What Is Civil Engineering?

Required coursework, job prospects, and average salaries for graduates

Woman onsite of a large construction project.
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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.

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.

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.

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:

  • Calculus I, II, III and Differential Equations
  • Data Analysis
  • Structural Design
  • Structural Analysis
  • Soil Mechanics
  • Hydraulics and Hydrology
  • Mechanics of Materials
  • 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:

  • Geotechnical Engineering
  • Transportation Planning and Design
  • Water Resource Engineering
  • 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.

Best Schools for Civil Engineering

Not all colleges and universities with engineering programs offer civil engineering. (That's why you won't find Caltech—one of the nation's top engineering schools—on this list.) However, all of the schools below have excellent programs in mechanical engineering:

  • Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania): Carnegie Mellon is a mid-sized comprehensive university with world renowned STEM programs (plus a thriving arts scene). The university has particular strengths in the environmental engineering sub-specialty.
  • Georgia Tech (Atlanta, Georgia): As one of the best public engineering schools in the country, Georgia Tech is a great option for civil engineering majors. It also offers an excellent value, particularly for in-state applicants.
  • The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, Massachusetts): MIT often ranks as the #1 engineering school in the country. The civil engineering program is one of MIT's smaller majors, but it offers the same access to world-class faculty and facilities as the other departments.
  • The New Jersey Institute of Technology (Newark, New Jersey): NJIT has an extremely popular and highly-regarded civil engineering program. Plus, with an acceptance rate around 60%, NJIT offers a better chance of admission than schools like MIT and Stanford.
  • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, New York): RPI, which boasts the oldest civil engineering program in the country, graduates over 60 civil engineers per year. The civil engineering department offers courses in a variety of specializations, including structural and geotechnical engineering.
  • Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology (Terre Haute, Indiana): Rose-Hulman is an excellent choice for students who want a strong engineering program at a smaller school with a predominantly undergraduate focus.
  • Stanford University (Stanford, California): Although Stanford's civil engineering department emphasizes graduate study over undergraduates, it remains one of the best places to study engineering. The civil engineering major offers two tracks: the structures and construction focus and the environmental and water studies focus.
  • Stevens Institute of Technology (Hoboken, New Jersey): The civil engineering program at Stevens is topped only by mechanical engineering for popularity. The school has strengths in environmental, coastal, and ocean engineering sub-fields.
  • The University of California at Berkeley (Berkeley, CA): UC Berkeley graduates nearly 100 civil engineers every year. Students can choose from seven sub-specialties. For students interested in the University of California system, UC Davis also has a strong civil engineering program.
  • Virginia Tech (Blacksburg, Virginia): Virginia Tech graduates roughly 200 civil engineers a year, and students can choose from five specializations. For Virginia residents, the school's value is hard to beat.
  • Worcester Polytechnic Institute (Worcester, Massachusetts): WPI has a strong project-based curriculum and a focus on sustainability and civic responsibility. Civil engineering majors will have access to research opportunities in areas like soil and water quality analysis and structural mechanics impact.

All of the schools listed above are well known for their strengths in STEM fields, but you don't need to attend a technological institute to get an outstanding education in engineering. For example, public universities such as the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Michigan, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offer high quality engineering education at an especially good value for in-state applicants.

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 2017 was $84,770 per year. Payscale.com reports that entry-level civil engineers have a median salary of $60,400 a year, and mid-career employees earn a median salary of $101,100. Roughly 300,000 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.