Guide to getting a master’s degree in civil engineering
Although the practice of engineering is as old as the first built human settlements, the term ‘engineering’ was first applied in a military context. It referred to the construction of fortresses and other structures built to fortify settlements. Civil engineering gets its name from the distinction between military and non-military construction projects.
If this career calls to mind bridges, buildings, and tunnels, you are partly right. Designing and managing infrastructure is at the core of this field, but the specific tasks civil engineers carry out are diverse.
A day in the life of a civil engineer could involve:
- analyzing maps or survey reports
- identifying potential environmental hazards
- submitting applications to government agencies
- budgeting for projects
- overseeing highway repairs
- directing water treatment facility maintenance
A master’s in civil engineering prepares you for advanced and leadership roles in this field. It can also be an entry point into academia and a teaching career. Explore the top-ranking master’s in civil engineering programs to make an informed choice.
What can you do with a master’s in civil engineering?
Civil engineering is an umbrella term encompassing a range of occupations.
With a master’s degree in this field, you could:
- consult on construction, transportation, or water management
- design and build deep-sea drilling technology
- ensure a new building incorporates correct fire-safety elements
- help a factory safely dispose of waste products
- spearhead the implementation of new highway markings
Your day could be spent in an office, out in the field, or both. Regardless of which branch of civil engineering you choose, the ultimate responsibility is protecting the public.
Should you get a master’s in civil engineering?
Earning a master’s can fast-track your career. Most 4-year degree holders begin as graduate or level-1 engineers. To become senior engineers, they need 7 or more years of on-the-job experience. With a master’s degree, you can start at a higher level as soon as you graduate.
A master’s can also qualify you to teach or work in corporate research and development.
» Read: What is the return on investment of your degree?
Below you can view the economic performance of this degree 3 years after graduation. We compare earnings to the median debt accrued and contrast this sum to earnings 3 years after graduating with a bachelor’s in civil engineering.
Debt and earnings
Graduate degree premium
Earning over bachelors
Annual debt repayment
The figures above give an indication of the debt incurred by graduates, and their salaries 3 years after graduation. The table on the left compares median debt and median earnings. The right-hand table compares how much a master graduate earns over a bachelor graduate 3 years after graduation, after deducting median debt repayments.
How to choose a master’s in civil engineering
As a first step, narrow your focus. A master’s degree is an opportunity to advance your skills in a chosen concentration – find a program that offers the one you are interested in.
Examples of civil engineering concentrations include:
Advanced infrastructure systems
Uses technology and information to improve components of infrastructure, including bridges and skyscrapers
Environmental engineering and sustainability
Focuses on eco-friendly projects and approaches to mitigating pollution
Mechanics, materials, and computing
Blends mechanics, mathematics, and scientific computing to better understand physical phenomena
The designing, planning, and construction of buildings and infrastructure
Geotechnical and materials
Studies the properties of natural features such as rock, soil, water
Public works engineering
Strategies for managing drinking water, sewage, and other services utilized by the public
The planning, design, and maintenance of transportation systems such as highways, airports, and railroads
Structural engineering and mechanics
Deals with the structural design and safety of buildings, bridges, tunnels, and other large-scale construction projects
Water resources engineering
The study of how to manage, preserve, and maintain water as a natural resource
While ABET accreditation is critical at the bachelor’s level, very few master’s programs are accredited. Keep in mind that you may not get accepted into a master’s program without an ABET-accredited bachelor’s degree.
Can you get a master’s in civil engineering online?
While it is possible to earn this degree through a fully online program, it may not be the wisest choice given the amount of hands-on and lab work.
Master’s in civil engineering
The above table shows the percentage of programs available either completely in person or fully online. Figures that do not add up to 100% indicate the existence of hybrid programs.
The above data suggests that some programs may be offered in a hybrid format, with some online components. If you are looking for flexibility, such a program could be your best bet, as it allows you to complete practical elements on campus and the rest remotely.
How much does a master’s in civil engineering cost?
See below how the debt and repayment rates for civil engineering master’s programs differ based on institution type. Note that we are limited to measuring the median debt students have incurred at graduation.
Debt to earnings
Debt to earnings
Median earnings and median debt of graduates of this degree program. The debt-to-earnings ratio compares student debt to annual earnings. The lower the debt-to-earnings ratio the better, and total debt should never exceed annual earnings (a debt-to-earnings ratio of 1.0).
Financial aid and scholarships for master’s in civil engineering
- Your first stop for financial aid is the Department of Education’s website for Federal Student Aid. This is where you can find and fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The deadline to file your FAFSA is March 1st of every year but you can file as early as October 1st of the year before you plan to attend. The earlier you can get your application in, the better your chances of receiving financial aid.
