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What is a Civil Engineer?

A civil engineer designs and builds infrastructure including roads, bridges, levees, water treatment systems, commercial buildings, and the like. The two major branches of civil engineering include construction and structural engineering. Civil engineers who focus on construction may be project managers who keep the project on track, consult with related engineers such as environmental or architectural engineers, and organize the trades involved in the project.

A structural engineer focuses on the design of infrastructures such as bridges and other important architectural projects. Structural engineers consider the properties of the material used to build the structure, as well as taking wind, seismic activity, and other natural phenomena into account when designing these structures to be safe.

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Steps to Becoming a Civil Engineer

  • Step 1: Prepare While Still in High School

  • Step 2: Earn a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering

  • Step 3: Get Professional Experience

  • Step 4: Earn Your Professional Engineer (PE) License

  • Step 5: Obtain a Master's Degree in Civil Engineering (Optional but Recommended)


Step 1: Prepare While Still in High School

Colleges and universities will look more favorably on a college preparatory program of studies, including a strong background in science and math. Students should take advanced coursework in physics, biology, math, and computer science. Maintaining high grades will help you be competitive for admission into a civil engineering program. You can explore various civil engineering careers by job-shadowing, summer programs, or similar exposure to the field. This will help you determine the best engineering avenue to pursue.

Step 2: Earn a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering

As you research college and university options, look for ABET-accredited civil engineering degree programs. ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) accreditation ensures high standards in applied and natural sciences, computer science, engineering, and engineering technology programs. In addition, graduating from an ABET-accredited program is one of the requirements for earning your Professional Engineer License, which is important if you plan to move up the civil engineering career ladder.

Civil engineering coursework will include classes in mathematics, statistics, fluid dynamics, and engineering mechanics and systems. Good programs include a mix of these classes and both fieldwork and lab time. In addition, students should look for internships to give them real-world, practical experience which not only increases their knowledge, but also can help with obtaining their first job upon graduation.

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Step 3: Get Professional Experience

Civil engineers typically begin their careers as engineers in training (EITs). In most states, you’ll achieve this status by passing the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam. Once the FE exam is passed civil engineers may work in internships, apprenticeships, co-ops, or other employment. This is typically done under the supervision of an experienced civil engineer, and relevant work experience will allow you to move up the civil engineering career ladder.

Step 4: Earn Your Professional Engineer (PE) License

The PE license is not required to obtain an entry-level job in the civil engineering field, but career advancement is difficult without the PE license. Although there is some variation by state, generally most states require:

  • A Bachelor of Science from an ABET-accredited program
  • A passing score on the Fundamentals of Engineering exam
  • Related work experience under a PE; typically around 4 years
  • A passing score on the Professional Engineering exam

Step 5:Obtain a Master's Degree in Civil Engineering (Optional but Recommended)

Coursework at the master's level will help you specialize and improve your civil engineering knowledge. Requirements for these programs include

  • A Bachelor's of Science in Civil Engineering or a related field
  • A cumulative GPA of at least a 3.0
  • Two to three letters of recommendation
  • Graduate Record Exam (GRE) results
  • Some programs require interviews or additional essays

Coursework at the graduate level will include core coursework and additional specialized courses. Typical programming includes courses such as Advanced Principles of Engineering, Fluid Mechanics, Risk Assessment, Dynamics, Structural Design, Civil Engineering Materials, Decision Methods for Engineers, Fundamentals of Transportation Engineering, Reinforced Concrete Design, Structural Steel Design, and Solid or Hazardous Waste Management.

What Does a Civil Engineer Do?

Civil Engineers are involved with all aspects of construction and design for projects such as roads, bridges, water treatment systems, dams and levees, tunnels, and more. Civil engineers conceive, design, supervise, construct, operate, and maintain a variety of public and private sector projects and systems. Typical duties include

  • Analyzing data from maps, surveys, long-range plans, and other data to create and plan new projects.
  • Factoring costs, government and environmental regulations, and risks or hazards to the public during the planning stages.
  • Submitting applicable permits to the appropriate state, local, and federal authorities to ensure proper procedures and regulations are followed
  • Overseeing and analyzing tests on various building materials (concrete, steel, or wood), soil samples, and other environmental tests to ensure minimums are met or exceeded.
  • Preparing cost estimates for equipment, materials, and labor to submit proposals and to ensure the financial viability of a project.
  • Using design software to assist in planning and designing projects in line with government and industry standards.
  • Overseeing site layout, building locations, grades, elevations, and reference points to ensure proper procedures are followed.
  • Overseeing and managing the repair, replacement, and maintenance of infrastructure.

