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7 Tips to be successful in your civil engineer career

Sep 3, 2021 · 7 minutes to read

Students taking academic courses in civil engineering face a simple equation: get the right answers and solve the problems correctly and you will achieve good grades. However, once these students are qualified civil engineers and get out into the real world, they find that although it is still vital, naturally, to get all the technical answers correct, this is not enough to enjoy a successful career. Managing your business and career requires just as much care as you give to the technical aspects of your civil engineering work.

1. Make the right start

Civil engineering is a tough academic course and anyone who succeeds in it may be proud of themselves. Most civil engineers gain their first employment from an engineering firm that came looking for them while they were still at college. Even though only around 10% of university graduates take engineering courses, around 50% of employment offers to those still in college are from engineering firms. Historically, work in civil engineering has offered secure employment, and engineers generally retain their jobs even when layoffs are occurring elsewhere.

Nevertheless, in the modern era, those who supply engineering services face a much more volatile employment situation as companies downsize, research funding dries up, and globalization and automation start to have an effect. Ironically, civil engineers becoming more productive using computer aided design is one of the main contributors to the volatility in the civil engineering industry, as one operative can now do the work of many.

2. Take pride in your work

With it being less likely that, working as a civil engineer, you will get a job with a single engineering firm for life, you need to start thinking about the reputation that you can build for yourself. An investment in your reputation is an investment for life; you don’t want to be looking back with regret later in your career realizing that you could have been a greater success if you had taken more care over your work when you were starting out.

Those beginning their careers as civil engineers will gain good reputations partly through their technical abilities, but also through the capacity to manage people, issue commands, and plan and organize projects. What you achieve will not be based on your knowledge – it is assumed that your education has provided you with sufficient knowledge to do your work confidently – but what do you have done. Whatever project you are assigned, even if you think they are “small fry”, should be down to the very best of your ability, demonstrating to those above you what you are capable of. Success in small projects will very quickly lead onto being given larger, more interesting, and challenging projects in the future. 

3. Be proactive 

Working as a civil engineer, you need to keep on top of things and make sure that everything that is necessary for your project gets done. Don’t just rely on colleagues, supervisors, or contractors to get things done and then be surprised if they aren’t. Make sure you know what’s going on at all times and that you chase up anything that falls behind. 

4. Make the commitment

Although it’s possible to build a satisfactory career as a civil engineer just “getting by”, doing the bare minimum necessary, this will not see you progress in your profession and neither will you find it gives you the satisfaction you would expect from such an interesting and varied career. If you want to gain further professional qualifications, you will have to find time in your personal life to study for them, and as you take on more responsibilities you will probably find that you need to take some time at home to solve problems and plan future activities.

Those who progress fastest in engineering firms are those who go the extra mile. However, for the sake of your mental and physical health, you must find a good work/life balance; Burning out by the time you’re thirty isn’t going to help provide for your family in later life. You need to decide on what’s most important for you and allocate every part of your life sufficient time and attention. You should also be considerate of the ways in which others are trying to do the same thing. 

5. Assimilate company culture

You can pick up a lot of advantages in an engineering firm simply by using your powers of observation. How do the most successful engineers carry themselves, how do they dress, how do they speak? Conforming with the company culture (provided it is non-toxic and based on equality) will cost you nothing and could get you enormous advantages. If you’re not comfortable with a company’s culture, it may be worth seeking out another company where you are a better match. 

6. Look at the boss

For millennia civil engineers didn’t learn their craft by going to university but by being apprenticed to a master craftsman. This method of learning can still be extremely useful in civil engineering today: see what your boss is doing, think about why they are making the decisions they make, and look at the way they interact with others. If you have a boss you admire and respect, think about what they have done to earn that admiration and respect and try to emulate their actions. 

7. Maintain your networks

Keep in contact with your friends from college, your professors, former colleagues, and employers. Apart from the fact that this is a nice thing to do, it’s good to have a network in place when you need it, for example when your company is looking to land a big contract, or you need new employment. It’s also helpful to be able to get information about other areas of your business, for example which contractors are best to work with. Building and maintaining professional networks can pay dividends. 

Becoming a civil engineer takes a wide range of skills: for the identification and solving of problems, and avoiding mistakes, civil engineers need to understand many mathematical, scientific, and computer scientific principles. Civil engineers also need design skills, drawing skills, and good legal knowledge. They need to be able to find solutions to complex challenges through skillful analysis and the ability to identify the best way forward. Civil engineers also need to be able to think creatively, devising innovations that can overcome unique challenges that nothing in their education has prepared them for. Finally, a good civil engineer must be an excellent communicator and manager, capable of sharing their ideas and vision with everyone from the wealthiest clients to the most minor contractor with ability, clarity, and purpose. 

As you can see from the above, building a career as a civil engineer requires a huge range of skills and personal qualities, but for those who are suited to it and prepared to work hard it can be an intensely satisfying career. One thing to bear in mind though is that small mistakes in design or communication can easily blow up into catastrophic consequences which could lead to lawsuits that could financially ruin a company or individual civil engineer. For this reason, if you work for yourself or run a business, it’s a good idea to consider taking out specialist insurance for engineers to make sure that if you do face any claims against you in the course of your work you are covered for legal costs and the costs of any damages awarded.

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