Colleges

The Big Build: Majoring in Civil Engineering

Did you used to (or still do) design and build complex metropolises out of Legos or in SimCity? Are you fascinated by how a region’s infrastructure—its buildings, bridges, roads, and tunnels—comes together, and often dream about one day being part of a team that creates an uber city? If you’re a natural at math and science and have dreams that go beyond simply designing one room or building (as an architect might), civil engineering offers a versatile alternative. With this major, you’ll learn all about putting in place and maintaining the infrastructure of a town, city, or region, from initial drafting and construction to figuring out how to solve transportation, environmental, and utility issues that affect local communities.

What do civil engineering majors work on in school?

A civil engineering career is an interdisciplinary one, meaning you’ll tap into math, science, art, and even human psychology to understand how to best tackle the infrastructure challenges put before you. You’ll take foundational classes in math (specifically geometry, calculus, and trigonometry), along with science classes such as chemistry and physics. Your upper-level classes will focus on such topics as computational methods, structural design, transit systems, hydraulics and hydrology, sustainability and “green” construction, soil mechanics, and air pollution management, among others.

To become a full-fledged civil engineer, make sure the school you choose offers accreditation from the ABET, or Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. You’ll also need to pass a couple of engineering exams and earn a professional engineer (PE) license before you start pulling in a salary. States also have their own individual licensing requirements.

So where can you expect a civil engineering major to lead you?

‘Civil engineer’ is the broad term—but you can find your own niche.

You may end up in a job with the government (local, state, and federal), engineering consulting or architectural firms, utilities, colleges, or in the manufacturing or construction industries. If a certain aspect of civil engineering intrigues you the most during your studies, you can branch off and specialize. For instance, you can make sure the structures being built are using the best materials, assist businesses in figuring out what to do with their waste, wrap your brain around local traffic issues as a transportation engineer, or concentrate on hydraulic engineering and water resources, which ensures a community has systems in place to receive fresh water.

Offshoots of the broader civil engineering job include urban planner, architect, construction manager, and surveyor, among others.

As you build communities, your bank account will build.

You can enter this field with just a bachelor’s degree, though a good number of civil engineers go on to attain their master’s. The wages may help cement the allure: The median annual salary in 2016 for a civil engineer was almost $84,000, with a faster than average job outlook rate of 11% from 2016 to 2026. Related jobs also pay well: Urban planners took home a median annual salary in 2016 of around $70,000, environmental engineers around $85,000 or so, and construction managers almost $90,000.

You likely won’t be stuck behind a desk.

There are times you’ll need to put in the time in front of a computer, but you’ll also be tasked with visiting construction sites or meeting with various clients or other team members at their places of business. It’s a busy job, with myriad responsibilities to take care of. No clock-watching in a cubicle all day for most civil engineers!

It’s a satisfying role for those who like to be a jack of all trades.

Being a civil engineer means you’ll have a hand in nearly every aspect of whatever project you’ve been commissioned for, putting that earlier interdisciplinary training we talked about to good use. That means everything from compiling cost-risk analyses and arranging for required permits, to making sure the job site is sound from a structural and environmental standpoint, to making sure all infrastructure is up to code and properly maintained. You’ll never be bored, and you’ll take pride in the final product, knowing you played a part in each of the pieces that make up the whole.

You can help a city recover after a natural or man-made disaster.

After a devastating event, such as an earthquake or flood, a city needs to be rebuilt. Your expertise can not only serve a practical need, but also a psychologically healing one. By helping a community learn how to ensure the rebuild can better withstand a future disaster—such as constructing more earthquake-resistant buildings, for instance—you’ll be offering its citizens peace of mind and positioning it for a speedier recovery if anything bad ever happens again.

You could one day work on a project that will go down in the annals of civil engineering.

Every day people stare up at the Empire State Building and cross from England to France in the Chunnel. It’s easy to forget the teams of hardworking engineers that were behind the planning, prepping, and creation of those famous structures. Your handiwork could one day be the talk of the town—renowned structures and systems that future students will study in their own quest to become civil engineers.

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