- If you fail to receive enough federal grant money to attend college, you may want to consider taking out a guaranteed student loan.
- If you are employed, check whether your employer offers a tuition assistance program.
- Apply for as many eligible scholarships as you can.
- Talk to your school’s financial aid department about fellowships, scholarships, and private grants.
What to expect from a master’s in civil engineering
Most graduate civil engineering programs focus on applying the principles of advanced math to the design, construction, and maintenance of infrastructure such as dams, bridges, roads, airports, and tunnels. Along with core civil engineering courses, you take electives in your specialization, and a breadth of requirements from other STEM or non-STEM fields.
How long does it take to earn your master’s in civil engineering?
Most students complete this program in 1-2 years.
Thesis or non-thesis route
Master’s programs focused on the application of knowledge generally don’t require a thesis for completion, while those focused on research do. Civil engineering master’s degrees are more commonly offered as non-thesis programs, though may schools offer both options. If you are interested in teaching or pursuing a Ph.D., choose the thesis route.
Internships are not mandatory but can be beneficial for your career. They help you gain real-life experience and network with other professionals in the field.
Licensing is optional, but is quite common among civil engineers, as they often serve the public or are employed by the government. The Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) and Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exams are required for licensure.
You can complete the FE as soon as you finish your bachelor’s, and the PE after working in the field for at least 4 years. Precise licensing rules vary by state, but the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) administers the FE and PE exams in all states.
Interested in this degree but don’t have a bachelor’s in engineering? Some colleges offer bridge programs for students who wish to change majors or those with an unaccredited bachelor’s degree. A bridge is a transitional program aimed at helping students get up to speed in the engineering concepts needed to earn their master’s.
Master’s in civil engineering courses
Courses you may encounter in your studies include:
- Project planning – Students learn to plan and estimate the overall scope of a project, including all contingencies.
- Construction law – This course introduces the basics of legal issues as they apply to construction.
- Physical hydrology – Includes instruction on groundwater systems, precipitation and runoff, and storm response.
- Coastal structures – Students learn about coastal protection measures to prevent shoreline erosion and flooding.
- Project controls – The course explains key project management techniques, tools, and resources.
What types of master’s degrees are available in civil engineering?
Many schools allow students to choose between an M.S. or an MEng in civil engineering.
Master of science in engineering (M.S.)
for engineers seeking to focus on research and development, enter academia, or continue on to a Ph.D.
Master of engineering (MEng)
focus is on coursework and practical skills
no thesis requirement; might have a capstone project
for engineers seeking to enter the professional field rather than academia
What jobs can I have with a master’s in civil engineering?
Your master’s degree in civil engineering takes you a step besteyond applicants with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering only. You may find it easier to qualify for leadership and management roles and are likely to earn a higher salary. Many industries create specific positions for civil engineers, ensuring a huge range of available careers.
Frequently asked questions
Is a master’s degree in civil engineering worth it?
The answer depends on your aspirations and interests. If you are looking to fast-track your way to leadership positions, teach, or continue on to a Ph.D., this degree is definitely worth it and may even be essential.
Is civil engineering the same as construction engineering?
Construction engineering is a branch of civil engineering, meaning all construction engineers are civil engineers but not all civil engineers are construction engineers. Construction engineers focus on the most practical aspects of civil engineering – the actual building of infrastructure and management of the construction site.
Are civil engineers real engineers?
Yes, civil engineers perform engineering duties every day. At its core, engineering is the practice of using science and math to find solutions. Some engineers work with machines and computers, some with cement and building materials, and others with blueprints and drafting tables.
Can civil engineers do artificial intelligence?
Civil engineers often use AI to build models, run simulations, and to identify the risks associated with a project. Many applications in civil engineering are made more efficient and affordable through AI.
Is civil engineering close to architecture?
These fields overlap to some degree, and civil engineers and architects often work together on projects. However, architects focus on the design stage, while civil engineers oversee projects from design through to construction and completion.
Do I need a license to teach engineering?
Certain states require a PE license to teach upper-level engineering courses, but it is not required nationally. A master’s degree or Ph.D. are the main credentials colleges and universities look for.
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)
The ASCE, founded in 1852, is the oldest American engineering society. It represents more than 150,000 members across 177 countries.
NCEES Professional Engineer (PE) Licensing Information
Obtaining a PE license is an excellent way to stand out in your field and open up a wide range of additional employment opportunities. The NCEES provides information about the PE exam, which can be taken after working in your engineering discipline for 4 years and previously passing the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam.