Lately, I have received several questions from civil engineers who are nearing graduation. Their questions focus on two points:
• How should they determine in which field of civil engineering they should practice?
• If they try one discipline, will they be able to switch?
Here are five recommended actions for soon-to-be graduates, as well as younger civil engineers, who are unsure as to which area they want to specialize in.
1. Consider working for an interdisciplinary firm early in your career
Many civil engineering firms offer multiple service lines. I had the benefit of being hired by one of these firms out of college, and it allowed me to try different fields, including geotechnical, structural, transportation, and civil site design (which I eventually settled on).
2. Talk to experienced engineers in various disciplines
Social media, as well as other outlets like your alumni association, make it relatively easy to connect with experienced civil engineers. If there are a few areas of civil engineering you are contemplating, try talking to or interviewing engineers in those civil disciplines about their experience in their chosen field. This will probably give you some insight into each discipline, and that can help with your own decision.
3. Investigate the opportunities in each discipline
I am all for you working in an area of civil engineering that you’re passionate about. That being said, if you are reading this, you may not know what that is. If you don’t, one of the next things to consider is how much opportunity will be available in each of these fields. For example, it appears that infrastructure may be a big focus in the United States for years to come, maybe that pushes you in the direction of a civil discipline that will be heavily involved in infrastructure.
4. Find an internship as early as possible
This one may be obvious and not always that easy to do in today’s economic climate, but you should work hard to try to get at least one internship while you are still in school. The more firsthand exposure you can get to different types of civil engineering disciplines and projects, the easier it will be for you to decide on the field that is best for you. No matter how much you read or talk to someone about different fields, there is nothing like experiencing it yourself.
5. Never feel locked into your first or current position
It took me three to four years to decide to go fully into civil site design, and then I further niched down into septic system design. If you have a civil engineering degree and you continue to learn and build your network, it will never be too late for you to try a new discipline.
We’re capable of much more than we think and, honestly, we don’t give ourselves enough credit. The point here is don’t be afraid to take a risk in fear that you’ll never be able to change your mind later on, because you will be able to.
I hope these recommended actions help you navigate the not-so-easy decision of which civil engineering discipline to settle on. It is an important career decision, but as with any good civil engineer, gathering data can help you simplify your decision and make the move that is best for you at the current stage of your career.
Anthony Fasano, P.E., F.ASCE, is the founder of the Engineering Career Coach website which has helped thousands of engineers develop their business and leadership skills. He hosts the Civil Engineering Podcast and has written a bestselling book for engineers, Engineer Your Own Success. You can download a free video series on his website that will give you the tools needed to immediately improve your networking and communication skills.