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Engineering Mechanical vs. Civil engineering

  1. Oct 13, 2009 #1
    Hi everyone. I am a sophmore studying to get a bs in mechanical engineering. I am thinking about switching to civil engineering, and I need some suggestions about what degree to persue. First off, I do not care much about salaries because I know either way I will be making more than enough money. There are two major things that I do care about.
    First, I want to be able to travel / live around the world working as an engineer. Would both degrees give me good opportunities to get international jobs?
    Second, I care about having a job that is fun and that I enjoy. I am concerned that if I stay with mechanical engineering I will get stuck behind a desk all day doing mathematical analysis. I know I need to learn this stuff, and I dont mind it, but I would rather do something more interactive and creative. Also, by the way a lot of my teachers talk, it makes mechanical engineering seem like its mostly about power plants, refrigeration system, motors etc. Im not really into that stuff. I know there are lots of job opportunities, but will I be able to find a fun, active job if I stay with mechanical?
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 14, 2009 #2
    There are plenty of jobs you can get with a mechanical engineering degree that do not involve CAD. Mechanical engineering can open doors in management, consulting, even finance, etc. With a civil engineering degree it is harder to get into one of these related fields (or to change fields later on). I recommend checking out http://www.ge.com/careers/students/omlp/index.html as one example of what you can do.

    Notice the degree required though:

    Degree in Engineering; Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Industrial Engineering, Aerospace Engineering and Chemical Engineering degrees are preferred​

    Civil is not as well respected for more general business roles. You may enjoy civil - I can't speak much about the lifestyle of civil engineers. Civil does seem more limiting in business than mechanical engineering though.

    Edit: I'll mention also that all of the people I know in GE's Commercial Leadership Program (sales) have mechanical engineering degrees as well.
    Last edited: Oct 14, 2009
  4. Oct 15, 2009 #3
    The nice thing about mechanical engineering is that it is so broad. Sure you can work on power plants, refrigeration and motors but you can also work on aircraft, spacecraft, automobiles, boats, various instruments, consulting, product design, alternative energy...the list goes on.

    What are you interested in working on? Whatever job you end up getting it should probably not be just based on the travel opportunities.
  5. Oct 20, 2009 #4

    I am interested in a lot of things like mountain bikes, cars, motorcycles. If I mechanical engineering I basically would want a job where I either come up with designs/improvements, do testing, or work hands on with something. I dont really care if it is something "high tech" or "prestigous" like spacecraft or anything. Having a job that I like is my first priority, and travel opportunities is second. I was thinkging there are both lots of american companys that do engineering work internationally, as well as companys that are strictly in a different country. Is this correct?
  6. Oct 20, 2009 #5
    My father is working as a mechanical engineer for one of the supermajor oil companies.

    If you're 40something and you're still doing mathematical analysis behind a desk, chances are that you haven't progressed a lot wherever you work. Usually you'll go up to manage people more than numbers.

    Again, this depends on your own personal preferences and what you like to do.

    Also, comparing travel opportunities at this stage is pretty useless. There are too many things to consider then. Which company you're working for, what project you're doing etc etc. A civil engineer could keep traveling to different places every few months while a mechanical engineer stays put or a civil engineer could never move while a mechanical engineer travels the world.

    You should also understand that learning about power plants etc. etc. is not what you'll do in the real world. Such things are just for a preparation, but what you do when you get a job is very different.
  7. Nov 3, 2009 #6
    nate - I'm 30 years old and began school as a civil engineering. I jumped over to mechanical engineering for a lot of reasons that aren't really relevant to your situation. I can tell you the following things:

    - As a ME, I've been able to work on a lot of cool things (RF medical equipment, ion beam etch/deposition equipment, energy conservation implementation, ruggedized military communication equipment). Some was high tech, some wasn't. None of what I've worked on has been power plant or refrigeration system related. I have done work with motors (not designing them, but using them).

    - I've built, with my own two hands, the prototypes of everything I've designed. It's the best part of my job.

    - I've travelled a lot - both domestically and internationally - doing installs, upgrades, and sales support. If I had wanted it, I would have been given the chance to travel more as a Field Support Engineer.

    - I don't do CAD work or analysis all day long - but knowing these concepts helps me perform my job and make good decisions

    - My buddies who stayed with Civil Engineering like their jobs - they work outside a lot - but are paid significantly less than me (I know you said pay wasn't an issue, but it might be later in life when a family and/or kids come into the picture). The don't travel as much as I do either.

    - I've been able to move into a Program Mgmt role as an ME. My Civil Eng friends don't have a lot of movement as most of them work for municipalities or for smaller environmental-related companies.

