What is a civil engineering degree?

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aerial photo of three engineers wearing safety helmets gathered around a table looking at a blueprint

What is a civil engineering degree? And could this degree provide a blueprint for your future?

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From national transportation systems to sewer systems and buildings, civil engineers plan, design, study, budget and analyze vital infrastructure projects.

Civil engineering students can choose a specialization within this broad degree. Options include construction management, environmental engineering, geotechnical engineering, structural engineering, transportation engineering, and water resources engineering.

Earning a degree in civil engineering will prepare you for careers such as:

  • Civil engineer
  • Surveyor
  • design engineer
  • Estimator
  • construction manager
  • Project Manager

Keep reading to learn more about what a civil engineering degree is and what it can do for you.

What Skills Do Civil Engineering Programs Teach Students?

A solid civil engineering program does not only give students a general education in civil engineering specialties. It also doesn’t just teach students about geology, statics, structural design, hydraulics and hydrology, calculus and physics. It will also teach the project management and communication skills needed on job sites.

Civil engineering programs teach both technical (“hard”) and human (“soft”) skills. Skills vary by grade level.

Undergraduate skills

Skills of graduates

  • Survey
  • Computer-aided design (CAD) software
  • Estimate
  • Physics
  • Math
  • Decision making
  • Oral communication
  • Statistics
  • Linear programming
  • Advanced technical design
  • Project cooperation
  • Project management

What Types of Civil Engineering Degrees Are There?

From associate to Ph.D. programs, different civil engineering degrees will provide varied career opportunities. Below, we analyze each degree path, required courses, and potential civil engineering career paths available after you graduate.

Associate’s Degree in Civil Engineering Technology

Length: Two years
Cost: $4,000 to $30,000
Post-Graduation Careers: Civil engineering technician, civil engineering specialist, engineering aid

When earning an associate degree in civil engineering technology, degree candidates take courses in surveying, computer-aided drafting, estimating, and mapping. Students will complete field and lab testing, which will make it difficult to offer this program online.

This degree can help you learn the basics of civil engineering. However, graduates of associate programs are not qualified to work as full-fledged civil engineers. They can choose to work in assistant roles as civil engineering technicians, cartographers, surveyors, CAD designers and inspectors.

These entry-level careers can be found in civil engineering companies, survey companies, public agencies, or materials testing laboratories.

Bachelor in Civil Engineering

Length: Four years
Cost: $18,000 to $60,000
Post-Graduation Careers: Surveyor, civil engineer, environmental engineer

A bachelor’s degree in civil engineering typically takes four years. It requires courses such as applied mathematics, engineering economics, fluid mechanics, building materials, geotechnical engineering, geo-surveying, and structural design.

Students will take courses in math and computation and learn to apply methods to real-world problems while taking environmental and ethical considerations into account.

After the basic courses, the programs focus on carrying out computer-aided design projects individually or in teams. Bachelor’s programs offer technical options that allow students to take more courses in their preferred sub-discipline.

Many jobs leading to a civil engineering degree require at least a bachelor’s degree. Graduates may consider a career as an environmental engineer, transportation planner, structural engineer, geo-engineer, or civil engineer.

Although there are bachelor of arts degrees in civil engineering, they are rare. The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, or ABET, only accredits bachelor of science degrees in civil engineering. Students wishing to earn a professional engineering (PE) license—an important step in most civil engineering careers—should pursue a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering.

Master in Civil Engineering

Length: Two years
Cost: $10,000 to $60,000
Post-Graduation Careers: Construction Manager, Senior Civil Engineer, Transportation Engineer

Obtaining a master’s degree in civil engineering is a good choice for students who want to be more competitive in the job market or take advanced courses to specialize in a particular subdiscipline.

A master’s degree is the industry standard for civil engineering students specializing in structural engineering because learning to design buildings and bridges requires extensive coursework.

These programs emphasize theoretical learning and practical application. Many programs will emphasize collaborative working, as this is an essential skill in the field. Potential courses include physical hydrology, environmental monitoring statistics, pipeline systems engineering, and linear programming.

Students can choose between many specializations, such as:

  • Sustainable infrastructure
  • Environmental genius
  • Geotechnical engineering
  • Hydrology and hydrodynamics
  • Structural and mechanical engineering
  • transport engineering

These specializations last from twelve months to two full-time years.

Earning a master’s degree will prepare students for careers as hydrologists or structural, geotechnical, transportation, design, or traffic engineers.

PhD in Civil Engineering

Length: three to five years
Cost: $24,000 to $90,000
Post-Graduation Careers: Civil engineering researcher, regulatory advisor, government civil engineer, university teacher

At the start of a doctoral program, an advisor helps you choose courses.

Students typically spend the first two years of a program completing core course requirements, including high-level math and technical electives. The last two to three years focus on research in the student’s chosen specialization.

Students can choose from many majors in civil engineering, including:

  • Construction
  • Hydrology and hydrodynamics
  • Geotechnical and geoenvironmental engineering
  • transport engineering
  • Structural and seismic engineering

Earn a Ph.D. will prepare you for leadership positions in industry. Many graduates become hydrologists, researchers or teachers of engineering.

Accreditation for Civil Engineering Programs

When choosing a civil engineering program, it is important to seek its accreditation. Choose a program accredited by A BETa non-profit, non-governmental agency that ensures that engineering programs meet certain quality standards.

Experts say that students pursuing a PE license should choose an ABET-accredited civil engineering program. These degrees count for four of the eight years of experience required to apply for a PE license.

Choosing an accredited program also means you have access to federal financial aid and can transfer credits if you need to move to a new school.

How Difficult Is A Civil Engineering Degree?

Obtaining a civil engineering degree can be difficult at first for students who lack strong math and science skills. These first courses prepare students to pass more difficult courses such as mechanics of materials and statics.

Many programs have a demanding workload with lab work and group projects.

You will come across courses such as structural design, geotechnical engineering, soil mechanics, transportation engineering, fluid mechanics, hydraulics, traffic engineering, construction management, and contracts.

Seek help from your program’s learning support center if you find the higher-level courses intimidating.

This article has been reviewed by Sierra Gawlowski, PE

A portrait of Sierra Gawlowski, a smiling brunette woman.

Sierra Gawlowski, PE, earned her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and is a licensed professional engineer in Washington State. She has worked for a private consulting engineering company as well as for public bodies. Sierra enjoys mentoring engineering students and junior staff. She also leads a project team for Engineers Without Borders and currently sits on the board of Kilowatts for Humanity.

Gawlowski is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education Independent Assessment Network.

Last revised April 15, 2022.


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