What is a Civil Engineer?

April 1, 2014

Perhaps you are considering a career in civil engineering but you find yourself wondering…”What is a civil engineer?” Even today, after years of experience as a civil engineer, I don’t have a simple, canned response to this question. If I am short on time, I am sometimes afraid to be asked this question just because there is no clear and concise answer.

But do not fear, I do have an answer for you, its just very long-winded and of course there is always the risk that you may finish reading and be even more confused than you were before. I’ll do my best though, and if you are considering a career in civil engineering, or even if you are just curious about what exactly it is that we do, I hope that this information will help you to wrap your mind around it all.

First let’s start with some history. By now I think we all have heard stories about the early “caveman”. Do you remember? Or maybe you’ve seen them on TV commercials or the movies? They dwelt in caves and were among the first to practice civil engineering on a very instinctual level. As you can imagine, trial and error was a big part of their lives. And they quickly learned about rock and soil properties. For example, one bearded “caveman” probably told his good friend using grunts and hand gestures some good advice such as, “dig cave in sand…cave fall on head”. Survival skills and sharing knowledge has always been important. Early man was concerned for their safety and for the well-being and safety of others, just like civil engineers are today. One of the fundamental canons of a civil engineer is …

“Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public…”

This quote is directly from the fundamental canon #1 from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). So, just like the “caveman” used civil engineering a few years back, we are still using civil engineering today to protect the public.

So what was the point of all of this, just making the point that civil engineering is one of the first disciplines of engineering.

That’s right, it came way before today’s aerospace, electrical, industrial, and computer engineering. Civil engineers strive to understand and design the physical, built environment we see everywhere around us in the populated areas of our world. 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.

So the obvious next question is, What are the sub-disciplines of civil engineering? Some universities may classify the fields of study differently, but generally there are the following civil engineering sub-disciplines: Materials Science, Coastal, Construction, Earthquake, Environmental, Geotechnical, Water Resources, Structural, Surveying, Transportation, Municipal and Urban, and Forensic Engineering. There are engineering principals that are the foundation and apply throughout all of these disciplines, so a civil engineer could very easily specialize in more than one of these areas. However, because the field is so very broad, it is not common, and in fact very rare for a civil engineer to practice in all of these areas. If you are considering a possible career in civil engineering you should begin to think about what you are most interested in learning about. The following list is a break down of each area with a link to a short description:

Materials Science and Engineering
Coastal Engineering
Construction Engineering
Earthquake Engineering
Environmental Engineering
Geotechnical Engineering
Water Resources Engineering
Structural Engineering
Transportation Engineering
Municipal or Urban Engineering
Forensic Engineering

In summary, there are many sub-disciplines within the broader field of civil engineering. Basic engineering and science principles are applied in all of these sub-disciplines, and if you consider pursuing a career as a civil engineer you will most likely be required to study coursework in several of these areas as part of your civil engineering education. Hopefully after reading this article, you now have a better understanding about what civil engineers do.

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