    To me, and this is just off the cuff, you might be well suited for an applications engineer position doing pre- and post-sale support work. It's engineering work, but you get away from the desk/computer a lot, you travel (how much depends on the company and product) and you're not a traditional engineer.

    Personally, I'd say stay with ME, but, then again, I'm biased based upon my background ;)

    Good luck!
  8. Nov 13, 2009 #7
    Hey Nate,

    I have a B.S. CE but with more management emphasis. I worked mainly as a construction project manager (until the war and Ive been doing proj management for that for the last 10 years).

    As Ddelaiarro has said and I agree ME is much more broad than CE.

    I went the "Project Management" route more than say the 'Structural Route' Think of the structural engineers as folks who are more the number crunchers. Munincipal Civil Engineers (if the munincipality actually has that position - some contract it out nowadays) do both, they design things in-house and manage the project.

    Being a project manager or a project engineer for civil projects you can travel quite a bit. For example just as an intern I was a project manager for building a number of truck and railroad scales in several different states for one contract. In industry I did infrastructure improvements like business parks, water and sanitary systems, and a water tower. The unique thing on the project manager route is you start doing some pretty big projects right from college, (I managed the water tower project 4 years after college).

    On the extreme end, you could work for a large company and be in charge of say - project delivery of a professional football stadium after about 10-15 years after building up your project portfolio. You travel from big project to big project every few years. There is all sorts of stuff in between too. Project Manager (PM) for say oil platforms and travel the world, etc. Lots of niche markets.

    What is fun? Only you can figure that out, and it may change over time. I thought travelling alot was fun too till my late 20's, now I don't like it as much, (I would travel ALOT tho, like home maybe 4-5 days per month).

    The neat thing is that your projects are generally huge / landmarks, and knowing every little thing that went on from the first prelim idea to all the crazy things that went on while it was being built. Even if they are small it is very rewarding. I still see the truck scales I did back when I was an intern while driving, the water tower (its still standing!) etc.

    One thing on creativity - maybe a hair less than ME, as for building construction generally an architect "designs" the thing and as the PM you have to figure out how to make all those good ideas stand without falling down.

    Money is better being a PM too, but that is typical for management / managing people resources.
    Last edited: Nov 13, 2009
  9. Nov 13, 2009 #8
    Just an FYI - MEs also do field / project engineering and construction / project or operations management. It's certainly more of a standard path for CEs, and consulting type engineering firms will usually prefer CEs. I'm an ME in operations management now with friends in construction. There is also a clear path here for me if I want to get into project management on power plant construction.

    Good post; the construction / manufacturing management side of things doesn't get enough attention :smile:.
    Last edited: Nov 13, 2009
  10. Nov 13, 2009 #9
    I agree with everything Major Energy and kote said.

    ME definitely hit the nail on the head w/regards to what CE can be. I think I missed out a lot of that because my school's CE program concentrated more on environmental engineering and not the structural end of things.

    kote is right too - I have A LOT of college friends in the nuclear power plant world right now. Definitely much different than the route I took.
  11. Nov 13, 2009 #10


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    I'd say an ME is more versatile than a CE.

    You can certainly work in areas outside of power plants and refrigeration...It just depends on your interests and willingness to do research.

    Based on my personal work experience, I've found it more common that ME's travel abroad over a CE. Note: I've worked in the offshore oil and gas business most of my professional career and travel is basically mandatory at some point (and we prefer ME's over CE's).

    Just my 2 cents...

