Geomatics
Michael Olsen earned his degree in civil engineering from the University of Utah in 2004. Olsen also acquired a master’s degree in civil engineering from the same school in 2005, and a Ph.D. in Structural Engineering from the University of California in San Diego in 2009. Now, he is an assistant professor of geomatics at Oregon State University.
Why did you choose civil engineering?
The biggest thing that got me originally interested in it was that Lego bricks were my favorite toys. With Legos, you could build big structures or cities, and that was one of the things that got me interested in it. And my grandpa was a civil engineer as well, and he always talked about his work. As a civil engineer, you’re basically creating and maintaining the infrastructure people use on a daily basis. Most people don’t realize all the work that goes into that, so it’s one of those [things] where you’re satisfying all of the basic needs of society, such as transportation, water, and so on. You go home from work and you can see a structure people use on a daily basis or one that they live in, and it’s satisfying.
What did you like about the experience?
Probably the thing I liked most about it, and this relates to both civil engineering and geomatics, is that you need to have a solid understanding of the theoretical and practical applications of design. I think engineering has a very fine balance between understanding the theory and what you need to do to make sure the public infrastructure stands, and the practical side of it that ties it all together. I also liked how the civil engineering field covered a broad range of topics. When you first start out as an undergraduate in college, you don’t know what you want to do or where to go. But [civil engineering] offers plenty of options, like engineering, in which you make sure roads are in good shape and that water is flowing in the right direction; geomatics, where you study landslide movement, earthquakes, or do cultural heritage type work; and then there’s ecological engineering as well. You don’t get pigeonholed into one specific area, so you can do quite a bit with it.
I kind of had the feeling that I was interested in civil engineering, but I wasn’t certain about the specific path I wanted to follow. In the program, you could take surveying, hydraulic engineering, or structural engineering — there was a wide variety of classes to take. I went with geomatics because I could work in all of those fields. That’s what I liked about the program — you could work towards your degree, but there was a pretty versatile pool of skills you could develop.
What could have been better?
I think one of the biggest challenges people have with engineering is that the work load is pretty heavy. I don’t think I’d want to change that because that’s what has helped me grow, but there’s a lot to learn and you have to learn how to prioritize. Since the work load was pretty heavy, I didn’t get as involved with some student groups as I would have liked.
How has it impacted your career?
I think for what I’ve done, the undergraduate degree has provided the foundation for a lot of the technical knowledge that has stemmed from what I learned. Now that I’m in the faculty at OSU, I haven’t done as much design work. The key thing I really got out of undergraduate is first learning how to learn and how to synthesize knowledge and how to learn what you need to know. And then, problem solving skills, like how to attack a problem and how to find the optimal solution to the problem and how to find the results that you want. There’s a lot that gets thrown at you in school, especially in civil engineering, and you have to learn how to adapt and learn everything.
What skills from your degree do you still use?
There’s quite a few of them. I mentioned the problem solving and the ability to learn, the fundamental surveying knowledge I learned as an undergrad, the way you need to be really meticulous in how you need to do measurements, and the ability to follow standardized procedure to ensure you get accurate results. Math and science skills are something I go back to every day. There are very few classes I ever regret taking, so I think most of those have really translated into a lot of skills I use today.
What advice would you give to students who are considering studying civil engineering?
With students who are studying civil engineering and who are working in geomatics, the most important thing is that they need to realize there is an important balance between the practical and the theoretical. If you’re basically following a checklist, [remember] that there may be situations where it doesn’t apply. If you focus entirely on the theoretical, you may not have the practical knowledge you’ll need. Also, take advantage of the labs. Really focus on prioritizing and what you need to learn. There’s so much to study, so you need to find a way to pick out what the key concepts are, and you can go back and fill in your knowledge later. Learn how to communicate what you’re doing and how to make it relatable to people who may not know about what you’re doing.