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What Is Civil Engineering?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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Civil engineering is one of the oldest engineering disciplines, since civil engineers of one form or another have been around ever since humans started building major public works such as roads, bridges, tunnels, and large public buildings. It is also an incredibly broad discipline, spanning treatment of environmental issues, transportation, power generation, and major structures. To become a civil engineer, a person must typically study engineering at a university and then participate in field work for practical training. Many nations also require that students pass a competency exam to ensure that they will be able to design and build safe, stable structures.

There are many branches of civil engineering, and a wide range of specialties. Some engineers focus on conception and initial design of a project, analyzing the site, the needs, and the resources to come up with a workable project plan. Others specialize in contracting, physically building the structure, managing the site crew, and handling materials and supply. In other cases, civil engineers focus on maintenance of the project after it is completed, to make sure that it is safe and useful.

Most people pick a focus while they are receiving an education. Engineers who focus on transportation, for example, might choose to specialize in building bridges, tunnels, and roads. Others might lean towards power generation facilities, water treatment, waste management, construction of light railways and subways, or other disciplines. In all cases, extensive training is undertaken so that the prospective civil engineer understands his or her chosen field in depth. Behind every major public works is a team of civil engineers.

Civil Engineering

One of the primary concerns of civil engineering is public safety and health. A value is also placed on building structures that are functional, efficient, and also aesthetically pleasing. Structural soundness, conformity with local codes, and functionality are all issues which are faced in the discipline. Some civil engineers work directly for the public in the form of government agencies, while others find employment with public firms.

Education does not end with a degree and a course of fieldwork with trained and experienced civil engineers. Continuing education is also an important part of this discipline. As advances are made in the field, engineers are expected to keep pace with them, especially when the advances improve safety for workers and the public. There are many trade journals and annual conferences in the field to keep engineers updated.

Practical Adult Insights is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Practical Adult Insights researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon333183 — On May 03, 2013

I have a Civil Site Engineering business, and here are some tips that I find useful when hiring and keeping engineers.

@college graduates: If you have a masters it won't help you unless you know how to file a permit, know due diligence, how to file a Notice of Intent with the newspaper or have the patience with clients who are doing this for the first time and not get crabby with those who have been doing this for a long time, who know what they want and in the time they want it. Many times, these are the ones who pay well. Some clients will need you to hold their hand through their whole project and others will hold yours.

See the big picture. Have some tact with governing entities that will issue your permits. Don't make promises you can't keep. Learn new ideas.

Take your EI test as soon as you can after you graduate while the information is still fresh.

Get a contact list and keep it. You may need it, even 10 or 15 years down the line. Be responsible for yourself.

By anon302041 — On Nov 07, 2012

At work I have been talking to a potential client. He says he needs specific programs in civil. He is in the petroleum industry. Does civil mean civil engineering?

By anon247507 — On Feb 13, 2012

I am interested in civil engineering, but like JessiC said, I still don't know whether there is enough room for employment or not, because where I come from, (Vanuatu, Southwest Pacific), there are only four engineering companies.

By JessiC — On Apr 14, 2011

I'm not sure if a person who is interested in going into civil engineering should have hands-on experience or not. I am very interested in architecture and such, but I don’t have a clue how to get started with it. Also, are their enough civil engineering jobs to make going into that field worthwhile? After all, there’s not much point in getting a degree that has no hope of employment in the future.

By Agni3 — On Apr 11, 2011

It seems like those who choose to go into civil engineering definitely have to get a 4-year degree. I was wondering if they also might need to get a masters or if keeping up to date with things a course at the time would be enough.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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