If you’re captivated by science behind modern city planning and the flowing designs of our roads, buildings and waterways, a career in civil engineering is probably for you. If you’d like to be an integral part of the infrastructure and utilities that make the world go, a career in civil engineering is for you.
Part I. What is a Civil Engineer?
As one of Forbes’ 15 most valuable college majors, civil engineering graduates typically enjoy lucrative post-graduation careers. Civil engineers conceptualize, design, and supervise small and large construction projects, including connective structures like roads, tunnels, dams, bridges, ports and airports, and water projects like sewer treatment plants and water supply systems. As the world moves towards green technology, civil engineers also oversee projects such as green rooftops and solar energy plants.
Civil Engineering Overview
The duties of a civil engineer include analyzing survey reports, maps, and other data when planning projects, taking budgets into consideration, regulations that impact the project, and any potential environmental hazards. Civil engineers use design software to design and plan systems. They’ll also present findings to the public on topics such as bid proposals, environmental impact of a project, or descriptions of a property. Civil engineers may supervise construction sites, become city administrators, or conduct inspections. Some civil engineers work in research or teaching.
Civil engineers may specialize in one specific area. Geotechnical engineers ensure foundations are solid, focusing on how structures such as buildings and tunnels interact with the earth. They’ll plan for and design slopes or retaining walls. Structural engineers work on major projects such as bridges and dams, monitoring and evaluating these large structures to make sure they are strong enough to be sustainable. Transportation engineers work on streets or highways, but could work on broader projects that impact transportation such as ports and harbors or airports.
Because civil engineers plan and execute large projects, they must possess complex problem solving skills and decision making skills — and leadership skills are a must in management positions. Being able to use mathematics efficiently and effectively will aid in analysis, design, and troubleshooting of projects. Last but certainly not least, concise writing skills will be used to write reports and communicate with other engineers, the government, or the public.
Civil engineers must earn a bachelor’s degree to break into the field. This degree should be obtained from a program approved by ABET (formerly the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology). ABET accreditation is needed in order to gain licensure, which is required to work as a professional engineer (PE). In order to be in a managerial position, a master’s degree is typically required. About one in five engineers has a master’s degree.
Civil engineers who contract their own services or have direct control of a project must maintain their own state licensure. Early in the licensing process, a civil engineer also must pass the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam. After meeting a state’s requirements, an engineer becomes a Civil Engineering (CE) Intern or an Engineer-in-Training. Depending on the state, to qualify as a CE Professional, civil engineers must have a certain amount of experience, pass other exams, and satisfy all state requirements.
Salary and Career Outlook
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), median pay in 2010 for civil engineers was $77,560 per year. Mid-career median pay is just above $90,000. Federal government jobs have the highest median wage among entry-level jobs, at $89,450. The lowest 10% earned less than $50,000; the top 10% earned over $119,000. Salaries vary based on working in small firms, large corporations or privately contracting.
According to the BLS, employment is expected to increase 19% between 2010 and 2020, which is about as fast as the average for all occupations. About 30% of civil engineers work for the local, state and federal governments who oversee large infrastructure projects that impact a growing population. For instance, water systems and highways will need constant maintenance. Bridges, levees, and roads all eventually require repairs. Federal and state funding will impact the career outlook of civil engineers.
Part II. Schools for Civil Engineers
Studying to become a civil engineer will take you down a winding path of math, science, statistics, and engineering mechanics and systems. You’ll be doing lab work, field work, and class work, so finding the right program to fit your current life situation is important. Read on to determine which course or degree program fits you. Each of the following schools have received accreditation from the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering offers two accredited bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering or Environmental Engineering Science and a Master of Engineering.
- Course Requirements: Learn about principles of earth systems and sustainability, fundamentals of solid and fluid mechanics. Expect project-based labs to teach processes and skills for planning, design and construction. Core courses list specific class details for graduate and undergraduate work.
