North Central College students taking in a lecture on civil engineering.

Civil Engineering vs Architecture

Reviewed by Jacob Imm

Jan 28, 2022

Civil Engineering vs. Architecture: What's the Difference?

When you first hear about them, architecture and civil engineering can sound like virtually the same thing. Both jobs involve bringing structures to life, and professional architects and engineers alike will visit the site of a new construction project before returning to the office to look over blueprints.

However, there are marked differences between the fields—from the education requirements to the everyday responsibilities. And while both disciplines often attract a similar type of student, the required skills are surprisingly varied.

In this extensive guide, we’ll explore these subjects in depth before comparing civil engineering and architecture head-to-head.

What is Civil Engineering?

Civil engineering deals with all aspects of public and private civic infrastructure. Civil engineers oversee and take part in the planning, construction, and upkeep of structures and systems, such as: 

  • Dams
  • Roads
  • Buildings
  • Railways

Most of the time, civil engineering focuses solely on human-made structures, but it occasionally overlaps with the natural world of environmental engineering.

As a branch of science-forward engineering, civil engineering is more concerned with the functionality of a project than its aesthetic value. That’s not to say that civil engineers don’t design beautiful bridges or awe-inspiring airports; rather, the emphasis is on creating something that works.

What is Architecture?

Architecture is a blend of art and science that relates more specifically to the design of buildings. Whether it's a residential, commercial, or industrial structure, an architect had a hand in envisioning the project alongside their client.

In contrast with civil engineering, the field of architecture tends to focus more closely on the aesthetic aspect of a structure (though, of course, adhering to building codes and safety practices are essential parts of the role). Architects are also more likely to work in an office, where they typically handle responsibilities like:

  • Calculating project costs and estimating construction time
  • Drawing building plans (by hand or using computer software)
  • Negotiating contracts
  • Choosing contractors

Civil Engineering vs. Architecture: Education Requirements

As a civil engineer or an architect, your work will impact public safety and efficiency. As such, most jobs in either discipline require at least a bachelor’s degree. The training involved to get this degree is what proves an individual is capable of such a job. It demonstrates that they are responsible enough to take on a job that impacts public safety and efficiency.

Let’s look at the educational journey for each field.

Education for Civil Engineers

Many universities offer specific bachelor’s degrees in civil engineering. Other degrees accepted by employers for civil engineering jobs may include construction management or other branches of engineering. Regardless of the exact degree you pursue, these undergraduate programs typically take 3-5 years to complete and usually culminate in a bachelor of science (BS) degree.

Your course load will depend on your institution and major of choice, but you can expect to take classes like:

  • Introduction to Engineering
  • The Engineering Method
  • Sustainable Development
  • Soil Mechanics
  • Building Science Fundamentals
  • Surveying
  • Calculus
  • Engineering Calculations

Some colleges also offer fast-track programs to help students attain a master’s degree as efficiently as possible. For example, North Central College offers a partnership program with the Illinois Institute of Technology that enables students to complete a bachelor’s and a master’s in civil engineering in just five years. Graduate degrees can help unlock more job opportunities, often with higher salaries.

Still wondering how to become a civil engineer? Prospective civil engineers may also want to earn their Professional Engineer (PE) license. Once you’ve completed your bachelor’s degree, you can take the Professional Engineer exams and work under a licensed engineer for four years to earn your PE license. PE licensure is exceptionally valuable, as civil engineers must be licensed to submit plans to public authorities.

Education for Architects

For most architects, a five-year bachelor of architecture (B.Arch) program is the preferred degree program. However, some schools also offer a BA or BS in architecture through four-year programs. Architects wishing to continue their education and expand their career options can also enroll in a two- or three-year master’s program.

No matter which type of degree you pursue, you’ll take plenty of architecture-focused courses such as:

  • Foundations of Design
  • Geometric Modelling
  • Sustainable Design
  • Architectural History
  • Project Delivery
  • Physics
  • Landscape Architecture

Many states require that architects hold a degree from a school recognized by the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB), so be sure to check your state’s requirements through the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) before applying to colleges.

Following graduation, the next step for most architects is to work as a paid intern in an architectural firm (as required by most states). Internships typically last around three years and are generally set up through the NCARB’s Architectural Experience Program.

Finally, architects in all U.S. jurisdictions will need to pass the Architect Registration Examination before working in the field according to the NCARB. Periodical continuing education courses may also be required to maintain licensure.

