Michael W. Dawson, P.E.
Engineering, University of California-Davis
Golden Gate University
"As a Civil
Engineer, I am involved in transportation design, public
service, public relations, marketing, and business development.
I currently manage a website for a large bridge design project
which allows me to learn about the project, manage documents,
and utilize new technology."
students should focus on getting a well rounded education.
Include English, communications, and business courses in your
electives. Consider an MBA degree which provides additional
opportunities within engineering if you are not a "technical"
person. Professional Societies are the best way to stay current,
contribute to your community, network with other professionals,
and have fun."
"Networking has really helped me out a lot in my career, not only in
finding new jobs, but in meeting contacts and helping out with marketing
in my company."
"Students that are interested in working overseas and working in other
countries can do a lot of different things to prepare themselves. I try to
stress to students that have different cultural backgrounds that if they
speak a different language that's something they can really use to promote
themselves. So languages I think are very important. It's difficult for
entry level students and engineers to find jobs in the global market, the
people that go overseas are senior management or very technical people
that have been in the field for 10, 15, 20 years."
"Our goal really is to provide cost-effective services in a very ethical
manner for our clients, whether that be a local agency, a large agency, or
maybe a little recreation department. Without civil engineers, the
standard of life would be very different. You wouldn't have roads. You
wouldn't have running water. You wouldn't be able to use our toilets and
the sewer systems and bridges and airports."
Q: What about your
undergraduate studies themselves? Why did you decide to zero in on a
I decided once I'd been in
school for about two or three years, I wanted to pursue structural
engineering. As it turns out that's exactly the opposite of what I'm doing
now. But when I was in school, I did some research for my professors and
it happened to be in the area of structural engineering, dealing with
concrete and structural design, and a lot of my peers were also taking
structures. At that time, the California Department of Transportation had
a lot of jobs available in structures and in transportation, so it made
good sense to study that field because that's where the job openings were.
Q: Let's talk about the
transition from school to work. Did you have co-op relationships while you
were in school?
When I first started school, I
was able to get a job at a local restaurant, and I worked there full-time.
However, in the summers for my junior and senior year, I was able to get
two internships. One was with the Army Corps of Engineer. The other job
was with a large construction company doing estimating, and the transition
from work was pretty difficult. When I graduated, a lot of my peers had
been hired the previous year, and so the job market was kind of flat. I
was able to get some leads from a couple of professors. And eventually got
a job with Caltrans about six months out of school. The transition wasn't
too difficult. A lot of things that you learn on the job far surpass what
you learn in college. College teaches you the basics, but once you get on
the job, you're going to learn the specifics for your new position.
Q: Let's talk some about
Networking has really helped
me out a lot in my career, not only in finding new jobs, but in meeting
contacts and helping out with marketing in my company. When I left
Caltrans and decided to go into private industry, I was very involved in
one of the local professional societies, American Society of Civil
Engineers, and through one my contacts in that organization, I was able to
find a job and move into private industry.
Q: Could you talk about
courses that you had when you were in school?
Undergraduate work was very
challenging. You'll find that in four years of college, you can only take
so many classes. There's a lot of things that once you move into the
professional world you realize, gosh, I wish I could have taken that class
in college. I had to work full-time during school which a lot of people
do. I was able to graduate in just a little over four years. I didn't have
to take summer school once. Basically, I worked full, and certain times of
year, like Springtime, it's a little more difficult to stay in the books.
But for the most part, it was very challenging, a lot of homework, lots of
tests, and lots of projects. So you have to really be dedicated to school
because it's very important when you get out that you've really got a good
comprehensive view of engineering.
Q: How about being guided
towards a particular specialty? Did you have a lot of guidance?
UC Davis in particular, we have a big career counseling center. You can go
there, and they will give you ideas about what's available as far as jobs.
As far as guidance, most of the professors at our school, and I know many
of the other universities, are really open. They have open-door policies
where you can go in and talk to them. They can give you ideas of what
courses you need to take, what the job outlook is like.
Q: But in terms of
deciding what you wanted to do?
As far as my choice,
especially, I kind of picked information from different sources, through
my involvement in my professional society, through my professors, and some
of it through my own research. It seems that you don't get a lot of that
when you're in school. You find out once you get out in the professional
world that there are so many other specialties, and other disciplines that
you can go into. The one thing I can recommend is there's a lot of good
engineering magazines out there, that are available at the libraries, on
campus, or through the professional societies. And if you go through
those, you can read a lot about the different disciplines that may excite
people. Traditionally, at school, there's four or five disciplines. Water,
sewer, soil mechanics, structural engineering and transportation, and
students tend to focus in on one of those. But they don't realize that
there's a lot of subspecialties under those that might be appealing to
someone. So do a little research, go to the library, maybe reading some of
the periodicals and journals will help you get a better idea of what's out
Q: How about other
engineering activities that you took part in in school?
As far as engineering
activities, I worked full during school, so it was real difficult for me
to participate as much as I wanted to, and now that I'm out of school, and
I'm still affiliated with the engineering students at Davis, I try to kind
of make up for that. I was a member of the American Society of Civil
Engineers and also the Structural Engineers Association of California, and
they do two main events throughout the year. One is the Concrete Canoe
Competition, which many civil engineering students will know about because
that's kind of a nationwide project, and also the steel-bridge
competition. I was able to work on those a little bit. I wish I had had
more time because it really teaches you a lot about working in teams,
working with other students, working your professors, working with other
professionals, and requires you not only to do a technical project, but
you have to public speaking and writing that's really important when you
get out into the field. A lot of employers are looking for well-rounded
individuals, not just someone that can sit and crunch numbers all day.
Q: Can you talk a little
bit more about how your undergraduate -- or do you think undergraduate
civil engineering prepares you for a life in the real world?
As far as being prepared, once
you get out into the real world, civil engineering, it's very challenging,
and it's a very dynamic field. It's changing a lot. Traditionally,
engineers were very technically-oriented. They're very analytical people
and they're used to doing a lot of number-crunching. Well, today's
engineer is very different. Engineers today have to be well-rounded. You
have to learn to deal with your clients, whether that's public or private
clients, and the curriculum at most schools is so focused on the technical
side that you very rarely have a chance to learn good public speaking
skills or good writing skills. I did a little bit of that. Some of my
electives were mostly in rhetoric and communications. So I felt that I
needed a better balance of my writing skills. But there's only so much you
can study in four years. The thing I can recommend to students is that
professional societies will really help you with that, whether it's a
civil engineering society, a community service organization, your church.
Those are the things that are going to help you work on other little
projects, deal with people, help your network, good public-speaking
skills, and things like that.
Q: What's the most helpful
part of your undergraduate experience that really effects you day to day
The thing that my education
gave me the most in my day to day work is a basic knowledge of how to find
things. It may sound kind of strange, but there are a lot of different
people that can memorize vast amounts of knowledge and can quote formulas.
But what engineering taught me is to be resourceful. I don't have all my
textbooks memorized, but I have the ability to look something up if I need
it. So if I'm posed with a problem, say a transportation problem, or I'm a
designing a freeway, and I need to know a requirement on a lane width, I
know where to go, and college really taught me that, is to be resourceful,
to find the information I need to be productive and efficient in my job.