Is a PhD in Civil Engineering Worth It?

Jul 27, 2018

Through the process of acquiring a PhD in civil engineering, students will learn how to properly address complex engineering problems while navigating through the traditional principles of a society as it relates to new forms of technology. Students can choose between a number of concentrations or tracks within civil engineering PhD programs in order to gain a greater understanding of structural engineering, materials, solid mechanics, data analysis, or physics.

Admission and PhD Program Information

Students who wish to obtain a PhD in civil engineering will be given the opportunity to select the technical concentration of their degree from computational engineering mechanics, structural and earthquake engineering, transportation systems, geomechanics, geotechnical, and geoenvironmental engineering, as well as, environmental and water resources. In order to gain entry, students are typically required to take a qualification exam and also pass an oral presentation exam. A GRE exam with a score on average of 320 and above is also required by some schools along with a 3.0 GPA or better in master's classes in civil engineering, or a closely related field of study.

Typically, students will have to spend four or five years within their graduate program before receiving their degree. During this time, students can expect to spend their first two years doing coursework, with their final two to three years being concentrated toward thesis research and defense. As with other doctorate degree programs, those who seek a PhD in civil engineering can have their tuition cost covered by many graduate programs through things like fellowships and teaching/research assistantships.

Civil Engineering Careers for Those with a PhD

Many jobs in civil engineering only require a bachelor's or master's degree, so a PhD won't necessarily increase one's income or chance of earning a position, but it can set you up for leadership opportunities. It can also provide a wider range of career choices and the ability to go into research or teaching right away. It's important to note that many of those who obtain a PhD in civil engineering will go into the field of academia or research once they've completed their degree. Below you will find the job growth and median salary statistics for academia and research positions as well as some other jobs that those with a PhD could fulfill.

Job Title Median Salary (2017)* Job Growth (2016-2026)*
Hydrologists $79,990 10%
Industrial Designers $65,970 (commercial and industrial designers) 4% (commercial and industrial designers)
Environmental Scientists and Specialists $69,400 11%
Research Engineers $79,620 (2018)** 19% (computer and information research scientists)
Postsecondary Engineering Teachers $98,360 15%

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **

Civil Engineering Career Descriptions


Hydrologists use mathematic principles and scientific knowledge to find solutions to water-related problems such as availability, quantity, and quality. Individuals within this field work to control flooding situations and soil erosion, and they work with government agencies and the public to ensure the safe removal of hazardous waste in an effort to prevent pollution. Those with a PhD in engineering will be able to do on-site inspections as well as office work and have the knowledge of mathematics, statistics, and physics to excel in their profession. Within the office environment, they will look at data collected and figure out areas where water supplies can be collected.

Industrial Designers

Industrial designers work with prospective clients to determine needs and requirements for product design. They collect data on potential products and their use, and then they take that information into account when they go about creating prototype designs. In addition, they collect information related to various materials and their cost, as well as determine the production cost for various products. They meet with manufacturers, mechanical engineers, and specialists to better determine if the current product design meets all project goals in terms of efficiency and cost. Those with a PhD will have the experience needed to effectively lead teams on projects.

Environmental Scientists and Specialists

Environmental scientists and specialists use their background knowledge to actively look for problems within the environment and quickly find solutions to minimize the impact to human health and the environment. They oftentimes work in conjunction with government agencies to ensure that public and private businesses are following laws and regulations put forth by the government as they relate to health, safety, and the environment. Once a problem has occurred, individuals who work within this field attempt to come up with ways in which human behavior can be changed so that a similar event can be prevented from occurring in the future.

Research Engineers

Research engineers use their PhD to work on a wide variety of projects in research and development. They conduct independent research and collect data to determine additional uses for the products that they develop. They also work with others on their team to ensure that quality and safety standards are being followed. These same individuals spend their time writing grant and research proposals to their prospective employers. They help to determine material properties and create prototypes, which they then test to ensure that they meet the pre-assigned goals of the project.

Postsecondary Engineering Teachers

Postsecondary engineering teachers typically must have a PhD and educate students on the principles of engineering and application of physical laws. They help students to understand how to create machines, instruments, processes, services, and materials. Apart from creating assignments and labs for undergraduate and graduate students, engineering teachers also supervise research work and internships. Additionally, they remain up to date on the latest engineering breakthroughs and update their course information and syllabi to reflect this.

Though students who pursue a doctorate in civil engineering won't see an immediate improvement in terms of earning potential, they will have the knowledge and skills necessary to go into jobs outside of the engineering field. Furthermore, for those who seek to teach at the college level, or for those who wish to do cutting-edge research in the field of engineering, securing a PhD allows them to meet the requirements for those jobs.

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