Careers in civil engineering
The field of civil engineering is as old as the first large-scale human constructions. Over the centuries, it has advanced remarkably, from the first aqueducts and forts, to the astonishing bridges, skyscrapers, canals, and dams of the modern world.
If you are fascinated by how such marvels are planned, designed, and built, civil engineering might be an excellent career choice. The job outlook for civil engineers is positive, with a projected growth of 8% from 2020 to 2030.
What do civil engineers do?
Civil engineers are involved in public and private infrastructure and construction projects such as the building of airports, tunnels, dams, water supply and sewage systems, roads, and skyscrapers. Their work is needed at every step of the way, from planning and design, to overseeing construction and maintenance.
How hard is it to become a civil engineer?
Becoming a civil engineer can be challenging. It requires successfully completing a bachelor’s in civil engineering or a closely related discipline. While the coursework is demanding, there are few careers as well-paid and interesting as engineering that require only a bachelor’s degree. Many engineers do not continue on to grad school but nevertheless have lucrative and accomplished careers.
About half of all engineers pursue licensure. The process is lengthy, with the final licensing exam taken after at least 4 years of professional experience. However, this also means you can start your career and be well on your way by the time you complete the licensure process. Civil engineers are the most likely type of engineers to pursue licensure, with 60% of all PE exams in 2021 administered to civil engineers.
Malbork Castle in Poland is the largest brick structure build entirely by hand. It was constructed by Teutonic Knights in the 13th century.
How long does it take to get started in civil engineering?
Getting started in this career takes about 4-5 years, including your bachelor’s degree and several weeks or months of job searching. If your college or university holds career fairs, this can be a great way to acquaint yourself with engineering companies and network with the employees at those companies.
Going to grad school adds another 1-2 years of schooling. A master’s can mean more job opportunities and faster career advancement. It can also be the entryway into managerial and other leadership roles.
Qualities and skills of a civil engineer
The following are traits and abilities successful civil engineers possess.
- the ability to solve complex problems – solving complex problems and finding efficient solutions is one of the most important skills a civil engineer can possess
- critical thinking skills – civil engineers use sound reasoning and logical thinking to make astute decisions
- extensive civil engineering knowledge – this one seems like a no-brainer, but thorough knowledge of civil engineering and its principles is key
- excellent listening skills – while often overlooked, civil engineers carefully listen to their coworkers and peers to understand their points of view and make better decisions
- attention to the smallest details – when performing calculations and assessments, civil engineers have to pay attention to minute details, as even a minor miscalculation can have significant consequences
Where do civil engineers work?
About half of all civil engineers are employed by engineering services companies. Another 22% work for state or local government. Civil engineers typically work in an office environment, with occasional travel to worksites.
For construction engineers in particular, most of their time is spent outdoors, on construction sites. They are responsible for monitoring site operations. Depending on the project, frequent relocation and travel may be required.
What types of civil engineering jobs are there?
Becoming a civil engineer opens doors to many job opportunities and rewarding careers. Listed below are some of the most common career paths.
Civil engineers design, build, or supervise the construction of various structures and infrastructure projects. They may work on roads, dams, tunnels, bridges, water supply systems, and sewage treatment plants. They are involved in the entire lifecycle of these projects, from planning and design to construction, maintenance, and repairs.
Specific tasks civil engineers carry out include:
- analyzing designs for and data on public and private infrastructure projects
- designing structures according to government and industry standards
- submitting permit applications
- executing thorough cost, impact, and risk analyses
How to become
You can become a civil engineer by completing your bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. Many roles in this engineering discipline require a PE license as well.
Construction managers oversee the planning, design, and construction of various projects from the ground up and are responsible for their successful completion
Specific tasks construction managers carry out include devising budgets, implementing and executing plans, and supervising construction efforts.
How to become
The entry-level education required to become a construction manager is a bachelor’s degree. A degree in civil engineering can give you a significant leg up when joining the construction industry and working your way up to this role.
Civil engineering technologist/technician
Civil engineering technologists and technicians help civil engineers with planning, design, and construction.
As a civil engineering technician, you are responsible for assisting various engineering projects. This can include development or infrastructure projects and helping plan, construct, and build a variety of structures.
How to become
Becoming a civil engineering technologist or technician requires an associate’s degree rather than a bachelor’s, allowing you to begin working in this field in as little as 2 years.
Mining and geological engineer
Mining and geological engineers design mines and mitigate mine hazards, facilitating the safe removal of coal, metals, and minerals used in utilities and manufacturing.
As a mining and geological engineer, your primary role is designing mines that ensure safe mining practices. You are responsible for preparing technical reports for miners and communicating with managers and other engineers.