- Specialized Programs: UROP and TREX are for undergrads interested in gaining field experience. The M.Eng. is in one of 4 specialized tracks: Environmental and Water Quality Engineering, Geotechnology, High-Performance Structures, or Transportation.
- Cost: For undergrads, per term tuition is $20,885. That’s over $40,000 per year, not considering room and board in Boston. Plan for four to five years to complete a degree.
- Financial Aid: MIT’s admissions are made without regard for financial need. MIT awards all aid based on financial need, and promises to meet the full need of their accepted students regardless of their financial status. At the graduate level, stipends are available through RA/TA positions and fellowships.
- For the Financially Savvy: This degree will pay for itself in job placement, especially if MIT is helping cover the actual tuition cost up front. Low income, high-achieving students are as competitive as a student who can pay cash for the degree.
- Who Should Enroll? About a third of doctoral graduates accept faculty positions, so if you want to research or teach, MIT can help get you there.
Russ College of Engineering and Technology has undergraduate, master’s, and Ph.D programs, as well a 5-year co-op program that incorporates hands-on training into the degree curriculum.
- Course Requirements: Undergraduate students take core courses in various CE disciplines gaining depth of knowledge in the discipline of their choice: construction management, environmental, geotechnical, pavements, structures, surveying, transportation, or water resources.
- Specialized Degrees: Master’s degree and Ph.D. programs focus on construction, environmental, geotechnical, enviro-geotechnical, pavements, structures, transportation or water. Ohio University’s Master of Engineering Management is completely online and will prepare you for a career in leadership.
- Cost: Tuition and fees will cost $5,108 for full-time resident undergrads and $9,590 for nonresidents. This price does not include room and board. An online master’s will cost $606 per credit for residents and $635 per credit for nonresidents (45 hours total).
- Financial Aid: Federal loan programs are available to offset the costs of your degree. Payment plans are available.
- For the Financially Savvy: Don’t delay declaring your CE major or you may be delayed in earning your bachelor’s degree. If you need the flexibility, the online master’s is worth considering.
- Who Should Enroll? If you have five years for undergrad and want to earn credit and a salary at the same time, the Cooperative Education Program is available after freshman year. It’s an instant resume builder.
Georgia Institute of Technology
GIT’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering provides a broad range of topics with electives that allow students to delve deeper into a specific field.
- Course Requirements: Degree requirements for the B.S. in CE also cover general education courses.
- Specialized Degrees: Two joint B.S./M.S. engineering programs (one in civil, one in environmental) give the best-of-the-best students a head start on graduate work.
- Cost: Plan to budget for tuition, room and board, and other fees that amount to $22,254 for residents and $41,558 for nonresidents.
- Financial Aid: Aid is available in the form of loans, grants, scholarships, and campus employment.
- For the Financially Savvy: Receive an out-of-state tuition waiver if you meet certain requirements.
- Who Should Enroll? Students who want the challenge of a dual program at a top tech school will thrive at Georgia Tech.
Fairleigh Dickinson University
This New Jersey establishment offers a B.S. in Civil Engineering Technology through the Gildart Haase School of Computer Sciences and Engineering.
- Course Requirements: The curriculum at FDU offers a 50/50 combination of theoretical and lab courses. Math, science and engineering principles are applied to implementation, development and improvement of current technology. Degree requirements include other general education courses.
- Specialized Programs: CET students work with faculty on research or design projects through Honors Programs, Independent Study, and the Civil Technology Design Project.
- Cost: Undergrads pay a flat fee of $32,852 per year for tuition for up to 18 hours. Add between $7,000 to $15,000 for residence halls depending on occupancy, and another $4,000 for meal plans.
- Financial Aid: Several generous scholarships and grants are available based on need and merit.
- For the Financially Savvy: New Jersey will significantly defer the cost of attending FDU with state specific scholarships and grants.
- Who Should Enroll? If you prefer hands-on lab experience rather than theory, FDU is your best bet.
Old Dominion University
This storied Virginia institution offers an online B.S. in Civil Engineering Technology (BSET) via video streaming and satellite courses.