  12. Dec 2, 2009 #11
    Don't do it! Stick with mechanical engineering. Civil engineering will severely limit your options and hurt you big time later in life (at least financially). I have a B.S. in Civil Engineering, have been working for nearly 10 years since college, and sometimes I regret every stepping foot in that particular engineering program. I've worked internationally, and although I don't work in the more traditional areas of civil engineering (telecom instead), I often feel like I'm completely trapped in an industry that's hard to break away from. Mechanical engineers can go work for a plethora of industries and companies, ranging anywhere from nuclear power, manufacturing, industrial design, internal/external building systems, and the list goes on and on. Civil engineers are invariably all crammed into one general industry, architecture/construction, and as I'm unfortunately finding out myself, it is very hard to remove oneself completely from this industry without having to go back to school again. One could easily argue that there are in fact far too many civil engineers and architects in industry at the moment, since the construction industry is often one of the first to suffer when the economy slows down. And given that our local and federal governments spend very little on infrastructure projects these days nor are they likely to in the near future, this industry should best be avoided. Civil engineers are the lowest paid of all engineering professions, and if the law of supply and demand is anything to go by, it's because we have too many right now. Every one of my friends that studied another engineering discipline has progressed quite far in their career so far and also seem rather happy. Nearly everyone I know in civil engineering is burned out and wishing they had chosen another career path. I can only speak on personal experiences and what I've witnessed so far, but I think you'd be making a BIG mistake switching over to civil engineering. Stay where you are. You'll be a much happier person later on!
  13. Sep 12, 2010 #12
    If you do not mind, do you think you can tell me which school graduate from ?
    I just want to know in which state or coutry you praticed engineering.
  14. Oct 6, 2011 #13
    Actually i am doing diploma from civil now i am thinking switching for mechanical so which is better?
  15. Oct 6, 2011 #14
    Have you read through the thread? One is not better than the other. Each offers different opportunities. Your choice has a lot to do with what you (think) you want out of life. If travel and higher salary are important, then ME might be the way to go. If working outside, doing municipal work and potentially having an impact on the environment are important to you, then many CE is the way to go. But, please, read the entire thread and try to digest the information. There is no one set answer to your question.
  16. Oct 6, 2011 #15
    I don't have any experience with civil engineering and I'm no career expert so what I say is based purely on my own experience with mechanical engineering and what I've heard. That said, with regards to this talk of ME being better pay than CE, I've heard from other people the opposite. I don't think it's that cut and dry, and I'm sure it varies a great deal depending on the industry, the company, the position, and the person.

    With regards to what's said above about CE being a better opportunity to do something for the environment, I have to question your logic here. Mechanical engineers that design building systems have the job of figuring out how to make a system work most efficiently, given the constraints they are given (budget, owners requirements, architects, etc). I can't think of a more tangible and direct way for one's job performance to positively impact the environment: If the engineer does a good job, the building will use less energy.

    Back to the original post though, I think you're under the wrong impression to think that mechanical engineers are "stuck behind a desk" while civil engineers are out traveling the world. I don't know why one would be more "behind the desk" than the other.
  17. Oct 7, 2011 #16
    I absolutely agree with you that it's not cut and dry. But, my response was based more on my experience with my career path and salary as an ME compared to my friends who became CE's. Also, if you look at Salary.com and compare a Mechanical Engineer who is 5-10 years into his career with a Civil Engineer at the same point in his career (no advanced degrees), you'll see that the ME is making more money on average. Depending on where you live, the disparity may be greater or smaller...but, on average, the ME is going to make more.

    ME (5-10yrs exp) - http://swz.salary.com/SalaryWizard/Mechanical-Engineer-III-Salary-Details.aspx" [Broken] <-- national average
    CE (5-10yrs exp) - http://swz.salary.com/SalaryWizard/Civil-Engineer-III-Salary-Details.aspx" [Broken] <-- national average

    Not a huge difference, but enough, especially when a family/mortgage/etc come into play...
    I'd have to agree with you on this one. The statement I made was, again, based upon my own experiences. I have always worked in the product design/development end of the ME world and actually neglected the building systems end of the ME spectrum. On the flip-side, I was thinking about CE's who design waste-treatment plants, landfills, etc...things that have a direct effect on the environment (mostly because that's what my school's CE program centered around).
    Agreed - the engineering profession, on a whole, is what you make of it. If you find yourself stuck behind a desk, you can move into career paths (Sales Engineers, Applications Engineers, Business Development Technical Leads, etc) that allow you to travel, both domestically and internationally, and keep you away from the desk.

    Bottom line is that you have to figure out what subject matter interests you the most and go from there. Remember, regardless of your job title, travel requirements, etc, you're going to be dealing with this general subject matter everyday for a long time. You might as well enjoy what you do.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
  18. Jan 4, 2012 #17
    hi everybody! I'm looking for some advice..I'm very interested in aeronautics...but there isn't aeronautical engineering in my country....last year I decided to choose between ME and CE and I was told CE was much more complete and broad... right now Im thinking of changing to ME ...but it's kind of complicated since I'd have to change of college too....is ME more suited for this?
  19. Jan 4, 2012 #18
    Do you mean is ME more suited for an aeronautical engineering career than CE? Not being an AE, I can't speak 100% to that, but my initial impression would be YES. You will learn all the physics, statics and dynamics that are the basis of flight in an ME cirriculum, but you most likely will not be exposed to pure aeronautic design practice and principles.

    I would love to know why you were told that CE is much more "complete and broad?" You're really comparing apples and oranges. It's the same as comparing ME and EE - you have the same base skills (physics, chemistry, advanced math, etc) but your areas of expertise are vastly different. To be honest with you, I think the EE's I have met have the broadest depth of knowledge (especially when it comes to part design) as they understand electronics and circuitry and also have a handle on mechanical traits such as stress/strain and heat transfer.

