What is civil engineering?

Published on 26 March 2024

Civil engineering plays a crucial role in shaping our world. It encompasses the design, construction, and maintenance of essential infrastructure projects.

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What you need to know
  • Civil engineering is about the design, construction, and maintenance of infrastructure projects that are essential for modern society. 
  • Projects range from small structures to complete infrastructure developments.
  • Careers include structural, geotechnical, or environmental engineer. 
  • Civil engineers need a blend of technical skills, creativity, and a commitment to making a positive impact.

The field of civil engineering is diverse. You could work on small-scale structures or large-scale infrastructure developments (such as transport systems and electricity and water supplies). You’ll find opportunities locally, nationally, and even globally. 

Projects you might work on include:

  • roads, bridges, and tunnels
  • water supply systems
  • dams, canals, and aqueducts
  • sewage works
  • flood defences
  • buildings
  • power plants
  • stadiums
  • hospitals
  • schools
  • harbours
  • airports

Civil engineers tackle some of society's biggest challenges today. These include the climate crisis and sustainable development. Civil engineers also help to save lives by designing earthquake resistant buildings and eradicating diseases such as cholera by providing sewers and clean water supplies.

They often work closely with architects, environmental scientists, and urban planners. They need to create attractive solutions that balance functionality with environmental responsibility.

You’ll have the chance to make a real difference in the world and leave a lasting influence on the built landscape. 

How is civil engineering different from other types of engineering?

Civil engineering shares some fundamental principles and knowledge with other engineering disciplines. Related subjects include:

  • mechanical engineering
  • electrical engineering
  • materials science
  • mathematics
  • physics
  • design technology

Electrical or mechanical engineering deal with machines and electronics, but civil engineering is concerned with the physical and natural infrastructure that we rely on every day.

One key distinction lies in the scale of projects. Civil engineering projects often involve large-scale structures that impact communities and regions. Other engineering disciplines may focus on smaller, more specialised components - such as microprocessors or electrical circuits.

Mechanical engineers will often design a smaller system which is part of a larger structure. For example, a lift within a large building. A civil engineer is likely to design the entire building.

There is some overlap between mechanical and civil engineering degrees. All engineering students will study maths, physics, and basic engineering principles. However, a civil engineering student will also study topics such as fluid mechanics, hydraulics, structural design, dynamics, and geotechnics. Mechanical engineers are more likely to study topics such as electromechanics, mechanical systems and design, control systems, manufacturing processing, and robotics.

What does a civil engineer do?

Civil engineers are involved in the entire life cycle of an infrastructure project. They work on it from conception to completion. 

Their responsibilities can be grouped into planning, design, construction, and maintenance.


Civil engineers start by assessing the feasibility and potential impact of a project. This involves considering factors such as site conditions, environmental impact, and community needs. As part of this, they will map and analyse data using mathematical modelling. 


Once the planning phase is complete, civil engineers move on to the design stage. They use computer-aided design (CAD) software to create detailed plans and specifications. They will decide the materials, dimensions, and structural components necessary to deliver the project, and do this in an environmentally-responsible way that provides good value for money.


Civil engineers oversee the construction process. They ensure that the project is carried out according to the approved design and specifications. They work with construction managers, contractors, and labourers. They co-ordinate activities and address any issues that may arise during construction.


After a project is completed, civil engineers are responsible for its ongoing maintenance. This includes regular inspections, repairs, and upgrades. They ensure that the structure continues to function safely and efficiently. 

Civil engineers may also be involved in decommissioning projects which have reached the end of their lifespan.

Civil engineering students

Civil engineering students working in fluid mechanics lab

Is civil engineering right for me?

If you enjoy solving real-world problems and are interested in designing and building structures, civil engineering could be an excellent fit for you. 

You will need a strong foundation in mathematics and physics. These subjects are fundamental to the analytical and problem-solving aspects of the profession. 

Creativity is also important. Civil engineers often need to come up with innovative solutions to complex challenges.

Effective communication skills are crucial. Whether you're working with clients, colleagues, or construction teams, you'll need to convey technical information clearly and concisely.

Don't worry if you don't have all these skills yet, as you’ll be able to develop them while studying for a degree in civil engineering. 

You'll also need to be prepared to keep up with developments in the industry. It's constantly evolving, with advancements in materials, technologies, and sustainability practices. As an engineer, you'll need to stay informed about these new developments and update your skills to remain competitive in the field.

Careers in civil engineering

A degree in civil engineering opens the door to a wide range of career opportunities across various sectors. There’s good news for graduates, as civil and structural engineers are always in demand. Here are some common career paths:

Structural engineer

Structural engineers focus on designing and analysing the structural components of buildings and infrastructure, working closely with architects to turn designs into reality. They ensure that they can safely withstand various loads and environmental conditions. They work on projects such as bridges, skyscrapers, and dams.

Transportation engineer

Transportation engineers specialise in the planning, design, and construction of transportation systems. These include roads, highways, airports, and railways. They aim to optimise traffic flow, enhance safety, maintain networks and improve overall transportation efficiency.

Environmental engineer

Environmental engineers address the environmental impact of civil engineering projects and help safeguard the environment. They work on initiatives related to water and air quality, waste management, and sustainable practices. They aim to minimise the ecological footprint of infrastructure projects.

Geotechnical engineer 

Geotechnical engineers focus on the behaviour of soil and rock in relation to construction projects. They assess soil conditions and design foundations, earthworks and tunnels. They work closely with structural and transportation engineers to deliver safe and resilient buildings and infrastructure.

Water resources engineer

Water resources engineers work on projects related to water supply, treatment, and distribution. They also address issues including flood control, stormwater management, and the protection of water resources.

Civil engineering courses

At the University of Dundee, we offer opportunities to study civil engineering:

Civil and Structural Engineering BEng (Hons)

Civil and Structural Engineering MEng (Hons)

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