Another Final Exam

October 14, 2008

I’ve now been out of school long enough to learn that there’s really no such thing as a final exam.  I spent most of the past weekend studying for the S.E. – the examination required for structural engineers to receive licensure in Illinois.  It is the most intense test that I’ve ever prepared for – 16 hours of testing split over two days.  The test covers all the major aspects of structural engineering.

The same state departments that regulate professional licensure for barbers and nail techs also set the rules for professional engineers.  Thankfully, they largely follow the recommendations of professional organizations like ASCE and the Structural Engineer’s Association (SEA).  However, since there are 50 different bodies setting the rules, there are annoying differences between states and not all have reciprocity agreements.  A majority of states (i.e. Michigan) require applicants for licensure to pass the Professional Engineer exam (P.E.).  However, Illinois is one of a few states that require the S.E. for licensed Structural Engineers – other types of civil engineers are still covered by the P.E.  It really starts to get complicated when you realize that to be licensed in both Illinois and Michigan, you must pass both exams.

The P.E. and the S.E. really just represent the final step in the licensure process.  Most states also require between 3 and 5 years of work experience.  Sometimes, a master’s or doctorate degree can substitute for a year or more of working experience.  To prove that you have the right amount of experience, a licensed engineer has to sign-off on your application.  This can mean calling up old bosses and asking for a favor.

Before you need to worry about the work experience, there is, of course, another test required by most states.  In the spring of my junior year I took the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam (F.E.); at the time it was called the Engineering in Training exam (EIT).  The F.E. is the first step on most state’s paths to licensure.  The test broadly covers the math, science and engineering courses common to most engineering disciplines.

I would recommend that you take this exam as soon as possible after completing your thermodynamics, hydrology and statistics & mechanics courses.  You’re going to quickly begin to forget those classes whose subject matter you don’t use.

By the spring of 2007, I had the requisite experience and had passed the F.E.  I wanted to take the P.E. at the first possible opportunity (to get it out of the way), but I missed the deadline for registration.  Since these tests are only offered twice a year, I finally took the exam in 2008.  The P.E. tests a broad base of civil engineering knowledge.  In the 4-hour morning session, hydrology, structures, geotechnical engineering, construction and surveying are tested.  Four years after graduation, it is tough to remember all those subjects.  The afternoon session is focused on your concentration (for me it was structures).  That’s the easier part, because it’s what you do on a daily basis.

If you’ve followed the discussion up to this point, then I have one last curve ball.  If you were to work internationally, most countries also have their own licensure requirements.  Thankfully there is a movement to provide one international standard for structural engineers, called IStructE.

So why go through all of this work?  Most companies only allow a few executives to sign and seal drawings anyway.  For many engineers earning licensure is mostly a point of pride – you get to add letters to the end of your name just like doctors.  It also sends a clear signal to you boss that you’re committed to advancing your career.  Of course, if you open your own firm, you need to be licensed.

At this point, I’ve crossed the F.E. and P.E. off my list.  With luck, I’ll be able to scratch off the S.E. soon.  That leaves the IStructE and the LEED certification exam.  Who knows what other tests I might have to add to the list.  Maybe some day I’ll take that final exam.

For more information about these licensure tests see:
www.ncees.org
www.istructe.org

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