navigating the water resources professional engineering exam

Yup, that’s my seal! I’ve informed all my instagram followers to now call me Miss Andi, PE.

I was recently asked how I got into engineering. Growing up, my siblings and I always had access to a workshop full of machinery and an eager dad showing us how to use pH strips on anything lying around. An interesting memory from my childhood is my dad pulling a friend’s business card out of his wallet, putting it on the table and saying “Look at these little letters here. PE. It means he’s really smart.”

The lens of Adult Andi knows this is a bit of a hyperbole and, possibly, just a learning experience for some middle school-aged kid who was hiding 5% grades on math tests in a book in their room (sorry dad! I meant to tell you about that someday!). The truth is more like this:

To do what I do, I didn’t have a choice in whether I got the PE. Those little letters signify that you have been approved by the state board as a competent, ethical person who can make decisions about whether you are qualified to sign off on a project. The running industry joke is that it now means you can get sued! (Yeaaaaaaaah, it’s not very funny. I agree.)

If I want to work on municipal and state projects, I have to be legally responsible for my work. Any negligence could be detrimental to life and environment. So there’s not much of a choice if I want my career to advance.

On the same coin, it does make me feel better to know that someone with a license “stamped off” on the bridge I cross everyday. And the dam near my loft. Though for a strange plot twist, nobody stamped off on the design of the airplanes that I typically frequent (see, industrial exemption).

Everyone who has made it through the turbulence of engineering school has the tools to pass it. The knowledge is back in your head somewhere. And if it’s not and it’s something not relevant to what you do everyday, you’ll learn it if you put in the work. Even so, 80% of engineers won’t do this (see, industrial exemption, above, and get fired up! And go out and change this!).

the first time I used calculus since undergrad—teaching myself transportation engineering

There’re tons of guides out there for PE studying, for tips, for resources. This will not be another one of those. Since I am a water blog, I want to focus on specific water resources and environmental engineering highlights.

For those of you just stumbling onto this post, the professional engineering exam is the last of two exams required for licensing. It’s an eight hour exam. Yes, you read that right. It follows the Fundamentals of Engineering exam (previously the engineer-in-training exam) which is ALSO eight hours. But, it’s doable. It’s studyable.

Just because it’s doable, doesn’t mean it’s a breeze. The pass rate is in the 60 percentile range. Some of the information you’re tested on is outside what you do everyday. Think of it as an awesome opportunity to learn more stuff! Or don’t—focus on what you do everyday and let that carry your score. Retakes are allowed but typically have a cap for retakes (the exact rules vary by state).

Zanzamittens loves studying too!

Generally, to curb my test-taking anxiety, I study the most that I can. But…there’s a limit, there is too much studying (which I did and hopefully you will not).

I took the FE Other Disciplines portion in undergrad. At the time, the rumor was that the pass rate was in the 46th percentile for my discipline but it’s more like 75%. For all FE exams, the 4-hour morning course was core engineering and math classes. The 4-hour afternoon course was split into each sub-discipline of engineering. For those of us that took the non-specialized “Other Disciplines” test, we suffered through another 4-hours of core classes. Not the fun, civil stuff. So when everyone else left feeling okay about the afternoon portion, I went home to lick my paws and make myself spiked chocolate milkshakes (not endorsing that…but hey, I was 21. I literally studied for the FE on my 21st birthday).

For the PE exam, I would do it differently. I would come knowing that I studied as much as humanely possible (how delusional I was…). I would study for seven months. Not every day, but this will allow me to choose when I want to study.

It felt great at first. Well no, that was a lie. It was fun to study again. I made it through grad school. I was good at studying. But it was ridden with unsureness because I remembered squat from undergrad. Because I hadn’t taken a transportation class or a concrete class or an environmental class or a structural class or… well you get the point. I lacked confidence. I was standing on the edge of a cavernous, fluvially eroded, karst formation staring into the abyss. But in seven months, an engineer can sure build a bridge to the other side. Then I think, I’m not quite an engineer yet, not until I pass this darn test!

By month four, I opened up my notes to problems I’d done previously and couldn’t remember even doing them. Much less, how I solved them. It’s not helpful at that point. You can’t go back to learn the basics of everything again, no matter how dedicated you are to studying. You need some resources to help. Chosen well, those resources build your bridge.

For me, the best resources were these:

  1. Test Master’s notes. These people know what they are doing. I researched many, many, many other programs for studying but this, though pricey, is worth it. Even if you do have the motivation to study without their hand-holding.
  2. The NCEES Civil Engineering book. I didn’t use this too much in studying but I used the heck out of the index during the test.
  3. Handmade crib sheets (mine were bound nicely with a cover page). I’m attaching a link to them. Side note: these are not for distribution. I just want you to get a sense for what you’d need for the exam. Anyway, you’ll end up rewriting them a bunch.

Of course even with all that studying, I didn’t feel prepared for it. I was sure better off than seven months prior, but would have been just as good with two solid months of studying instead of seven semi-solid months of studying. And yes, I left knowing which problems I FOR SURE got wrong and having a mental list of problems that I had no idea if I’d gotten them. I spent hours pouring over the problems I didn’t know but had raced through the problems that I did know. I was mentally and emotionally drained (I’m really selling this test, huh.). And then I forgot about it.

One day before Christmas, I found out I’d passed by email. I had those two little letters. The first thing I did was call my dad. DAD I PASSED THE PE!!!!!!!!!!!!! And then I told the WHOLE WORLD. You were probably on the email chain.

Now, I’m stamping all the projects I’ve been working on the past few years. And spending all lunch break working on my signature for my stamp.

So what I’m saying is this. You can do it, I have faith in you. Sign up for the exam maybe three months in advance (or whenever the deadline is) and trust yourself to put the time into preparing for it (that’s how I’m attempting to go at this marathon I just signed up for). That’s a philosophy that works for me but not for everyone. If not, don’t be afraid to overpay for a review course. And don’t be afraid to fail. It doesn’t make you a poor engineer.


Miss Andi, PE

2 Replies to “navigating the water resources professional engineering exam”

  1. Congratulations!! One thing I am thankful for is that my form of engineering doesn’t require you to be a PE. I can’t imagine doing that on top of a PhD…

    1. totally! In fact, I think for civil, the people who go phd don’t generally bother with the PE either! It seems to be reserved for consulting 🙂

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