As one of the oldest engineering disciplines, civil engineering is responsible for maintaining society’s infrastructure. Civil engineers ensure safe construction, operation and maintenance of structures, such as roads, bridges, buildings and dams. Due to the importance of their duties, civil engineering has particular educational and skill requirements. This guide will explain in detail what it takes to become an engineer, what civil engineering degrees are available and what prospective students can expect when getting a civil engineering degree.
Working with both natural and built environments, civil engineers are responsible for designing and implementing plans for myriad structures and roadways used by billions of people across the world. Frequently working in tandem with architects, city planners and landscape designers, these creative professionals are responsible for countless aspects of everyday life. It would be difficult to imagine any scene where a civil engineer had not been at work: they design schools, help city traffic flow better, craft structures to hold priceless treasures and devise iconic monuments recognized the world over.
Top civil engineers wear many hats in their roles, ranging from designer and strategist to project manager and problem solver. Frequently working with projects from conception until completion, they must maintain both a wide lens view and an eye for details. Technology plays a large part in their everyday work, and the best civil engineers stay abreast of the latest design software and understand how it can better their work. For individuals who enjoy variety and possess both inventive and practical skills, civil engineering can be a rewarding professional path.
Regardless of the specific area where civil engineers choose to work, the field is brimming with opportunities and well-paid positions. The careers below represent some of the paths a civil engineer may take; while the salaries given herein represent the middle 50 percent of earners, those at the top of their game in the top 10th percentile make even more.
Whether just beginning or having been in the field for decades, civil engineering is an exciting vocation on each step of the professional ladder. Whether possessing a bachelor’s degree and starting out with entry-level positions or transitioning into collegiate teaching as a seasoned professional, there are many different paths that can be taken. The following section provides details on the steps needed to begin a career in civil engineering.
Bachelor’s degrees in civil engineering are commonly offered, and serve as the base level of education required to begin working. Within these programs, students undertake a variety of courses in math, engineering, statistics, fluid dynamics, and architectural design. They learn through a variety of mediums, including class lectures, internships or co-ops, and onsite field work.
As of 2012, one out of every five civil engineers held a master’s level degree and most of those were in managerial or leadership roles. Coursework tends to cover the same topics presented in a bachelor’s degree, but more in depth. Students may also have the opportunity to concentrate their knowledge in a particular area through specialized coursework and a research project.
Those seeking doctoral level degrees most often aspire to teach at the postsecondary level, or work in high-level consulting roles. As part of degree requirements, candidates complete a large-scale original research project and undertake examinations.
Almost all programs mandate at least one semester or summer-long internship to satisfy degree requirements. Students use these experiences to apply theories they’ve studied in the classroom, learn practical skills, and gain insight on a particular area of the field they may be interested in pursuing. These opportunities also serve students well for future employment, allowing them to network with other professionals, receive mentorship from an established civil engineer, and possibly leverage their experience into a job after graduation. The majority of internships are completed in the junior or senior year of study.
Because the field includes myriad areas of work, most students elect to specialize in a particular area. Some of the common concentrations include construction engineering, structural engineering, land development and use, transportation engineering, or geotechnical engineering. Undergraduates typically spend 12 to 18 credit hours covering specific topics in these areas, and may even complete an internship focused on their chosen specialization.
Civic engineers who wish to offer their services publicly must go through a number of steps to be properly licensed. While specific rules are governed by individual states, some of the most common requirements include:
The American Society of Civic Engineers offers support to civil engineers in training with a variety of test preparation assistance and information about testing centers. Because individuals must be licensed in all states and Washington D.C. to actually practice, devoting the proper amount of time to studying and preparing for these examinations is crucial.
After taking on a number of internships during college and completing the Engineer-in-Training phase, it’s likely that individuals will have a good number of contacts within the field via their networking efforts. Because civil engineering still functions in somewhat of a modern apprenticeship model, moving into the first professional role is typically accomplished through existing contacts. All students and interns should make sure they are doing their best work, asking questions, learning practical skills, and meeting as many professionals as possible. ASCE and Engineering Jobs also provide regularly updated job boards.
