North Central College students and faculty work on a civil engineering project.

How to Become a Civil Engineer

Reviewed by Jacob Imm

Feb 02, 2022

How to Become a Civil Engineer

Our everyday lives rely on infrastructure built through civil engineering. The food on your plate arrived via roads and rails; your flight home landed at a well-designed airport; the electricity that powers the device on which you’re reading this might have been generated by a hydroelectric dam. All of these wonders of engineering exist thanks to civil engineers.

It should come as no surprise, then, that civil engineering is a fast-paced and highly rewarding career. You just need to know how to get started on the path to becoming a civil engineer.

If you’ve ever wondered how to become a civil engineer, this guide is for you. We’ll be outlining a step-by-step approach to starting a career in civil engineering, from pre-college preparation to post-graduation job hunting.

Step 1: Understand Civil Engineering

Before you start applying to colleges, you should have a solid understanding of what civil engineers do. This will help you to be sure this is the right field for you. 

So, what does a civil engineer do?

In short, civil engineering is the scientific approach to the conception, construction and maintenance of infrastructure projects. From tunnels and train stations to highways and highrises, civil engineers develop the man-made components of the landscape that surrounds us.

To that end, an average day as a civil engineer might involve:

  • Working with clients to determine material and budgetary needs
  • Submitting permit applications to regulatory bodies
  • Drafting and reviewing project designs
  • Analyzing a project’s impact on water, air, and soil quality
  • Overseeing the construction of a new structure
  • Preparing pre- and post-development reports

Jobs in civil engineering are available in every part of the country, in both the public and private sectors. Should you choose to pursue a career in civil engineering, you can work in industries as diverse as transportation, water management, construction, and many more.

Step 2: Prepare for College

Though your journey toward civil engineering will really take off in college, you can start preparing as a high school student if you’re already interested in this field.

Investing your time and effort into skills that are beneficial to engineers now can pay dividends when you reach the college level. Some of the skills to focus on include:

  • Math
  • Physics
  • Time management
  • Problem-solving and critical thinking
  • Technical writing
  • Computer programming
  • Technology design
  • Using engineering software such as Civil 3D and AutoCAD

While you can develop many of these competencies in your required classes or on your own time by reading and watching civil engineering content, you may be able to find extracurriculars that explore these skills. Browse your local community center and high school’s websites and see what they offer—you might be able to participate in science fairs, build balsa wood structures at Odyssey of the Mind competitions, or experiment with engineering software. It’s also a good idea to talk to your guidance counselor if you need help finding ways to distinguish yourself as a prospective engineering student.

Not only can enrollment in organizations or programs like these teach you essential skills, but they can also improve your college application.

Step 3: Study Civil Engineering in College

If you hope to work as a civil engineer, you have several options for your college major. Many institutions offer dedicated civil engineering programs, but there are a number of degrees applicable to civil engineering jobs, such as construction management and environmental engineering.

Occasionally, you’ll also find colleges that offer minors or associate’s degrees in civil engineering. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a two-year associate’s degree can land you a job as a civil engineering technologist or technician. An associate’s degree can also be a great start to an academic career that continues at a four-year institution.

For most jobs in civil engineering, you’ll need at least a bachelor’s degree. When you enroll in a civil engineering program, you’ll typically leave with a bachelor of science (BS) or bachelor of engineering (BEng) degree after four or five years of full-time study.

As you progress through your schooling, you’ll study concepts like hydraulic, structural, and geotechnical engineering. Here are examples of some of the courses you’ll likely encounter:

  • Introduction to Engineering
  • The Engineering Method
  • Calculus
  • General Chemistry
  • Structural Mechanics
  • Fundamentals of Surveying
  • Physics
  • Transportations Engineering
  • Technical Writing
  • Sustainable Engineering Practices

Of course, your exact course list will depend on where you attend college and the program you choose. But regardless of how or where you study, you should ensure that courses like these are available at your prospective college—they all cover topics that are essential for successful civil engineers. Don’t forget to get a break from classes and join extracurriculars. These are great to continue building your network and meet new people.

Step 4: Earn Your Master’s Degree (Optional)

Engineers who wish to improve their professional prospects may choose to enroll in a master’s degree program immediately after their bachelor’s, or gain work experience before returning to school. A graduate program usually takes around two years of full-time study.

With a master’s in civil engineering, you can often earn more money and work in higher-profile positions. According to the BLS, many urban planning positions require a master’s degree, as do most engineering manager roles.

