How civil engineers can develop world-class expertise in 6 steps

Dr Hirak Sen recently celebrated 50 years as an ICE member. Here, he tells us what he's learned are the key things a civil engineer needs to do to develop world-class expertise.

Step 6: work on projects that touches lives. For example, Dr Sen worked on the construction of Salt Lake Stadium, Kolkata.
Step 6: work on projects that touches lives. For example, Dr Sen worked on the construction of Salt Lake Stadium, Kolkata.
The objective of describing my 58-year professional journey is to identify what it takes for a civil engineer to develop world-class expertise, with the hope of inspiring young people and helping them to appreciate what civil engineers do. 
 

What are the 6 steps?

Between 1990 and 2009, Professor Anders Ericsson and others researched how one can achieve world-class expertise. They published their findings in the ‘Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance.’ They affirmed that it’s developed at the confluence of three constituents:  
  • Dedicated training for at least 10,000 hours. 
  • Train under the tutelage of eminent mentors.
  • Train and later work in conducive environments.
From my journey, I’ve learned that in civil engineering, you need three more components for developing and maintaining world-class expertise:  
  • Dream big and pursue your dream.
  • Collaborate, innovate, learn life-long, and publish your findings.
  • Undertake volunteer works and touch lives.

Dedicated training and my journey to ICE membership 

I was raised in Calcutta (renamed Kolkata in 2001), a busy metropolis in eastern India in West Bengal state.  

It was, and still is, a prime centre of education and culture in India. I completed higher secondary school with good grades in mathematics, physics, and chemistry, which helped me hugely in my engineering studies.  

Between 1958 and 1969, I pursued civil engineering education and research for nine years.  

Immediately after graduation, I worked for one year in the construction industry and another year in a design office.  
 

Training under eminent mentors, collaborating, and publishing  

At IIT Kharagpur, I did my MTech dissertation under Professor B R Sen, who encouraged me to do a PhD in the UK and to apply for the newly instituted Commonwealth Scholarship, which I won and used to travel to London in 1965. 

At Imperial College London, my mentor was Dr J C Chapman, a distinguished Fellow of ICE.  

I believe he had an invisible third eye that could visualise any structure’s deflected shape under any given loading condition. Along that route, he could conceive the response of that structure. He taught me how to gain an insight into structural behaviour, the necessity of making accurate statements in engineering, and questioning everything, including the codes of practice.  

We co-authored a design monograph, a paper, and several reports. He encouraged me to become a member of both ICE and the Institution of Structural Engineers, and sponsored my membership applications. 

I became a member of ICE in 1970, and have served the Institution in my modest way as the chairman of its Kolkata Chapter in 2014. In 2020, ICE accepted one of my papers for publication in its Proceedings and will publish it sometime later in 2021. 
 

How ICE has helped me with life-long learning


Dr Hirak Sen at ICE's headquarters in London.

ICE has helped me upgrade my knowledge continually.  

It has also widened my network of civil engineers and peers. For example, it enabled me to meet Dr Holger Svensson, an acknowledged expert on cable-stayed bridges. His firm had designed Vidyasagar Setu, a high-level cable-stayed bridge across River Hooghly in Calcutta in the 1980s.  

Technology changes constantly, thus a professional civil engineer must upgrade their knowledge base routinely. ICE encourages its members to prepare annual continuing education plans (CEP) and complete the planned education. ICE urges members to submit annual reports of their continuing professional development (CPD).  

Aside from the technical domain, such education should cover certain other areas as well. ICE suggests, quite rightly, that professional engineers develop planning and public speaking skills. To that list, I will add that engineers learn the art of writing.  

My advice is that the Proceedings of ICE and other professional institutions offer the best platforms for publication of your findings when you have pushed the knowledge boundary.  


How my career has touched lives 

My firm has created built environments where humans live, learn, work, worship, manufacture, recreate, and recover. It has designed some transportation infrastructure and done a significant environmental impact assessment study. By doing so, we have, as all civil engineers do, touched lives. 

In 1979, my firm signed the contract for designing a 120,000 capacity, football-cum-athletics stadium at Salt Lake in Calcutta. The three-tier stadium opened fully with an aluminium-clad roof, electronic scoreboard, floodlighting and synthetic track in 1987. 

The Salt Lake Stadium model resembles the aerial view of the old Wembley Stadium due to the similarity of spectator capacity and many similar facilities. The functionality dictated the shape.  

While cheering Bobby Moore at the Wembley Stadium in 1966, little did I know that 18 years later, in 1984, he would be doing us the honour of opening the first phase construction of Salt Lake Stadium.  
 

The benefits of volunteer work 

One cannot overstress the importance of doing volunteer work. By doing volunteer work you: 
  • Gain confidence; 
  • Get connected to the community; 
  • Learn new skills; 
  • Earn recognition from peers; 
  • Add value to your CV (employers love it); and  
  • Most importantly, derive inner satisfaction. 
Volunteer work is beneficial for your long-term mental and physical health.  

Over the years, the projects designed and delivered by my firm have housed or entertained tens of millions of citizens in India. They have also generated, directly and indirectly, hundreds of thousands of employments in India, and some abroad.  

Thus, in our small way, we have made a positive impact on society. Such realisation plays a prominent role in giving you a balanced life. And that, in turn, makes you a better professional civil engineer. 

With the completion of laudable projects and delivery of impactful volunteer work, comes peer recognition. Such recognition lifts one’s spirit and encourages one to give more to society. 
 

Whatever you do, aim high  

However, the intersection of the six constituents is infrequent. For this reason, world-class expertise in civil engineering is sparse.  

Be that as it may, what is certain is this: if you aim high, you may not get quite there, but you will get near enough. And that will be fine.  

In such an endeavour, membership of ICE can, and does, open many doors for you. 

Dr Sen recently received two professional recognitions: a scroll from ICE certifying he has completed 50 years of international membership, and the ‘Distinguished Alumnus Award’ for 2020 from the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur. 
 

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