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I am already working in the civil engineering industry, but would like to enter a particular field, such as construction management or environmental engineering. I also want to become a manager in the future.
I need additional training in a particular area of civil engineering. However, I don’t need a full degree as I already have my bachelor’s degree in civil engineering or a related field.
Because I have no prior educational background or training in civil engineering, I understand I will need to get a degree that will allow me to become a fully licensed civil engineer.
I want to start working in the civil engineering field as soon as possible, but I don’t necessarily want to become licensed.
I need a civil engineering degree, but I can’t afford to move across the country or take classes during normal business hours. I also prefer to learn at my own pace and continue working full-time while I’m in school.
I’ve worked in the field for a while, and now I want to conduct research and teach aspiring leaders in the field.
Students who wish to pursue a degree and career in civil engineering have several options available and will typically choose which degree to pursue according to current and future career goals. While the associate degree helps prepare students to work in an entry-level capacity, the bachelor’s degree combined with licensing is designed to help students work as a civil engineer. Further education enables civil engineers to assume leadership, teaching and research roles. Learn more about degrees available and what students may encounter in each program.
The associate’s degree option for civil engineering falls into one of two categories: civil engineering or civil engineering technology. There are also related associate degrees, such as civil construction. Generally speaking, these degrees will prepare students to work as civil engineering technicians under the direction and supervision of civil engineers. The degree usually takes about two years, which gets the student into the workforce quickly. An associate degree can also serve as a stepping stone to a bachelor’s degree.
Classes found in an associate level civil engineering program include:
Students will receive a basic overview of the tools, theories and techniques involved in surveying land.
Familiarity with survey equipment
Protocols and procedures used when surveying
Use of measurement and calculations for determining angles and distances
Students will be trained on the computer applications commonly used by civil engineers and technicians.
Ability to use industry-standard software
Creation of visualization templates
Preparation of scale and plot drawings
In this class, the fundamental principles of highway design and construction will be explained.
Recognition of useful highway structures and designs
identification of engineering considerations when building a highway
Balancing financial and time considerations
The characteristics of soil are reviewed in this course. Students will gain a familiarity with soil properties and how those properties affect construction.
Knowledge of soil characteristics based on geological history
Understanding how specific soil properties will warrant use of special materials of construction designs
Determination of soil properties based on measurements
The bachelor’s degree in civil engineering is the minimum requirement for those interested in becoming a civil engineer. Licensing in many states requires at least a bachelor’s degree, and many employers seek applicants who have the bachelor’s degree regardless of licensing requirements. The degree can be completed in approximately four years of full-time study.
Classes that incoming students can expect to take in a bachelor’s civil engineering program include:
Students will learn the principles of the behavior of fluids, such as how they act in certain settings, like pipes.
Understanding of the principles of fluid dynamics
Comprehension of the properties of fluids in different situations
Boundary layer principles and applications
More complex mathematical concepts will be addressed, such as parametric equations, infinite sequences and vectors.
Use of formulas and equations to solve real world problems, such as calculation of volume
Computation of acceleration based on position and speed
Use of Green’s Theorem to calculate area
Students will examine how different materials act in various ways based on certain parameters and outside forces placed on those materials.
Understanding when and why certain materials should be used in a given application
Knowing how materials withstand sheer, compression and axial load forces
Familiarity with the behavior of certain materials based on outside factors
Students will learn to balance differing solutions to a specific engineering problem based on time and financial constraints.
Apply financial concepts to determine feasibility of certain engineering solutions
Calculate the time value of money in determining practicality of a given solution
How to take economical factors into consideration when solving an engineering problem
The master’s degree is designed to provide students with a means of gaining additional civil engineering knowledge in a particular concentration. Master’s degrees in civil engineering can also provide management training for future leadership positions. Most master’s degree programs take about two years to complete and many are offered online, allowing students to continue to work full-time while attending class.
Classes that students may encounter while in a civil engineering master’s degree program include:
Basic design and construction considerations for building an airport are taught in this class.
Addressing noise concerns and methods of diminishing noise pollution
How to choose an ideal site
Knowing what effect the type of airport has on design and building techniques
This is the study of methods commonly utilized by the industry for removing air pollutants.