If you think a master’s degree is in your future, it’s worth looking for an institution with an accelerated program when first applying for your undergraduate degree. For example, North Central College’s partnership with the Illinois Institute of Technology enables students to take upper-level courses while pursuing their bachelor’s degree. As a result, students can earn a master’s degree in civil engineering in as little as five years.

Find out more about North Central College

Step 5: Become a Licensed Professional Engineer (Optional)

To work in many government positions, open your own firm, or teach civil engineering in certain states, you’ll need to earn your Professional Engineer (PE) license. Once you hold a bachelor’s degree, becoming a licensed PE involves the following steps:

  1. Take the Fundamentals of Engineering exam.
  2. Work under a licensed professional engineer for four years.
  3. Take the Principles of Engineering exam.

While engineers from any field can become PEs, the accreditation is especially useful to civil engineers, as only a licensed engineer can submit plans for public works. So, while we’ve listed this step as “optional,” it’s highly recommended for civil engineers.

Step 6: Apply for Civil Engineering Jobs

With a bachelor’s or master’s degree on your resume, you’ll be qualified to apply for a variety of fascinating civil engineering jobs. Along with the skills you learned in college, be sure to lean on the network you built through extracurriculars and group projects to kickstart your career. But how much do civil engineers make in their jobs? The answer depends on a person’s specific education and position.

Potential positions for a civil engineering graduate include:

  • Civil Engineer – Whether you work for the government or a private firm, you’ll have the opportunity to put everything you learned in school to the test as a civil engineer. You’ll plan, build, and maintain all kinds of infrastructure projects for various clients. After a few years of experience, you should expect to earn a median salary of $88,570 per year according to the BLS.
  • Surveyor – Surveyors often work hand-in-hand with civil engineers, so a background in the discipline will make you an excellent candidate for the job. Surveying involves plenty of fieldwork; daily responsibilities include outlining property boundaries and analyzing land records. The median annual salary hovers around $65,590 nationally according to the BLS.
  • Environmental Engineer – Because of the significant overlap in fundamental skills, civil engineering graduates can often work as environmental engineers. This branch of engineering focuses more on the natural world, seeking to address problems with air pollution, recycling systems, and waste disposal. On average, environmental engineers earn $92,120/year according to the BLS.

Within these jobs, there’s room for lateral and upward growth. Plus, because civil engineering is a broad field that straddles numerous industries, you may be able to find roles like these that combine your degree with another interest, such as public transportation or waste management.

Frequently Asked Questions

A field as vast and exciting as civil engineering is bound to elicit questions. Here are the answers to some of the most common inquiries from prospective civil engineers.

Why Should I Pursue Civil Engineering?

As far as fascinating jobs go, it’s hard to find something more enticing than civil engineering—it's an ever-changing job that never gets boring. Working as a civil engineer is rewarding from a financial and personal standpoint, as you’ll have the opportunity to improve communities nationwide.

Best of all, civil engineering is in demand, with job growth predicted at 8% between now and  2030 according to the BLS. This expansion equates to more than 25,000 new civil engineering job openings each year, thanks to increasing demand and senior-level engineers retiring from the workforce.

Which Fields are Most Similar to Civil Engineering?

If civil engineering almost feels like the right fit but you’re not exactly sure you want to commit to it fully, you may want to look into disciplines such as:

  • Architecture – When it comes to civil engineering vs. architecture, the two are very similar. You’ll still plan and design structures, but you’ll have more of an opportunity to flex your creative muscles.
  • Mechanical Engineering – Do you want to design cars and other machines instead of dams and roadways? Mechanical engineering may be for you.
  • Computer Engineering – These engineers trade massive infrastructure projects for intricate computer hardware design.
  • Construction Management – Construction managers still work in the world of civil engineering, but they focus more on “big picture” necessities like project logistics and communications.

Your Civil Engineering Journey Starts with the Right College

A solid educational base provides the foundation for a long, productive career in civil engineering. Schools like North Central College can provide you with that foundation.

Thanks to a partnership program with Illinois Tech’s Armour College of Engineering, you can work toward a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree at the same time, preparing for various exciting engineering jobs—including civil engineering.

Apply today, or plan a visit to discover what North Central College has to offer.

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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U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021, September 8). Civil Engineers: Occupational Outlook Handbook. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved January 9, 2022, from