What Is Civil Engineering?

Civil engineering is a STEM field focused on designing and constructing the environments in which humans live. Civil engineers typically focus on large construction projects such as buildings, roads, bridges, subway systems, dams, and water supply networks. Math, physics, and design are essential areas of knowledge for the field.

What Is Civil Engineering
What Is Civil Engineering

Key Takeaways: Civil Engineering

  • Civil engineers design and build large projects including buildings, dams, bridges, roads, tunnels, and water systems.
  • Civil engineering draws heavily upon math and physics, but design, economics, and materials science are also important.
  • Civil engineering is one of the larger engineering fields, and its many sub-specialties include architectural engineering, environmental engineering, and water resource engineering.

Specializations in Civil Engineering

Like many STEM fields, civil engineering is a broad umbrella that includes a wide range of sub-specialties. Pretty much anywhere something large needs to be built, a civil engineer will be involved in the project. Below are just a few examples of civil engineering specialties.

  • Architectural Engineering focuses on the design and construction of buildings. Architectural engineers use their engineering skills to make sure architectural designs are structurally sound.
  • Environmental Engineering focuses on the protection of people and the planet through design that emphasizes sustainability. One project might be figuring out how to channel, treat, and repurpose a city’s wastewater.
  • Geotechnical Engineering focuses on the earth used for a building project and the ground beneath a building project. Engineers need to make sure the rock and soil at a building site will have the mechanical properties necessary to ensure the soundness and durability of the project.
  • Structural Engineering focuses on the structural design and analysis of all types of construction projects, from skyscrapers to train tunnels. It is the structural engineer’s duty to ensure that a building project can safely withstand the stresses it will undergo during its lifetime.
  • Transportation Engineering focuses on the design, construction, and maintenance of roads, airports, subway systems, and railroads. The design, safety, and efficiency of these transportation systems are all under the purview of a transportation engineer.
  • Water Resource Engineering focuses on water usage for irrigation, human consumption, and sanitation. Sometimes called hydrology, the field deals with collecting water from the earth and getting it where it needs to go in ways that are safe and sustainable.

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College Coursework in Civil Engineering

As with any engineering field, civil engineering relies heavily on math and physics. Civil engineers need to be able to calculate the stresses on a structure to make sure it is engineered to avoid mechanical failure. Most building projects also require an engineer to understand design and the properties of materials. Successful civil engineers often oversee large aspects of a building project, so financial and leadership skills are also a must, as are strong writing and speaking skills.

Civil engineering curricula will vary from college to college, but below are some of the typical courses a civil engineering student will be required to take:

  1. Calculus I, II, III and Differential Equations
  2. Data Analysis
  3. Structural Design
  4. Structural Analysis
  5. Soil Mechanics
  6. Hydraulics and Hydrology
  7. Mechanics of Materials
  8. Leadership and Business Principles

Specialized courses may be offered as electives rather than fixed graduation requirements. These courses, which tend to represent the various sub-specialties of civil engineering, may include:

  1. Geotechnical Engineering
  2. Transportation Planning and Design
  3. Water Resource Engineering
  4. Waste Management

Keep in mind that a bachelor of science or bachelor of engineering degree will also include foundation course work in physics, chemistry, and biology, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences. The best civil engineers have broad educations that prepare them to understand the mechanical, environmental, political, social, and artistic dimensions of a project.

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Average Salaries for Civil Engineers

Civil engineering has promising job prospects with faster-than-average job growth. The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the median pay for civil engineers in 2019 was $87,060 per year. Subfields are often similar. Environmental engineers, for example, have an median pay of $88,860. Payscale.com reports that entry-level civil engineers have a median salary of $61,700 a year, and mid-career employees earn a median salary of $103,500. Roughly 330,000 people are employed in the field. Engineering fields have some of the highest salaries for employees with bachelor’s degrees. Salaries for civil engineering jobs are on par with salaries for mechanical engineering jobs, but a bit lower than those for electrical, chemical, and materials engineering jobs.

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