Becoming an Engineer: PE Exam

Author: Justin Watson, PE, Project Engineer

One of the milestones in a professional engineer’s career is taking the PE exam, proctored by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering (NCEES). The “Principles and Practice of Engineering” (PE) exam tests individuals for competency in a particular engineering discipline. These individuals have gained a minimum of four years’ post-college work experience in their chosen engineering field.  Upon passing the PE exam, individuals earn professional engineering licensure.  A professional engineering license is necessary to approve and develop plans for the public and private sector.

In April of 2017, I sat down to take the Civil: Transportation version of the PE exam for the first time.  I walked through the parking lot of the Scarritt-Bennett Center on the Vanderbilt Campus dragging a large suitcase full of reference material, hoping that my four months of preparation would be sufficient to place myself in the 69% of examinees who pass on the first attempt.

It’s important to know that the PE exam itself isn’t the only step in earning the designation. The first step is really your education. Most states require candidates to have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution. For example, I received my B.S. in Civil Engineering from UA Huntsville in 2011. The next step is relevant work experience. When I say relevant, I mean that states require verifiable work in the engineering industry/field of choice, and the states typically require a minimum of four years. For example, since I worked in civil engineering, specifically in the field of transportation consulting, I sat for the Civil: Transportation section of the PE exam. Once education and work experience  have been sufficiently completed, individuals can then take the PE exam, the final step in becoming professionally licensed.

The exam itself is broken up into two four-hour-long sessions:

The morning session covers the “breadth” of Civil Engineering. Some of the topics covered include things like project planning, means and methods, soil mechanics, structural mechanics, hydraulics/hydrology, geometrics, materials, and site development.

After an hour break for lunch, the afternoon session is a “depth” exam for your chosen field. In my case that was transportation which included topics of traffic engineering, horizontal design, vertical design, intersection geometry, roadside and cross-section design, signal design, traffic control design, geotechnical and pavement, drainage, and economic analysis.

While preparing for the PE exam can be an overwhelming process, it’s certainly a valuable one. My study plan was to block out a few hours of my free time each day to dedicate to the exam, and to break it up with a few 15-minute breaks in between. No matter what your study strategy is, keep your eye on the prize, so to speak.  And also, if at first you don’t succeed, try again! The PE exam is proctored in the spring and fall, and if you don’t pass, you’re eligible to re-take the exam the next time it is proctored.

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