Architecture and engineering are two different occupations with a good deal of overlap. Both architects and engineers may complete some of the same work duties, most notably the design of buildings and structures. However, the many distinctions between these two degree programs mean that one major is likely to appeal more to individual students than the other. If the math- and science-heavy curriculum of engineering is a better fit for your strengths and interests, the benefits of choosing engineering over architecture include better pay rates, quicker career preparation, an emphasis on science and math as opposed to aesthetic design and more diverse career opportunities upon graduation.

engineering vs architecture

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An Overview of Engineering vs. Architecture

Both engineering and architecture have to do with design. While architecture pertains specifically to buildings and structures, engineering applies to the design of solutions to all kinds of real-world problems and situations. Engineers who focus on designing and developing buildings often go by job titles like civil engineer, structural engineer or construction engineer. Other kinds of engineers may develop computer hardware or software, mechanical devices, chemical compounds, biomedical interventions and many other types of devices, processes, systems and innovations.

Engineering design is based primarily on the principles of science and mathematics. Although the goal of designing all buildings and structures is to balance function and aesthetics, engineering more strongly emphasizes function based on the concepts, practices and calculations of math and science. Architecture is building design that is more closely related to artistic design principles.

The differences between engineering and architecture are reflected not only in the day-to-day and big-picture work involved in these career paths but also in the curriculum involved in the study of these two distinct fields.   

Should I Be an Architect or Engineer?

Both architect and engineer are, objectively, good jobs. For both careers, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported median salaries that doubled the median wage for all occupations in 2020. U.S. News & World Report has ranked both architect and civil engineer among the best engineering jobs, although civil engineer ranks higher among engineer jobs and is listed as one of the best jobs overall. Additionally, while both jobs do have some stress, the most significant pressure – making sure that buildings and structures are safe – is consistent across these occupations.

Still, there are important distinctions between these job roles and the training and education required to attain them. The distinguishing factors you need to consider when choosing between architect and engineer career paths include the emphasis on science and math vs. art, the time it takes to earn a degree and the range of potential career opportunities.

Engineers’ Focus on Math and Science Over Artistic Design

Both engineers and architects are designers, but they approach the field from different perspectives. Architects come from an artistic design background. They complete courses such as mathematics, construction, structures and physics. However, much of architecture students’ curriculum is artistic in nature, including classes such as Introduction to Design and Digital Media, Modes of Design Communication, Introduction to Design and Architecture Design Studio.

Engineers also need creativity, but not necessarily in an artistic or aesthetic sense. Rather, they use their creative minds along with their knowledge of science and mathematics to develop solutions to real-life challenges. At least one-quarter of an engineer’s undergraduate college curriculum is science and math coursework. Engineering majors also take courses in general engineering principles as well as specialized courses in an engineering discipline such as mechanical, civil, chemical or electrical. The branch of engineering most closely related to architecture is civil engineering.

For civil engineering majors, common coursework includes civil engineering systems, transportation systems, structural analysis, environmental engineering, geotechnical engineering, hydraulic engineering and the properties and behavior of engineering materials. Some of the more general coursework that is critical for civil engineers includes elementary mechanics of fluids, probability and statistics for civil engineers, computer methods used in civil engineering, engineering communication and professional practice in engineering.

Developing the hands-on skills for professional practice is essential for both engineers and architects. Engineering students accomplish this skill-building through hands-on projects in the design studio, internships, co-ops, clinics, competitions and capstone projects. Architecture students learn practical skills and build a portfolio of their designs primarily through studio coursework and project-based classes and instruction. An internship is part of preparing to attain an architect license, but these internships commonly occur after graduation.

Engineers’ Shorter Time to Earn an Undergraduate Degree

If you’re in a hurry to finish your education and get started in your career, a shorter time to degree completion is a point in favor of engineering. Both architects and engineers must generally have a bachelor’s degree to start working in the field, but there are differences in the time it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree in these specific areas of study.

A bachelor’s degree is typically called a four-year degree, so the notion that one bachelor’s degree takes longer than the other might sound strange. While some civil engineering degree programs may require more than the 120 credit hours that make up the minimum number of credits for a bachelor’s degree, the average undergraduate civil engineering degree program can be completed in four years of full-time study. Of course, students who pursue their degree part-time or who take advantage of co-op experience opportunities may take longer to graduate.

A Bachelor of Architecture (BArch) degree is different kind of undergraduate degree compared to most bachelor’s degrees. Instead of an academic degree, the BArch is a professional degree. Accredited BArch degree programs must include at least 150 college credits, but it’s not unusual for these programs to include 160 or even 170 credits. Naturally, this means that architecture students should expect to take longer to complete their studies. Architecture majors often take introductory architecture or pre-architecture courses as early as their freshman year of college. Often, students complete their professional core classes during their second through fourth years and spend their fifth year of study primarily working on a capstone design project.

