Geotechnical engineering programs prepare people to use math and science to study systems used to alter Earth's surface. Students learn about rock, groundwater, and waste storage. They also learn to stabilize building sites.
In various places around the world, ancient peoples scooped out canals and mounded up earth into dikes to control flooding. This kind of large-scale construction, using the materials of Earth's surface, continues to this day. But nowadays engineers play a role in this work.
In a geotechnical engineering program, you might calculate the load of water that an earthen dam can hold. To do so, you need to consider the properties of the particular type of soil you might use. You also would study how water levels may change with the seasons. For a design project, you might lay out a highway on the side of a mountain. You would consider the steepness of the grade, the sharpness of the turns, the stability of the bedrock, and of course the expense of the project. You might try to solve the vexing problem of how to store radioactive wastes underground for thousands of years.
A bachelor's degree is often suitable preparation for engineering work. This requires four or perhaps five years of full-time study beyond high school. But only a few colleges offer a program in this field. So to study geotechnical engineering, you may need to take courses as part of a major in civil or geological engineering.
You also may get a master's degree in this field. Some bachelor's programs are combined with a master's program into one five-year sequence. Another route is to get a bachelor's in another engineering field or geology, then a master's in geotechnical engineering. By itself, this program usually takes one or two years beyond the bachelor's. Fewer than 20 universities in the U.S. offer a master's in this subject.