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A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer

From developing sound and effective transportation infrastructure options to ensuring that residents have access to efficient public utilities like water and natural gas, civil engineers help develop solutions that ensure that societies and communities are able to function properly. There are various roles that civil engineers can hold, and while a bachelor’s degree is required for entering the field, an advanced degree can help those in the field advance their knowledge and skills while also allowing them to focus on an engineering specialization. Those working in specific fields of civil engineering, such as the roles below, cover a diverse range of tasks, often splitting their time between fieldwork and collaborative office work.

Coastal Engineering

The daily activities of a coastal engineer involve analyzing the threats raised by tidewater in coastal communities and determining the best method of defense against the adverse effects of flooding and erosion. A usual day might include meeting with government officials, private property owners, and public interest groups who have an interest in identifying ways to deflect the harmful effects of rising waters on a property located near the shore. Following these meetings, the coastal engineer measures the hydrodynamic impact of waves, tides, and storm surges in the area for the purpose of designing structures that can adequately withstand these forces over extended periods of time. Outside of meetings in the field, individuals in this specialization can spend their day designing coastline structural projects with team members. Once design plans are finalized, the civil engineer oversees certain aspects of the development process of the project to ensure that the designs are implemented effectively and that resulting coastal structures are appropriately water resistant.

Construction Engineering

Construction engineers work to ensure delivery of construction materials to project sites and supervise construction plans to improve operational efficiency. The work of construction engineers often involves a significant amount of time reviewing the quality of a project’s logistical operations and monitoring transactions to ensure maximized cost-effectiveness. A day at work for a construction engineer can feature a visit to a construction site, where the engineer compiles data about the project to be analyzed once the engineer returns to their office. Off-site, the workday may include planning and designing construction plans that will later be produced by a builder or construction company under the engineer’s guidance.

Earthquake Engineering

An earthquake engineer is responsible for designing structures that are capable of withstanding the seismic waves of moderate and extreme earthquakes. Earthquake engineers use advanced computational software to strategically model and design structures that comply with local building codes and account for the ground conditions in the area to mitigate the potential consequences of an earthquake. When working on designing specific projects, a day in the life of an earthquake engineer includes time spent in the field observing land conditions to ensure the development of accurate seismology models and calculations, as well as time in the office analyzing their findings and meeting with other inter-disciplinary engineers, like structural and construction engineers, to verify whether their designs will have the strength necessary to withstand a seismic event.

Environmental Engineering

Most environmental engineers treat and contain hazardous materials while minimizing harm to the environment. Common tasks for those in this role include treating chemical, biological, and thermal wastes, as well as purifying natural resources like air and water. Other areas of specialization may include wildlife preservation, planning the transportation of pollutants or other hazardous materials and compiling information about the potential environmental consequences of planned construction. Generally, a day as an environmental engineer can include evaluating contamination sites that have experienced a chemical spill and engineering the best clean-up method, traveling to at-risk wildlife habitats to identify vulnerable species or environmental hazards, or designing a plan to reduce atmospheric pollution in an air monitoring facility. While on-site at these different locations, an environmental engineer tests the local resources and evaluates the risks involved with allowing certain projects or natural occurrences to progress. Based on their evaluation, they then determine the most appropriate method of intervention for the environmental hazards or problems that they have been commissioned to resolve.

Geotechnical Engineering

Geotechnical engineers apply civil engineering systems to study rock and soil conditions for the purpose of designing safe, solid subsurface structures, like building foundations and water retention structures. Geotechnical engineers often work alongside environmental engineers to protect sources of groundwater by designing adequate support foundations and retention walls. A day in the life of a geotechnical engineer may include visiting existing wells, dams, and other retention structures, or the locations that they are planned to be built upon, in order to gather information about the ground conditions in the surrounding area. The engineer then collaborates with his colleagues to determine any risks associated with altering the ground conditions and plans an appropriate means for eliminating such risks via ground improvement techniques.

Structural Engineering

Structural engineers are charged with ensuring the overall rigidity and stability of structures like bridges, towers, overpasses, and even offshore oil facilities. Structural engineers have a demanding job—they have to make sure that a structural design, once built, can remain stable and properly support itself. To accomplish this, structural engineers analyze every aspect of a structure’s design. For instance, they use computer programs to analyze the effect of temperature changes on a structure’s load-bearing materials, and they use their knowledge of wind loads and moving loads to test how a structure’s design might react to varying weight stress.

