Civil Engineering: Training and Career Opportunities

Civil EngineeringCivil engineers have a central role in designing, supervising and constructing the buildings, urban man-made structures, and systems that surround us. These can include buildings, roads, bridges, canals, water supplies, flood defences, and tunnels, to name a few examples. Their work is central to societal development, as it helps create a safe, robust and innovative infrastructure within the environmental standards required for modern living. In this article, we explore different aspects of civil engineering as a profession, including training and career opportunities.

Training to be a Civil Engineer

In the UK, individuals require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree (BEng), to qualify as a civil engineer, typically this is a 3-year course. However, there are many 4-year courses on offer, with the added advantage of including some practical experience at a civil engineering firm, resulting in a master’s qualification (MEng).  As competition for courses is fierce, candidates are required to get top grades at ‘A’ level in physics, mathematics, plus a third relevant subject, such as design technology or geography.

When choosing a relevant course, it is important to ensure it’s accredited by The Engineering Council. In the UK, this council also regulates professional engineering status, including the titles of Incorporated Engineer (IEng), or with more experience, Chartered Engineer (CEng).  A CEng accreditation is internationally recognised and key to career progression. In order to be assessed in the UK, civil engineers need to be a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers. 

The CEng requires individuals to hold an accredited course, either a MEng or a BEng with further learning assessment. In addition, an appropriate level of postgraduate working experience and professional peer review are required. The latter includes a personal interview and technical presentation and assessment.

Similarly, in the US, training involves taking an accredited bachelor’s degree program, many of which include a year’s paid internship in the field after completion. You can subsequently enroll in a master’s program (MSc); a qualification necessary to gain more senior positions. In order to be registered as a professional engineer, you will have to complete at least 4 years of training while working under a licensed professional engineer, and have undertaken two professional exams. The US National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) is the governing body for the examinations. The first qualification is referred to as the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam. Many civil engineers in training opt to take this shortly after graduating, or during an internship. The second qualification is taken after 4 years of further training and is referred to as the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam. Civil engineers can gain professional status after successful completion of this exam.

It is of note that some states offer civil engineers further examinations in structural engineering. These are a requirement be able to design infrastructure, like buildings or bridges within that state. Structural engineering is a sub-specialism of civil engineering that specifically deals with load-bearing structures. 

The top-ranking universities worldwide for civil engineering include Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT, US), University of California - Berkeley (US), University of Cambridge (UK), Imperial College London (UK), and the National University of Singapore [1]. Skills earned from training as a civil engineer are applicable to many work sectors including planning, design, construction, research, and education.

Academic research in civil engineering often centres on advancing the understanding of the systems, structures or materials that are involved in infrastructure development. This research has an application in solving pertinent engineering problems, for example managing the impact of human or environmental hazards. Alternatively, research in the field acts to remove current limitations to engineering progress. Entrance to a PhD, in UK universities, requires an upper second class undergraduate degree (a.k.a. 2:1), as a minimum. Entry requirements for graduate admission onto PhD’s are similar in the US. MIT’s page for admissions in civil and environmental engineering provides further information on the typical criteria.

Key roles and responsibilities

Civil engineers hold varied accountabilities, depending on the project they are working on. To thrive in the profession, civil engineers must have exceptional math and physics knowledge, attention to detail, outstanding trouble-shooting skills, an ability to handle data and an aptitude to manage large projects. The latter also requires excellent communication and listening skills, as well as a proficiency for leadership. Typically, civil engineers will need to direct multiple personnel including architects, construction workers and other civil engineers who are involved in a project. An ability to be able to easily visualise how a complex design may look, including the interaction of multiple components, is also critical to the line of work.

There are several specialisms in civil engineering including construction engineers, geotechnical engineers, structural engineers and transportation engineers, that typically focus on a specific type of project. Whilst not comprehensive, we’ve listed some examples of what civil engineering roles could involve:

•    Design and construction of building infrastructure

Civil engineers typically manage construction projects, ensuring they follow plans, meet the required functionality and necessary safety standards. Construction engineers specialise solely in this field. They are also responsible for the design and safety of temporary structures on construction sites. They may be responsible for budgets and project scheduling. A key difference between architects and civil engineers is that the former draft designs based on aesthetics and good spacial configuration, whereas, civil engineers ensure the practicality of what has been designed. This includes an ability to withstand use and potential hazards over time, whilst meeting environmental standards.

•    Planning and building transportation systems

Civil engineers can be integral in the design of transport systems including road and rail networks, airports, water supplies, coastal infrastructure, and ports. They are also involved in assessing conditions to predict any engineering problems and project impacts in advance before construction starts. Transportation engineers work as specialists in this particular area. Civil engineers working specifically on waterways, sea defences and ports are sometimes referred to separately as maritime engineers.

•     Designing and building bridges and dams

Civil engineers are integral in the design, overall integrity and building of load-bearing structures like bridges. They need to ensure that they perform to specification and meet rigorous safety standards. Structural engineers work as authorities in this domain. If the bridge is spanning a waterway, they may also work in conjunction with hydraulic engineers who provide input on how the structural integrity of a bridge may be affected by the flow of water.

•    Design and construction of retaining wall structures and foundations

When designing a new building or structure, it is critical for civil engineers to assess how and where to build a foundation. Its integrity, load-bearing ability, and interaction with the underlying soil or rock beneath is paramount to the safety and success of the project. Geotechnical engineers specialize in the latter field, and also design and plan for retaining walls and slopes.

Further roles and responsibilities

•    Using software for design and creating blueprints
•    On-site work including site supervision, liaising with construction workers, architects, and engineering colleagues
•    Budgetary estimation for construction projects
•    Assessing environmental risk
•    Maintaining a building or structure once it has been completed

Employers and salaries

There are several employers that recruit civil engineers. These include:

•    Civil engineering consultancies and contractors
•    Property developers
•    Environmental agencies
•    Government departments
•    Local government authorities and agencies
•    Construction and building companies
•    Property developers

Graduate salaries start at £25K in the UK, experienced civil engineers can expect to receive in the range of £26K - £40K, with expert chartered civil engineers receiving up to £80K. According to the most recent figures available from the Bureau of Labour Statistics, the median wage for civil engineers in the US is $83,540, with the salary range varying between $53,470 - $132,880 depending on experience. Demand for work in the future is expected to grow by 11% over the next 8 years, faster than many other sectors.


Civil engineers have a critical role in shaping the world around us. The opportunity to solve complex engineering problems, bringing construction and infrastructure projects from a plan to realisation, has resulted in outstanding feats of infrastructure and building development. Contemporary global examples of formidable projects include the world’s longest bridge in China (Danyang–Kunshan Grand Bridge), the world’s tallest structure in Dubai (Burj Khalifa), and the world’s longest undersea section (the English Channel Tunnel), which acts as a shuttle for high-speed passenger trains and vehicles.

Entry into the field is competitive, with those gaining professional engineer and chartered status affording the best career opportunities. There are diverse specialisms on offer, with an ongoing global demand for employment in the area.


[1] Top-ranked schools for civil engineering

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