Edited by T.R. Witcher
Emily Perkins, EIT, S.M.ASCE, 22, graduated in May with a Bachelor of Science degree from The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, and took a job as a structural design engineer with South Carolina-based engineering firm Johnson, Mirmiran & Thompson Inc. She was one of ASCE’s New Faces of Civil Engineering – College honorees in 2021.
Working in a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics field and helping people appealed to her from a young age, but her initial post-graduation plans to join the Navy after majoring in civil engineering were unexpectedly derailed. She quickly pivoted in a new direction. Here’s how she did it:
Civil Engineering Online: How did you get interested in civil engineering?
EP: I grew up building a lot of Legos. That was our main Christmas present, so we had this huge Lego town. My dad also did civil engineering, so it was just enjoyable. I knew I wanted to do something in STEM. Civil engineering to me seemed more of a resource to help people compared to other STEM fields. I just enjoyed building structures which people could use.
Why did you study civil engineering at The Citadel?
I grew up in South Carolina, in Charleston, so it was a place I knew, and they had a very good program.
How did you go about finding your first job?
Originally, I was supposed to be in the Navy as a nuclear officer. I was on scholarship, but then I ended up having surgery and didn't qualify anymore, so that was a little bit stressful. I spoke with a few of my teachers, and one of them recommended me to JMT, which is where I'm currently working. So that's how I got in contact with the company.
When did you realize that the Navy wasn't going to pan out and that you would have to change directions?
I realized that I was going be shifting into civilian work instead of commissioning in the Navy about three months before graduation. This was a very short time for me to transition my efforts and thoughts and to plan for a different future. It was very challenging, but I practiced several methods to manage my time and stress. I spent significant time planning how to pass my Fundamentals of Engineering exam before graduation, which is the first step in getting your P.E. license, as I knew this would help me appeal to engineering firms after graduation. I scheduled numerous meetings with professors to ask them for advice and guidance on what to priorities moving forward and how to contact local engineering firms. Although this time was very stressful for me, I was also excited to pursue my interests in structural engineering after graduation.
Were there are any faculty at The Citadel who helped you?
Two professors that tremendously helped me during that period were Kweku Brown, Ph.D., P.E., and John Ryan, Ph.D., P.E., Dr. Brown helped me throughout my four years at The Citadel by helping me apply and receive several scholarships and awards through The Citadel’s civil engineering department. During the countdown to my graduation, I had several meetings with Dr. Brown where he advised me on how to approach civil engineering firms for interviews, and he pointed out several engineering firms that fit my interests. Dr. Ryan generously gave me much advice on how to transition into the civilian workforce in such a short time. Dr. Ryan ultimately recommended me to the vice president of JMT, the company I decided to pursue after graduation.
Tell us about what you're doing at JMT and how the job is going so far.
I am currently working on several projects: parking garages, airport structural repairs, building additions, and structural elements of wastewater systems. One thing I really enjoy about working at a larger firm like JMT is the variety of work I get experience with. It is a bit challenging to learn so many different applications of structural engineering, but the work is never boring. The structural group at the Charleston office for JMT is four engineers. Currently I have my Engineer-in-Training license, so I am shadowing and working under three other professional engineers with their P.E. licenses. All the design work I do is overseen and approved by the supervising P.E.s in the structural group. The years of experience the P.E.s have range from six to 30 years, so I get a solid foundation of knowledge to learn from. All the other P.E.s in the structural group are close mentors to me, giving me sound advice and teaching me new concepts.
JMT overall has exceeded my expectations. I've learned a lot in a short amount of time, and my higher-ups have done a good job of helping teach me. So I'm definitely not left to figure things out on my own. It's been a very good experience.
Is there a noteworthy project or two that you've been working on?
Right now I’m working on a parking garage, managing the structural design. It’s a balance between the structural design and drafting. I'm not doing the structural design on my own — I’m walked through that process. I'll be given a task to try to figure something out on my own, and then I'll go through what I've solved, and we'll talk about how that makes sense, how that doesn't make sense. I definitely get a very good understanding of what I'm doing.
What do you want to do with your career? Where do you want to go?
The first thing I can think of is I'd like to get my P.E. Everybody else in the structural team has their P.E., and so I would like to have that as well.
Has the profession been welcoming to you as a woman engineer?
JMT has done a really good job of that. JMT is very focused on including people, and the workforce is very diverse. So I definitely don't feel like a sore thumb sticking out being a woman in STEM.
What has surprised you the most about being in the profession?
I think that a lot of the courses I took did a good job of getting me a basic understanding of what goes into it. I was not expecting the amount of computer programs that are used, though. During school, I only had to learn how to use maybe three programs. The new computer programs haven't been too challenging to learn, and JMT provides courses for me to take to learn them. But I wish that I had learned these programs in college first, or at least had a very basic idea of how to use them.
What were the programs that you learned in college, and what are some of the new ones that you've picked up on the job?
They’re really focused on AutoCAD in college, and I rarely use that now. Instead, we use Revit, which is very different. It's similar in some ways but is complicated to learn from scratch.
What advice do you have for students or recent graduates?
I would recommend passing your Fundamentals of Engineering exam. That was an expectation through one of my courses, an FE prep class. To get an A, you had to pass the exam. I feel like if you wait to take that exam after you're out of college, it's going to be a bit more challenging because that content’s not going to be as fresh. Plus, if you do get stuck on something and you are taking it in college, you can always ask one of your professors for help.
Is there any other advice in terms of networking that might be helpful to young readers who are looking for their first job?
At my school we had a lot of expos where firms would set up tables, and you could talk to all these different firms. I would recommend going to those. And then to try to get summer training as an intern. That's something that I, unfortunately, didn't do because I thought I going to be in the Navy, so I was off doing that training during the summer. Not having an internship didn't inhibit getting a job as much as I thought it would. But an internship is definitely helpful.
Is there anything else you want to share with readers about making the transition into the professional world as a civil engineer?
I would say to keep all your notes, and don’t throw them away. At least for the FE exam, it's very helpful to have those notes. Even now there are certain things that come up, and I have to think about things I've learned in my classes, so I'm glad I kept most of my notes.