Civil engineering is one of the highest-paying bachelor’s degrees, but so is the closely related field of structural engineering. There is a lot of crossover between civil engineering and structural engineering because structural engineering is an area of specialization within the broader discipline of civil engineering. Both civil engineers and structural engineers draw from the principles and practices of civil engineering, but they focus on different aspects of the field. Civil engineering is a broad and versatile field that encompasses structural engineering and so much more, while structural engineering is a narrower field with specific areas of emphasis.
The Broader Focus of Civil Engineering
Civil engineering is the application of engineering principles based on science and mathematics to design the structures and systems of the built environment. If this description sounds a little vague, it’s because that built environment includes so much: bridges, building structures, road systems, railways, dams, water utilities, airports and more. In addition to working with many different kinds of built environments, civil engineers also work on different stages of engineering projects and processes. Some design new road systems, others focus on developing materials like pavement and concrete, and still others manage construction projects. Civil engineering also encompasses many aspects of environmental engineering, or the application of engineering principles to environmental problems such as reducing pollution and preserving resources.
Because the field of civil engineering is so broad, people who work as civil engineers may have wildly different job responsibilities. Some civil engineers spend most of their time in offices, but others are frequently on construction sites, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Although it’s accurate for civil engineers of all specializations – even structural engineers – to refer to themselves simply as civil engineers, most civil engineers work in specialized areas. To allow undergraduate students to develop some degree of specialized knowledge, many bachelor’s degree programs in civil engineering offer concentrations in fields such as construction engineering, geotechnical engineering, engineering mechanics, environmental engineering and structural or forensic engineering.
With 326,800 Americans currently working as civil engineers, this is one of the largest engineering occupations.
The Specialized Work of a Structural Engineer
Structural engineers focus on the strength and sturdiness of structures, particularly load-bearing structures. Although structural engineers may work on a wide variety of structures within the built environment – like buildings, bridges and even amusement park rides – they primarily focus on the materials and building specifications that ensure the soundness of the structure’s construction. For structural engineers, the emphasis is on the stability and rigidity of the skeleton of a built structure – such as the walls, beams, columns and foundation, as well as the materials used in its construction.
The reality is that not all built structures are stable or remain that way over time, use and exposure to the elements. Structural engineers sometimes serve the forensic purpose of investigating a structural failure, such as a bridge collapse. When structural failures occur, the consequences can be destructive and deadly.
Many structural engineers work to prevent structural failures from happening in the first place. They do important calculations to figure out the precise placement, specifications and materials needed to construct a safe, rigid structure from the get-go. When testing suggests that an existing structure is unsound, structural engineers must determine how to fix it and when these repairs must be made to prevent a collapse. Structural engineers are also brought in to manage renovations of a structure, whether made for safety reasons or for functional or aesthetic reasons, so that the changes to the existing structure don’t weaken its integrity.
Structural engineers must also account for natural disasters such as earthquakes. Designing structures for earthquake-prone areas requires special considerations, calculations and modeling.
Choosing Between Civil Engineering and Structural Engineering Degrees
Which major is right for you? That depends on a lot of factors, including whether you are personally more interested in the broad area of civil engineering or the more focused area of structural engineering and what degree program is most available and accessible to you. Structural engineering degree programs at the undergraduate level are much less common than civil engineering degree programs. As a result, many structural engineers begin their studies with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. Once they grasp the foundations of civil engineering more generally, they can develop more specialized knowledge through a graduate certificate in structural engineering or a master’s degree in structural engineering.
Some of the benefits of starting your education with a degree in civil engineering, rather than structural engineering, are ending up with a more versatile background and having more opportunities to explore the different areas within civil engineering.