Understanding of aerosol mechanics
Projection design with air pollution regulatory considerations
Understanding how the atmosphere disperses air pollutants
This course teaches methods for reinforcing concrete and completing an analysis of concrete’s strength and weakness.
Proper use of concrete slabs in structural design
Awareness of concrete properties and how it will affect a structure’s behavior
Knowing how concrete materials will react to sheer, compression and tension forces
Applying risk analysis techniques to structural design and project planning
Application of Bayesian statistical decision theory to risk analysis
Calculation of risk-benefit tradeoffs during project design
Methods of risk evaluation
Those who are interested in conducting in-depth research studies or teaching up-and-coming civil engineering students might choose to pursue the doctorate. Getting a PhD takes three to five years, but the length ultimately depends on the discipline of the student. Much of the time is spent researching, planning and writing the dissertation, which is usually a self-direct process. However, students can also expect to take a few advanced courses in the civil engineering field. Here is a sampling:
A comprehensive analysis of the structures used to support a modern urban society.
Understanding of how specialized infrastructures work together to support human life
Understanding the basic theories and concepts that allow urban services to operate
Interpret specific parameters to design and maintain a given infrastructure system
This class provides a quantitative presentation of hydrosystems, including their construction and operation.
Modeling of water systems
Analysis of a particular water cycle and its impact on water systems
Effective use of flood control systems
Students will learn to apply modern statistical methods in order to understand and address civil engineering problems.
Using statistical analysis for regulatory compliance
Use of statistical software to assist in project construction and design
Structural modeling through statistical analysis
This focuses on basic principles for structure design and construction for earthquake survivability.
Analysis of seismological data within civil construction context
Understanding wave propagation and its effect on structures
Ways to counter liquefaction and seismic slope stability problems
The graduate certificate usually consists of three to five courses through which students receive in-depth training and instruction in civil engineering areas, but do not have to commit to a degree or multiple years of schooling. The primary objective for certificates is to gain a deeper understanding of a particular subset of civil engineering, such as construction management or transportation construction.
Classes offered in graduate certificate programs will vary based on the school. Potential courses include:
This course teaches students about planning large construction projects and details the steps involved.
Ensure projects are completed on time and on budget
Accurately estimate project duration
Calculate estimated project costs
This class covers topics relating to structures that involve earth and soil as a major component.
Understanding how to use soil as a building material
Knowing how to examine and analyze below ground soil characteristics
Testing techniques of earthen works
After completing this course, students will have an understanding of how to effectively utilize an array of construction methods and equipment.
Be able to determine proper equipment for a particular building task
Familiarity with safety protocols for use during construction
Improve productivity through effective use of construction methods
In addition to balancing both practical and creative interests, civil engineers at the top of their game possess a variety of skills that help them understand the spaces they work with and how to translate their client’s desires into a feasible structure or roadway. Some of the most commonly sought after skills include:
Because civil engineers oversee projects through their life spans, they are required to make countless decisions along the way. These may range from massive choices based on years of experience to decisions about doorknobs. The best civil engineers are able to decide quickly and confidently.
Although software and technologies are increasingly being utilized throughout the design and planning processes, civil engineers still need a thorough understanding of numerous types of math. Those most commonly used include calculus, geometry and trigonometry.
When undertaking any project of magnitude, not everything will go perfect. Whether working with zoning restrictions, natural settings or client’s wishes, civil engineers must be able to work through problems they encounter and find constructive solutions.
In addition to working alongside other professionals on projects, civil engineers also frequently oversee contractors and laborers. Being able to keep a number of balls in the air and ensure everyone knows what they’re meant to be doing is central to the success of a project.
Civic Engineers must go through a credentialing process to work in the field, but they can also further their knowledge and marketability by completing further certificates. The required examinations, administered by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying, are detailed below alongside other optional professional development opportunities.
All engineers must take this exam, although the tests are specialized to different areas of the field. The civil engineering test takes six hours to complete and is comprised of 110 multiple-choice questions covering 18 different areas. Some of these include mathematics; probability and statistics; computational tools; ethics and professional practice; engineering economics; statics; dynamics; and surveying. During the two most recent examination rounds, 853 candidates, or 77% of all test-takers, passed the examination.
