Doing a PhD in Civil Engineering

What Does a PhD in Civil Engineering Focus On?

If you wish to conduct research into something which has real impact and could directly benefit society on a daily basis, a PhD in Civil Engineering could be for you. Civil Engineering is a broad field that encompasses the design, construction and operation of the built environment which shapes our lives. From designing highways and building bridges to maintaining sewer systems and assessing flood risk, the work of civil engineers is fundamental to allowing cities to work the way they do.

A PhD in Civil Engineering provides you with the opportunity to work with emerging technology and industrial partners, and engage in research that has a direct impact on society. From assessing the accuracy of engineering codes and standards to developing novel approaches to the computational modelling of flood events, each Civil Engineering research project has a real-life application. Beyond this, doctoral study in Civil Engineering could allow you to operate in interdisciplinary research, work with a university’s industry partners, gain expertise and build a foundation for your career as an industry professional.

There are many branches of Civil Engineering, and graduates who wish to pursue doctorate study will have to choose a civil engineering specialization. Examples of popular civil engineering topics include:

  • Structural Engineering – A PhD in structural engineering could look at how we can manage the impact of earthquakes on skyscrapers in areas of seismic activity to contribute to the development of resilient structures. Alternatively, this could be a local investigation into a single RC beam, and how reinforcement layout affects material behaviour.
  • Geotechnical Engineering – Postgraduate research programmes here could involve assessing the accuracy of ground modelling techniques in different environments, or looking at how vibrations in the ground affect soil properties.
  • Hydraulic and Fluid Dynamics – Doctoral research in fluid flow could revolve around coastal engineering or instead could focus on using computational software to model water flows associated with a hydroelectric dam. Other PhD students could focus on wind engineering and involve monitoring fluid flow in small scale wind tunnels built in a laboratory.
  • Sustainability – A research project in sustainability could study sustainable design or the reliability of renewable energy sources and how they can be retrofitted into existing systems. Alternatively, a sustainability PhD research degree could look at the growing population and how this may affect city planning or urban development in the near and distant future.
  • Environmental Engineering – Postgraduate study in this field could look at identifying potential effects of extreme weather events associated with climate change, such as flooding, and how we can prepare for them.
  • Transportation Engineering – A doctoral degree in this branch may involve understanding traffic behaviour in different population densities, or evaluating the effectiveness of public transportation networks.
  • Construction Engineering and Management – A PhD in construction management could involve a review of the effectiveness of UK legislation such as CDM 2015.

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Minimum Entry Requirements for A PhD in Civil Engineering

The minimum academic entry requirements for a Civil Engineering doctorate programme are usually either a relevant first class honours degree, or a second class honours degree (undergraduate) with a relevant Master’s degree.

It is important that the applicant has a degree in a subject directly relevant to the PhD project. Typically, a Civil Engineering degree is preferred, however, the particular field of study often dictates this, for example: A research project studying geotechnical behaviour could accept degrees in Geography, Environmental Science, and Earth Science. Similarly, a research project modelling structural properties could accept degrees in Maths, Computing, and Physics. Universities also consider applicants with international equivalent qualifications.

Relevant work experience can improve your application. It is therefore advisable for current students, who are considering PhD study to complete internships or summer placements during their graduate study.

Beyond any degree requirement, prospective students also need to provide proof of their English Language ability. Universities will expect international students to have English Language Qualifications, for example, IELTS, TOEFL (iBT) or Pearson PTE scores. The exact score requirements of these exams will vary depending on the university, however typical requirements for a doctoral candidate are stated below:

English Level Exam Typical Score Requirement
IELTS Overall score of 6.5+
With no subtest below 5.5
TOEFL (iBT) Overall score of 90+
With no subtest below 20
Pearson PTE Overall score of 58+
With no subtest below 42

How Long Does It Take to Get a PhD in Civil Engineering?

Full time Civil Engineering PhD programmes in the UK usually have a duration of 3 years, with part time programmes lasting 6 years. For a full time programme, the first year is normally a probationary year, where the PhD student is required to propose a PhD thesis in Civil Engineering. Upon acceptance, the research phase begins, which typically involves laboratory work, but due to the different civil engineering branches may involve the research students undertaking numerical modelling, programming/computation, or fieldwork. After submission of the PhD thesis, doctoral researchers are required to undergo an oral examination (Viva Voce) before being awarded their PhD degree.

During your project, your supervisor or relevant academic staff for your department may encourage you to present findings and produce papers. You are also likely to be required to attend training courses to progress your transferable skills development for your future career.

Costs and Funding

Annual tuition fees for a UK doctoral student applying to a 2021/22 PhD programme in Civil Engineering are around £4,000 to £5,000. For EU and overseas students, these tuition fees increase to around £20,000 to £24,000 per academic year. Part-time tuition fees are normally proportioned according to the research programme length.

There are many funding opportunities available for Civil Engineering PhDs. Most institutions have Centres for Doctoral Training in Civil Engineering, which offer a number of Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) studentships to eligible applicants. These studentships and grants cover tuition fees and can provide a maintenance stipend and research travel expenses.

The British Federation of Women Graduates offers a number of scholarships to eligible female postgraduate students. There are also many scholarships for international Civil Engineering students, for example, doctoral candidates from the US can apply to scholarships such as the British Marshall Scholarship or the Fulbright student scholarships which cover the costs of studying a doctoral degree in the UK.

Postgraduate research students may also be eligible for a Postgraduate Doctoral Loan overseen by the UK Government which can provide up to £25,000 for course fees and living costs associated with your research project.

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PhD in Civil Engineering Salary and Career Paths

One of the main benefits of Civil Engineering is that the wide applications open up many varied career opportunities. PhD holders have problem solving skills that allow them to transfer into different industries, and it is not uncommon to see Civil Engineering doctorates working in finance, consultancy, engineering research careers and management.

Typical Civil Engineering jobs include:

  • CAD Technicians
  • Contractors
  • Consultants
  • Quantity Surveyors
  • Project management

Within each of these jobs, there is a wide range of sub disciplines. For example, one contractor may work on the maintenance of wind turbines, whilst another may focus on excavations in marine environments. The typical starting salary for a graduate Civil Engineering role is around £25,000. With experience, this can increase to over £50,000. It should be noted that holding a PhD degree often allows for greater career progression and opens doors to unique and diverse opportunities, with greater levels of responsibility and innovation. Consequently, PhD applicants can expect a more lucrative salary to reflect their expertise.

Typical employers include civil engineering consultancies and contractors, gas and utility companies, government bodies (e.g. Network Rail or Highways England) and research institutes. Universities and other academic institutions are also common employers, as some doctoral students transition from their postgraduate research programme to a teaching role.


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