Career in Civil Engineering: What Does a Civil Engineer Do?

Have you ever considered a career in civil engineering but were too confused as to what exactly a civil engineer does? What does a civil engineer do? If you are still looking for the answer, be forewarned that civil engineering is a very broad subject and there is no specific short and sweet answer. But if you are curious to learn more or are considering this as a profession, you should know that of all of the engineering disciplines, civil engineering is one of the oldest. Civil engineers deal with the design of the physical, built environment. Simply take a look at the place where you live and you will see the results of their design work. For example streets, bridges, buildings, water and sewer utilities, stormwater, channels, dikes, dams, canals, etc. The list goes on and on, and if you study civil engineering you will complete many courses covering the broad field, and then typically focus in on a particular sub-discipline.

What are the sub-disciplines of civil engineering? Some colleges and universities may name the fields of study slightly different, but in general there are the following sub-disciplines: Materials Science, Coastal, Construction, Earthquake, Environmental, Geotechnical, Water Resources, Structural, Surveying, Transportation, Municipal and Urban, and Forensic Engineering. Essentially there are basic engineering principals that apply throughout all of these disciplines, so a civil engineer could specialize in more than one area. Because the field is so broad, it is not common for a civil engineer to practice in all of these areas, so if you are considering a career in civil engineering you should start to think about what sub-discipline you are most interested in. The following is a break down of each area and a short description to help you better understand them:

Materials Science and Engineering is a study of the fundamental properties and characteristics of materials. A materials engineer designs ceramics, metals and polymers used in construction. For example, concrete, asphalt, aluminum, steel, carbon fibers, etc.

Coastal Engineering is a field of study concerned with managing the areas in and around the coast, in particular addressing design issues associated with tides, flooding and erosion.

Construction Engineering is a field of study to understand the process of construction, including how to successfully carry out construction projects that may include designs from several other engineering sub-disciplines such as geotechnical, water resources, environmental, structural, etc.

Earthquake Engineering is a study of how structures will react during earthquakes and interact with the movement of the ground. This is a sub-discipline of structural engineering, and involves designing and constructing new buildings/structures, or renovating and updating them to be in compliance with safety and building codes.

Environmental Engineering is the study of best management practices to protect our living environment, including treatment of chemical, biological and thermal waste, keeping water and air as clean as possible, and environmental clean-up of areas that were previously contaminated.

Geotechnical Engineering is the study of the earth’s materials, such as rock and soil, and understanding their material properties and behavior under varying conditions (such as seasonal changes, temperature changes, shrink, swell). Geotechnical engineers conduct tests, prepare reports, provide recommendations for construction, and observe and advise during construction.

Water Resources Engineering deals with understanding, analyzing and modeling water. For example, a water resources engineer has an understanding of water quality and quantity, aquifers, lakes, rivers, streams, and stormwater. Water resources engineers can design conveyance systems, such as pipes, water supplies, drainage facilities, dams, channels, culverts, levees and storm sewers, canals, etc.

Structural Engineering is the study of structural analysis of buildings/structures. Structural engineers take into account the weight of the structure, dead loads, and live loads, as well as natural forces such as snow, wind, earthquake loads, to design safe structures that will successfully support those anticipated loads.

Surveying is often considered to be its own separate profession, but engineers study the basics of surveying, which is essentially taking measurements and mapping them for use in understanding properties and designing construction projects. Surveyors also conduct construction surveying to assist contractors by providing staking, benchmarks, etc. Surveyors also provide as-built surveying, to collect data after construction is complete.

Transportation Engineering is the study of moving people and products in the many forms of transportation, such as vehicles on streets, boats in canals, trains on railways, planes at airports, shipping boats at ports, and mass transit systems. Designs by transportation engineers take into consideration traffic safety of vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, etc.

Municipal or Urban Engineering is the study of the design of municipal infrastructure, such as streets, sidewalks, parking lots, water supplies, sewer systems, utilities, lighting, etc. Municipal and urban engineers may work directly for public agencies or be outside consultants hired by those public agencies. Additionally, jurisdictions in some cases will provide civil engineering review of private land development projects prior to construction approvals being granted.

Forensic Engineering is the investigation of failures in engineering materials, products or structures, usually after there has been damage to a property or personal injuries. This field of engineering is typically involved with civil law cases, and may provide evidence including professional engineering opinions, reports or testimony in those cases.

In summary, there are many sub-disciplines within the field of civil engineering. Some of the areas overlap to some degree, and if you are considering a career in civil engineering you most likely will be required to complete coursework in many of these areas as part of your education. Hopefully after reading this article, you have a better understanding about what a civil engineer does.

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