What Do Civil Engineers Do?
"I am interested in doing something related to building, and originally I was thinking architecture. My school doesn’t offer architecture but it does offer something called “civil engineering,” which I gather is supposed to be similar. What do civil engineers do? Would this let me fulfill my architectural ambitions or not? Are there lots of different jobs which fall under this umbrella? Is it just a fancy name for architecture, or is there more to it than that?"
asked by Bill from New York, NY
You can indeed pursue your dreams of architecture in the field of civil engineering, but there are a lot of other interesting jobs in civil engineering as well. Civil engineers plan, design, build, and maintain structures. These include not only buildings (houses, public facilities, and so on) but also bridges, dams, roads, transport systems, and more.
Here are different specializations within the field you might check into:
- Structural engineering – This is the plan and design of special purpose buildings like bridges and industrial plants. Civil engineers sometimes operate these structures as well.
- Transportation engineering – This is the construction, design, and operation of airports, train stations, seaports, material transport systems, and more.
- Geotechnical engineering – This specialty involves the development and operation of dams, tunnels, roadbeds, and other structures that involve engineering in the earth.
- Water resources engineering – This type of civil engineering involves the design, development, and operation of projects involving wastewater treatment, water supply, flood damage, drainage, and more.
So depending on what specialization you choose (and you don’t have to choose any if you don’t want, though it may depend on how your major is structured), you do develop a lot more skills than you need to do architectural work, but you should get those skills as well.
For example, someone who builds an airport and who is trained as a civil engineer not only can make a beautiful structure, but one which is safe and useful, and provides an intuitive experience for all involved. An architect likewise can build a bridge, but a civil engineer will have a much easier time of it since the engineer will have much more comprehensive knowledge of physics and engineering.
Civil engineers are like architects who are empowered to create more useful structures, along with the same public and private buildings architects can build. The catch is of course that it’s harder to become a civil engineer.
A lot more physics, mathematics, and engineering classes are required than you’d need to become an architect. But that’s why you can qualify to construct dams, bridges, cranes, tunnels and more, as well as build transport systems and other infrastructure systems.
Consider meeting up with an advisor in the department to have a more in-depth conversation about your career goals. If you’re planning your classes for your freshman semester, don’t put off math and science classes, and make physics your chosen science course. This will set you on the right track if civil engineering is what you decide to do.
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