Not sure whether to go to grad school? Our guest today is Riley Post, a PhD Candidate who has been heavily involved in Water Resources for 10+ years operating reservoirs, locks, and dams! 😲 In this interview, he touches on how to decide between work experience versus academia, what may cause you to choose one over the other, and the value of the PE license for both (yes, you read that right…both!)
Tune in to Learn:
- Riley's unusual path into Water Resources coming from Structural Engineering
- Flood control reservoirs vs locks and dams (hint: most people get this wrong)
- Why he went for a PhD and his research on the country’s flood control infrastructure
- One question to ask yourself to decide whether you should go to graduate school
- The definitive best time to tackle your Civil FE Exam
- Why the PE matters even to those in academia — and especially to those out of it
The Ultimate Civil PE Exam Startup Guide
University of Iowa
Connect With Riley:
CEA Exam Prep Materials:
The Ultimate Civil FE Review Course
The Ultimate Civil PE Review Course
The Ultimate Civil PE Depth Review Courses
Transcript of Show
You can get our transcript of the show below!
Isaac Oakeson: Hey, what's up everybody? Isaac here with Civil Engineering Academy. Excited to be with you on another podcast episode. If you haven't liked or subscribe to this stuff, definitely do that and share it with a friend. We always appreciate that. Today, I'm excited to bring on Riley Post, who is a PhD candidate of University of Iowa. He also worked for the US Army Corps of Engineer as a Water Resource Engineer. He deals heavily with flood management, reservoirs, dams, all of the fun stuff you get involved with hydraulics as well as hydrology.
Isaac Oakeson: I wanted to bring him on to talk about his path into civil engineering. Also his pathway into becoming a PhD and a candidate for that and kind of just get his work experience and have him share his story with you. So, in case you're following in those footsteps or are interested in teaching. He has a real passion in teaching and so he's pursuing a PhD to go teach. And so I wanted to bring him on to talk about that. Also, his vast work dealing with Hydrology.
Isaac Oakeson: So, if you are a Water Resources Engineer or have interest in becoming a Water Resources Engineer or, heck, if you're just a simple engineer in general, this is gonna be a good one for you as well. So, stick around. My interview with Riley is gonna be coming up right after this. See you in a minute.
Isaac Oakeson: Hey, I wanted to jump on real quick and let you know about a free resource we developed for you. You can find it at civilengineeringacademy.com/peguide. And this will help you to jumpstart your studies for your PE exam. So if you're in the hunt and you're just thinking about the PE exam, this guide will help you get through the process of figuring out everything you need to do, from the PE exam's prerequisites that you gotta figure out, the must have materials that you're gonna need for the exam, any approved calculators, what groups you should join, exam secrets, and much more. It's all in this guide that we've got developed for you. It's completely free. You can go check it out at civilengineeringacademy.com/peguide. Just put in your email, we'll get you that information as soon as the email comes to your inbox. So go check it out: civilengineeringacademy.com/peguide.
Isaac Oakeson: All right, we are live and running. Riley, thank you for joining me on the Civil Engineering Academy podcast. I appreciate you taking the time to do this.
Riley Post: Yeah, thanks so much. I really appreciate the invitation and, you know, the civil engineering and the PE are near and dear to my heart, so really happy to be here.
Isaac Oakeson: Awesome! Well, I was running late to jump onto this podcast with you. We're getting some crazy weather in Utah. I don't know what the deal is, but you know, a lot of water, water resources. We connected over Water Resources. I wanted to bring you on and really talk about that and your background and the things you've been working on in that world.
Isaac Oakeson: So, I always love to start these though, talking about your own background. How did you find yourself into the world of civil engineering? Why did you go that route? And specifically, why did you go into Water Resources?
Riley Post: Yeah. So, you know, in hindsight, it's like a really clear path, but this was no. If you asked me, you know, before I ended up where I am, I would've never guessed. I grew up on a farm in eastern Iowa, really close to the Mississippi River. One of my earliest memories is the flood of 1993. My dad worked in a cabinet company just, you know, 400 yards from the Mississippi. Big flood came and, you know, I'm, like, a five-year-old and we're pushing him off in a canoe so he can paddle to work.
Isaac Oakeson: Wow.
Riley Post: You know, then had a kind of a normal childhood. 2001 was another big flood. I was like 14, learned a [inaudible]. And then, 2008 hit, which is kind of for everyone around here. I'm at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. The Iowa River cuts right to campus. I think there was a billion dollars worth of damage in that flood to the university itself.
