The Journey to a PE License

The Journey to a PE License

ISE Magazine May 2020 Volume: 52 Number: 5

By David B. Reid


While in college, I recall professors encouraging seniors to take the Engineer-in-Training exam (EIT), now called the Fundamentals of Engineering exam, or FE. Actually, what I remember most was thinking I had a lot more practical uses for $85 and a full spring Saturday than to spend them on an optional test I wasn’t sure I would pass or ever need.

Fast forward 15 years and I would end up spending $280 and 10 months studying for the FE exam I could have passed easily with no studying if I’d had taken it while I had four years of engineering courses fresh in my mind.

Here’s my journey to becoming a professional engineer along with lessons I learned and want to pass on to you if you’re on the fence about pursuing a PE license.

First steps: Sharpen the saw

During my third job out of school, I had the good fortune to work directly for a PE. He taught me many things, including the rights and responsibilities of a PE. That’s when I got serious about becoming one. I was on my way to gaining the four year’s engineering experience under a PE one needs in most states.

Then, after two years working under the PE, I changed careers when I found my dream job doing industrial engineering for Chick-fil-A designing process and systems for more than 2,000 restaurants. At Chick-fil-A, since I wasn’t working under a PE and had a career-change learning curve, I put my PE plans aside.

But two years into my new job, the desire came back. My goal in pursuing a PE was to ensure I am bringing the whole of the IE Body of Knowledge to bear on the systems I am responsible for improving. Since my original degree wasn’t in IE and I had been out of industrial engineering for more than a decade while I chased other goals, I believed preparing for the PE exam would be the best way to sharpen my saw and make sure I wasn’t leaving any knowledge or skills in our discipline unused in the toolbox because of ignorance.

I wrote a proposal to my boss outlining the benefits of me becoming a PE and asking for the company to cover an itemized list of study materials, a review course, the FE and PE Exam, and the days off to take the course. I included a timeline I felt I could hit. A couple of emails up the chain later, I got full approval.

I picked up the pace studying. For me, preparing for the FE exam was harder and more intimidating than the IE PE exam because I needed to relearn every chemistry, physics and basic electrical and mechanical engineering principle I hadn’t used since school. I relied heavily on and YouTube tutorials to remind me of the basics. (Note: Now the FE can be taken as industrial engineering specific so you don’t have go back and learn every chemistry and physics subject you learned in school. This should make the process more doable and practical).

Four years under a PE?

My next big challenge was the fact that I was no longer working for a PE. Furthermore, I didn’t know many PEs to provide the necessary references. Frustratingly, it wasn’t clear from the boilerplate text on the state licensing web-site whether or not it was an absolute requirement to work directly under a PE for four years. Even when I called to inquire, they were vague about it. I took this as a sign to press on.

I’ve had the privilege of working for some brilliant and disciplined degreed engineers throughout my career who were not PEs. I sought out new PE colleagues in other industries and sent them samples of my work and asked them if they would invest the time to get to know me enough to endorse me. Universally, there was encouragement, support and great advice from my new friends.

In my application for the PE license, I wrote, “In this age of frequent career shifts and most engineers not pursuing a PE license, I respectfully ask that my not having had the experience of working directly under a PE for four years be weighed against the abundance of diligent and responsible engineering practice and supervision I have had with bosses and at companies who excel in solid engineering. Though these bosses were not PEs, they have instilled in me discipline, excellence, ethics and a profound sense of responsibility for the safety and well-being of the employees and general public I develop systems for. I submit that throughout my weighty career I have had the kind of careful coaching, education, accountability and discipline that easily makes ups for an additional two years with the privilege of reporting to a PE.”

That must have worked because here I am.

Taking the PE exam

I highly recommend IISE’s PE Exam Review course. Taught by experienced PEs, it left me with a sense of confidence that I had been exposed to the entire IE Body of Knowledge. The large binder I received proved invaluable as a study aid. Plus, you can take it in when you take the exam!

On exam day, I felt I was among my people as working engineers from across the state gathered and wheeled in their books. The day was tense and exhausting, but I felt good that there were few surprises. I finished early enough that I had time to fish for a few answers directly from reference books I’d brought in a milk crate.

According to the NCEES website, the exam is computer-based and closed book going forward. The good news is there is a reference handbook with formulas you can learn to use beforehand and quickly search electronically during the test.

So far, nobody has asked for my PE stamp on a drawing (it is a great way to personalize my books before loaning them out, though.). But my PE has an indelible impact on the way I practice engineering. What we engineers create can bless or curse our fellow man as much as a doctor who impacts a relatively few people compared to a typical engineer. For me, the PE credential is my “engineer’s oath” to remind me of my ethical duty to perform due diligence, to only speak into what I have expertise in and to keep the public safe and well-served. Finally, the PE credential demonstrates care about our profession enough to continuously improve and go beyond the requirements to merely get a job.

I currently lead a team of 10 young engineers whom I’d like to inspire to become PEs in order to give their best efforts and contributions in our profession. I want my respect for the power of an engineer to change the world for the better to be continued as a legacy of professional engineers who do the same long after I put my pencil down.

A turn-by-turn road map for your journey

Some advice on pursuing your PE:

  • First, take the FE while you’re still in school. It’s the least amount of effort to pass because you’ve learned all the material and it’s fresh.
  • If you didn’t take it in school, it’s not too late to do it now. Decide on a test date, set a study goal, study a few hours a week, buy some prep resources and put the time in. You can do this. You never know where you’re going to end up. A PE can only help.
  • Ask your company to pay for it. I can’t think of a better professional development plan for an engineer than to make sure you’re able to apply the body of knowledge of your discipline to the problems you were hired to solve.
  • Study smarter, not harder. Pareto prioritize your efforts. Get 80% of the value for 20% of the effort. Never “got” EE in school? Don’t wallow too long in that subject again. Spend your time refreshing yourself on content you did master. I found it encouraging that they bill the FE as “a C student should pass it.” You’ve got this.
  • If you don’t work directly for a PE, network for character references or ask a PE to review your work and endorse. Call and send letters to your state showing them you are serious about meeting all PE requirements except the one you can’t control – whether your boss is a PE. Make your case in the application. If they reject it, appeal and ask for some guidance on how you can close the gap.
  • Work practice exams that have solutions provided. Learn to recognize which problems are fast, straightforward and in your sweet spot. Learn which ones are a waste of your precious time because you’re probably going to get it wrong anyway.
  • Apply every test taking skill you’ve ever learned. Get a good night’s sleep and have a healthy breakfast. Pace yourself. Answer all questions; skip and come back to the hard ones. Have your reference materials flagged with tags for quick lookup (the IE PE Exam Review provides a good set). And don’t freak yourself out; the guy next to you is just as clueless as you are. That’s why he brought more books than you did.
  • If you’re going to work as an engineer, become a PE. You owe it to the public, your company, yourself and your profession

Source: IISE Magazine May 2020: