Why I left civil engineering

When I stepped foot onto the campus of Rice University as a matriculating freshman in the fall of 2014, I was dead set on becoming a civil engineer. As an adolescent I nurtured an obsession with infrastructure and cities, with much of my formative years spent observing the rapid pace of development in Houston (including the mammoth reconstruction of the Katy Freeway), playing SimCity 4, and reading about urban planning. The complexity of urban transportation—and the neverending quest to improve it—has always scratched an itch in my brain.

Four years later, I achieved what I set out to do as an eighteen-year-old—I graduated from Rice with a degree in civil engineering, and I began working at an engineering firm in Houston. On paper, I had started what should have been a rewarding career climbing the ranks toward P.E. licensure and project management. But in the end, my time as an engineer-in-training only lasted three years, with most of that time spent searching for opportunities in other fields.

I think my chapter in civil engineering encapsulates multiple subtexts, including the concentration of elite college graduates into a shrinking set of exclusive industries,1 the profession’s conservatism, and my journey of self-discovery as I’ve moved further into adulthood. If only for my own benefit, I want to capture how I got to this point.

Three years, two jobs

Rice isn’t known for having a strong career fair. Despite the school’s pedigree, many companies aren’t interested in dedicating scarce recruiting resources to such a small student population. Booths dedicated specifically to civil engineering—one of the least popular majors in the engineering school—were especially rare. Regardless, the career fair is where I first encountered the firm I’d end up working at after graduation: a medium-sized, Texas-based engineering consultancy I’ll refer to as “JC”.

As I progressed through JC’s recruiting process, I emphasized my interest in “alternative” mobility, and I soon found a potential home in the organization: a niche group that provided consulting and design services for special taxation districts (e.g., TIRZs, management districts) that fund streetscape and mobility improvement projects across Houston. Soon enough, I had an internship offer for the summer of 2016, and I’d end up returning the following summer.

The summers were fine—I got my first taste of the working world, and as a fairly useless student, my work consisted of menial tasks in CAD and Excel. I built a good relationship with my superiors, and by the start of my senior year, I had a full-time job offer in my inbox. I dutifully signed it.

At no point during this yearslong preview of an engineering career did I pause to evaluate my options. While my peers grappled with uncertainty around their choice of major and career, I took solace in my long-term commitment to civil engineering. I had made up my mind long ago about what I was supposed to do in life, and I never felt the need to reconsider. Obviously, my passion for the subject of transportation would translate into a fulfilling career in transportation engineering. And obviously, I couldn’t risk walking away from JC—what was I going to tell these people I’d built such rapport with, “no, actually, I’m going to work somewhere else”? The simplicity of my path was reassuring. It didn’t require me to answer difficult questions.

So in the summer of 2018, I graduated, settled into an apartment near the office, and began working as a design engineer—but the exhilaration of becoming an independent adult quickly faded. Within months, I was struggling to perform at work; at one point, I was explicitly told I wasn’t meeting expectations. As a member of a small, niche group, I felt like I didn’t have a place in a company culture siloed by the major civil engineering sub-disciplines (e.g., transportation, water, land development). I soon found the brash, machismo, Texan attitude of the firm—dominated by A&M grads—to be exhausting. Outside work, my free time was degraded by shitty roommates and the loneliness of a long-distance relationship. I was deeply depressed—the latter half of 2018 was the worst period of my life.

I was barely half a year into my first job, and I was already desperate to quit and escape Houston altogether. I figured I could kill two birds with one stone: find an engineering job in St. Louis, where my girlfriend (now wife) had moved for school. It seemed daunting at first—St. Louis has a much weaker job market than Houston; only a handful of large engineering firms have significant operations here. But fortune favored me that fall, and I came across a posting that seemed too good to be true: a transportation engineering job at the Downtown St. Louis office of a large, well-known engineering design firm.

I knew few chances would be better than this, so I aggressively pursued the position. Despite the disadvantages of being from out of state and only a few months removed from graduation, I managed to earn myself an offer—and just 10 months into my first job, I quit, awkwardly severing my first set of professional relationships in the process.

