How to Become a Civil Engineer

civil engineer looking at blueprint Shutterstock

If you love maths and other science-related subjects, and you are interested in pursuing a career in engineering, then civil engineering could be your ideal career path.

1. Research the Profession

When deciding on a career it’s crucial to carry out some research. It will help you ensure that you are making a well-informed decision.

Job Description

Civil engineers design and create the world around us. Their work is evident in a wide range of man-made structures, which includes but is not limited to buildings, bridges, roads, dams and canals. They help create the buildings and structures that allow us to live a modern, urban life and work in various disciplines.

They are trained to create infrastructure to counter some of the greatest challenges faced by society such as forces of nature.

Some of their key responsibilities include:

  • Designing and constructing building infrastructure, which are fit for service and can withstand even the worst conditions
  • Designing and constructing road networks for easy transportation from one part of the country to another
  • Designing and constructing airport facilities
  • Researching and investigating materials and their properties
  • Designing and constructing next-generation bridges that can span several miles and distances
  • Designing coastal infrastructure for seaports and waterways
  • Designing and constructing rail networks, for improved transportation systems
  • Designing and constructing high retaining wall structures and foundations
  • Using Computer Aided Design software’s for drafting purposes, as well as to create working drawings for projects
  • Conducting site work and supervision during ongoing projects
  • Estimating the costs needed to complete a project
  • Considering the relevant planning requirements and solving any issues
  • Assessing potential risk to the environment
  • Preparing and submitting bids for tender
  • Overseeing the project once building has commenced
  • Maintaining the building or structure once it has been completed

Essential Skills and Qualities

Here are some of the key skills and qualities every successful civil engineer needs to possess:

  • Creative and innovative thinking
  • Great communication skills
  • Excellent organisation, risk and project management skills
  • Good decision making and analytical skills
  • Good research/investigation skills
  • Skilled in various CAD application
  • Excellent understanding of maths and physics
  • Excellent team-working skills
  • In-depth computer skills
  • Ability to explain designs and plans to clients and colleagues
  • Ability to absorb large amounts of information in a short space of time
  • An eye for money-management and budgeting
  • Ability to work under pressure and meet deadlines

Working Hours and Conditions

As a civil engineer you will work in an office environment 35 to 40 hours a week, Monday to Friday. You may also work evenings and weekends and spend time on project sites. Some days you will have to make frequent visits to construction sites to supervise ongoing projects or to carry out investigations on existing site conditions.

It’s also very common for them to work late nights and maintain irregular working hours to meet project deadlines.

Salary Prospects

In the UK:

According to Prospects, the starting salary for civil engineers is around £23,500. With two years of experience it rises to £26,500, and after five years the average is £30,000.

For members of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) the average salary is £49,793, and for fellows it’s £81,447.

In the US:

According to US News, Civil Engineers in the US earn an average annual salary of $82,220.

2. Get the Qualifications

For the UK:

The path to become a successful civil engineer is long and requires many years of study. The first step is to get top grades in maths and physics at A-level plus an A-level in a related subject such as chemistry, geography, design technology, further mathematics or a modern foreign language. 

If you want to gain experience in the field you can start as an engineering technician, which is the lowest level of civil engineering, and study part-time for an HND or foundation degree, leading to a degree in civil engineering.

In terms of higher education, there are two options to choose from. You can study towards a Bachelor’s degree in civil engineering (BEng), which is a 3-year course, or master’s degree in civil engineering (MEng) which is a 4-year course. Many students choose the master’s degree to increase their job prospects after graduation, since the course usually includes a placement with a civil engineering firm. Bear in mind that both these courses are highly sought after, so straight A’s in A-levels are often a necessity.

For the US:

Generally, there are four steps you need to take to become a civil engineer in the US:

  1. Attending an accredited university program

All civil engineers require a minimum of a Bachelor’s degree (B.Sc.) in civil engineering. But, some positions may require a master’s degree in engineering (M.Sc.). Civil engineers also typically need several years of experience before they can be given a specific role, either in a design office or on a site construction project.

