Saturday, April 12, 2008

At least it's over

Hah, you thought I was talking about the sweater I'm making for myself, aren't you. No, that's still sitting in the basket, waiting for me to make the neckband.

Yesterday I took the Professional Engineering exam up in Seattle (see below). I have been dreading this for ages, and really didn't put the amount of time into studying that I really should have. It's the first time I've taken the exam but I am quite sure that it's not the last.

The exam is divided into two parts: breadth and depth. Civil engineering is really a broad discipline and the breadth section reflects that. Basic questions on transportation planning, roadway design, structural analysis, geotechnical. When I say "basic", I mean that all the information you need is right in the question. You still have to know how to determine the answer but there aren't five or six additional pieces of information you have to derive in order to get the final answer. (That kind of stuff is saved for the depth exam.)

The Civil depth exam is divided into five modules--transportation, structures, geotechnical, water resources/environmental, and construction. This is the first time the construction module has been offered (water resources and environmental used to be separate modules), and I bought the review manual from the exam site to get an idea what would be on it. The construction module contained a lot of question types that used to be in transportation (e.g. surveying and roadway design questions), as well as a lot of economic style questions (e.g. figuring out how much it would cost to build a wall based on cost of materials, labor cost and labor rate). Complex problems, but not entirely difficult ones, and I felt reasonably prepared for that. The transportation module was a lot less roadway design now than planning analysis, so I opted to take the construction depth module.

Which probably would have worked out as well as anything else if the damn exam was anything like the actual study materials. Remember, this is the first time the construction module was given, and the only study materials were offered from the same organization that actually writes the damn exam. If I had realized that most of the questions would be structural engineering, I wouldn't have taken it. If I'd realized that fully 25% of the questions would be about worker safety codes, I wouldn't have taken it? Why? This is an open book exam, and since I didn't know that I'd have to refer to OSHA requirements, I didn't have any materials with me. I didn't have any ASTM reference materials or the Pile Driving index put out by a national industry publication.

About 25% of the questions I could actually answer based on my knowledge and reference materials, and about 15% I felt I could make an educated guess. The rest were pure guesswork. How bad was it? We had four hours to take the exam and just after two hours had passed, I had done all that I could do. I decided to actually tackle the transportation module and mark my answers separately and if at the end of the exam, I felt like I'd done better on transportation, I'd have turned that one in instead. But I didn't have enough time to do those questions either, so it was a wash.

If I do pass, it will be total luck and I will be deeply cynical about the license. Most likely, I'll end up taking it at least once and probably twice. Most people who don't pass it on the first try pass it on the third, and about 20% don't pass it even after the fifth time.


Engineering in the US is rather unusual amongst the licensed professions in that professional licensure is not linked to formal education.* Unlike medical doctors, nurses, or lawyers who need their professional license in order to work, engineers only need a professional license for certain activities (e.g. like running their own company or approving engineering drawings). Qualifications for the PE exam is based on a combination of educational background and work experience (unlike medicine or law, where successful completion of an approved curriculum is required to even qualify to take the exam).

*It is a bit more complicated than this. The engineering licenses are administered and run by the individual states, and each state can set its own qualification requirements as well as passing rates. The basic exam is national and is accepted by all the states, but some states have state specific requirements in addition to obtain a license for that state. For example, for an Alaska PE license, you have to demonstrate knowledge of engineering in permafrost soils, and in California, you have to have a lot of knowledge of seismic issues.

What I think is rather interesting is that in many states I don't qualify to take the PE exam since I don't have an engineering degree. In other states, I don't have enough work experience to qualify. However, since it's a national exam, and each state recognizes a PE license earned in another state, I could still work as an engineer in those states once I get my PE license. All I have to do is a pay a fee to that state's engineering board to get a "state PE license" (just talking about the basic license, not state specific engineering knowledge, although California and Alaska are the only two states I know of that have additional requirements.)

Even more interesting is that by international agreement, a PE license from the US is accepted in the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, even though in Australia and NZ at least, professional licensure is more restricted than in the US. In fact, the whole reason I started down this torturous road of getting the PE (first step was passing the Fundamentals of Engineering exam) was because I had this crazy idea of moving to New Zealand.

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