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Civil Engineering: What Should I Specialise in?

Written on 8/2/16

‘Engineering’ is an incredibly broad concept with numerous specialisations within it; likewise, ‘civil engineering’ is a beast in itself, containing its own specialisations that form part of its whole.

As you study civil engineering, it’s worth thinking about the career you want to end up in, so that you can focus your learning and training as specifically as possible. Your understanding of your chosen area of specialisation will have to be as in-depth as you can make it, so you’ll need to narrow your focus as you progress through education to the real world of industry.

To get you thinking about this, we’ve put together some information on what the major civil engineering specialisations involve, including day-to-day tasks and the all-important salary expectations.


A civil engineering Masters degree will be able to get you into various roles specialising in Transport. Generally speaking, transportation has two main areas of focus: planning and engineering.

Transportation Planning

There’s a fair amount of overlap between planning and engineering, but the former is often part of wider town planning, so there is more focus on the social and economic aspect of transportation, rather than the hardcore engineering and mathematical side. You’ll be looking at the areas that people need to travel to; how people’s needs are being served; where the areas of heaviest traffic are; how the creation of a new road or other transport network will affect other parts of the town or city and so on.

New developments will need detailed assessments as to their place alongside, and impact on, other infrastructure, as well as the economic implications for businesses. The role can be very much that of public service, with a lot of consultation with the public and other stakeholders, local authorities, businesses and politicians, so communication skills will need to complement a solid engineering understanding.

Salaries in the planning aspect of transportation range from £20k to as high as £100k+ depending on your level of experience and seniority, so this has the potential to be a lucrative career if you can work your way to the top.

Transportation Engineering

This is a purer engineering role and several areas of specialisation have emerged within the industry. You might not be able to study these as individual aspects on your course, but if you move into this specialisation you may find yourself working predominantly in:

  • Highway engineering
  • Bridge engineering
  • Traffic engineering (i.e. designing traffic signals, ITS systems, etc.)
  • Transit engineering
  • Aviation engineering (designing airports, runways, taxiways, etc.).

The engineering aspect will involve working in tandem with the planners so many of the aspects of planning specialists will apply to engineers; however, your focus will be on making a project become a reality. Day-to-day tasks will include carrying out feasibility studies for construction and implementation, creating detailed designs, putting together proposals, liaising with architects, subcontractors, other engineers, consultants and planners, creating or reviewing drawings using CAD software and a lot of mathematics, so this role won’t be for the faint-hearted.

Again, salaries can vary, starting somewhere around £23k, with the average salary for members of the Institution of Civil Engineers being around £50k.

If you make it to a Fellow of the Institute of Civil Engineers, you could earn as much as £80k average, with salaries potentially exceeding £100k – but of course you’ll need a lot of experience and expertise under your belt to get to these heights.

Environmental Engineering

Rather like transportation, environmental engineering is another core consideration when it comes to the planning and construction of human settlements.

The specialisation is driven mainly by the need to adhere to local environmental laws and regulations, and also to keep projects in line with local economic, social and political concerns. Like transport, a core part of this role will be planning and liaising with politicians and stakeholders, so your communication skills will need to be pretty honed.

In education, this specialisation involves studying:

  • Air /water/ soil pollution
  • Developing technical solutions to solve or control these issues
  • Assessing local needs for areas such as water supply, management of surface and groundwater, overseeing environmental clean-up where required
  • Waste management.

Once you’re in the real world of industry, environmental engineering can include:

  • Designing sewerage systems, wastewater systems and water treatment systems
  • Developing models of groundwater or surface water quality, runoff areas, analysing the potential for flooding etc.
  • Soil management
  • Planning for waste disposal, recycling.

Average salaries for environmental engineers start at around £20k ranging to £28k, with salaries of up to £40k as experience increases. With experience and seniority, you could earn over £60k.

Geotechnical Engineering

Geotechnical engineering is mainly to do with projects that concern large scale drilling and excavation. Geotechnical engineering specialists will generally be involved in aspects of:

  • Soil and rock mechanics
  • Investigations of subterranean conditions
  • Investigation of stability and subsidence
  • Underground risk assessment
  • Designing earthworks and foundations.

