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How to Build a Career in Civil Engineering: One Engineer’s Path

One of the defining features of human civilization is our ability to control the physical environment. Civil engineering is the field that makes this control possible, designing and maintaining everything from our roads to our dams to our power plants. Without civil engineering, life as we know it wouldn’t exist.

With infrastructure aging and the transition to renewable energy sources underway, demand for civil engineers remains steady. But how do you get started in this field? What’s it like to study civil engineering? And what can you do to build a successful civil engineering career?

To find out, I interviewed my friend Chantel Columna. With a BSc in civil engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and experience at a variety of construction firms across the United States, she has a lot of insight for would-be civil engineers.

If you’re considering a career in civil engineering (and particularly structural engineering), then you’ll find Chantel’s advice tremendously valuable.

This article covers the career side of civil engineering. If you’re looking for engineering study advice, check out our Engineering School Survival Guide.

Civil Engineering Overview

Before I get into Chantel’s story, I want to provide a brief overview of civil engineering. In general, the field of civil engineering is the practice of designing, building, and maintaining both the physical and naturally built environment.

Within this vast field, there are many subdisciplines. Discussing all of them is beyond the scope of this article; I suggest you refer to this list from Wikipedia for an overview of each.

But the important point to keep in mind is that civil engineering is a broad term encompassing everything from preventing flooding to ensuring buildings are structurally sound.

Since Chantel’s background is in structural engineering, much of this article will reference that. But even if you’re not interested in that subdiscipline, her advice still applies to anyone interested in building a civil engineering career.

What’s It Like to Study Civil Engineering?

Given its long history, civil engineering has a fairly well-defined set of standards for education and certification. To practice as a civil engineer, you need to complete at least a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. Master’s degrees are also available, but they aren’t necessary to get a job.

In your first few semesters of study, you’ll take general courses in engineering and introductory courses in civil engineering’s subfields. After you’ve finished those basic courses, you’ll then choose a specialty for more advanced study. In Chantel’s case, this specialty was structural engineering.

Once you start to specialize, you can investigate relevant internships and start gaining practical experience. We’ll talk more about how to get a civil engineering internship later on.

Civil Engineering Career Possibilities: Chantel’s Path

Once you’ve completed your undergraduate studies, what sort of jobs are available to you as a civil engineer? To find out, let’s take a look at Chantel’s career path thus far. This is just one of many paths, but it will give you an idea of what’s possible.

First Construction Internship

After deciding to specialize in structural engineering, Chantel started looking for internships.

She was aware of the construction firm Skanska from her first few semesters of studying architecture (which she majored in before switching to civil engineering during her fourth semester).

So when Skanska showed up at a college career fair her junior year, she was excited to approach them and inquire about an internship.

Due to her knowledge of the company and strong resume, she landed an internship with Skanska in New York City the summer after her junior year.

There, she gained experience in the field of estimating, which deals with determining the costs involved in building projects.

During the last week or two of the internship, she also got some field experience shadowing the superintendent on the World Trade Center station construction project.

Gaining Further Experience

Having enjoyed her experience in estimating at Skanska, Chantel decided to look for jobs in the construction industry after graduation. She applied to a variety of positions in the NYC area, but it was her preexisting connections at Skanska that ended up landing her first job.

Skanska offered a rotational program in which recent engineering graduates worked on different projects for 4 months at a time. Chantel pushed very hard for this position and ended up getting it.

She cites it as an extremely valuable experience. Not only did she get to work on a variety of awesome projects across the New York area, but she also got to learn about all kinds of different specialties within construction. This helped her gain a better sense of the job landscape and where she wanted to focus in her next job.

From Project Manager to Customer Success Lead

After 2 years with Skanska, Chantel was ready for something different.

Wanting to make the move to Denver, she landed an estimating job at Gilbane Federal. After that, she switched to a job as a project engineer at Mortenson Construction. This came from a desire to get into the field and learn more about how construction works day-to-day. And after a couple of years there, she was promoted to assistant project manager.

Finally, Chantel moved to her current role as customer success lead for a construction management software startup. While very different from her previous jobs, she says her experience in the construction field has made it much easier to understand clients’ needs and challenges.

Chantel’s career story shows how truly vast the range of possible civil engineering jobs is once you’ve entered the field. But how do you get the right internships and jobs to set you on a great career path? Keep reading to find out.

Career Advice for Civil Engineering Students

Now that you have an overview of what a career path in civil engineering can look like, I want to conclude with some of Chantel’s career advice for civil engineering students. If you’re looking for internship and job hunting tips, you’ll find them below:

Join professional engineer societies

While your degree and coursework will do a lot to prepare you for a job after graduation, they aren’t the only pieces of the puzzle. To get the best jobs and internships, you need to meet the right people.

To do this as an engineering student, one of your best bets is to join relevant professional organizations. Chantel, for instance, joined the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, National Society of Black Engineers, and Society of Women Engineers.

While engineering societies are great for building connections with current students, they also give you the chance to network with alumni and other industry professionals. These people can give you valuable career advice and possibly even an internship or job opportunity down the line.

Do an internship

As with any field, doing an internship or two is key to building a successful career in civil engineering. Chantel noted that while her degree gave her a lot of useful foundational skills, her internship taught her things she could never have learned in the classroom.

Therefore, be sure to start looking for internships as soon as you can. Career fairs can be a great place to find them (as in Chantel’s case), but you can also search online. Even better, reach out to alumni in your field to see if their companies are offering internships.

For more advice on finding an internship, check out this guide.

Research the company’s projects before you interview

You should always research and learn the basics of any company where you’re applying. This way, you can have an intelligent and relevant conversation with the interviewer.

In the case of civil engineering interviews, Chantel recommends researching projects the company is working on.

To find a company’s projects, look at their website and LinkedIn page. Identify one or two projects that interest you and then bring them up in the interview. This is a great way to answer questions along the lines of, “Why do you want to work for our company?”

Prepare for soft skills questions

While technical qualifications and knowledge are important for engineering interviews, don’t neglect the soft skills questions.

Spend some time figuring out how you’ll answer questions about your strengths and weaknesses, as well as the classic “Tell me about a time when…” questions.

Find examples that show your true character, not just what you think the interviewer wants to hear. And, more than anything, don’t lie; interviewers can tell. If you don’t know the answer to a question, it’s better to be honest and say so.

Need more interview tips? Here’s how to answer some of the most common interview questions.

Think about the lifestyle you want

When searching for jobs, it’s easy to fixate on the salary and the work you want to do. But Chantel cautions you to also think about your desired lifestyle and how your job will affect that.

Construction, for instance, is very fast-paced and has a large footprint. In practice, this means that your job could require you to move every few years as the company takes on a new project.

If you want to travel, then this can be a great way to see the country or even the world. But if you’re looking to stay in the same place long-term, this could be a big drawback. Neither way is better, but it’s something you should ask about during interviews. Be mindful of your path.

Your major doesn’t determine your job

When you’re looking for jobs or internships while you’re still in school, it’s easy to think that you have to do the same thing for the rest of your life. In reality, though, your major doesn’t define you. This is as true in civil engineering as it is in other fields.

Take Chantel’s story, for example. She never thought she’d work at a tech company. But in retrospect, the connections she made in her first job laid the foundation for what she does now.

Civil Engineers Shape the World

I hope this article has shown you some of the places a degree in civil engineering can lead you, as well as some practical tips for starting your civil engineering career.

Many thanks to Chantel for lending her advice and experience to this article. If you’re a current or prospective civil engineering student looking for further advice, feel free to connect with Chantel on LinkedIn. She’s happy to help in any way she can.

Image Credits: reviewing plans