Riley Post: At the time I was an engineering intern at the city of Brock Island, Illinois, and they have a pretty extensive levee system. So as the intern, I got the overnight shift for levee monitoring. So 11:00 PM to 7:00 AM me and another intern were in a gator driving up and down the levees to make sure that they didn't fail. And then ended up working for the Corps of Engineers for 10 years working in water control. So operating flood control reservoirs in the state of Iowa and locks and dams along the Mississippi. And yeah, the rest is kind of history.
Isaac Oakeson: Wow. So, I imagine living by the Mississippi maybe that kind of garnered some interest into learning more about water and its effects.
Riley Post: Yeah, kind of just kept forcing the subject, right? You know, it was just kind of always there. I actually did my undergrad in structures, Structural Engineering. And, you know, the job market -- I graduated from my undergrad in 2010. Kind of at the bottom of the bottom of the great recession. And so I got an offer from the Corps; they were looking for a Water Resources Engineer. And I frankly didn't know much about Water Resources other than, you know, the experience growing up in a river town. So they kind of told me to stick around and get a master's in Water Resources Engineering, which I did. And really happy that it worked out that way. But it was kind of serendipity, you know? I kind of stumbled into this.
Isaac Oakeson: That's amazing. So, with your experience then, I wanted to ask, like, what's been the most difficult aspect that you've encountered of operating either dams or dealing with flood control?
Riley Post: Yeah. So, flood control for the Corps of Engineers, you know, they have flood control reservoirs and these locks and dams, and they really serve two different purposes. So flood control reservoirs, clearly right in the name, you know, reducing flood impacts for downstream communities. They can do some water supply. So, you know, there are some cities in Iowa that count on some of the water there in times of drought.
Riley Post: And then you have locks and dams on the river. So those are simply there for navigation. So, there's kind of a misconception that they're there for flood control. They really have no storage at all. They're almost there for the opposite. They're there for droughts and they can guarantee a nine-foot navigation channel to move barges up and down the river. And it's two different skills.
Riley Post: The river locks and dams are operated in a very tight band. And it's kind of like accounting. So you've got this system of locks and dams, and you're moving units of water from one to the other, and you're kind of keeping track of how much water is leaving and coming into these different locks. And, you know, it's a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week job. If there's a problem at two o'clock in the morning, you get called and you're expected to like spring out of bed and be able to do math.
Riley Post: So that's difficult. You know, you kind of -- You know, like, if you said that you're having some heavy rain when I worked at the Corps, you know, I would hear "heavy rain" outside and the dams are probably gonna call me soon. They'll be outside of their limits. They keep a very tight limit. So, the lockmen who are there will expect to make a gate change, and they'll call you to let you know.
Riley Post: On the flip side, for flood control reservoirs, you know, during heavy rain, you're expected to make decisions that can have a lot of really big impacts for people both upstream and downstream. And you know, it's very uncommon that you have both sides happy. You're either storing too much water behind the dam, trying to mitigate downstream flooding or you're releasing water to try to make more room, possibly causing downstream flooding. And so, I always kind of thought it's kind of like being a baseball umpire, you know? You have two different sides, and if both sides are equally unhappy, you may be doing an okay job.
Isaac Oakeson: That's awesome. Good analogy. I can definitely see the challenges there with assessing, you know, these different environments, whether you're in a drought or whether you've got too much water going on and we're in a flooding area and how to balance that. So, that's amazing you can do that. I imagine that may keep you up at night sometimes trying to worry about that stuff.
Riley Post: Yeah. Yeah. It's, you know, like I said, if you call most Corps of Engineers offices on Christmas morning, somebody's in there making sure that the infrastructure, the hydrologic infrastructure in their area is providing whatever services it's there to provide, you know? Out the West where you are, it may not be floods. It may be water supply, making sure the big cities like on the Colorado have water during extended periods of no rain, you know?
Riley Post: So, different areas of the country are, you know, fighting different battles, you know? But it can be a fraught profession, you know, regardless of where you're at.
Isaac Oakeson: That's so interesting. Well, today's Professional Engineering Day, the day we're recording this. So, you know, we're thankful for you and thankful for other professional engineers doing what they do.
Isaac Oakeson: I wanted to talk a little bit about your education. You decided that you wanted to go get a PhD. What went into that? What was your influence into getting a PhD? What was the background with that?
Riley Post: Yeah. So, when I came outta high school, I had narrowed down to two possible things to study. I was either gonna be a high school math teacher. I really like teaching. I like -- You know, the things that I'm passionate about, I'm very passionate about, and I like to get other people excited about those things.