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Civil Engineer Skills to Acquire

Civil engineering requires a strong grasp of the principles of mathematics and physics. They must be able to use their technical skills to analyze problems and then to create sound solutions to those problems. In addition to strong engineering principles, others are also important.

These include:

  • Management Skills
    Juggling the many moving parts of a project including the supplies and materials, the people involved, and the timeline for the project requires the ability to supervise, delegate, and use good time management.

  • Communication Skills
    Both excellent written and oral communication are key to a project's success. Explaining the scope and nature of a project, building consensus, and forging cooperation between all parties involved requires solid communication skills.

  • Critical Thinking and Creativity
    Engineering often finds new solutions to problems by using critical thinking to creatively problem-solve. The ability to think outside the box and form new solutions to problems makes an engineer successful.

  • Ability to Negotiate
    Although this isn't specifically taught in school, bringing all involved parties together and forming a consensus is often key to a project's success. Additionally, negotiating with suppliers can help reduce a project's bottom line and bring the project in on budget.

Alternative Paths

Becoming a civil engineer without a formal education is difficult because the expertise learned in a degree program is critical to doing the job. However, it is possible (though uncommon) for someone to work their way up in the construction field from construction worker to foreman to drafter to doing engineering tasks. This pathway would require years of work experience and an employer who believes in your abilities. You would still need to earn a degree in order to gain licensure and earn your full pay.

Since the best way to become a civil engineer is to obtain a civil engineering bachelors, one possible way to save money on educational costs is to find a pre-engineering program at a community college, earn an associate's degree, and then transfer to a four year ABET-accredited program to obtain a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering.

Civil Engineer Career and Salary


Most civil engineers work in the private sector, but a significant portion work for local, state, or federal governments. Indeed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that 11% of civil engineers work in local government, 13% in state government, and 5% for the federal government. Much of their work is done in an office setting, but civil engineers often go into the field to monitor project sites as the work is being completed.

The salary for civil engineers is typically based on the amount of experience. The US BLS Occupational Employment Statistics states that 287,800 civil engineers were employed in the field when the report was issued in May 2016. Of those, the median annual salary was $83,540. Earnings varied by geography, experience, certification, and education, with salary increasing proportionally in urban versus rural environments and as experience and certifications increase.

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Potential Career Paths

Civil Engineers can work in a variety of specialized fields. Additional coursework, certifications, and related experience can help support the movement into one of these more specialized civil engineering positions.

  • Construction Engineers
    Construction is one of the nation's largest industries and construction engineers work on a myriad of projects including roads, bridges, or skyscrapers. They plan, manage and supervise these construction projects' materials, labor, and scheduling.

  • Environmental Engineers
    Environmental engineers work to solve a host of environmental issues or problems. They work to create solutions to waste disposal, recycling, water and air pollution control, and similar problems. Environmental engineers use biology, chemistry, soil science and engineering principles to address critical environmental needs.

  • Geotechnical and Geo-environmental Engineers
    These engineers have specialized knowledge about the structure and properties of the earth and how it will impact various construction projects on or below its surface. This helps to determine the safety and feasibility of a construction project. In addition, geotechnical engineers often work to identify potential hazards, such as the likelihood of landslides or seismic activity and then work to mitigate any complicating factors on a building project.

  • Hydraulic or Water Resources Engineers
    Hydraulic engineers specialize in the control and use of water or sewage. These engineers have responsibilities related to storage, regulation, collection, transportation, and control of water or sewage. Analysis of the environment, forces upon the environment, and the behavior of water within the system are key components of a hydraulic engineer's job as they work to build and maintain such systems.