The next two years in St. Louis were a marked improvement. I felt more comfortable in the diverse and collaborative culture of a large firm, the content was a bit more intellectually engaging, and my life outside of work was considerably more enjoyable. But I never felt fully satisfied with where I was heading professionally, and I continued researching opportunities outside engineering, including reaching out to Rice engineering alumni who had switched careers. It was only in the voracious post-pandemic job market of 2021 that I received the unique opportunity to be referred for a position at a management consulting firm, a field typically only accessible to undergraduate or MBA students. I took my shot and, through a combination of sheer luck and intense preparation, clinched an offer.

Ultimately, leaving behind a career in engineering is the biggest unplanned change in my life so far, and I spend too much time reflecting on it. I admittedly harbor some resentment from the whole saga, both toward the industry for its shortcomings and myself for being so complacent when planning my career. Still, I believe my choices have been rational. My dissatisfaction with civil engineering had multiple dimensions, and there’s little reason to believe they would be easily resolved as I progressed through an engineering career.

Money matters

I didn’t give much thought to my starting salary when I received my first full-time job offer. At the green age of 22, with my perception of money heavily influenced by r/personalfinance and r/frugal, I had yet to develop an understanding of how much I needed to earn to feel satisfied in life. Assuaging my fears by incessantly googling “$60K good salary Houston” and building a detailed budgeting spreadsheet, I eventually concluded that civil engineering was a respectable, well-paid profession, and I had no reason to worry.

To an extent, these self-assurances were true. Civil engineers are paid respectably relative to the general population; at $60K, the median starting salary for civil engineers when I graduated was about the same as the median U.S. household income. But once I started working, I realized $60K wasn’t going to take me as far as I’d hoped. Because housing explains everything, the first rude awakening was looking for an apartment—the typical rent for a one-bedroom in a safe, convenient area of Inner Loop Houston was pushing $1,100 per month, which was outside the bounds of the budget I’d imposed on myself. I settled for splitting a two-bedroom with roommates (a decision I’d come to regret) and remained frustrated that an engineering job in a comparatively low-cost-of-living city wasn’t enough to comfortably afford my own place.

Ultimately, however, what fueled my continuing frustration was my pay relative to my peers. Starting pay for civil engineers is at the bottom of the pack relative to the other engineering disciplines, and the gap is significant—a deficit of over 20% relative to our friends in MechE.2 For a highly-ranked school like Rice, the delta between my salary and the average for engineering graduates was even less flattering. Following graduation, I began to realize how much more some of my friends were making. Other engineers were earning at least $70K. Those who went into oil & gas or management consulting were exceeding $80K. Software engineers were unsurprisingly taking in six figures. Statistics for the Class of 2018 published in Rice Engineering magazine confirmed that I was in the minority of graduates making less than $70K.

Further discouraging was the salary trajectory I could expect over the first few years of my career. Breaking $100K in civil engineering typically requires a Professional Engineer license, which is obtained by passing the arduous P.E. exam after working for at least four years as an Engineer-in-Training (EIT). Even then, most firms will only offer modest compensation increases to newly-minted PEs, leaving them closer to $80K than $100K; switching jobs is essentially required to gain a >10% step change in salary. Outside these one-time boosts from job switching and licensure, a civil engineering career is a long procession of annual 3–4% cost of living adjustments.

The lackluster pay was a major thorn in my side my entire time in the industry. I had chosen to go to a highly-ranked private university over much cheaper public options, and I had put in the effort to maintain a high GPA—it felt like those accomplishments were being wasted in an industry that hardly distinguishes between graduates. What was the point of the extra effort and cost of my degree if I wasn’t going to see a proportional return on investment?

In addition to pay, there were other characteristics of the firms I worked for that made the industry feel excessively stingy. Benefits were mediocre, with high-deductible health plans, retirement contributions with long vesting horizons, and meager-to-nonexistent bonuses. Engineering firms are hyper-fixated on billability, and scrounging together enough project hours each week to ensure I was charging less than 10% of my time to overhead was a large source of stress. Many firms offer overtime pay, but policies around it can be draconian—for example, at my second job, overtime was only earned once I exceeded 80 billable hours over two weeks, meaning any internal meeting or training subtracted from additional pay. Paid time off is minimal, and firms even engage in the gross practice of requesting PTO donations for ill employees because they’re not willing to offer more generous paid leave. Ultimately, I could never shake the feeling that I was disposable—that civil engineering firms have little interest in recognizing or retaining talent.