    You mention that, in your country, there is no AE. Where do you live (if you don't mind me asking)? The reason I ask is because if you live in a developing nation where roads and infrastructure and emerging and growing fields, a CE degree may have been suggested due to the fact that there may be more demand for that skill set...
  20. Feb 8, 2012 #19
    I am Canadian, graduating with a Bachelors in Environmental Science this semester. I decided the life of a scientist isn't for me. I worked at an environmental consulting company and worked with a petroleum, 2 environmental, and a biomedical engineer. It was a strange collection of people but I envied their jobs. In September I am starting a second bachelors in engineering (skipping straight to an engineering masters wouldn't really work for me because of the courses I took in my first degree.) I was planning to take civil, but am sensing some negativity here. Landfill / waste water / remediation / environmental engineering all seem like a totally decent backup for me but I really would love to work in renewable energy development (I come from an extremely windy and sunny city and see so much potential there), failing renewable energy I have big dreams about water desalination... Anyways, any comments or ideas about someone like me going into civil, or would you recommend another field like mechanical? I'm not in the world of engineering yet so I'd like to hear some opinions from those who are.
  21. Feb 22, 2012 #20
    As someone who has been in the work force for an extended period of time, I would recommend that you get a degree in something you enjoy first and worry about the job market second. You can get a good job with any engineering degree. I started out in electrical engineering and hated it. I moved into chemical engineering and hated it. I graduated with BS and MS degrees in civil Engineering and love it. By the way, don't let anyone tell you the money isn't good in civil engineering. I make over $200K a year as a civil (geotechnical) engineer. I know plenty of other civil engineers that make plenty good money. My point is to do something you're passionate about no matter what major your choose. If you make a decision based on what you perceive the income potential to be, you will regret it. You will be working for a very long time and you better do something you enjoy. By the way, people tend to do a better job at something they enjoy.
  22. May 15, 2012 #21
    What are the prospects for entrepreneurship in either field?
    I feel opportunities will increase cyclically for CE. But off course, I think you can pursue infrastructure/construction projects as ME also.
  23. Oct 5, 2012 #22
    Hi all

    I am studying civil engineering.

    I choose civil engineering so i can do a major in structural engineering and also like designing structures and buildings etc.

    so my suggestion is that do degree in a field that u like doing. if u don't want to be civil engineer then do a ME :smile:. just follow your dreams.
  24. Oct 5, 2012 #23
    This is terrible advice.

    Translation: If you're too stupid to spell, major in Civil Engineering.
  25. Oct 5, 2012 #24
    I resemble that remark!

    You are right though, that post was awful.

    Both M.E. and C.E. will provide good travel opportunities; depends which sector you end up working within.

    Within Civils there is rail, geotechnical, marine, infrastructure, surveying and temporary works just to list a few areas and all of these are desirable world wide. Some areas pay better than others but you wont be poor by any means. So its not all digging a big hole and filling it with concrete or you could even get into forensic engineering or demolitions.

    I can't imagine Mech. Eng. differs a lot in the available areas of work but as posted before, pay is a bit better. What attracted you to Mech. Eng. over Civils (or any other degree) in the first place?
  26. Nov 8, 2012 #25
    Hey all,

    I'm currently a sophomore as well as a ME major and I'm having the same problem deciding. I know that in the end its still my choice but I just want to make sure my decision is correct. Over the summer, I volunteered at an architecture firm changing up some floor plans according to customer preferences but that is the most "engineering" involvement i have (besides school projects).

    However, i decided to pick ME major because of the broad field it promises. I am currently starting to take my major classes such as material science and i absolutely hate it. I took an intro course for ME and barely passed. I thought about changing majors a lot of times but according to some of my friends and family, the stuff we learn in school doesnt really apply to our jobs later on so i was planning to just stick with it for 2 more years. I just wanna know... is it worth it?

    The only thing i find interesting about ME is the CAD drawings. I absolutely love it when i can spend time to draw a part on Solid Works ( im only taking the intro course to SolidWorks but I enjoy it... frustrating at times but i enjoy it when the part comes out as shown in the drawing). Civil Engineering seems pretty interesting too (well based on the stuff i learned at the firm). I played with a few programs before which allows me to try to balance forces to create a bridge and other structures an these structures are tested with loads to see if they are safe etc etc. I enjoyed it.

    -Note- My designs are rather poor.... Im not the type of guy to create a beautiful model of something but I can create a sturdy one.
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