Civil Engineering vs. Architecture: Essential Skills

Though architecture and civil engineering share many of the same foundational skills, the two disciplines start to diverge after the first few years of study. To help you prepare for college and beyond, we’ve assembled a list of essential skills in each field.

Must-Have Skills for Civil Engineers

So, what does a civil engineer do? Civil engineers work on a wide variety of projects with people in numerous other roles. Aspiring civil engineers should be prepared to learn and master:

  • Physics
  • Mathematics
  • Engineering software (such as AutoCAD and Civil 3D)
  • Quantity surveying (cost management)
  • Interpreting construction documents
  • Leadership and communication skills
  • Creative problem-solving and critical thinking

While you’ll study all of this and more in college, familiarizing yourself with these topics ahead of time will give you a leg up.

Must-Have Skills for Architects

Throughout their careers, architects design countless styles and types of buildings. As such, every future architect should thoroughly understand the following areas:

  • Mathematics
  • Geometry
  • Physics
  • Art and design skills
  • Building codes and zoning laws
  • Problem-solving
  • Computer literacy
  • Interpersonal communication

Find out more about North Central College

Civil Engineering vs. Architecture: Job Prospects

Civil engineering and architecture are both excellent career choices, as each field is in demand. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that the employment of civil engineers will grow by 8% between 2020 and 2030, while architecture will see a growth rate of 3% during the same time period.

These degrees also offer numerous job prospects outside of their primary discipline; studying civil engineering, for example, doesn’t limit you to a career as a civil engineer. Wondering what some of those careers are, and asking yourself, "How much do civil engineers make?" Below are some of the many jobs you can apply for with a background in civil engineering or architecture.

Careers in Civil Engineering

With a civil engineering degree, you can open yourself up to a world of possibilities that includes:

  • Civil Engineer – A civil engineer oversees the entire construction process of a new structure—from conception to construction (and beyond). Around half of all civil engineers work for engineering firms, while much of the remaining workforce is in federal, state, or local government roles. The median national salary for this role is $88,570/year, according to the BLS.
  • Urban Planner – Urban and regional planners work to relieve traffic congestion, manage population growth, and redesign urban spaces in cities of varying sizes. According to the BLS, the majority of urban planners work in government positions and earn a median annual salary of $75,950.
  • Surveyor – If you’ve ever seen a roadside worker peering through a camera-like device, you’re familiar with surveyors. These professionals usually work outdoors, using mobile technology to discern property boundaries. However, they also spend time in the office meeting with engineers and clients. As a surveyor, you can expect to earn a median wage of $65,590 per year, according to the BLS.

Careers in Architecture

When you pursue a career in architecture, you enter an exciting world in which you see a product of your imagination become reality. Here are some of the many architecture-related jobs you can apply for post-college:

  • Architect – In this role, you’ll work with clients to bring their ideal office buildings or dream homes to life. According to the BLS, you can earn an average salary of $82,320 per year, with additional opportunities to make commissions.
  • Architectural Manager – If you hope to manage people without straying from your love of architecture, this might be the career path for you. These experienced architects oversee staff within an architectural firm, assigning employees to projects and ensuring a client’s needs are met safely and effectively. On average, architectural managers can earn $149,530/year according to the BLS.
  • Drafter – Using computer-aided design software (CAD), drafters bring an architect’s design into the technical realm to prepare for construction. Many drafting positions require solely an associate’s degree, making the career an excellent choice for the architecturally-minded student looking to start working as soon as possible. Drafters, who also exist in the field of civil engineering, can earn a median salary of $57,960 per year according to the BLS.

Civil Engineering or Architecture: Which One is Right For You?

So, should you work toward a degree in civil engineering or draw up plans for a future in architecture? Ultimately, it depends on your goals and preferences.

If you have a passion for both art and construction, architecture may be your dream career. On the other hand, if you’re more interested in taking part in the construction process from start to finish, you may want to consider civil engineering.

When you study engineering at a reputable institution like North Central College, you can explore the foundations of both disciplines. Thanks to a special partnership with Illinois Tech, you can practice core math and science competencies at North Central College before pursuing civil engineering or architecture at the graduate level.

Apply today, or plan a campus visit to learn more.

Jacob Imm is a communications specialist in the North Central College Office of Marketing and Communications. He has 11 years of collegiate communications experience and has worked with hundreds of college students. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University. 



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