Ultimately, I realized that compensation is an important motivating factor for me. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my career feeling like I was severely underperforming my earning potential. I didn’t want to take on the responsibilities and demands of Professional Engineer licensure and project management without a commensurate salary. I didn’t want to keep settling for a corporate culture that is constantly, ruthlessly looking to cut costs.

I figured there was a version of the future where I could continue engaging with the world of transportation and feel more valued. After all, transportation and urbanization are enormous topics that impact broad segments of our economy and society—perhaps if I’d sat down to think about it in college, I would have realized that there are ways to work on these topics that don’t require becoming an engineer at all.

A conservative culture

Our modern standard of living depends on highly standardized infrastructure. In order to quickly, cheaply, and safely scale our transportation networks, water systems, sewers, and other infrastructure over the past century, civil engineers have embraced repetition and modularity. Take the Interstate highway system as a prime example: in just half a century, the United States was able to build nearly 50,000 miles of fully grade-separated, high-speed freeways by establishing uniform standards for highway design. This ensures that no matter where you drive in this country, you know in advance what an Interstate will look and feel like—and for engineers, this radically simplifies the problem space when designing a new freeway.

Modern civil engineering is beholden to an array of design manuals that have been in place for decades and are updated incrementally by technocratic national bodies. These standards are universally accepted by engineering firms and government agencies for good reason. Unorthodox design conflicts with client standards and regulations, inflates costs, creates potential safety risks, and exposes engineers to additional liability. For a profession whose end user is the general public, it’s completely reasonable to aggressively minimize risk.

As a result, a lot of “bread and butter” civil engineering work feels more like filling in a template or completing a puzzle than solving a novel problem. As an EIT in transportation, I worked on a lot of construction plans, traffic studies, and cost estimates. These deliverables could become complex if the constraints on a project were particularly tight, but that wasn’t the norm. In many if not most cases, the design of an infrastructure asset is largely predetermined, and the work of the engineering firm is to apply the published design standards and produce a buildable, liability-minimizing set of construction drawings.

Given these priors, it’s difficult for civil engineers to innovate. Expanding what is permissible often requires editing published standards, regulations, or policies—a political effort that is well outside the scope and appetite of private engineering firms. This status quo bias is particularly severe in transportation infrastructure, where engineering firms are beholden to state DOT and municipal clients that stubbornly prioritize cars over all other modes of transport. The effort to establish stronger requirements for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure (e.g., wider sidewalks, fully-protected bike lanes) has been going on for decades, and one of the strongest headwinds is the curmudgeonly leadership at these organizations that remains singularly focused on maximizing vehicle throughput. Engineering firms have little leverage to push back on this design philosophy and in many cases subscribe to it, and that’s how we end up with new infrastructure that looks like this:

I majored in civil engineering precisely because I want to innovate—I want to help redefine our transportation system away from its single-minded focus on private automobiles. Engineering firms aren’t calling the shots on what the future of American transportation will look like; that’s being done by politicians, government agencies, organizations as diverse as Amtrak and Google, and startups like Culdesac. These are the entities with the power and flexibility to disrupt the status quo.

The longer I spent in the industry, the more I felt like I was part of the problem. At JC, I worked on a small portfolio of beneficial urban street and park projects—but JC’s cash cow is master-planned exurban sprawl, and that focus inevitably found its way into my work and tainted the overall company culture. At my second job, I was working in “pure” traffic engineering, so road and highway widening projects made up a large portion of my work. From an urbanist perspective, these projects were bad no matter how you slice them, and I got a close-up view of the roadbuilding grift in this country: every year, cities and states funnel hundreds of millions of dollars into overbuilding their roadway networks, justifying it with flawed traffic forecasting.3 It is fundamentally backward-looking.