Geotechnical engineers do a lot of risk assessment in areas like earthquakes, landslides, sinkholes, soil liquefaction, debris flows and rockfalls, meaning that pretty much any large scale building project will require geotechnical expertise, so your skills could be quite in-demand in this specialisation.

The study and practice of geotechnical engineering will involve concepts such as:

  • Foundations built for above-ground structures (including shallow and deep foundations)
  • Retaining structures (including earth-filled dams and retaining walls)
  • Earthworks (including embankments, tunnels, dikes and levees, channels, reservoirs, deposition of hazardous waste and sanitary landfills).

This specialisation could also give you a chance to stretch your seafaring legs, as it expands to coastal and ocean engineering as well. Coastal engineering involves designing and constructing wharves, marinas and jetties, while ocean engineering involves foundation and anchor systems for offshore structures like oil platforms.

A geotechnical engineer can make an average salary of around £32k, moving up to the region of £50k, but as with all specialisations, salaries can climb higher depending on seniority and expertise.

Structural Engineering

If you go into structural engineering, you’ll be dealing with the conception, analysis, design and construction of components or assemblies to resist loads arising from internal and external forces. You’ll need to know your solid mechanics, which is the study of the distribution of stresses that a given load produces when applied to a solid element and the calculation of the resulting strains, given the characteristics of the materials that make up that element.

As a structural engineer, your knowledge will allow you to assemble elements, such as beams and columns, into a structure that will resist both static and dynamic loads, like gravity, wind, snow and earthquakes, and also rehabilitate existing structures weakened by corrosion, which is an important aspect of structural engineering.

Typical civil engineering structures include large buildings, bridges and dams, but you could also be designing the structures of machinery, vehicles, aircraft and spacecraft, so it can be an incredibly varied specialisation.

Employment opportunities within structural engineering include working with structural engineers, construction companies, building development companies, private corporation engineering departments, public utilities, government agencies and companies related to aircraft and aerospace.

Salaries for new graduate trainees in structural engineering typically range from £23k to £32k, with senior and experienced level salaries ranging from £40k to £70k. Above that, you have engineers with chartered status and a chartered salary to match.

Hydraulic and Water Resources Engineering

In a nutshell, water resources engineering is the quantitative study of the hydrologic cycle, which is the distribution and circulation of water linking the earth's atmosphere, land and oceans. Civil engineers play a vital role in the planning, design and operation of water resource systems, which can involve management of urban water supply, design of urban storm-sewer systems and flood forecasting.

Hydraulic engineering is the application of fluid mechanics to water flowing in an isolated environment (e.g. pipe, pump) or in an open channel (e.g. river, lake, ocean). Civil engineers in this specialisation are primarily concerned with open channel flow, which is governed by the interdependent interaction between the water and the channel.

These roles can involve the design of hydraulic structures (sewage conduits, dams and breakwaters), management of waterways (erosion protection and flood protection) and environmental management (prediction of the mixing and transport of pollutants in surface water). The need to preserve the earth’s natural environment and meet the needs of developing countries has emphasised the importance of water resources engineering in recent years, so there’s an ever-increasing need for specialist skills in this field.

Typical starting salaries range from £20k to £30k, with more experience demanding salaries of £24k to £32k, rising to £45k for senior engineer positions. At the top end, high-level management roles can attract £40k plus, potentially exceeding £60k depending on qualifications and experience.


The Upshot

This is a lot of information to take in, but the upshot is that there is no ‘wrong’ answer in choosing what to specialise in in your studies. Simply put, you should choose a specialisation that best suits your interests, skills and career goals. Ask yourself what career you want and study the modules that lend themselves to that specialisation.

The more you focus your study on a specific specialisation, the more you’ll learn about it, the deeper you’ll delve into it, and the more expertise you’ll gain. The broad spectrum of civil engineering needs specialists to deal with the many complexities of the many specialisations within it, and you could be one of them.