Difference Between Civil Engineering & Mechanical Engineering

“From the perspective of a Mechanical Engineer student turned Professional Civil Engineer” 

Engineering is a very broad term. Many disciplines fall under the term “engineering”, ranging from automotive designers to even locomotive operators.  Younger children understand the term engineering as the act of building something. The realization of engineering as being more related to design is certainly more apparent during the teenage years, although major differences between the disciplines are less understood.  College-level students that pursue engineering degrees sometimes still don’t understand the major differences between the various disciplines.  

The first year of college typically covers very broad engineering topics, and sophomore year students are requested to select a specific discipline that can potentially shape their entire career path moving forward.  Many students drop out of engineering and other science majors after their freshmen year (read the article). Choosing a specific engineering major in college can be a very daunting decision, especially when there are over a dozen to choose from at a Bachelor’s level! 

The many engineering-related paths can be categorized into four main branches, including:


Each engineering branch has numerous subdisciplines.  For example, structural and geotechnical engineering falls under the civil engineering branch.  Engineering branches and their subdisciplines are all very different from others, although the engineering mindset across all disciplines can be considered similar – analytical and detail-driven.  

Civil engineering and mechanical engineering are two of the oldest and more popular engineering branches.  Many of the introductory classes for each degree are very much alike during a student’s freshman and sophomore years.   At this point in college, these two engineering paths can appear very similar, when in fact they are quite different.  

Civil engineering directly affects the natural environment and typically benefits groups of people and/or communities.  Mechanical engineering most often entails the design of a thing or a process that largely benefits individuals.  To put this statement into context, mechanical engineers design automobiles driven across a roadway designed by civil engineers.  Beyond college, civil engineers in the industry develop solutions to support that construction of many site and physical improvement projects including:

  • Bridges and roadways;
  • Utility (water, sewer, electrical, gas) infrastructure;
  • Site development; 
  • Stormwater management;
  • Environmental protection/mitigation

Typical designs and industries that mechanical engineers are involved with include:

  • Automobiles, aircraft and trains, etc.; 
  • Building mechanical equipment; and
  • Robotics and automation equipment.

Both civil and mechanical engineering involves extensive collaboration with other team members to complete projects.  There are many similarities between the two regarding teamwork and problem solving although specific technical responsibilities vary.  A breakdown of typical job responsibilities, education requirements, median salary and the job outlook through 2028 is described in an article published at Study.com.

Another informative article that differentiates between civil and mechanical engineering was published by Norwich University.

If you are contemplating a college major related to engineering, particularly civil or mechanical engineering, do your research and follow your heart.  Read as many articles as you can get your hands on so that you have a better understanding of the road ahead.  Don’t trust everything that others tell you, but rely on your instinct.  Your education is an investment that will assist you in shaping your career.