Timing is Key for Becoming a PE
by Joel Erway
When it comes to becoming a professional engineer, timing is crucial. For some, professional licensure is the goal right out of the gate. Others obtain their license later on, often when advancement opportunities are more apparent. But the thing these two groups of engineers have in common is the desire to excel by becoming a Professional Engineer (PE).
To fully explore the trials and wins of pursuing licensure at earlier or later stages in life, I spoke with two engineers that took very different routes.
Profiles of our Licensed PE and our Engineer-in-Training (EIT)
Joe Baker* is a senior mechanical engineer and a licensed PE in HVAC and Refrigeration. He designs heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems for commercial buildings. “I perform a wide variety of tasks from meeting with clients, calculating heating and cooling loads, selecting equipment, designing distribution systems, inspecting installations, and providing commissioning services like site inspections and field functional performance testing,” he explained.
Baker has been practicing engineering professionally for nearly 10 years and finds the work interesting and his career path both clear and motivating.
He knew right away that he wanted to stay motivated and map out a path to licensure. Baker anticipated his educational milestones from college through to passing the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam, so he had time to figure out what he needed to do in order to sit for and pass the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam. He recognized that he might encounter unforeseen difficulties if he waited to see where his career took him.
Pierce Umberger, EIT, took a different approach. He has a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, an M.S., and a Ph.D. in Engineering Mechanics, all from Virginia Tech.
Umberger is a consultant for an engineering firm that does forensic investigations, failure analysis, and general consulting work in many areas of engineering. He works primarily in the Mechanics and Materials practice group. “The work is fascinating, but it isn’t like a TV show”, he explained. “Investigations span weeks, months, or even years, depending on the size and technical complexity of the challenge.”
He chose a more tentative approach and delayed pursuing his PE license. Working for a forensic investigator, he didn’t immediately see the opportunities that professional licensure would open up in his field. While Pierce was encouraged to become a PE, and appreciated the value of licensure, he deferred because he didn’t initially see a direct connection to his work.
There are many reasons why an engineer would choose to delay getting a PE. From not being certain about a particular career path or type of industry, to not fully realizing the potential benefits and credibility of being licensed, engineers may find themselves on the fence for years without taking action.
If you are currently feeling like Pierce, you may be in a holding pattern even if people are encouraging you to take the exam as soon as possible.
The reality that rings true for Joe and Pierce, and many engineers like them, is that the longer you wait to make this important decision, the more difficult PE exam preparation seems to become.
Q: What made you ultimately decide to pursue your PE license?
Joe: The PE license is very important to an engineer's career. Licensure is typically accompanied by an increase in responsibility and compensation. Many members of the construction community respect a licensed PE for the accomplishment and aptitude required to pass.
Pierce: The PE license is highly desired in my field. Our work often takes us into depositions and onto the witness stand in litigation, and the PE credential is important for credibility. Many professors and advisers in college encouraged me to take the PE, but I chose not to… I now consider this to be a mistake.
Q: How soon after college did you take the FE exam?
Joe: I sat for the FE exam in April of my senior year in college.
Pierce: I took the FE exam in May 2014 – six years after undergraduate, one year after my terminal degree.
Q: What was the approximate time spent reviewing for the FE exam? What was your confidence level in passing after you took it?
Joe: I spent approximately 40 hours within three or four days. I felt pretty confident.
Pierce: I purchased the NCEES practice exam when I signed up for the FE. Work got busy and I ended up taking the practice exam the night before the FE. I spent perhaps an hour familiarizing myself with the reference manual prior to taking the practice. I also spent approximately 30 minutes familiarizing myself with the calculator, mainly because I had been spoiled by a TI-89 and hadn't used a scientific calculator in some time.
My confidence level was high after sitting for the FE exam. I had scored well on the practice exam the night before.
Q: Did you sit down for the PE exam as soon as you were qualified to take it?
Joe: No, I sat for the exam in 2014. I was eligible in 2011.
Pierce: I plan to sit for the PE as soon as I have the requisite work experience.
Q: How much time did you set aside to prepare for the PE exam?
Joe: I studied at least 14 hours a week for four months using some materials from PPI and other industry handbooks, usually in three-hour sessions twice a week, and an eight-hour session on the weekend. The application [to take the exam] took approximately five months to complete and assemble. My computer hard drive crashed half way through completing the application, so I highly recommend backing up the files regularly.
Pierce: I plan to spend several months preparing. I am lucky to have a career that allows me some schedule flexibility for study time.
Q: In your opinion, which exam was more difficult (FE or PE)?
Joe: This is a difficult question. I was more prepared for the FE since I was still in college. In order to properly prepare for the PE I needed to spend significantly more time. I found the PE exam to be more difficult in that life tended to get in the way of studying. At times it was very difficult to find the time and motivation to study.
Q: In your own words, what is the importance of a Professional Engineering license?
Joe: The PE license is a source of professional pride. It tends to increase employment opportunities, and the potential for leadership roles within a firm.
Pierce: The importance varies by field. In my particular case, the PE license is an important credential to establish competency when qualifying oneself as an expert in a litigation matter.
Q: Would obtaining your license have been more difficult had you waited to take the exams later in life?
Joe: Absolutely. I have seen many competent engineers fail both exams later in their careers. Life only gets busier and time more difficult to dedicate to studying. The earlier one takes the exam, the easier it will be to pass.
Pierce (does not yet have a license): I wish I'd taken the FE exam sooner. I found myself having trouble recalling topics like heat transfer and thermodynamics that I hadn't used much since 2007 or so. I'm going to have to spend a significant amount of time preparing myself for the PE on these topics.
Understanding what others have experienced may help you realize you are not alone if you are conflicted about committing to the FE or PE exams.
Both of these engineers agree that no matter what, life does get in the way. The longer you wait to sit for the exams, the more difficult they become and the further away your engineering career dreams are from becoming a reality. Ultimately, licensure is a huge accomplishment in engineering and critical for many career paths.
Thankfully, no matter where you are in your career and life, there are many books, online resources and materials available to help you achieve your goals.
The best thing to do is to start now. Think about what you really need to achieve your goals and research the support available. Start here by checking out the FAQ page at ppi2pass.com for specifics about the exams, as well as advice from former examinees.
PPI, has commissioned this article through Engineering.com contributor, Joel Erway, best-selling author, and engineer. All opinions expressed in this article are his.