I got – and still get – this question a lot, especially during the first few weeks of the semester. I would reply “I’m in engineering, planning on majoring in Civil Engineering.” Not a lot of people actually know what a civil engineer is, and what little they do know usually deals with roads, construction sites and bridges. “Oh? They build bridges right?” is the most common response. Yes, I suppose Civil Engineers do build bridges, in the same way that Mechanical engineers build robots…but that’s not what ALL mechanical engineers do. It’s even more awkward when I reply, “Yes, but that’s not really want I’m interested in doing.” Well, “What are you interested in?”
I never thought that Civil Engineering was that popular of major – which explained why no one actually heard of them, or actually knew what they did. But I saw some statistics online, and apparently Civil Engineers were the majority of engineers in the U.S. in 2008. So why are they so unknown, or why is it that what they are known for is just the bridges? Well, I guess it’s probably because bridges, structures, dams are all high-profile projects, so if the general public is going to know about them, it’d be from those. But not all civil engineers practice that kind of engineering – structural engineering. In fact, Civil Engineering is split up into many categories, not just building bridges – a fact that very few seem to realize. It could be due to the fact that the actually profession – Civil Engineer – is not used as often. Civil Engineering majors go on to career titles such as Structural Engineer, Environmental Engineer, City Engineer, Traffic Engineer, so I guess it makes sense that people don’t understand that a Civil Engineer actually studies all of those areas.
It might just be a U.S. thing, seeing as the country isn’t really putting much emphasis on infrastructure. It should also be noted, the term Civil Engineer is different in different countries. In some countries the term Civil Engineer is just anyone who practices engineering for society, not for the military (so it would include mechanical and electrical engineers). In Spain, Civil engineering really are called Ingenieros de Caminos, Canales y Puertos (engineers of streets, canals and ports), yet that’s not all they do.
I came across a Youtube video that somewhat portrays the common misconceptions of not just civil engineers, but engineers in general, it’s somewhat amusing, and even though I’m not technically an engineer, I can still somewhat relate (no, I don’t relate to the video because I’m an Asian and I go to speed dating sessions):
So just for clarification: Civil Engineering is not just building bridges. Civil Engineers are usually divided into different categories: Structural, Transportation, Environmental, Water Resources, Geotechnical and Construction Management. Structural engineers design the structures for buildings, dams and bridges. Transportation engineers design the traffic networks, roads, (air)ports and anything related to transportation. Environmental engineers (which also has it’s own major…it’s complicated) clean up the air, water, and land. Water Resources/Hydrology engineers deal with anything water related, protecting water, designing wastewater or water treatment plants and the like. Geotechnical Engineers deal with foundations, land, soil and earthquake stuff. Construction Managers oversee the construction phase of the project and ensure everything goes smoothly and under budget (they rarely do). So Civil Engineering actually covers a lot of areas, and I could go into far more detail on the vast variety of projects people do with a civil engineering degree. You can find out more about them at the American Society of Civil Engineers website. There’s even just the overall Civil Engineer, that practices a little of all the areas, and works on a variety of projects. The variety of areas within just Civil Engineering is what attracted me to the discipline, I’m interested in all those areas to some degree (except maybe construction management). I was also attracted to the fact that Civil Engineers focus on serving society. Civil Engineers really deal with built and natural environments and designing, constructing, managing and operating the infrastructure society takes for granted yet relies on so heavily. It’s a hard thing to describe in a few sentences, especially to someone who hasn’t even heard of a Civil Engineer. I guess it’s an interesting thing when Civil Engineering is/was the most popular engineering major, yet it seems like no one really knows what they do.