How to become a civil engineer

A student near a bridge in Durham

How do you begin a career in civil engineering? In this blog, we’ll look at the importance of civil engineering in society and walk you through the career steps you need in order to start your role as a civil engineer in the UK. 

What is civil engineering? 

You may not know the term ‘civil engineering’, but you certainly know the effects of it. Every day we use things that have been designed, developed and improved by civil engineers. If you’ve ever crossed a bridge, driven on a road, or drank clean water then you’ve benefited from the work of civil engineers. 

Before we discuss the practical and subject specific skills you'll need, it’s important to know the transferable soft skills and personality traits that work well with in the role of civil engineer. You will need to show evidence of: 

  • Communication: as an engineer, you will often need to explain complex engineering terms to the people you work with who aren’t engineers. 
  • Teamwork: engineering isn’t a solitary job – you’ll work in multidisciplinary teams in order to complete your projects. 
  • Creativity: engineers are problem solvers and passionate about innovation. 
  • Leadership: there is plenty of opportunity to grow and develop in your career as a civil engineer, and leadership will help you get there. 
  • Attention to detail: a lot can go wrong as an engineer, so good attention to detail is key to your success. 

A lot of these skills are soft skills which can be developed in a wide range of settings, including on your university degree.

The role of a civil engineer 

So, what do civil engineers do, exactly? Civil engineers can be found working in a range of different industries and sectors, but one thing is always the same: they are innovating and impacting people’s lives. 

Civil engineers are responsible for designing and implementing civil structures and ensuring they are considered safe. From buildings to bridges to transport links, you’ll be involved in designing important structures for your community. Some skills that civil engineers need in their career include: 

Knowledge of engineering 

The first thing you’ll need to become a civil engineer is a strong understanding of engineering – which is something you’ll learn on your university degree. It’s important to choose a degree that includes aspects of the career you want in the future, so you can be as prepared as possible. For example, if you’re interested in a career related to buildings, then a degree that includes information on construction may help you in the future. 

Maths and physics skills 

Maths is useful in a wide range of careers, but it is especially useful in engineering. You will often have to use mathematical formulas and calculations in your work. Physics is also a good skill to have and a good understanding of the concepts of physics may help you in the practical aspects of your work. 

Strong IT capabilities 

We live in an increasingly digital world – civil engineering is not exempt from that. As a civil engineer, you’ll need to be proficient in computer software in order to complete your projects. The more confident you are with the software you use, the more you will get out of your work. 

Knowledge of design 

As a civil engineer, you may find yourself working with architects. Having a good knowledge of the foundations of design will help you work more effectively with these teams. By combining your skillsets, you will help innovate your community through the work you create. 

Specialist areas 

One of the benefits of civil engineering is that there are so many different specialisms for you to choose from. No matter what you’re interested in, your skills will be appreciated and well-utilised in a variety of different industries. Some industries you could work in include: 

  • Environmental: combine engineering with biology and chemistry to solve environmental issues. 
  • Geotechnical: get involved before other engineers do by analysing soil and rock to ensure ground is safe to build on. 
  • Structural: study, analyse and design bridges and buildings to make sure that, not only are they aesthetically pleasing, but safe for use. 
  • Transportation: make sure people can get where they need to be by maintaining the world’s public transportation systems. 
  • Water resources: we all need water to survive – so make sure the quality and quantity of water is available and safe. 

Importance of civil engineering 

Civil engineering is an important part of society. Civil engineers are here to maintain, protect and develop the parts of life that are crucial for our survival. Throughout history, civil engineers have helped to shape society into what it is today. Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a civil engineer during the Industrial Revolution who helped innovate rail travel, steamships, bridges and tunnels, is one of the UK’s most important historic figures. With a degree in civil engineering from a UK university, could you be next? 

What does a civil engineering career look like in the UK? 

If you’re looking to work as a civil engineer in the UK, you may find yourself working either on a construction site or in an office environment. Your day may include: 

  • Liaising with clients 
  • Analysing data using the latest software 
  • Risk assessment and monitoring the environmental impact 
  • Ensuring all health and safety rules are followed 
  • Preparing detailed reports 
  • Creating blueprints of designs 
  • Evaluating project costs, as well as time and labour spent. 

Study civil engineering abroad in the UK 

If you want to work as a civil engineer in the UK, your first step is getting a degree in civil engineering from a UK university. As an international student, you can study a pathway programme to better prepare yourself to start a degree within the UK education system. At Durham University International Study Centre, you can settle into life in the UK and develop your English language skills to get the most out of your degree. 

Choose a subject-specific pathway programme, like the International Foundation Year in Science and Engineering, to begin learning the foundations of your chosen subject, before progressing to your chosen undergraduate degree at the University. 

At Durham University, you can progress to a BEng General Engineering degree which allows you to spend two years studying general engineering before choosing your specialism in your final year – which is when you will choose to focus your studies on civil engineering. 

Frequently asked questions 

How long does it take to become a civil engineer?  

A typical degree in civil engineering in the UK takes three years, though some four years degrees exist which offer a year of practical experience. After you graduate from your university degree, you may choose further study to become professionally qualified. 

What are the five types of civil engineering?  

The five types of civil engineering are environmental, geotechnical, structural, transportation and water resources. 

Is civil engineering a good career? 

Civil engineering is the right career for you if you are interested in developing society and making a valuable contribution. You will work up to roughly 42 hours a week, occasionally working weekends and evenings. Although the work can be hard, the contributions you make to society are invaluable.