Monthly Mechanics: So You Want to Be an Engineer?

Civil engineers design buildings, highways, and other structures that people depend on. When you sign and stamp a design as a Professional Engineer (PE), you assume responsibility for the structure’s safety, and liability in the event of a collapse. That’s a mighty weight on your shoulders, so it’s a good thing you must prove your competence many times over before the powers that be will issue you a license.

The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) decides how you get a PE license in most US states. For most people, it’s a four-step journey:

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering from a four-year, ABET-accredited college.
  2. Pass an 8-hour test called the Fundamentals of Engineering exam. At this point you become an Engineer-in-Training (EIT).
  3. Complete four years of engineering practice under the supervision of a PE. (This raises the question of who was the very first PE. I can only assume the requirements have changed in the last 100-odd years.)
  4. Pass another 8-hour test called the Principles and Practices exam.

There are lots of variations. I spent one extra year in school earning a master’s degree, and so I only needed to complete three years of practice. (Although, by the time my application was processed and I sat for the last exam, I was up to four years anyway.) You can replace step 1 with an ABET-accredited master’s degree in engineering if you have a bachelor’s degree in some other subject. You can skip step 1 entirely if you accumulate twelve years of practice for step 3, and you can even skip step 2 with twenty years of practice.

The exams cover diverse technical subjects like structural analysis, highway and traffic design, fluid mechanics, and construction management, plus a smattering of economics and ethics. If you want to focus your expertise on structures, then for step 4 you may instead choose to pass the Structural Engineering exam, which grants you a Structural Engineer (SE) license rather than a PE. Some states actually require an SE, not a PE, to sign off on buildings and bridges over a certain size. But let me warn you: the SE test is a 16-hour exam over two days, with much more difficult questions than the PE test.

A great place to start is to read the Civil Engineering Reference Manual by Michael Lindeburg. It’s a hefty tome, but it covers every topic under the sun, replete with graphics and example problems. I found this book indispensable as I studied for the exams, and I continue to refer to it for my practice today. Good luck!

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