What is a civil engineering degree?

All aspects of infrastructure fall under the umbrella of civil engineering. Your path to this field starts with earning a civil engineering degree.
Written by Hannah Riley, Contributor
overhead photo of three engineers wearing hardhats gathered around a table looking at a blueprint

What is a civil engineering degree? And could this degree provide a blueprint for your future?

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From nationwide transport systems to sewer systems and buildings, civil engineers plan, design, survey, budget, and analyze vital infrastructure projects. 

Civil engineering students may choose a specialization in this broad degree. Options include construction management, environmental engineering, geotechnical engineering, structural engineering, transportation engineering, and water resources engineering. 

Getting a civil engineering degree will prepare you for careers such as: 

  • Civil engineer
  • Surveyor 
  • Design engineer 
  • Estimator
  • Construction manager
  • Project manager

Keep reading to learn more about what a civil engineering degree is and can do for you. 

What skills do civil engineering programs teach students?

A strong civil engineering program doesn't just give students a broad education in civil engineering specialties. Nor does it just teach students geology, statics, structural design, hydraulics and hydrology, calculus, and physics. It will also teach project management and communication skills needed on job sites. 

Civil engineering programs teach both technical ("hard") and people ("soft") skills. Skills vary by academic level. 

Undergraduate skills

Graduate skills

  • Surveying
  • Computer-aided design (CAD) software
  • Estimating
  • Physics
  • Mathematics
  • Decision making
  • Oral communication
  • Statistics
  • Linear programming
  • Advanced engineering design
  • Project collaboration
  • Project management 

What kinds of civil engineering degrees are there?

From associate to Ph.D. programs, different civil engineering degrees will offer varying career opportunities. Below, we analyze each degree path, required courses, and potential career paths in civil engineering available after earning your degree. 

Associate degree in civil engineering technology

Length: Two years
Cost: $4,000-$30,000
Post-grad careers: Civil engineering technician, civil engineering specialist, engineering aid

When completing an associate degree in civil engineering technology, degree seekers complete coursework in surveying, computer-aided drafting, estimating, and cartography. Students will conduct field and lab testing, making it difficult to offer this program online. 

This degree can help you learn civil engineering fundamentals. However, graduates of associate programs are not qualified to work as full civil engineers. They may choose to work in assistant roles as civil engineering technicians, cartographers, land surveyors, CAD designers, and inspectors. 

These entry-level careers can be found at civil engineering firms, survey companies, public agencies, or material testing laboratories. 

Bachelor's degree in civil engineering

Length: Four years 
Cost: $18,000-$60,000
Post-grad careers: Surveyor, civil engineer, environmental engineer

A bachelor's in civil engineering degree typically takes four years. It requires courses like applied mathematics, engineering economics, fluid mechanics, construction materials, geotechnical engineering, geosurveying, and structural design. 

Students will complete mathematical and computational courses and learn to apply methods to real-world problems while considering environmental and ethical considerations

After foundational courses, programs focus on completing computer-aided design projects individually or in teams. Bachelor's degree programs offer technical electives that allow students to take more classes in their preferred sub-discipline.

Many civil engineering degree jobs require a minimum of a bachelor's. Graduates may consider a career as an environmental engineer, transport planner, structural engineer, geoengineer, or civil engineer. 

Though bachelor of arts degrees in civil engineering exist, they are rare. The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, or ABET, only accredits bachelor of science degrees in civil engineering. Students hoping to pursue a Professional Engineer (PE) license — an important milestone in most civil engineering careers — should pursue a bachelor of science in civil engineering degree.

Master's degree in civil engineering

Length: Two years
Cost: $10,000-$60,000
Post-grad careers: Construction manager, senior civil engineer, transportation engineer

Gaining a master's degree in civil engineering is a good choice for students who want to be more competitive in the job market or take advanced coursework to specialize in a particular subdiscipline. 

A master's degree is the industry standard for civil engineering students specializing in structural engineering because learning to design buildings and bridges requires extensive coursework.

These programs emphasize learning theory and practical application. Many programs will focus on collaborative work, as it is an essential skill in the field. Potential courses include physical hydrology, statistics of environmental monitoring, pipe system engineering, and linear programming. 

Students can choose between many specializations, such as: 

  • Sustainable infrastructure
  • Environmental engineering
  • Geotechnical engineering
  • Hydrology and hydrodynamics
  • Structural engineering and mechanics
  • Transportation engineering

These specializations take twelve months to two years full-time to complete. 

Getting a master's degree will prepare students for careers as hydrologists or structural, geotechnical, transportation, design, or traffic engineers. 

Doctoral degree in civil engineering

Length: Three to five years
Cost: $24,000-$90,000
Post-grad careers: Civil engineering researcher, regulatory advisorgovernment civil engineer, university instructor

At the beginning of a doctoral program, an advisor helps you choose courses. 

Students typically spend a program's first two years fulfilling core course requirements, including high-level mathematics and technical electives. The final two to three years concentrate on research in the student's chosen specialization. 

Students can choose from many specializations within civil engineering, including: 

  • Construction
  • Hydrology and hydrodynamics
  • Geotechnical and geoenvironmental engineering
  • Transportation engineering
  • Structural and earthquake engineering

Earning a Ph.D. will set you up for industry leadership positions. Many graduates go on to become hydrologists, researchers, or engineering educators. 

Accreditation for civil engineering programs

When choosing a civil engineering program, it's important to research its accreditation. Choose a program accredited by ABET, a nonprofit, non-governmental agency that ensures engineering programs meet certain quality standards. 

Experts say students pursuing a PE license should pick an ABET-accredited civil engineering program. These degrees count for four of the eight years' experience required to apply for a PE license.

Choosing an accredited program also means you have access to federal financial aid and can transfer credits if you need to move to a new school. 

How hard is a civil engineering degree?

Earning a civil engineering degree can be difficult in the early stages for students who don't have strong math and science skills. These early courses prepare students to succeed in more challenging courses like mechanics of materials and statics. 

Many programs have a demanding workload with lab work and group projects.  

You'll encounter courses such as structural design, geotechnical engineering, soil mechanics, transportation engineering, fluid mechanics, hydraulics, traffic engineering, construction management, and contracts. 

Seek support through your program's learning support center if you find higher-level courses daunting.

This article was reviewed by Sierra Gawlowski, PE

A headshot of Sierra Gawlowski, a smiling brunette woman.

Sierra Gawlowski, PE, earned her BS in civil engineering and is a licensed professional engineer in the state of Washington. She has worked for a private engineering consulting firm as well as for public agencies. Sierra enjoys mentoring engineering students and junior staff. She also leads a project team for Engineers Without Borders and currently sits on the board of directors for Kilowatts for Humanity.

Gawlowski is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network.  

Last reviewed April 15, 2022.

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