Being a Professional Engineer comes with great responsibility. Professional Engineers go through rigorous procedure in order to obtain and maintain their license. These requirements protect the public by enforcing standards that allow only qualified individuals who have met educational, practice and exam requirements to practice as licensed Professional Engineers (P.E.). In the United States, obtaining a Professional Engineering and Professional Land Surveying license is governed by state laws. Each state sets its own requirements, and they do vary from state to state. Students and engineers who are looking to get a professional engineering license should inquire within the state or territory where they intend to practice, to understand actual requirement of that state or territory.
In the United States, licensing of engineers is administered at the state level by professional licensing boards. The boards will issue a new P.E. license once candidate fulfills the education, experience and exam requirements. You can read more about each requirement in the paragraphs below.
There are many reasons why you would choose to get licensed. It provides prestige, indicates to your current and prospective employers that you are committed to your professional development, comes with certain authority as it allows you to sign and seal drawings or own an engineering business, provides greater career flexibility, as well as financial benefits.
Step 1: Education
In general, professional engineering licensing boards require the P.E. candidate to have a four-year EAC/ABET accredited bachelor’s degree in relevant subjects. Candidates holding a foreign or non-accredited degree must ask their college / university to send a full transcript directly to the engineering licensing board to be evaluated. This could be a lengthy process (and your educational institution may charge you a fee) so allow sufficient time for this process. Each licensing board may have additional specific requirements so please check with the licensing board in the state or territory where you plan to obtain a P.E. license.
Step 2: FE Exam
First step on the road of becoming a licensed P.E. is the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam. This exam is normally taken by recent graduates or students close to completing an undergraduate degree from an EAC/ABET accredited program. The FE exam is a 6 hour long on-site computer based exam administered by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) and includes 110 questions.
The 6-hour exam consists of the following:
- Nondisclosure agreement (2 minutes)
- Tutorial (8 minutes)
- Exam (5 hours and 20 minutes)
- Scheduled break (25 minutes)
- Brief survey
You can take the FE exam in seven disciplines:
- Chemical Engineering
- Civil Engineering
- Electrical and Computer Engineering
- Environmental Engineering
- Industrial and Systems Engineering
- Mechanical Engineering
- Other Disciplines
FE exam includes the traditional multi-choice question type, as well as the Alternative Item Types (AITs) such as fill in the blanks, multiple correct answers, point and click (usually click on graphics) and drag and drop.
The exam is a ‘closed book’ exam, meaning you are not allowed to bring in any reference material. A searchable electronic version of the NCEES FE Reference handbook is integrated into the computer-based exam. You can bring an NCEES approved calculator to the exam. For additional information about the FE exam, including past pass rates, you can visit the NCEES FE Exam web page.
For preparing for the FE exam candidates can use the NCEES FE Reference handbook which is available to purchase as a hard copy or you can access a free online version once you have established a free NCEES account. Booklets containing practice exams for each of the seven disciplines of the FE exam are available for purchase in hard copy only.
Once you pass the FE exam you become an Engineering in Training (EIT) or Engineering Intern (EI). Obtaining the EIT or EI status indicates that you have grasped the fundamentals of engineering and are on your way to achieving a P.E. license.
Step 3: Experience
In general, most state licensing boards require at least four years of acceptable, progressive, and verifiable work experience in the industry, before being eligible to sit the P.E. exam. Usually the required work experience must be accumulated after graduation, but there is some exception, although rare. Most states allow a postgraduate course of study to be included as work experience, but usually limited to a maximum of one-year credit.
In order to be recognized as qualifying experience, certain conditions must be met. The experience:
- Should be in the major topic of engineering that the candidate is claiming proficiency in
- Must be supervised and verified by a licensed P.E.
- Must be of high quality allowing the candidate to develop technical skills and sound judgement in applying engineering principles
- Must be sufficiently broad to provide well-rounded exposure to various topics of engineering within candidate’s area of practice
- Must show progressive responsibility, ranging from simple task to greater complexity with higher levels of responsibility
The experience must be documented in two parts when applying to sit the P.E. exam: the candidate’s own statement of work performed complying with the above requirements, as well as a verification by the supervising P.E. familiar with your progressive responsibility and experience.
Step 4: PE / SE Exam
The Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam tests for a minimum level of competency in a particular engineering discipline. It is designed for engineers who have gained a minimum of four years’ post-college work experience in their chosen engineering field.
The PE exam is administered in the following areas of engineering:
- Agricultural and Biological Engineering
- Architectural Engineering
- Control Systems
- Electrical and Computer
- Fire Protection
- Industrial and Systems
- Metallurgical and Materials
- Mining and Mineral Processing
- Naval Architecture and Marine
In addition to the PE exams, some states require structural engineers to be licensed separately, and need to pass the Structural Exam (SE).
NCEES recognizes that there are many different fields of engineering and that a single exam for some of the categories above would not be reasonable. To address this issue, some of the engineering categories listed above have sub-categories that you have to chose from (for example, Civil category has Civil Construction, Civil Geotechnical, Civil Structural, Civil Transportation and Civil Water Resources and Environmental). Most of the exams are 8 hours long, are open book (but everything must be bound, no loose paper is allowed) and have 80 questions. Some are paper and pencil, and some are computer based. For more detailed information on exams in each of the categories above you can visit the NCEES PE Exam web page.
Preparing for the PE exam takes significant amount of effort. You would need a combination of practical experience, knowledge of codes as well as theoretical knowledge of engineering principles. NCEES has a good library of practice exams to help you prepare. Another good reference used by many engineers who successfully passed the PE exam are PPI2PASS publications covering all seventeen engineering categories, as well as the sub-categories.
So, you made it this far. After a lot of hard work and studying, you have passed your PE exam. Congratulations, you should be proud of yourself! You are now a licensed Professional Engineer and can use the letters P.E. after your name.
Many P.E.’s find that their work requires them to work in more than one state. In order to sign and seal documents for a project in a state, an engineer must be licensed in that state. Some states allow you to obtain a temporary license, but most engineers choose to apply for comity licensure. You can apply to each state separately or you can use the NCEES Records service. NCEES will verify your educational and work experience, check references, check licensure in your state and will keep this on file. In case you need to apply for a license in another state, you would simply request for your comprehensive file to be sent to that state’s licensing board and you should be able to get licensed in that state by comity.