Terzaghi entered the Technical University in Graz to study mechanical engineering in 1900. He became especially interested in theoretical mechanics, but Terzaghi was a rambunctious student and was nearly expelled at one point. He graduated with honors in 1904. Terzaghi's then fulfilled a compulsory one year military service. While fulfilling his military obligations, Terzaghi translated and greatly expanded a popular English geology field manual into his native language, German. He returned to the university for one year after this and combined the study of geology with courses on subjects such as highway and railway engineering. He shortly produced his first academic paper, the subject of which is the geology of terraces in southern Styria.
In US, on his own, he undertook an engineering tour of major dam construction sites in the West. This was no ordinary tour, but was his opportunity to gather reports and first-hand knowledge of the problems of many different projects, and he used it to the fullest before returning to Austria in December 1913. When WWI broke out, he found himself drafted into the army as an officer directing a 250 man engineering battalion. His responsibilities again increased, leading now 1000 men, and he faced combat in Serbia and witnessed the fall of Belgrade. After a short stint managing an airfield, he became a professor in the Royal Ottoman College of Engineering in Istanbul (now Istanbul Technical University).
Here he began a happy, very productive period, in which he began his lifelong work of bringing true engineering understanding to soil as an engineering material whose properties could be measured in standardized ways. He set up a laboratory using only the most rudimentary of equipment, and began his revolution. His measurements and analysis of the force on retaining walls were first published in English in 1919, and was quickly recognized as an important new contribution to the scientific understanding of the fundamental behavior of soils.
At the end of the war, he was forced to resign his post at the University, but managed to find a new post at Robert College in Istanbul. Here he switched his teaching language from French to English, and again constructed a laboratory out of the most simple equipment. This time he studied various experimental and quantitative aspects of the permeability of soils to water and was able to work out some theories to explain the observations. He invented entirely new apparatus for the measurements and put in many long days of work to carry out the measurements himself. In 1924 he published much of this in his Magnum Opus, Erdbaumechanik which revolutionized the field to great acclaim. It resulted in a job offer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which he immediately accepted.
In 1927, in an interesting co-incidence, Aurelia Schober Plath, subsequently to become the mother of the famous poet Sylvia Plath, worked as a secretary for Terzaghi. She was of Austrian descent and worked for Terzaghi translating a handwritten manuscript in German dealing with new principles of soil mechanics. After work they would have dinner together, when Terzaghi's sparkling conversation led her to Greek drama, Russian literature, the works of Hermann Hesse, the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, as well as the writings of great world philosophers. She claims the experience affected her for the rest of her life and that she "realized how narrow my world had been and that self-education could be and should be an exciting lifelong adventure. It was the beginning of my dream for the ideal education of the children I hoped some day to have."(Plath, 1975)
From 1926 to 1932, Arthur Casagrande, another pioneer of soil mechanics and geotechnical engineering, worked as Terzaghi's private assistant at MIT.
Terzaghi was much sought after as a dinner companion and was a fascinating conversationalist. His striking good looks and evident power was very attractive to women. In 1928 he met the young Harvard doctoral student in geology, Ruth Dogget, and fell deeply in love.
In 1928, Terzaghi was finally fed up with MIT and its president, and determined to return to Europe. He accepted a chair at the Vienna Technische Hochshule in the winter of 1929. He married Ruth, who, became his editor and collaborator as well. A short consulting trip to Russia before taking up his post horrified him, and he came to oppose the Communist system there as a regime exemplified by its brutality and chaos. Using Austria as his base he traveled ceaselessly throughout Europe, consulting and lecturing, and making new professional contacts and collaborations. His teaching workload was now relatively light, so he continued his experimental investigations, and became especially interested in the problems of the settling of foundations, and of grouting. He began writing the manuscript for a much updated and expanded version of Erdbaumechanik, now set for two volumes. However, the political turmoil in Austria began to interfere with his work, and in 1935 he decided to take a leave from Vienna during 1935 to 1936.
He began his sabbatical with a short trip to consult with Todt and the architects of the proposed grandiose plans for immense buildings at the Nazi's Party Day Rally site in Nuremberg. This led to a conflict over the best way to lay a sound foundation, which led to a discussion with Hitler himself, who took an intense interest in all details of the architecture. Terzaghi then returned to America where he gave a plenary lecture at the International Conference on Soil Mechanics at Harvard University. He made a lecture tour of many other universities, but discovered that prospects for employment were dim. He returned to Vienna in November 1936, shortly after the birth of his first son, Eric. In Vienna, he returned to a nasty professional and political controversy, which he overcame only with some difficulty. He memorably stated "The Fatherland denoted me as a Nazi, the Nazis as a Bolshevik, and the Bolsheviks as a conservative idealist. Certainly only one of the three could be right, and that one is the Bolsheviks." He escaped from Vienna frequently by extended consulting trips to major construction projects in England, Italy, France, Algeria and Latvia, adding greatly to his store of practical engineering experience.
In 1938 Terzaghi emigrated to the United States and took up a post at Harvard University. Before the end of the war, he consulted on the Chicago Subway system, the Newport News Shipways construction, and raising the Normandie, among others. He became an American citizen in March 1943. He remained as a part-timer at Harvard university until his retirement in 1953 at the mandatory age of 70. In July of the next year, he became the chairman of the Consulting Board for the construction of the Aswan High Dam. He resigned this post in 1959 after coming into conflict with the Russian engineers in charge of the project, but continued to consult on various hydroelectric projects, especially in British Columbia. He died in 1963.