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Taking the PE

Update: I PASSED!!

And here I was thinking I was done with taking exams just because I graduated. How silly of me!

Okay, to be fair, I’ve known this test was coming, so I guess I don’t really have room to complain. This’ll only be text/story-telling since I don’t have pictures from this time period. You’ll see why in a minute. I wanted to remember this whole experience for myself, mostly, since that’s why Corey and I started this blog. It’s our way of writing down important or fun things that we experience. But I also work with our interns and young engineers at work, so maybe one of them might get something useful out of this post. Who knows!

So I’m an engineer. That’s what my undergrad degree is – civil engineering. That’s what I do for work – I’m an engineer for a public utility. However, even though I graduated and began work nearly 3 years ago, I still haven’t felt like an engineer. And that’s because I’m not licensed yet.

Getting my engineering license has been a goal of mine since undergrad, and it has become my personal mission to educate other young engineers and interns on the process. Becoming a licensed engineer requires 4 steps.

  1. Graduate with an engineering undergrad from an accredited university (there are other acceptable degrees that alter the next few requirements a bit, but I won’t go into those since this is the track I’m following).
  2. Pass the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam
  3. Work for 4 years (in Oklahoma – other states have different experience requirements) under a licensed engineer
  4. Pass the Professional Engineering (PE) exam

Once all these steps are complete, you send in paperwork and pay the state and they give you a license. Voila! Graduating was step 1, and I passed the FE in step 2 a couple months before I graduated, so those are out of the way. I’m currently working on step 3; that one will finish in late 2019 for me.

Historically speaking, an aspiring licensee couldn’t take the PE in step 4 without having the requisite experience in step 3. The PE is an interesting sort of “standardized” test in that it’s supposed to reflect what you’ve learned in the 4+ years of experience you have. However, in the last few years, some states have decided to allow potential licensees to test early, before they’ve completed the experience requirement. I think this is mostly because the test is now a purely academic exercise rather than a test of experience. Engineers don’t generally do lengthy, complex calculations by hand on a regular basis. I won’t say we don’t ever do them, because we do. But there’s so much software available now that hand calcs aren’t our primary tool anymore. We have to have the knowledge to interpret the results that the software spits out, but we’re putting our computers to work for us. The PE is all hand calcs, so this isn’t truly reminiscent of an engineer’s daily practice like it used to be. That’s only my theory, though – don’t quote me on any of that!

So anyway, Oklahoma is a state that now allows early testing. This meant that I was eligible to test in the next cycle rather than waiting until April 2020 when my 4 years of experience was done. The test is only offered in April and October every year, so I signed up for the October exam. I’m thankful that my company values licensure enough to offer financial assistance for those of us pursuing it. They paid for my exam registration fee AND a review course to help me pass. The review course was essential for me, because I’m a civil engineer in a power utility. I don’t do just civil engineering things all day every day, and when I do, it’s several disciplines within civil engineering. I’m a jack-of-all-trades at work, so I knew that I would have to do a lot of self-study to pass the exam.

The test itself is split into two parts – the breadth section and the depth section, more colloquially known as the morning and afternoon sections, respectively. As a civil engineer, I took the same morning tests as every other civil that tested with me. The breadth is common to all civil engineers. The depth section is more specialized, and there are five options: structural, water resources, transportation, construction management, and geotechnical. I took the geotechnical depth, which focuses on soil mechanics and foundation engineering. That’s my favorite aspect of civil engineering, and since I knew I would have to learn new material to pass the exam anyway I wanted to study something I enjoyed.

The review course I took for the October exam was through Engineering Education and Training. A few friends at work had worked with them in previous testing cycles with good results, so I registered for the on-demand style for both breadth and depth (you can do one or the other, but I chose to do both). They sent me two 4″ binders full of review material in the form of powerpoint presentations, equation summary sheets, example problems, and practice exams that I could use to study. There are several professors that host webinars in which they go through that material; those webinars are recorded, and those of us that have on-demand access can watch it on our schedule. The nice thing about the PE is that it’s open book/open note, meaning that all the little notes I wrote on the slides as I was watching the recordings went with me into the exam room.

Let’s talk about that open book business for a minute. I had 6 books/binders in the room with me: the EET breadth binder, the EET depth binder, the OSHA manual for safety related questions, the FE reference manual (the FE isn’t open book – you only have the reference manual of equations that the test company provides), the Geotechnical Engineer’s Portable Handbook, and the Civil Engineering Reference Manual. Six references, and that’s it besides my NCEES-approved calculator. Most people had approximately the same amount of material I had, which, in my opinion, is about right. The PE is a timed exam, 4 hrs for the morning and 4 hrs in the afternoon. With 40 questions in each section, you only have 6 min per question. Being familiar with your reference material is half the battle! You don’t have time to go search through the Library of Congress to find the answer for every question. One girl in my room brought in 4 milk crates stacked on a dolly into the room with her. Each crate had dozens of spiral bound notebooks, binders, and textbooks. I don’t know how she managed it all, since the stack was 18 inches taller than she was. It was a bit absurd. If it worked for her, more power to her, but I’d recommend keeping it reasonable. My books fit into a standard carry-on suitcase.

As far as studying goes, this is the hardest I’ve studied for any test ever. I had close to 200 hrs into studying for this thing by the time it was over. All I did was watch the webinars I mentioned earlier and take practice exams. I signed up for the exam and the course back in May, but I didn’t really crack down studying until October hit. At that point, everything non-essential was on hold. I would usually watch one recording in the mornings at work, another one or two in the afternoons at work, and then another one or two at home after dinner. Weekends were devoted to studying as well. Because the binders were massive, I kept the breadth binder at work and studied breadth concepts there and the depth binder stayed at home. Logistically, it worked out well, but studying sucked. It was definitely a marathon and required more endurance than I realized. Corey essentially didn’t have a wife that month, which was unfortunate because our anniversary is in October.

Exam day was at the end of the month. There was only one testing location for the entire state; luckily it was in my hometown, so I stayed with my parents rather than in a hotel. The exam was on a Friday, so I took Thursday off of work to travel and try to relax. My mom jumped right back into the mode she was in when I was in school – she made my favorite dinner Thursday night and packed my lunch for Friday. I spent all of Friday with my nose buried in the exam, thinking of little else. The exam day policies dictated that I couldn’t even have my phone with me or they’d invalidate my test, so my phone stayed in my car all day. I walked out of the exam completely brain dead and thankful that I could crash with my parents another night! I was bummed that I’d be away from Corey and Bear for another night, but when I got back to my parents’ house after the test, I was greeted by Corey and Bear! They’d driven down to surprise me.

At the time of this writing, it’s been a month since the test, and I don’t have results yet. The testing company says that it can take 8-10 weeks for results to come in, since they have to score the test, analyze the results and adjust for bad questions, address complaints submitted by examinees, investigate possible test procedure violations, etc etc etc. The results will sort of be pass/fail. If I pass, that’s all they’ll tell me. If I fail, they’ll give me a breakdown of scores so I know where to focus my studying next time. Waiting is miserable, so I’m trying not to think about it. I do have a Chrome extension running on my browser at work that’s refreshing the results page every 30 seconds though – that totally will get my results in faster, right?

That’s all I got. Talk to you later.

~Aiden

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