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How Do I Become a Civil Engineer?

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Civil engineering is the most prevalent and, perhaps, the oldest engineering profession. The Greek Acropolis, the Egyptian pyramids, and the Roman aqueducts are only a few of the early feats attributable to the discipline. These days, civil engineers design and oversee the building and maintenance of our bridges, roads, tunnels, buildings, and water supply systems, among other infrastructure projects. Modern civil engineers face different goals and challenges than their ancient counterparts but regardless the era, civil engineers have contributed significantly to the betterment of community life and culture.

This detailed guide traces the steps to become a civil engineer, including the typical education, skills, and credentialing to join this high-growth, important field.

Step 1: Research the Field

Prior to investing time in the pursuit of this career, it behooves aspiring civil engineers to have a solid grasp on the skills, knowledge, duties, specializations, and other important aspects of this field. Here is a brief, authoritative primer on what to know about civil engineering.

Must-Have Skills & Knowledge: The American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) Civil Engineering Body of Knowledge for the 21st Century is a widely-recognized, highly-respected document that defines the field of civil engineering, its methods and principles, and its core knowledge; employers and colleges adhere to its standards. According to the document, civil engineers use math, science, nature’s forces, and materials for the “progressive well-being of humanity.” They create, improve, and protect structures that support community living, industry, and transportation, while simultaneously striving to protect our environment.

Typical Duties: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), civil engineers research and solve problems related to structures, roads, and other projects; evaluate compliance with laws, regulations, or standards; perform data analysis; inspect structures; monitor and control resources; coordinate the work of others; assess the quality and feasibility of projects; draft and specify technical devices, parts, and equipment; and oversee processes and materials, among other responsibilities.

Personal Qualities: To successfully fulfill their duties, civil engineers must be able to make decisions; lead groups; organize their work and that of others; understand and apply mathematical and scientific principles; solve Problems; and communicate effectively

Civil Engineering Specializations

Civil engineering is a broad field divided into several specializations with differing educational and certification options. Here are six of the civil engineering subfields with brief descriptions:

  • Construction engineers oversee construction projects to ensure they are built safely, on time, and according to plan.
  • Environmental engineers develop solutions to environmental problems using engineering, biology, and chemistry. For example, they ensure drinking water is safe, waste is properly disposed of, and the air and waterways are free of pollutants.
  • Geotechnical and geoenvironmental engineers verify that building projects are suitable for foundations in varying types of soil or rock. They consider slopes and other features and design retaining walls and tunnels, among other structures.
  • Hydraulic or water resources engineers evaluate and plan for the flow of water and sewage with a mind for gravity and other forces.
  • Structural engineers design and inspect major construction projects—including dams, bridges, and buildings—to ensure long-term strength.
  • Transportation engineers plan, design, and maintain transportation systems, including roads, airports, harbors, and mass transit systems.

According to Career InfoNet, civil engineers may assume such job titles as bridge or structure inspection leader; structural engineer; county engineer; city engineer; railroad design consultant; water engineer; design engineer; project administrator; chief engineering officer; or chief technical officer, among others.

Step 2: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Civil Engineering

Career InfoNet notes that while most civil engineers have bachelor’s degrees, employers increasingly prefer candidates with master’s degrees. The BLS and the ASCE’s Body of Knowledge also recommend graduate degrees. Whatever their eventual path, students’ journeys begin with bachelor’s degrees in civil engineering or one of its specializations. Common options include the bachelor of science (B.S.) in engineering with a specialization in civil engineering (or defined civil engineering specialty); a B.S. in civil engineering (B.S.C.E); or a specialized B.S. (e.g., a B.S. in environmental science). Typical admissions requirements to bachelor’s programs in engineering include:

  • A high school diploma or equivalent
  • A competitive high school GPA (e.g., >2.75)
  • Proof of strong grades in prerequisite classes such as physics, chemistry, calculus, trigonometry, algebra II, and others
  • A statement of purpose (500-600 words)
  • Official SAT or ACT scores

Civil Engineering Coursework – Undergraduate Level

Bachelor’s degrees in civil engineering establish a solid foundation of the mathematical and scientific principles used in the field of engineering, but they also impart other abilities in areas such as communication and information technology. Electives and specialized civil engineering coursework round out this base of core engineering and general education classes. Typical classes include:

  • Introduction to civil engineering
  • Fluid mechanics and hydraulics
  • Structural analysis
  • Structural dynamics
  • Structural design
  • Geotechnical engineering
  • Materials engineering
  • Transportation engineering

Step 3: Earn a Master’s Degree (Recommended)

As noted previously, master’s degrees are quickly becoming the entry-level standard of civil engineering employment. Much like bachelor’s degrees, civil engineering graduate degree paths include a master of science (M.S.) in civil engineering or an M.S. in a civil engineering specialty. Unlike bachelor’s degrees, however, these programs are often much more specialized, targeting advanced engineering concepts. Students can pursue on-campus or online degrees in civil engineering. Online programs can be especially appealing to working professionals advancing their educations or satisfying continuing education requirements for credentialing (see below).