After serving as an engineer-in-training and gaining professional experience, the last step for full licensure is completing a PE exam in civil engineering. Four different exams are offered, depending on the student’s area of specialization. These include construction, geotechnical, structural, transportation, and water resources/environmental. All of the exams last eight hours and are taken during a morning and afternoon session.
The Academy of Geo-Professionals offers this certification for individuals who have already completed their PE exam and wish to extend their knowledge to geotechnical design, a sub-disciplined focused on how to effectively work with soil and rock. Candidates must also have at least eight years of experience and hold a master’s level degree.
Offered by the American Academy of Water Resources Engineers, the D.WRE diploma exists for professional engineers with existing experience who wish to become experts in areas of dams and drainage, flood management, irrigation, and reservoirs.
Frequently completed by civil engineers with an interest in designing structures or roadways that are coastal or near bodies of water, the Academy of Coastal, Ocean, Port and Navigation Engineer’s certification is well regarded. Civic engineers must have at least 12 years of experience and hod a master’s level degree.
The work of a civil engineer involves both being at the drafting table and on the ground at construction sites. Because of this, they use a variety of tools and technologies to assist them in planning and executing their designs. Some of the most common are given below:
Almost 110,000 civil engineers were working in the field as of 2012, and this number is expected to grow by nearly 20,000 in the coming years. Civic Engineering roles are projected to increase by 20 percent between 2012 and 2022, much faster than the national average for all jobs. Many components contribute to this large growth, including:
A number of careers within the field or closely related to civil engineering are also growing rapidly thanks to the need for more environmentally friendly structures and roads to serve a growing population. Some of the hot careers in the field today include:
While usually focused exclusively on structures, architects and civil engineers frequently overlap in their work activities. They are responsible for meeting with clients to ascertain their needs, creating designs based on those conversations, producing drafts and blueprints, overseeing the work of building contractors, and ensuring all buildings adhere to codes. They frequently use computer-aided design (CAD) software to produce scaled examples of building plans and split their time between the office and the job site.
CETs support civil engineers, working alongside them to design structures and roadways. These professionals are not licensed, but are able to contribute to projects in meaningful ways under the supervision of a professional CE. They may review blueprints, inspect project sites, evaluate work, review coding and zoning requirements, and produce cost estimates. Most individuals in these roles hold an associate degree in engineering gained from a community college or technical/vocational school.
Architectural and Civic Drafters take the vision of a civil engineer and make it reality. After consulting with CEs and architects, these professionals produce highly detailed and accurate sketches of structures and roadways, utilizing both pen and paper and computer-aided design (CAD) software. They must possess a thorough knowledge of materials, engineering principles, mathematics, and zoning codes to be proficient, and many leaders within the field rely on their expertise.
Civil engineering jobs are set to grow by one-fifth between 2012 and 2022 across the nation, although some states will experience more growth than others. Individuals willing to factor location into their professional plans may consider using this information as they make their decisions. While Utah is set to grow the position by more than one-third, Maine expects to see a growth of only 3.1 percent over the same period.
Individuals working in engineering or related fields are known to make good livings, and the occupations related to civil engineering shown below are no exception. Whether aspiring to lead projects or assist licensed engineers, options abound. Similarly, those who wish to be more focused on the constructions aspect, as well as individuals who enjoy the planning process more, all have a number of career paths available to them.
After reading through this guide, you may realize you like many of the components of civil engineering but are better suited to a slightly different occupation. The table below outlines related occupations and provides a snapshot of average salaries, projected job growth, and the education needed to enter the field.
Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Payscale
One of the oldest civil engineering organizations, the ASCE represents civil engineers by promoting the profession and encouraging educational and policy efforts to improve society.
As its name implies, the ASEE works to advance engineering education and technology. ASEE efforts include research, education and public service.
A nonprofit technical society made up of members from many disciplines, including civil engineers, all with the goal of reducing earthquake risks.
NEES works with engineers and researchers to reduce the risk of harm that result from earthquakes.
The Order of the Engineer was founded to provide a positive image to the public of the engineering profession, help train future engineers and serve as a symbol of pride.