Riley Post: Or, you know, go into engineering. My dad's an engineer. My grandfather's an engineer. So I grew up doing, like, projects around the house, building houses, you know, remodeling houses. And so I always saw how they could look at things really analytically and solve, you know, what I thought were very complex problems. They would go at it in a very, like, methodical way. And, you know, I thought that was really interesting and I wanted to do what I had to do to be able to do that myself.
Riley Post: So I decided to go into engineering. I really enjoyed when I did my master's. I got to be a teaching assistant. I really enjoyed the teaching aspect, and it's like, "Hey, I can have the best of both worlds." Like I said, I got that job offer to go work at the Coprs, which was a great place to work for a long period of time. And I kind of got to the point I got to be in my early thirties, and it was like, "Well, if I'm gonna do this teaching thing, now is the time."
Riley Post: And, you know, my wife was in a position -- She's a statistician. She was in a position we both went back to school. You know, we, you know, unknowingly planned to do it right as the pandemic kicked off. So, you know, admittedly, in hindsight it wasn't the most convenient time. But, like, doing zoom school and stuff that was interesting having been used to like in-person lectures and those types of things.
Riley Post: But yeah, I really love engineering. I love teaching and really have become pretty passionate about dam operation and flood mitigation. And so, this was kind of the best road for me, I think.
Isaac Oakeson: I'm assuming that the PhD that you wanna teach at a collegiate level or what? Did you still want to go to do something in the high school level? What was your thoughts there?
Riley Post: No, yeah. So, part of the PhD, you know, maybe the biggest part, is doing research. My research is in, you know, dam operation, flood mitigation, rainfall uncertainty, those types of things. I'm very interested in that. So I would like to keep doing the research portion, which you wouldn't get from teaching in high school. But yeah, I'd also like to, you know, teach some courses as well.
Riley Post: So probably a big -- You know, they call them R1 schools in academics, and those are like the big research schools, you know? The big 10, SEC, Pac-10, whatever the Pac is now. Pac-12, 14, however many. When you think about these big schools, that's usually where the big research institutions are.
Isaac Oakeson: That makes sense. And it sounds like the research that you wanna do is related to dams. Is that -- I guess how has the effect of climate change or whatnot, has this been a part of your research or has there been -- I guess, specifically, what are you researching?
Riley Post: Yeah, so climate change is a huge part of the research, and it really adds this level of uncertainty, right? So, you know, we have this infrastructure of these dams that, most of which were built, you know, a long time ago. Levee systems that were built a long time ago. And rivers are really, with flooding, it's really just having this huge surplus of water clearly. And it's more than the watershed can store.
Riley Post: And so reservoirs, you know, you're storing that extra water so that you can release it. And as rainfall becomes more intense as the atmosphere warms, you have the same amount of storage that you've always had. Actually less due to sedimentation in the reservoirs, but you have these really intense bursts of rain. And because reservoirs are really unwieldy to build, you know, they're expensive, lots of ecological problems that weren't as big a concern a hundred years ago on a lot of the reservoirs that we have now were built.
Riley Post: We have a finite amount of storage and an amount of rain that is just gonna continue to grow. And so we need to be able to optimize the flood-fighting potential of this kind of finite resource, which is the storage in these reservoirs. So, yeah. A lot of research how to do more with the same amount of storage.
Isaac Oakeson: Well Riley, thank you for sharing that. We talked a lot about becoming a -- Well, for you to become a PhD candidate. I guess, as a pathway for people that may be interested in following that same pursuit of becoming a PhD or something that's more research-oriented path like yours, what advice would you have for somebody that may be considering that? Because there's so many different avenues a civil engineer could go. What would be your thoughts around that?
Riley Post: Yeah! So, like you said, there are a lot of paths. So, some people go right through. You know, they do their four years of undergrad, two years of master's, four years of PhD. Or at least four years of a PhD, all in one shot, which I don't begrudge anybody for doing any of that. I don't regret for a second going out and working for 10 years before coming back and doing it.
Riley Post: When I was done with my master's, you know, I thought I was, like, I was done with school. I had, you know, done my time and I was ready to go out. Most of my friends who I graduated with, all of them had gone out and gotten good jobs outside of, you know, undergrad. So they were out, you know, doing the thing that you study for for four years, and I was ready to go do that.
Riley Post: But like I said, you know, I don't think that there's any one path. You know, you said a PhD candidate. You know, there's a series of exams that you take throughout your PhD. Every university is different. You get in and, you know, there's kind of a qualifying exam and that kind of makes you a full fledged PhD student and then a comprehensive. And then, you know, after you pass your comprehensive exam, you've kind of jumped all the hurdles except for finishing your dissertation. And then they give you this fancy, you know, PhD candidate title just to kind of say, you know, you're on the glide path, you just gotta write your dissertation to be done.
