What subjects should I study?

If you're thinking about a career in civil engineering, there are various paths you could follow. This page explains why certain subjects are important and which qualifications you'll need.

Students at the Leigh Academy. Find out more about the subjects you need to be a civil engineer
Students at the Leigh Academy. Find out more about the subjects you need to be a civil engineer

Civil engineers need a wide range of expertise. So if you're interested in becoming a civil engineer, you should try to get good skills in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM subjects).

Why are maths and science so important?

Most civil engineering projects need to be able to stand up to natural forces (like wind and water), and man-made forces (like vehicles, equipment and people). For example, civil engineers:

  • Design roads so they don't sink into the ground when heavy lorries drive along them
  • Build flats so they don't fall over when the wind blows
  • Construct tunnels so they don't flood when it rains

You need to be able to understand and measure forces and movement, and to calculate the strength of the structures you're designing. What you learn in maths and science – especially physics – will help you do this.

The structures that civil engineers design and build are mainly on the ground and have to be supported by the soil and rocks underneath them. The strength of the ground varies from place to place, and different rocks and soil have different properties (e.g. how quickly water drains through them). If you don’t want your structure to sink into the mud, you have to know about the various types of ground and design the right kind of foundations for the site. For this reason, studying geography or geology is also good idea.

As designers and innovators, civil engineers create things that didn’t exist before and do things in ways that haven’t been done before. They try to make our environment as attractive as possible by designing things that are interesting and pleasant to look at. They also make sure that these things blend in well with their surroundings. So if you're creative and enjoy art and design and technology, these would be good subjects to study too.

Civil engineers usually work in teams and are often involved in projects in many parts of the world. This means that languages, teamwork and communication skills will also come in useful.

What qualifications do I need?

If you live in England, Wales, or Northern Ireland, you have three main options after your GCSEs:

  • Stay on at school or college and do A-levels – make sure your subjects include maths and physics
  • Stay on at school or college and do a:
    • BTEC Level 3 Diploma in Construction and the Built Environment – Civil Engineering
    • Or, a BTEC Level 3 Extended Diploma in Construction and the Built Environment – Civil Engineering
  • Do an apprenticeship, which combines employment and studying part-time for a BTEC and an NVQ level 3 or the Diploma in Civil Engineering for Technicians (ICE)

If you live in Scotland, after your intermediates or National 5s you can either:

  • Stay on at school and do Highers and maybe Advanced Highers – make sure that you include maths and physics in your subjects
  • Stay on at school or college and do a Higher National Certificate in Civil Engineering (Scotland)
  • Do a modern apprenticeship, which combines employment with studying part-time for an SVQ

 Find out more about your options when you finish your GCSEs, Intermediates or National 5s.

Meet students like you

We've pulled together some profiles of students currently at school talking about why they're thinking about a career in engineering. Simply click 'read more' to find out their story.

  • Rachel Brown - Skipton Girls' High School

    Rachel Brown

    I play football, rugby and netball for local, school and county teams, but also enjoy swimming, cycling and car rallying. I’m a member of the air cadets too, which means I get to go on camps and am learning to shoot and fly planes.

    School and beyond

    I've finished four GCSEs, and I'm still studying 11 others. I’ve also got two engineering CREST Silver Awards and am working towards the Gold Award. Next, I plan to study maths, further maths, physics and engineering at A-level and, then do a degree in engineering.

    Why engineering?

    My dad's an engineer and I've always enjoyed learning about engineering principles. In primary school I found design technology fascinating because you could design something, build it and then use what you’d made. I was also lucky that my school offered an Engineering GCSE, as many don't. It was an obvious choice for me.

    The course has helped me see what engineers do and, best of all, I've been able get involved in projects. A team I manage got to the final of the national Big Bang competition and we were invited to speak with MPs at the Houses of Parliament. Working on projects like this has made me realise that engineers make a difference and have fun doing it.

    My overall ambition is to be a design engineer with a global company. Just to become an engineer would be fantastic, but to combine it with being creative would be perfect for me.

    Read more
  • Bethan Batson - Skipton Girls High School

    Bethan Batson

    I regularly go swimming, but I love to ski more because I get to spend time with my family and zoom down the slopes! I also like to read and getting to grips with new software and technologies.

    School and beyond

    My favourite classes are engineering, art, and computer science because I like to think of creative solutions to problems.

    I did work experience with an architect’s firm, which is where I learned to use SketchUp (a computer programme used to design 3d models). I enjoyed it so much that I now use it to work on my own projects. I also used it to design the plan of our school fair.

    After GCSEs, I want to stay on at my school and do A-levels in maths, physics, engineering and art, and then study an engineering course at university.

    Why engineering?

    I was really inspired by the design and construction of the 2012 Olympics buildings and I enjoy watching TV building programs like Grand Designs and George Clark’s Amazing Spaces. We’ve just made major changes to our house so I’ve recently learned a lot about foundations, structures etc.

    My parents are architects and I’ve learnt from them that using innovation and creativity is important in engineering careers – which I’ll definitely enjoy.

    I’d like to be an engineer because they design our world and can change the way society works for the better. My dream job would be to create something which helps improve the environment.

    Read more

What comes next?

Once you've completed your GCSEs, you'll have a number of different options that could lead to a career in civil engineering. You could take A-Levels or Highers in subject such as Maths or Physics, or undertake an apprenticeship, combining classroom learning and on site experience.

Find out more about what your post-16 choices

What comes after GCSEs?

If you're already studying for your GCSEs or are doing A-Levels / Highers, and are wondering what your options are, we've got plenty of advice to help.

If you're want more information about your choices after GCSEs, why not explore our 16 - 19s careers section, which contains information on all your potential options.

Alternatively, if you want to know what your options are once you've left school, our further and higher education section provides advice on options such as university or apprenticeships.

Meet the people who make it happen

Find out more about some of the people responsible for building the structures that help power our lives.

Want to find out more at school?

If you're interested in finding out more civil engineering, why don't you ask your teacher about it. We've got a whole range of activites that help explain more about civil engineering, from constructing a 12m suspension bridge, to using lego to show how forces affect structures.

Explore our activities and resources