Civil Engineer vs. Structural Engineer: Definitions and Examples
Updated March 10, 2023
The engineering field comprises many different disciplines and job opportunities. Civil engineers and structural engineers are two engineering specializations that both play an essential role in building today's world. If you are planning a career in engineering, you may want to know what differentiates these two specializations to choose the one that suits your skills and interests. In this article, we define structural and civil engineering and help you understand their differences.
Related: How To Become a Civil Engineer
What is a civil engineer?
A civil engineer is a professional who designs and supervises the construction of public infrastructure. Civil engineers may perform the following tasks:
Creating designs that use various building materials
Analyzing maps, drawings and photographs to decide the direction of the project and the budget limits
Communicating with clients, subcontractors and architects
Forecasting construction time frames
Assessing project feasibility by evaluating design practicality
Collaborating with structural engineers
Making recommendations and present alternative solutions
Reviewing government regulations
Ensuring projects sites meet relevant codes and respect legal requirements
A civil engineer needs a Bachelor's Degree in Civil Engineering to practice. They can also specialize and earn a master's or doctoral degree. Licensing requirements vary from state to state, but civil engineers usually need a license to provide services to the public.
What is a structural engineer?
Structural engineering is a specialization of civil engineering. Therefore, a structural engineer receives training on civil engineering in addition to structural engineering requirements. The tasks that a structural engineer performs include:
Analyzing each element of a structure to determine pressure and loads generated by human or environmental influence
Performing mathematical calculations
Designing a structure that resists all types of loads it is subject to
Creating specifications and structural models with computer-assisted design software
Evaluating elements configuration, alternating between analysis and design until they create a final configuration
Writing reports and tracking project progress
Inspecting construction sites and following safety guidelines
Collaborating with project managers and contractors
Structural engineers usually hold a Bachelor's Degree in Civil or Structural Engineering and can pursue a postgraduate degree in structural engineering. They need a professional engineering license to practice. They might also need a structural engineer's license to work on structures like schools and hospitals.
The different engineering disciplines
Both structural and civil engineers can work in the following disciplines:
Geotechnical engineering: These engineers study the geologic conditions of surfaces before building structures.
Construction engineering: This discipline manages public and residential construction.
Transportation engineering: These engineers study, maintain and improve all types of transportation.
Water resources engineering: This discipline involves the study of water systems.
Urban planning engineering: This area of engineering is responsible for planning and policy creation regarding the use of land in cities.
Environmental engineering: Environmental engineers implement solutions to improve land and reduce pollution.
Civil engineer versus structural engineer
Career paths in structural and civil engineering differ in the following ways:
Civil engineers design and maintain structures like public and private buildings, water systems, airports and roads. Structural engineers analyze, design, build and maintain the structures and materials that counteract or reinforce loads.
Students can earn a Bachelor's Degree in Civil Engineering before going on to earn postgraduate degrees in this area if they choose.
Structural engineering is typically a specialty area offered only at the postgraduate level, but there are a few structural engineering bachelor's programs available in the United States. Undergraduate students who wish to study structural engineering may choose to specialize in this area while they complete a more general engineering program.
Civil engineers take care of the initial design and planning of constructions and maintenance. They manage the construction site and ensure the respect of code regulations.
Structural engineers are primarily responsible for buildings' structural aspects by focusing on load-bearing design and material inspection. They do some initial project planning, but it is not their primary focus.
Civil engineers and structural engineers often collaborate. Civil engineers create and present their designs, and structural engineers work with civil engineers to ensure the design is stable. Structural engineers focus on the structural elements of the design and utilize their civil engineer training in this process.
Application of knowledge
Civil engineers solve different problems than structural engineers. Structural engineers know the effect various conditions can have on a structure, so they can assist if a construction fails due to these conditions. A bridge that collapses due to poor design is something a structural engineer might address.
Civil engineers use their planning knowledge to prevent and mitigate problems that impact people. A river that floods a bridge due to inadequate study of seasonal change and flood levels is a civil engineer's problem. Another example of a civil engineering issue is bad traffic, as a civil engineer can alleviate this by studying traffic patterns to determine the number of traffic lanes to construct.
Structural engineers analyze the effect of construction's load on structures by applying mathematics and studying internal forces. They inspect and test the materials before and during the construction.
Civil engineers analyze data, plans and reports to design projects. They also study potential governmental hazards during the planning phase.
A civil engineer is responsible for infrastructure projects:
Road construction and reconstruction
Water treatment systems
Wastewater systems treatment
Regional flood studies
Conveyance and detention systems
Dams and reservoirs
A structural engineer might be responsible for these structures, some of which are assessments they conduct within civil engineering projects:
Structures of a water treatment plant
Draw-off tower of a reservoir
Bridge design and rehabilitation
Bridge and building condition assessments
Salary and growth
Civil engineers and structural engineers earn similar salaries, which often increase with years of experience. The average national salary for a civil engineer is $87,225 annually, whereas the national average for structural engineers is $88,385 per year. As companies and governments build new structures or seek to repair old ones, both structural and civil engineers will be in demand to complete these projects.
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