Riley Post: So, yeah. But like I said, if you're questioning whether or not you want to go back and get a PhD if you're someone like me who wasn't like immediately clear, go out and work and figure out what you like to do, what you don't like to do. If nothing else, it'll really focus you in on potential research paths. You know, it's a long career, you know?
Isaac Oakeson: For you, do you want to stay in Iowa or do you wanna go elsewhere to teach?
Riley Post: So I did my undergrad, my master's, and now my PhD all at the University of Iowa. I was born at the hospital here when my dad was a student. You know, I am a died in the wool Iowa Hawkeye for sure. But, you know, coming out of my PhD, it'll probably be time to do a postdoctoral researcher thing, which is kind of like a apprenticeship. So you have your PhD and you go out and you really kind of cut your teeth on doing, you know, research as a full-time job and applying for grants and really kind of making a name for yourself as a researcher.
Riley Post: And I want to go somewhere else and see what else is out there. There's a lot of really exciting research being done at a lot of different schools in places that are far from Iowa. So I see it as an opportunity to go out and meet new people and kind of learn how things are done outside of Iowa. So it's a really good opportunity and, you know, I hope to leverage it to go to go elsewhere.
Isaac Oakeson: That definitely makes sense. Well, definitely wishing the best for you on that.
Riley Post: Hey, thanks.
Isaac Oakeson: We talked a little bit about this earlier, but could you touch on, I guess, the value of getting your FE, the value of getting your PE and for, I guess you yourself, how did you balance working and studying with within all that?
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. So, you'll have to bring me -- We were talking about how fast time flies. I took the FE in 2010, so it was a paper test that everyone took, you know, Saturday. That where we took a four-hour morning section, and then they provided lunch, and then it was four hours in the afternoon. And I think it's probably changed since then, maybe.
Isaac Oakeson: Yes.
Riley Post: I recommend -- I'm, you know, a little older having gone out to work. I'm a little older than a lot of my classmates, but I encourage all of them, if they think they ever wanna work outside of academia, at least take the the FE. You know, it can't hurt you. The comprehensive nature of the FE, I just think it's better to take it as, you know, out of your undergrad when that stuff is fresh. If I remember correctly, there's thermodynamics and stuff on the FE, which I admittedly have not seen since I prepped for the FE as a civil engineer. So, take that early.
Riley Post: And I don't regret taking the PE either, you know? You get kind of a mixed bag with engineering professors. Some have it, some don't. But I just think it, you know, it opens doors. I think if, again, you find out that maybe academia isn't for you and you want to go out and go into consulting, a PhD opens a lot of doors. You know, you can go and work public sector, private sector, do all sorts of different things, and you'd hate to like go out and be in your mid thirties or, you know, older and have to have this PE thing hanging over your head. Because a lot of consultants will require it. A lot of public sector jobs will require it. So it's just good to get it knocked out. And you know, you know, I've never talked to anybody who's gone and gotten a PE and regretted it.
Isaac Oakeson: Exactly. And once you're done, you're done. You just gotta doing continuing ed.
Riley Post: Yeah, you just gotta keep up on the registration. I think, you know, it's such a hard fought thing. You know, like, you go through all the work and time and once you get it, you know, even people that I know who are pretty, you know, well-known procrastinators don't mess around with their PE re-registration, you know? Like, that is a thing that everyone I know really protects, you know?
Isaac Oakeson: Very true. Very true.
Isaac Oakeson: Well, awesome. Well, this has been very insightful for me. It's been fun to talk about, you know, your background and the work that you're doing, why someone would dive into getting a PhD and the interest that you have there. So I appreciate you doing this. Is there a good way for our audience to connect with you, Riley?
Riley Post: Sure, yeah. So, I have LinkedIn and my email is [email protected]. Always happy to talk with people, collaborate with people that are in the Water Resources space. Yeah, so I hope your audience won't hesitate to reach out if there's ever anything I can do to be of service to them.
Isaac Oakeson: Definitely. We'll link all your details there. If anyone has questions about, you know, obtaining your PhD or anything related to Water Resources, definitely give Riley a jingle and we'll see who reaches out. You never know. Always fun to support other people on their journey too.
Isaac Oakeson: So, thanks Riley for doing this and we'll catch you maybe on another episode.
Riley Post: Yeah, thanks so much.
Isaac Oakeson: Alright, see you.
Riley Post: Bye.
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