To Be or Not To Be a PE?


My seal is similar, only my name is filled in...

I earned my professional engineering license in 1986 while I resided in South Carolina. This license has a few qualifiers to it, namely you are required to have at least four years of professional, post-college, experience. There is also what used to be called the ‘Engineer in Training’ or EIT exam. This one I took and passed while a senior in college. (I missed the annual Oklahoma University versus Oklahoma State football game, but you gotta do what you gotta do, sometimes.)

I was really glad in hind sight that I took the EIT during college, for it proved difficult enough to study and remember the college coursework some eight years later. The EIT was an open book, multiple choice, all day exam. The hardest part was searching for the answers in a timely manner in order to complete all of the questions. Had I waited a year or two after graduation, it would have been a lot harder to find those answers, much less remember the book work that provided most of the question matter for the test.

There is a myth lurking around that possessing a professional engineers license makes you promotable. Having a license would surely increase my likeability factor among my superiors and translate into all sorts of opportunities and riches. That’s never been my experience, but it did result in a few job offers when I needed them most. And it does look good on my resume.

My journey to obtaining the professional engineer’s license began in the summer of 1985. A couple of my co-workers and I agreed to take the professional engineering exam. Correct that: we agreed to take a six-week review course in preparation for the exam. Out of the three of us who finished the review course, I was the only one to actually charge forward and take the test.

A local community college offered a series of classes to prepare us for the eight-hour exam. We faithfully attended every class. The six weeks were divided into various engineering topics to refresh our technical expertise in each one.  Old concepts slowly returned to my consciousness. I thought I could do this.

It turns out some of the professors had actually graded the exams and gave us just as many tips in how to take the exam. Turns out the key to passing the test involves defining assumptions and justifying reasons for using one equation or algorithm over another. The actual answer wasn’t graded. Anyone can miss a decimal point and fat finger a calculator, but it takes a real idiot to miss the entire concept.

The first time pass rate for the mechanical engineering exam is between 60 and 70% on average. Pregnant with my first child, and my husband busy building up his business, I had a lot of time on my own. Studying would be a snap. I signed up for the October exam and upon completion of the review classes and already three months pregnant, set out to study for the test.

I mapped out a study plan, working on a single topic each weekend, culminating with an overview of everything the weekend before the exam. From Friday night to Sunday evening I poured over the class notes, calculated, deciphered, took sample tests and worked sample questions. I was a demon, working all week and then studying on the weekend. Drinking in the knowledge that had lain dormant in my brain since college. I don’t believe I’ve ever put so much effort into an activity.

Co-workers contributed their own books that held information I lacked. The test is an open book exam. Seems even the powers that be knew that one person couldn’t ever retain that much knowledge. My entourage of paperwork grew. Too soon it was time for the test.

The exam was held in the state capital, about a hundred miles away. My husband and I packed up my box of books, pencils and calculator and made the trek the night before the exam. The next morning, he accompanied me into the exam room, a huge open space filled with rows of tables and chairs. I located an end of one of the rows, my husband set my box of books down, I arranged my calculator, pencils and paper. I took a deep breath and sat in anticipation of the test.

I looked around the room.  A few women were in this huge room. I was the only pregnant one, now five months along. Before I could second-guess myself wondering what in the heck I was doing there, the proctor began the instructions. Hours clicked by. Pleasantly surprised that I was very well prepared for the test, I worked each problem putting as much detail as I could, justifying my decisions for how I approached the problem.

One question was so simple: it involved calculating a point load on a column. One simple equation, one simple answer. Or was it? Was it a trick? I went with the former and worked the simple problem.

The morning session ended followed by a too quick lunch break and back I returned into the room for another four hours. Calculating, interpreting, assuming, guessing, wishing, hoping, praying. I had completed the have-to problems and actually had some time for extra credit. I remember I could add one more problem to the eight required in case I totally blew one of them I picked an electrical problem.

What was I thinking? I had dropped the electronics class because it was just too confusing, all those amps and ohms and things. I guess I felt pretty lucky and so stretched a little in working that problem. After all, I did have all those books. Surely something electrical was in one of them! I forged through and wrote down an answer; convinced my thought process was intact.

Exhausted and mentally drained after the eight hours, I climbed into the car for the ride home. My baby, who up until this point had kicked just once or twice, suddenly came to life, fluttering wildly in my belly. Had all my pent up anxiety over the past couple of months induced stress to my baby that was now releasing? Would the transfer through the womb of the emotions, stress and worry impact him? I wouldn’t find out the answer to these questions until the baby hit fourteen years old. I think the answer, and he would agree, is a resounding YES.



About stemzandroses

I'm an engineer and writer with a built-in need to share my nearly 40 years of experience working in a male-dominated field with the rest of the world.
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8 Responses to To Be or Not To Be a PE?

  1. CE Jones says:

    Whew! This makes me tired just reading it!

  2. Vicki says:

    So did you pass? I know how Tim turned out. He weathered the storm pretty well. Just the word algorithem makes my brain hurt.

  3. Pingback: How the PE Got the Job | STEMz and Roses

  4. Pingback: Practical Jokes on a Pregnant Engineer | STEMz and Roses

  5. Kate says:

    I plan to take the PE In October but worry about being in my third trimester. I’m worried both that (a) my brain will be fuzzy; and (b) I’ll stress my baby. If you could do it again, would you do it differently?

    • Thanks for reading this post, Kate, and Congratulations on your impending baby! I was early in my 2nd trimester when I took the exam and after the test was complete, the baby went crazy kicking me quite a bit. That baby is now 29 years old and he’s still very active! That aside, I just knew that if I didn’t take the exam before I had the baby, it would be hard to take it afterwards. Babies take a lot of time, time that you will want to give to him/her. I don’t think I’d do it any differently; I had planned for the exam and started taking review classes months ahead of learning I was pregnant. You might want to ask your doctor about stressing the baby, but they can handle a lot. If you will be early in the last trimester, then it won’t be so hard. I don’t think your brain will be fuzzy so much as distracted, wanting to be thru with the pregnancy, eager to see the new addition to your life and other non-career related thoughts. Good luck on the exam and let me know how it goes!

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