  1. Completing an engineering internship

The training phase of your career doesn’t stop after your undergraduate degree. You also have the option to enrol in an engineering internship. Unlike some other internship programs, civil engineering internships are typically paid.

  1. Undertaking practical training on the job

The next step is to find a job working in an engineering firm, working under a Professional Engineer who’s already licensed by the National Society of Professional Engineers. You can stay at this level throughout your career, if you desire. If you want a management position, you’ll need to pursue the more prestigious Professional Engineer qualification. The first step is to take the Fundamentals of Engineering exam offered by NSPE. Upon passing the exam, you’ll be considered an "Engineer in Training."

  1. Becoming a professional engineer

Work under a Professional Engineer for four years and then take the Principles and Practice in Engineering Exam offered through your state’s exam board. As you might imagine, both the Fundamentals and the Principles and Practice tests cover the basics of civil engineering. The Principles and Practice exam, however, is much more rigorous and often requires a serious time commitment, and perhaps even refresher coursework or prep courses.



3. Land Your First Job

After getting your qualifications it’s time to search for a job. As a civil engineer, you can work for the following employers.

In the private sector:

  • Consulting firms
  • Design firms
  • Oil and gas sector

In the government or public sector:

  • Civil and infrastructure department
  • Telecommunication sector
  • Water Corporation department
  • Urban and regional planning department

You can either start working full-time or part-time or as an intern. This will depend on each employer – the kind of training they are offering, if you have gained some experience in the role, how confident you are about your skills and how you perform in the job interview. Conducting research on the employer(s) you are interested in is a good idea before you start searching for a job.

Some useful sites to check are:

Overall, the job outlook looks promising both in the UK and US. According to the National Careers Service, there are expected to be 1,771,000 jobs in the science and engineering sector (of which civil engineering is part) by 2020. At present, the vast majority of workers in this sector are employed (80%), with 11% self-employed and 9% working part-time. These figures indicate that it is a growth industry. For the US, job outlook is projected to increase by 8 percent between the years 2014 to 2024, which is as fast as average according to Bureau of Labor Statistics.

4. Develop Your Career

Entering a graduate training scheme with a firm will continue your learning for another couple of years while working. Having a mentor can give you the assistance and support you need to become a fully-fledged civil engineer.

In the UK:

Ultimately, the goal for most civil engineers in the UK is to reach incorporated or chartered status. To achieve these levels, you will need extra qualifications which you can obtain through structured training or on-the-job training. After completing a period of work experience, you’ll be able to apply to become an Incorporated Engineer.

To get Chartered Engineer status, the four-year accredited MENg degree is required. As a Chartered Engineer, you’ll have the prestige of being an upper-level manager or principal on projects, as well as a bigger paycheck.

In the US:

The most logical career step is to earn your master’s degree with a specialisation in one core area of the civil engineering discipline e.g. master's in structural engineering or transportation engineering. If you want to advance to a much more advanced level, then, you need to consider taking an advanced postgraduate research degree (Ph.D.).

Other Options

With a civil engineering degree you might consider looking into the following jobs:

  • Building Control Surveyor
  • Consulting civil engineer
  • Contracting civil engineer
  • Design engineer
  • Site engineer
  • Structural engineer
  • Water engineer
  • Building services engineer
  • Engineering geologist
  • Environmental consultant
  • Patent attorney
  • Quantity surveyor
  • Sustainability consultant


If you are based in the UK, it’s a good idea to follow the Institution of Civil Engineers to stay up to date with industry news, search for available courses, and learn more about events regarding your subject. If you are based in the US, you can become a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers and invest in your professional development.


While civil engineering isn’t an easy profession to get into, if you work hard at your studies, there’s no reason why you won’t be helping to shape a better world in the not too distant future! Have you ever thought of becoming a Civil Engineer? Let us know your thoughts in your comments section below…


This article was originally published in June 2014