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What is the difference between a Master’s in Civil Engineering vs. Mechanical Engineering?

Civil vs Mechanical EngineeringEngineers have a particular set of skills that often put them in the lead of new technology initiatives and discoveries. For example, M.Emin Kutay, an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Michigan State University is researching ways to enhance pavement technology to improve Michigan’s roads.

They say there are only two seasons in Michigan: Winter and construction. Professor Kutay’s research will help to address both by creating software that can identify longer-lasting pavement materials and help civil engineers design materials that are resistant to specific types of stress and wear. This is just one of the many challenges that engineers work on, and we wanted to take a closer look at some of the other careers and opportunities available in the field.

While there are many different types of engineering, this article compares two classic branches —civil vs. mechanical engineering—in terms of skill requirements, salary and job responsibilities.

What is the difference between civil and mechanical engineering?

Though civil and mechanical engineering have some overlap in the types of work they do, there are some key differences—one being the scale of the structures being worked on. Civil engineers work on large infrastructure-based projects, such as roads and bridges, whereas mechanical engineers focus on mechanical, thermofluid, and chemical systems, such as robots, heating and cooling units, engines, and mobility systems.

Civil vs. Mechanical Engineering Master’s Programs – Course and Career Differences

The following are course topics graduate students can expect to study in their particular engineering field. For example, Michigan State University’s online MS in Civil Engineering features many courses in pavement engineering, such as Advanced Concrete Pavement Analysis and Design, or Bituminous Materials. Michigan State University’s online MS in Mechanical Engineering has coursework in Advanced Turbomachinery, Combustion, Fluid Mechanics, Additive Manufacturing, and Advanced Dynamics.

Civil Engineering Mechanical Engineering
Statistics and data science Thermofluid Transport
Sensors and smart infrastructure Solid Mechanics
Traffic operations and safety Dynamics and Control
Pavement design and preservation Design and Manufacturing

In addition, civil engineers and mechanical engineers have different day-to-day job responsibilities. The chart below details how the two careers differ:

Civil engineering job duties Mechanical engineering job duties
Plan and manage the maintenance, repair and replacement of infrastructures Conceive design plans and create prototypes
Acquire necessary permits (like building permits) and review government regulations and environmental hazards for every project Analyze equipment failures and make recommendations on how to fix them
Create proposed budgets for projects, including estimates for things like equipment, labor and cost of materials Determine project requirements and oversee manufacturing processes
Determine project goals with clients Study and interpret data, and write reports
Monitor infrastructure performance using data-driven support tools. Evaluate the performance of devices, engines and mechanical parts

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics,, TargetJobs and

Civil Engineering Career Overview

Civil engineers build and design infrastructure projects, like roads and bridges. The skills required for civil engineers include critical thinking, leadership, project management, technical skills and—of course—communication. PayScale lists project management and construction site inspection as two of the most beneficial skills to have in terms of commanding a higher salary.

According to Burning Glass, a platform that aggregates job posting data, the top occupations that utilize civil engineering skills (aside from civil engineer) are project manager and construction manager.

According to U.S. News & World Report, five of the top states to work as a civil engineer, based on mean salary potential, are:

State Mean Salary
Alaska $125,470
California $109,680
New Jersey $103,760
Texas $102,990
New York $102,250

Civil engineers have myriad expertise—from knowing the particle size of different types of soil to what different types of trusses are used for. They are also responsible for many of the fun things we love. For example, we can thank civil engineers for figuring out just the right amount of water needed to make a water slide slippery.

In today’s increasingly urbanized and highly connected world, civil engineers will be responsible for shaping the cities of the future. Although trends like the smart city movement, for example, may create new efficiencies for civil engineering, these shifts in urban design also create challenges.

As suggested by Ellie Cosgrave, an engineer and researcher at University College London, the transition period between old and new technology is particularly challenging; organizations will need to decide when to leverage existing technology and when to make investments in newer technology that may have a higher upfront cost, but more long-term benefit. Engineers will be central to these decisions as well as determining how to best apply innovations to the design and optimization of transportation systems, city structures and other civil developments.

Mechanical Engineering Career Overview

Mechanical engineers solve problems that exist within the fundamental nature of materials and physics. Their work can include almost any device or part of a machine as well as thermal devices, fluidic devices, or solid structures and the design and manufacturing associated with machines, devices, and structures.

Mechanical engineering is thought to be the broadest engineering discipline because it overlaps into other engineering specialties, including civil engineering. Successful mechanical engineers need analytical, problem-solving and communication skills as well as creativity. In addition, PayScale lists project management and finite element analysis as skills that can benefit a mechanical engineer in terms of increasing earning potential. The average mechanical engineer salary in the United States is $70,424.

Below is a more detailed account of mechanical engineering median salaries:

Job Title Median Salary
Engineering Group Manager $112,250
Senior Mechanical Engineer $94,770
Senior Manufacturing Engineering $89,681
Project Manager, Engineer $89,130
Mechanical Engineer $69,004
Project Engineer $67,070

The mechanical engineering field will continue to change and grow in fields like artificial intelligence (AI), including 3-D and 4-D printing, advanced robotics, and human machine interfaces. An article in the American Society of Mechanical Engineering (ASME) references self driving cars and robotic clinicians who are able to diagnose diseases as two key advances in AI engineering.

Engineers can also expect to see progress in mechanical engineering design. According to a recent article in Interesting Engineering, future engineering endeavors may utilize freeform mechanical design (as opposed to keyboard-based design on CAD). Mechanical engineers will also use quantum computing and virtual reality more when designing.

Advanced Degrees in Engineering

There are several ways an advanced degree in engineering is advantageous. First, it is an excellent way for engineers to keep up with the latest trends in engineering, and connect with experts working on cutting-edge innovations. For example, Michigan State University is developing grid-scale energy storage technology using advances in the thermodynamics of thermochemical oxidation and reduction reactions.Completing a master’s program provides opportunities for engineers to connect with researchers at the forefront of their fields, share knowledge and get insight into leading-edge innovations.

In addition, a master’s degree in engineering can help engineers build more specialized knowledge or develop broadly applicable skills that will help them tackle some of the challenges the industry will face in the coming decades. Master’s programs like Michigan State University’s online master’s in civil engineering offer a blend of basic fundamental knowledge combined with application to provide depth and breadth on contemporary topics to give engineers the tools they need to advance as industry practitioners and leaders in the profession.

Spartans Will.

The online master’s degrees in engineering at Michigan State University empower engineers with the knowledge they need to shape the future of their careers as well as that of the global technology community.

MSU’s College of Engineering offers a uniquely collaborative atmosphere where students develop close professional relationships with faculty and benefit from a multidisciplinary education. As an R1 research institution with faculty members who have pioneered new technologies and advanced the world’s collective engineering knowledge, MSU engineering delivers a blend of academic rigor, mentorship, and a depth of expertise that few other engineering master’s programs can match.

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