Because engineering students complete their bachelor’s degree requirements in less time than architecture students, they can save on tuition costs and get out into the workforce sooner. Additionally, engineers can get into their careers faster than architects can. While a post-baccalaureate internship is required among engineers who are pursuing licensure, not all engineers have to be licensed, depending on the work they do, and new graduates often go straight into entry-level engineer roles. Architects, on the other hand, must be licensed to practice in the field, and they must complete a three-year internship after graduating from college to acquire this license. For the first three years, architects must serve in paid internship roles with architecture firms, usually arranged through the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards’ Architectural Experience Program (AXP). Only then can they take the Architect Registration Examination for licensure.

If you decide to go to graduate school, you’re going to spend even more time in school. O*NET reported that master’s degrees are somewhat more common among architects, 24 percent of whom possess this graduate degree, than among civil engineers, only 10 percent of whom reported having a master’s degree.

Engineers’ Broader Range of Career Opportunities

Generally, architects design building structures for residential or commercial use. Engineers may design building structures, but they design many other things, too. Machines, automobiles, chemical compounds, manufacturing materials, electrical and electronic devices and even medical breakthroughs all result from the work of an engineer.

While different engineering degrees lead to these different career paths, the breadth of options means that a career in engineering will appeal even to students who don’t dream of designing buildings. No matter which specific discipline of engineering you choose to major in, having a background in engineering provides the foundation that you could draw upon to pursue further education and work in any area of engineering.

You could use your civil engineering coursework to develop the asphalt used to make roads, design transportation systems like railways or develop systems and facilities for environmental solutions like water treatment and waste management. Students in engineering bachelor’s degree programs take coursework in the foundations of engineering in general, as well as civil engineering specifically, so they could pivot their engineering career toward other disciplines if desired through the right combination of education and experience.

The work that engineers do can also be fulfilling in many other ways, especially when they solve important problems such as treating serious diseases, developing methods to purify unsafe drinking water in remote locations and otherwise improving quality of life for individuals and societies.

Architect vs. Engineer Employment

The architect occupation is much smaller than the engineer occupation as a whole or even the civil engineer occupation more specifically. The BLS reported that there were 126,700 architects working in the United States as of 2020. In comparison, the BLS reported a civil engineer workforce of 309,800, and the total number of engineers reported by the BLS was more than 1.67 million.

The architectural, engineering and related services industry is the top employer of architects, employing 71 percent of the workforce as of 2020. The BLS reported that self-employment is the next most common employment situation for architects, making up 17 percent of careers in the field. Government entities and the construction industry each employed 3 percent of architects in 2020. Among civil engineers, half of the profession works for the engineering services industry. State governments employed 12 percent of civil engineers as of 2020, while local governments employed 10 percent of this occupation. Another 6 percent of the profession worked in the nonresidential building construction industry. The federal government employed 3 percent of civil engineers.

The job outlook is somewhat better for civil engineers than for architects. The BLS predicted jobs for civil engineers to increase by 8 percent between 2020 and 2030, which is on par with the job growth rate expected across all occupations and would result in 25,300 new job opportunities. For architects, the BLS projected a slower than average growth rate of 3 percent, or an expected 3,900 new jobs.

Architect vs. Engineer Salary

Both architects and engineers command considerable earning potential. Generally, though, engineering degrees correspond to higher wages than architecture degrees. The median salary for engineers in all disciplines in 2020 was $96,310, the BLS reported. The highest-paid engineers, petroleum engineers, earned a median wage of $137,330 in 2020, while the lowest-paid, agricultural engineers, earned a median salary of $84,410. Civil engineers earned a median annual salary of $88,570 that, although somewhat below the average salary for engineers, is still thousands of dollars above the salary for architects. For architects, the median salary was $82,320 in 2020. Salaries are considerably higher for architects working for the government, with a median of $97,960.

Architects who serve as principal of their own firm or partner in an established architectural firm can earn significantly more money, sometimes up to $100,000 or even $200,000 per year. However, self-employment comes with risks, and a firm must be successful in order to achieve these kinds of lucrative earnings. To advance to a partner role in a firm, you need a great deal of experience. 

Can You Become an Architect With an Engineering Degree?

If you start out majoring in engineering but decide that architecture is a better fit for you, it’s possible to make a transition to an architect career – but you’re going to need to undergo more schooling. Your background in engineering, especially civil engineering, is valuable for understanding the science and math side of building design, but these programs of study don’t cover the design principles or technical skills that pertain specifically to architecture. Since you already have a bachelor’s degree, your best bet as an engineer-turned-architect is to pursue a professional degree called a Master of Architecture (MArch).

Some MArch degrees are meant for established architects who want to advance their careers, while others are intended for college graduates in other fields who are looking to change careers. As such, it’s important for prospective MArch students to look closely at programs’ requirements and outcomes.

MArch programs can take one to five years, the BLS reported. Students without an undergraduate background in architecture should expect their master’s degree program to be on the longer side, often taking three to four years to complete. 

 Additional Resources

 What Is the Difference Between a Degree in Civil Engineering and a Degree in Architecture?

What Should Students Look for in an Undergraduate Architecture Degree Program?

Why Does It Take So Long to Earn an Undergraduate Degree in Architecture?

Which Degree Is Best for a Software Engineer?