The dominant “this is the way it’s always been done” design philosophy also degrades the office culture of engineering firms. In addition to lackluster compensation and benefits, many engineering firms have also resisted the pandemic-induced rise of remote work despite the suitability of many design jobs for flexible working arrangements. Both JC and the second firm I worked for pressured employees to return to the office in the summer of 2020, just a couple of months into the pandemic.4 This is one particularly glaring manifestation of the old-school, hierarchical culture that dominates much of the profession.

Management only knows how to manage with workers in the office. Significant asymmetry in treatment between junior and senior employees. No flexibility in remote work, even with 75%+ of our group out on fieldwork or vacation. Poor career advancement prognosis: “You can become an engineer and get more responsibility” without corresponding progressive compensation, autonomy, and respect. I love my work, but I hate the culture and am aware that most civil firms are like this. —r/civilengineering comment

My own hubris

Despite my bitter tone, I don’t want to paint too bleak a picture—civil engineering is a big industry, and I certainly had viable alternatives to leaving the field. In transportation engineering, there are forward-thinking design firms that focus on pedestrians, bicycles, and public transit. There are firms that pay more than the market average and embrace progressive ways of working. If I had worked at one of those firms from the start—hell, if my salary had merely been on par with that of other engineers—I might never have been dissatisfied enough to consider changing careers.

The buck really stops with me. A major reason I ended up leaving engineering is that I bungled the beginning of my career; I wasn’t intentional enough about finding a job that truly aligned with my interests. I complacently went to work for JC, a regional firm with old-school roots that makes the vast majority of its money building exurban sprawl, when I should have sought out a more progressive firm that specializes in ped/bike, transit, or rail infrastructure. When I job-hopped, I once again settled, this time for a traffic engineering position that was severely out of step with my values. I let anxiety and insecurity over my career choices consume my thinking.

After three years and two jobs, I dreaded the thought of having to find another niche in the industry, and I knew it’d be tough to find anything better than the job I had in St. Louis’s small market. Progressive transportation design work is unsurprisingly concentrated in large coastal cities with strong demand for multimodal infrastructure—i.e., not the Midwest.

I was also fired up with the hubris of a dissatisfied twenty-something college graduate: the belief that I have something more to offer the world of transportation than drawing lines in AutoCAD for eight hours a day (or, down the road, managing a team of people drawing lines). I wanted to engage the topic of transportation at a higher level, with an eye toward one day influencing policy or leading an organization that provides alternatives to the status quo.

Given those goals, I don’t regret my decision to leave engineering, even though I sometimes lament that I’ll never possess the technical expertise of an experienced engineer. I’ve enjoyed my time in consulting, which provides me with broad access to the transportation sector at the strategic level I’m interested in. Funnily enough, despite leaving an industry focused on transportation, my ultimate goal to affect change in American cities and transportation seems more achievable than ever—I’m confident that, down the road, I’ll end up in some position that supports new thinking in mobility, whether that’s intercity rail, transit, aviation, or walkability.

I did leverage a hefty amount of privilege to get where I am today. The vast majority of civil engineering graduates are not in a position to switch careers. Entry to lofty fields like consulting, finance, and tech is restricted to a sliver of the post-undergrad population that attended a top-ranked school. Transitioning from civil engineering to one of these fields is rare for a reason; in most cases, it requires an expensive graduate degree from a highly selective university. For many, an engineering career is a crowning achievement, and I don’t think anyone should minimize the effort required to complete an engineering degree at any university.

We’re all biased in how we set priorities in life, unconsciously steered by our upbringing and starting placement on the socioeconomic spectrum. As an adolescent, I always prioritized academics. I’ve spent my entire life building my personal reputation on academic performance, and it earned me a ticket into the hypercompetitive world of a highly-ranked American university. Perhaps the cards were stacked against me pursuing a conventional career in engineering the moment I stepped foot on Rice’s campus—by surrounding myself with such high-achieving, well-credentialed people, I was destined to succumb to comparison and question if I was living up to my own potential. I’m married to a doctor; I have friends completing PhDs and MBAs and working in rigorous, distinguished, well-compensated jobs. It’s hard to not play the game.