A day as a structural engineer involves a great deal of on-site data collection, primarily focusing on observing local conditions that may influence the strength of a structure, how stiff a structure will need to be to withstand natural conditions, and the level of stability that will be demanded of a structure when a particular load has been applied to it. Once an acceptable amount of information has been collected about the building site, the structural engineer then designs structures that safely address any concerns that may have been discovered. Following the design stage, the engineer will continue spending their days collecting information, even during construction, to ensure that alterations to the design are not necessary. In this line of work, engineers spend a significant portion of their time working alongside production teams to identify the most efficient means of producing a cost-effective, safe, and aesthetically pleasing structure.

Municipal Engineering

Municipal infrastructure includes sidewalks, streets, water supply networks, public parks, street lighting, and solid waste management resources within a community. Municipal engineers manage these resources by communicating with citizens to discern their municipal needs, then strategizing appropriate solutions for the design, construction, and repair of these infrastructural facilities to meet these needs. On average, a municipal engineer will spend their day investigating the best method of optimizing an obsolete system or structure that performs a necessary function for the well-being of the community. Days may be spent recording data in public places with faltering infrastructures, in a workspace reviewing the data to set priorities within a city’s infrastructure improvement process plans, or in the offices of government officials to gain approval and funding for plans to enhance public infrastructure.

Water Resource Engineering

Water resource engineers are vital—especially in regions where access to clean water is limited due to pollution, drought, or other environmental or economic factors. This discipline of engineering contains some aspects of environmental engineering, but still stands as an independent specialization of civil engineering. Professionals employed in this field manage bodies of groundwater as well as aboveground water resources like lakes, rivers, and streams. A day in the life of a water resource engineer includes overseeing a wide range of water resources. For instance, engineers are expected to monitor water reclamation and water treatment systems in order to ensure that said systems are functioning properly and also supplying a continuous amount of potable water. Additionally, engineers will also monitor local reservoirs, natural springs, or even underground wells to ensure that water supplies are plentiful enough for local urban centers and that the water hasn’t been contaminated in any way. The types of projects for a water resource engineer ranges from designing drainage facilities, retention pools, canals, pipelines, and water supply networks that reserve and deliver water to communities, while producing the minimal amount of waste.

Civil Engineering Career Outlook

As urban environments across the nation are constantly growing, homes, offices, public infrastructure, and other structures will need to be developed quickly, effectively, and safely in tighter confines than ever seen before. Given this, the need for skilled civil engineers continues to increase, with an eight percent growth expected in the field between 2014 and 2024. After gaining the appropriate credentials for their field, civil engineers can expect to earn the following average wages:

  • Coastal Engineering – $73,361
  • Construction Engineering – $68,848
  • Earthquake Engineering – $71,322
  • Environmental Engineering – $62,716
  • Geotechnical Engineering – $65,471
  • Structural Engineering – $65,548
  • Municipal Engineering – $63,457
  • Water Resource Engineering – $63,447

Every discipline of civil engineering involves solving critical infrastructure and systemic challenges that impact the lives of citizens. From water resource engineering to structural engineering, each discipline features its own unique responsibilities and duties, which can also include frequent relocation to different job sites for managing projects. For those seeking to enter or advance in the civil engineering field, it is crucial to research the key differences between each area of specialization in order to select the most beneficial path for a career.

Learn More

As the nation’s oldest private military college, Norwich University has been a leader in innovative education since 1819. Through its online programs, Norwich delivers relevant and applicable curricula that allow its students to make a positive impact on their places of work and their communities.

Norwich University offers exceptional opportunities to help advance your knowledge, target your skills, and gain greater proficiency as a professional civil engineer. The online Master of Civil Engineering program at Norwich University is designed to enhance your technical knowledge, management skills and engineering competence by delivering a modern, practice-orientated education that fosters creativity and critical thinking for problem-solving and innovation.

Recommended Readings:
5 Civil Engineering Innovations That Help Buildings Withstand Earthquakes
5 Opportunities for Improving American Infrastructure
Career Outlook: Environmental Engineer


Civil Engineers, Bureau of Labor Statistics

About Civil Engineering, American Society of Civil Engineers

What is Engineering?, Engineering Your Future

Types of Engineering Careers, Smart Futures

What is Civil Engineering?, American Society of Civil Engineers

Civil engineering: SCIENCE, Encyclopedia Britannica

Average Civil Engineer Salary, Payscale

Average Structural Engineer Salary, Payscale

Average Construction Engineer Salary, Payscale

Average Environmental Engineer Salary, Payscale

Average Geotechnical Engineer Salary, Payscale

Average Water Resources Engineer Salary, Payscale

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