- Course Requirements: Your curriculum sheet will detail all required courses and program requirement.
- Cost: Tuition costs $273/credit for residents and nonresidents living outside of Virginia. You can transfer courses but must earn at least 64 credits from ODU, and 127 total for graduation. You’ll encounter additional fees as well. These costs do not include room and board.
- Financial Aid: ODU’s Financial Aid TV will answer your financing questions. Scholarship opportunities exist for merit and need based students.
- For the Financially Savvy: Active duty military assigned to a base in Virginia may receive in-state tuition. Establishing residency in VA makes this program quite affordable.
- Who Should Enroll? Students who need a flexible distance program will find ODU’s BSET program the right fit.
University of Texas at Austin
UT’s Cockrell School of Engineering offers programs in a variety of disciplines from transportation to construction engineering and project management.
- Course Requirements: Research areas are specified by taking electives in that particular area.
- Specialized Degrees: Graduate degree programs are available in Civil Engineering and Environmental and Water Resources Engineering. A dual-degree undergraduate program is available with the School of Architecture and a dual-degree graduate program is available for those with a bend towards communication with the LBJ School of Public Affairs.
- Cost: Tuition costs $5,107 for Texas residents, and $17,189 for nonresidents. Fees, room and board are not currently listed for the university.
- Financial Aid: Loan information is processed through UT-Austin. Work study and need and merit based scholarships are available. The University also provides comprehensive online financial services.
- For the Financially Savvy: Studying successfully at a top-notch program will boost you to the top of the resume pile.
- Who Should Enroll? UT-Austin’s top ranked program will put you at the head of the class for entering the job market.
Part III. Breaking Into the Field
Where to Start
- Resumes: Your resume should contain all relevant work experience. Include any practicums or internships you completed while working on your degree. List your skills that are pertinent to the position you’re seeking. Each hiring manager or HR supervisor is looking for specific job skills, so be sure to tailor your resume.
- Cover Letters: Show off your personality and highlight anything that is specific to the job you’re applying for. Expand on the reasons you feel you are a perfect fit for any position. Mention the company and position for which you’re applying, and end with a call to action.
- Portfolios: Civil engineers should keep a portfolio of projects, both academic and professional. An online portfolio will help you connect with employers outside of your local travel area, while a hard copy portfolio is useful to carry along to interviews. If you don’t have a hard copy, bring an iPad or laptop to job interviews and show your prospective employer the online version.
Top 5 Civil Engineering Associations
- The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) offers a multitude of resources pertaining to careers and certification. They also feature volunteer opportunities for using your civil engineering skills at home and abroad.
- Engineers Without Borders provides over 350 projects for engineers around the world. Their vision is “a world in which the communities we serve have the capacity to sustainably meet their basic human needs, and that our members have enriched global perspectives through the innovative professional educational opportunities” the EWB-USA program provides. Locate a project by country, chapter, and type. Or you can submit your own program for a community in need.
- American Water Works Association unites the water community, an extension of civil engineering. AWWA focuses on advancing technology, education, science, management and government policies in order to protect pubic health. You can search for jobs, utilize their resources and tools, or view awesome illustrations about out how water works.
- The National Society of Professional Engineers offers 15 hours of free professional development once you become a member. In addition, there’s a career center with resume services, mentoring programs, and salary info.
- The International Association for Bridge and Structural Engineering focuses on promoting cooperation, understanding, awareness and responsibility among structural engineers through a worldwide exchange of knowledge and experience. The e-Learning platform includes lectures, animations, videos, links and more connecting engineers from around the world.
The Rewards of Civil Engineering
If you’re a sharp, hard-working individual who enjoys reading and learning about all things structural, then your career in civil engineering is likely to soar. Find an academic program that matches your career goals, network with students and professors throughout your time in college, and, upon graduation, you’ll be poised to enter the civil engineering industry and edge out your competition for desirable jobs. You have a place in the changing face of the world.