  • Structural Engineers
    Structural engineering focuses on ensuring that load-bearing projects such as bridges, skyscrapers, or tunnels meet strict strength tests. These engineers often work as consultants to architects or design-build contractors. The focus is placed on materials used as they relate to forces placed upon them and how these, in turn, interact with the natural environment.

  • Transportation Engineers
    Transportation engineers can focus on a number of transportation modes, including highway, rail, water, air, and mass transit. These engineers design and plan projects to move people and goods in a safe and efficient manner. They often work with structural or environmental engineers to ensure proper steps are taken to provide strong and environmentally safe solutions to transportation issues.

  • Urban and Regional Planners
    Urban and regional planners work to analyze long-term patterns and data to build or improve new or existing infrastructure to ensure it meets the demands of the community. They must be familiar with local, state, and federal environmental and zoning laws and work to ensure these projects meet these standards. Urban planners often work to provide sustainable development for their communities. They typically have a master's in urban planning, and often hold certification through the American Planning Association.

  • Utility Engineers
    Utility engineers are civil engineers who work specifically to provide utilities such as electricity, gas, and water to their communities. They may design, plan and oversee new projects, or work to maintain existing infrastructure. They may problem-solve to increase the efficiency of these systems or to work to identify the causes for any issues or failures within the systems.

  • Architectural and Engineering Managers
    Civil engineers who desire to work overseeing projects often become architectural and engineering managers. These individuals oversee all aspects of a project and manage teams of engineers working on the project. They make final decisions about what kinds of materials and staffing are required and they take responsibility for ensuring projects are done on time and on budget. Engineering managers confer with clients and upper management to ensure good communication about the project and they typically hold a Master's in Engineering Management or a Master's in Business Administration.

Civil Engineer Salaries

Occupation Entry Level Salary Range Mid-Career Salary Range Late Career Salary Range
Civil Engineer $58,000 $75,000 $99,000
CAD Technician $36,000 $48,000 $66,000
Marine Engineer $60,000 $84,000 $98,000
Water Resources Engineer $60,000 $76,000 $106,000
Civil Engineering Technician $35,000 $52,000 $73,000
Structural Engineer $61,000 $78,000 $104,000
Civil Engineer Designer $54,400 $59,900 $71,100
Project Engineer, Environmental $61,300 $72,000 $82,300
Civil Engineering Drafter $48,000 $61,000 $82,000

**Salary info provided by PayScale

Career Outlook

Job growth in the civil engineering field remains strong and is growing faster than the average occupation. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics employment opportunities in this field are projected to grow by over 8% between the years of 2014 and 2024. Partially because of aging infrastructure in need of an upgrade and repairs necessitating the rebuilding of roads, bridges, and dams. Long-term job creation and growth should remain robust in the future, making this a good long-term career choice.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Advancing From Here

Many civil engineers continue their education by pursuing a master's degree and working to become a PE (Professional Engineer). These pathways allow more career options and an increase in salary. Civil engineers with experience may want to pursue management opportunities where they supervise teams of engineers and laborers to coordinate an entire project from conception to completion. A civil engineering career can take many pathways and each of these has its own rewards.

What are some common civil engineering career paths?

Some common civil engineering career paths include:

  • Structural engineering
  • Environmental engineering
  • Marine engineering
  • Engineering manager
  • Design engineering
  • Water resource engineering
  • Civil engineering technicians

What are private infrastructure civil engineers?

Private civil engineers design, build, operate, supervise, construct, and maintain infrastructure projects and systems. Private civil engineers work in the private and public sector. work on roads, airports, buildings, dams, tunnels, and systems for sewage and water supply.

What are geotechnical engineers?

Geotechnical engineers study engineering behavior of earth materials. Geotechnical engineers use the principles of soil and rock mechanics to solve engineering problems. Geotechnical engineers conduct structural analyses to ensure safety for structures' foundations.

What is the job outlook for civil engineering technology?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, civil engineering technology is expected to grow 8% by 2030.

What qualities should professional engineers have?

Professional engineers need to be curious, creative, and good at communication. Professional engineers need to be good at critical thinking and working in a team.

Engineering Career Paths

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