Graduate civil engineering program admissions requirements vary, but typically include the following:

  • A B.S. in civil engineering or a relevant specialization from an accredited program
  • A statement of purpose
  • A cumulative undergraduate GPA of at least 3.0
  • Two or three letters of recommendation, speaking to one’s educational and professional potential
  • Graduate Record Exam (GRE) results

Please note that some civil engineering graduate programs require applicants to answer supplemental questions or sit for interviews. Also, like bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees in civil engineering frequently offer specialty tracks. Real examples from Stanford University include:

  • Environmental and engineering sciences
  • Structural engineering and geomechanics
  • Atmosphere and energy
  • Sustainable design and construction
  • Environmental fluid mechanics and hydrology

Civil Engineering Coursework – Graduate Level

Civil engineering master’s programs comprise core and specialized engineering courses and electives. The curriculum typically includes some variation of the following classes:

  • Advanced principles of civil engineering
  • Dynamics
  • Decision methods for civil engineering design
  • Risk assessment
  • Civil engineering applications and drafting tools
  • Fluid mechanics
  • Structural design
  • Civil engineering materials
  • Engineering administration
  • Fundamentals of Transportation Engineering
  • Airport Engineering
  • Solid or Hazardous Waste Management
  • Fundamentals of Environmental Engineering
  • Fundamentals of Geotechnical Engineering
  • Introduction to Geographic Information Systems
  • Water Quality Analysis
  • Structural Steel Design
  • Reinforced Concrete Design

Step 4: Get Professional Experience

To become a credentialed civil engineer, most state and national licensing boards call for bachelor’s (or master’s) degrees plus varying levels of professional experience. The ASCE’s Engineers Guide to Pre-Licensure Experience advises new civil engineers to find internships, co-ops, and apprenticeships that reinforce the following skills and knowledge:

  • Business and governmental regulations
  • Communication
  • Project management
  • Professional ethics
  • Risk assessment
  • Technical savvy

Fundamentals of Engineering Exam for Engineer in Training (EIT)

Most states require civil engineers to gain “Engineer in Training” (EIT) status before assuming internships, co-ops, apprenticeships, or other types of employment. The EIT designation confirms that recent graduates have mastered fundamental skills and principles through the NCEES Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam. The FE exam is available in the following disciplines:

  • Chemical engineering
  • Civil engineering
  • Electrical and computer engineering
  • Environmental engineering
  • Industrial and systems engineering
  • Mechanical engineering

The NCEES offers an alternate, generalized exam called the FE-Other Disciplines. Readers can visit the Council online to review all options and eligibility requirements.

Step 5: Pursue Professional Credentialing

In addition to the EIT, there is a wide range of state, national, and board-issued credentialing available for civil engineers.

Civil Engineering Licensure By State

According to the National Society of Professional Engineers, all states regulate professional civil engineering standards. For example, most states require civil engineers to obtain licenses before assuming formal titles such as general engineering contractor, structural engineer, and erosion specialist, among others. The professional exam, licensing, and other civil engineering requirements vary by state and specialization. Students can learn more about geographical standards and requirements through their state’s board of licensing. There’s a complete list of these available from the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES).

Become a Licensed Professional Engineer (PE)

The Civil Engineering Body of Knowledge and the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) encourage all civil engineers to become licensed Professional Engineers (PEs). Most employers prefer (or require) candidates with PE licenses, which verify advanced knowledge and experience. Some tasks can only be completed by PEs. Even if not required, PEs usually enjoy better earnings, employment rates, and advancement potential.

PE Licensing Requirements

According to the NSPE, each state sets its unique PE eligibility criteria, but all require the following:

  • A bachelor’s degree
  • Four years of professional experience under a licensed PE
  • Passing scores on at least two intensive competency exams

According to the NSPE, most states require PEs to meet certain continuing education standards to maintain their licenses. Many professional civil engineering organizations and the NSPE offer online continuing education courses, sometimes at no charge. Graduate civil engineering courses also count.

Professional and board certifications distinguish civil engineers who are highly knowledgeable in certain areas of interest. Professional organizations oversee many specialized civil engineering credentials. Construction engineers, for instance, might pursue professional certification from the Design-Build Institute of America (DBIA) while environmental engineers seek those offered by the Association of Environmental Professionals. Some of the other professional organizations offering specialized civil engineering certifications include:

ASCE Board Certification

Another popular and advanced civil engineering certification is available through the ASCE. These professionals can become certified in the following specializations:

  • Coastal engineering
  • Geotechnical engineering
  • Navigation engineering
  • Ocean engineering
  • Ports engineering
  • Water resources engineering

Eligible candidates must have master’s degrees, PE licenses, and at least eight years of post-licensure engineering experience. ASCE certifications are overseen by Civil Engineering Certification, Inc. and accredited by Council of Engineering & Scientific Specialty Boards (CESB).

Career and Salary Outlook for Civil Engineers

Finally, civil engineers are vital to public safety, industry, and progress, and their earnings and career prospects reflect this. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2016), the average annual wage for civil engineers was $83,540 with the following percentiles:

United States (287,800 civil engineers employed)

  • 10th percentile: $53,470
  • 25th percentile: $65,330
  • 50th percentile (median): $83,540
  • 75th percentile: $107,140
  • 90th percentile: $132,880

Earnings vary substantially by education, advancement, certification, and experience, but usually grow with each. Geography can also impact one’s earnings.

Civil engineers are also in demand; the BLS (Dec. 2015) projected their employment opportunities would swell 8 percent between 2014 and 2024, faster than the average growth anticipated across all U.S. occupations during that time (6.5 percent). The BLS credits continued urbanization, population growth, and aging infrastructure for most of those gains, though an aging workforce certainly helps. An environmental push for renewable-energy projects, such as wind farms and solar arrays, also plays a significant role in this trend. Above all, employment prospects are best for candidates with graduate degrees, certifications, and professional licensure, as well as those acquainted with the ASCE’s Body of Knowledge.

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