You may be thinking this is a shitty, shallow, pretentious way to inform one’s career path. Indeed, my perspective is far removed from the dominant attitude on the Internet. On the civil engineering subreddit, the consensus view is that it doesn’t matter what ranking your university is as long as it’s ABET-accredited, and your GPA just needs to be above a 3.2 to secure a job offer, after which it’s completely irrelevant.5 Many extoll working in the public sector, despite lower pay, because the work is slower and hours are strictly capped.

It’s fine to not place academic and career achievement at the center of your life (most people don’t), but I reject the popular sentiment that doing so is incorrect. I feel most fulfilled when I’m competing. I like feeling productive and I don’t mind working longer hours if the content of the work is engaging and challenging—and miraculously, that can even take the form of an Excel model or a PowerPoint deck. I want the freedom to accelerate, to impress, to achieve, to earn. I wasn’t finding that in civil engineering.

Still, if I were to give advice to an undergrad, I wouldn’t recommend against pursuing a career in civil. There are thousands of engineers who are happy with their jobs; every surge in negative posts about the profession on the subreddit is thermostatically answered by a wave of positive posts. I met some incredibly smart and successful people during my time in the industry. The degree is rigorous, well-respected, and applicable to several career paths. But for those with doubts, I do think it’s okay to want more, whether it’s more impact, challenge, or yes, even money and prestige. One of the biggest things I’ve acknowledged about myself since I graduated is that I do, in fact, want more of those things, and I can’t ignore those desires when charting my career.

I will always love what civil engineering provides to the world—the underappreciated work it does to maintain the foundations of our civilization. Cities and transportation will continue to dominate my every waking thought. I like to think that I will always be a student of civil engineering, even if my contribution to the world of infrastructure may not be as a licensed engineer.

  1. The mechanisms that funnel elite college grads into finance, tech, and consulting described in this 2016 research article published in Sociology of Education are incredibly pertinent to my experience.
  2. A couple of hypotheses on why civil engineering lags other disciplines in compensation: First, design standardization means that for a specific project, the output of any two credentialed engineering firms will be significantly interchangeable, regardless of the caliber of talent at each firm. As a result, the barrier for new entrants is low, and engineering firms don’t compete on talent, quality, or innovation to nearly the extent seen in tech, law, or management consulting. Cost matters more, driving down margins.

    Civil engineers are also distant from the flow of capital; what engineering design firms produce enables revenue generation but does not amplify it. For example, if a railroad wants to build a new bridge across a river, it’s difficult for an engineering firm to demand a higher fee by claiming that it can design a more “advanced” bridge that will increase the railroad’s profitability. Bridges are highly standardized, and as long as the design meets the railroad’s basic requirements, a more sophisticated bridge won’t make the trains running over it more valuable.
  3. Civil engineering suffers from misaligned incentives. Management consultants get a lot of hate, but their services are largely discretionary; to keep winning work, they have to demonstrate value creation to skeptical corporate executives. The same is not true of engineering firms, whose services are required to complete an infrastructure project—as long as infrastructure is being built, engineering consulting work is being generated. As a result, firms push to maximize infrastructure spending, engaging in lobbying and political fundraising at all levels of government. Beyond the private engineering firms (but certainly subject to their influence), civil engineers in the public sector work to justify their existence—in transportation, for example, the bias is consistently to expand and build new roads, not maintain and reimagine what exists.
    Also, traffic modeling is not good.
  4. I learned about the situation at JC through a friend. While I didn’t do the best job fitting into the company, I always got the sense it was a conservative, cliquey place. I mean, what would you expect from a firm that builds Texan sprawl? I think my feelings have been validated over the past couple of years—the company’s Glassdoor score has dropped 15% since I left from complaints about poor benefits, mandatory overtime, and the toxic response to COVID.
  5. I think this is terrible advice and cringe every time I see it parroted on r/civilengineering. While it’s true many civil engineering firms don’t heavily weigh academic performance when recruiting, there is still a significant upside to (sustainably) doing as well as you can in college. A higher GPA provides more flexibility when job-hunting, especially if you ever want to change careers. It’s crucial if you ever want to apply to a graduate program. It can provide access to scholarships, awards, and other limited opportunities. Students are free to determine how much they want to prioritize academics relative to other aspects of the college experience, but I think minimizing one’s effort because civil engineering firms don’t care about GPA is a poor, narrow-minded way to make that decision.