My first inclination is always to encourage someone to follow their passion. Your email sounds like you are more inclined towards structural engineering (civil) than mechanical, so that’s likely where you should be.
Interestingly, it’s been my experience that the engineering degree opens so many doors that the specialty doesn’t matter as much as you would think. I worked in land development (building/designing subdivisions) for a number of years under an engineer who admitted his degree was in mechanical engineering and he couldn’t find work in his field, so he came over to civil. I myself got an environmental emphasis with my civil degree and now specialize in pavement management!
I haven’t heard of many hardships endured by engineers in the field. When I was the civil engineer for a project, I would walk the project with the contractor, point out any errors or changes in my design, and discuss options. I never lifted anything, drove any trucks, poured concrete, milled asphalt, or any of the construction-related activities. The engineer works much more as the supervisor, checking her design, making sure that the design elements are in place and that the water drains the right way, the building has the correct rebar and iron she ordered, and that the structure will stand per her specifications. I can’t imagine that you would be asked to actually lift any of the structures yourself; first of all, that’s a safety hazard (you’d have to have hours and hours of OSHA training to be on the job site doing that stuff), and second of all, that’s not the engineer’s job.
I’ve done 90% of my work in the office, in air conditioning, on a computer. You’d likely be designing the structures in CADD or structural design software, printing out the plans, discussing them with your boss, and then they get taken to the job site to get built. You’d then visit the job site, examining the work they’re doing, and comparing to your plans, and discussing changes the contractor wishes to make, and approving or denying the changes. No actual construction!
I’ve heard from my mechanical engineering friends that they wished they had done civil engineering because you can apply that degree to so many more things (pavement, environmental, land development, water resources, structures, bridge design, traffic, etc etc.) Of course this is coming from a civil engineer, hehehe! But I do believe it’s the “broader” degree, which if you’re having a dilemma, is the safer bet.
I have a few suggestions. Why not interview a few civil and mechanical engineers (your professors likely know a few) and ask them what their day is like? Ask them how often they go out to the field and if they have to do any kind of difficult field work. No better people to ask, than the people who do the work you think you’d like to do!
You could also contact a local civil engineering company who is constructing a building near you (they almost always have a sign on site with their name and company contact information.) You could call them up, tell them you’re struggling with your degree choice, and ask them to take you on site or discuss the project with you. Not only will this help you get answers, it shows you have initiative, which will likely make a positive impact with this company and maybe even get you an internship with them in the future?
If you have follow up questions, don’t hesitate to ask!
Karen Merrick, PE