How to become
Becoming a mining and geological engineer requires a bachelor’s degree in engineering and may require licensure.
Geotechnical engineerMedian salary: $68K
Geotechnical engineering is a sub-branch of civil engineering that focuses on rock behavior and soil. As a geotechnical engineer, you use the principles of rock mechanics and soil to solve issues related to rockfall risks, avalanches, landslide analysis, and slope stability assessments.
Hydraulics and water resources engineerMedian salary: $70K
Hydraulics and water resources engineers use the principles of fluid mechanics to solve engineering problems related to water flow in various environments. This includes open channels such as oceans, lakes, and rivers, as well as closed environments such as pipes and pumps.
Structural engineerMedian salary: $71K
Structural engineers create drawings and specifications related to construction and analyze these for stability and safety. They review the work of other engineers, run calculations, and develop evaluations and reports about construction sites and buildings.
Coastal engineerMedian salary: $73K
Coastal engineering is a division of civil engineering that focuses on the conception, development, maintenance, and preservation of projects that take place in coastal areas. They use their engineering knowledge to solve problems related to flood control, erosion prevention, artificial harbor construction, and dredging operations.
Earthquake/seismic engineerMedian salary: $101K
Seismic engineers work to ensure structures such as bridges and buildings can withstand the force of earthquakes. By testing building materials such as concrete and steel, they determine how structures can become more resilient to natural disasters.
7 steps to becoming a civil engineer
There are several practical steps to becoming a civil engineer, including completing a bachelor’s, passing the appropriate exams, and obtaining work experience. Note that some of the steps presented below are optional.
Step 1. Earn a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering
The first step toward this career is obtaining a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering or a closely related discipline from an ABET-accredited college or university. After graduation, you can begin applying for jobs.
Step 2. Pass the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam [optional]
As an optional step, you can complete the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam as you near graduation or shortly after. The FE can be completed year-round. It is administered by NCEES-approved Pearson VUE test centers. Seek guidance from your college or university about sign-ups and exam dates.
Step 3. Earn work experience as a civil engineer
After graduating with a bachelor’s in civil engineering and potentially completing the FE exam, the next step is to find work with companies that catch your interest to help develop your skills. After 4 years of working as a civil engineer, you can take the PE exam (if you’ve passed the FE).
Step 4. Pass the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam [optional]
As mentioned in the previous step, passing the FE and working as a civil engineer for 4 years allows you to take the PE exam and obtain licensure. With a PE license, you can sign off on drawings, review technical specifications for accuracy, and advertise your services to the public. The PE is offered in the following 5 civil engineering disciplines:
- water resources and environmental
Step 5. Become a licensed Professional Engineer [optional]
After passing the PE in a civil engineering discipline, you can apply for a professional engineer license. Each state sets its own engineering licensure regulations and requirements. The FE and PE exams are mandatory in all states.
Step 6. Complete a master’s degree in civil engineering [optional]
Engineers looking to transition into senior or academic positions may complete a master’s degree in civil engineering. Some companies and engineering firms have programs to help pay for your degree while you continue working. Depending on the employer, a master’s degree may count as several years of work experience.
Step 7. Complete a doctorate in civil engineering [optional]
Engineers seeking to teach at university or college usually continue on to an engineering Ph.D. Mid-career engineers interested in advanced research and development or starting their own companies usually complete a doctor of engineering (as opposed to a Ph.D.).
Frequently asked questions
How hard is a civil engineering degree?
Civil engineering is a relatively difficult degree to obtain, requiring knowledge of advanced concepts in engineering, physics, and math. If you are strong in STEM subjects, it is certainly an attainable goal.
Can I get a civil engineering degree online?
With 99.1% of civil engineering undergraduate programs available in person only, it is unlikely you can complete this degree online. The hands-on and lab work, in-person training, and group collaboration required for efficient learning mean most engineering degrees are best completed on campus.
Do I need a PE license to be a civil engineer?
Civil engineers are strongly encouraged to obtain their professional engineer (PE) license. If you provide services to the public, perform work that involves public health and safety, are employed by government, or wish to advertise your engineering services, a license is mandatory.
Are civil engineers architects?
No, civil engineers are not architects. Civil engineers oversee the design-to-completion process of constructing bridges, water systems, dams, roads, and buildings. Architects are primarily focused on the design stage.
The ASCE is a membership organization for civil engineers with over 150,000 members residing in 177 countries. Founded in 1852, it is one of the oldest engineering societies in the United States.
The NCEES is a nonprofit organization that hosts the FE (Fundamentals of Engineering) and PE (Principles and Practice of Engineering) exams. The NCEES website provides detailed information about each exam.
The OJCE a platform for civil engineers to learn about the latest developments and innovations in their field.