Engineering Learning

Thoughts on the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam

Welp, it’s over. And I survived. We’ll see in about 10 weeks if it was worth it.

Overall, it was an interesting experience.

The test itself was very stringently administered. Imagine going to an airport. You stand in line for a long time. You get through the door. You make sure you have your ticket and your government issued ID out and ready to be checked. “Walk through the door please!”, they say. ¬†Hold up your belongings. Are they all in a clear ziplock bag? They’d better be, otherwise they take them away. No cellphones during liftoff. No cellphones at all, you’ll get kicked off the plane in a second. Once you’re ready to disembark you need to wait for the attendants to finish checking. Everything. Thoroughly.

So what did I really learn? Something quite interesting:

I no longer plan to go to graduate school. (I had talked about possibly going back in a previous post)

That’s not really the subject of this post, I’d like to focus on that later, if at all. The short version is that I don’t think I am capable of the things that graduate school demands, at least from students who also work full time. Studying on a nightly basis, giving up all hobbies and time with loved ones; all of these things drive me away from the idea of getting an advanced degree. It’s not that I believe it wouldn’t help my career; I really just am not willing to give up my quality of life in order to get that particular piece of paper at this point in my life. Who knows? Perhaps there will be a time when it is truly required of me to have an advanced degree. However, from a learning perspective I feel that I would be forced to learn just as much–if not more–starting a company; plus that would be much more fulfilling in terms of having a similar time commitment and potential payoff (i.e. if I’m going to spend all that time, why not have a company instead of a piece of paper? Both look good on a resume, right?).

So back to the test. I had been studying for a month or so, perhaps a little bit longer in name only. I borrowed a used review book from a friend:

Everyone uses it, as I’m pretty sure it’s the only one out there. Want to know my personal/(possibly)professional (engineer) opinion? It was way overkill. 40 some odd chapters on every section that could possibly covered by the test. It went pretty deep about each and every topic, to the point that you might see the hardest question on the afternoon general section (the same range of topics as in the morning session, just more difficult). I think it’s important to note that depending on the year the testing board might throw one curveball after another your way or they might just keep lobbing softballs in your direction. Either way, you probably won’t need to learn (or re-learn) all of the material in the depth each chapter goes into with rigor.

Me? Well, I’m not allowed to tell you any details about the test itself. Our flight/test attendants were very sure to remind us over and over again that we were under non-disclosure agreements not to even talk about the test questions amongst our friends. What I believe I can say is that I enjoyed the afternoon section much more than the morning session. If you don’t know about the FE, the morning is 120 multiple choice questions spanning all of the knowledge that an engineer is expected to know after four years of engineering school. I would disagree. I would counter that the morning session is 120 questions for the mechanical and civil engineers. Now, it could be they have greater breadth in their respective disciplines, and even some crossover. It could be that being an engineer other than an electrical engineer requires greater cognitive capacity. Hell, it could be that I just didn’t study enough. But I’ll tell you, an electrical engineer such as myself has never known that much about beams, trusses or adiabatic systems…and never will! To add insult to injury, I think the EE questions were some of the softball-like questions on the exam. Let’s just say I probably had a much harder time with the mechanical/static stuff than the mechanical engineers had with electricity. Or maybe I just don’t care when a beam is going to start deforming irreversibly.

The afternoon session is 60 questions in your discipline, unless you decide you enjoyed the breadth of topics covered in the morning session or your particular discipline isn’t tested (BME for example). The section I decided to take was based upon electrical engineering topics, even expanding away from the typical circuits/power/E&M type questions into the DSP/communication/control disciplines (to all the NCEES people out there, this isn’t information that isn’t available in your lovely handbook). I definitely had to stretch my mind around some of the questions and even learn some before unseen topics while in the session. But that’s what engineering is really all about, right? In the end, if I passed the FE exam, I feel like these questions were much more in the direction I would have to take for the PE exam (to get final certification).

Would I do it again? Well, no, I don’t plan to (if I didn’t pass). I’m glad I tried it at least once. Does that make me sound like a quitter? Maybe. But I justify it as me not needing to be certified by a board that requires such stringent knowledge of beams. Ugh. Beams. Thank goodness there are people out there that enjoy studying and working with them. And that they’re certified to sign off that the beams won’t in fact bend.

Analog Electronics Life Work

Should I get a PE license?

I’ve never thought of myself as particularly upwards mobile in my career (yet). I’m actually very happy where I am right now, learning as much as I can and progressing through the rigorous on the job learning and tribulations I’ve been experiencing so far. However, the sign of a good career path is one where you are surrounded by people who both push you and are good role models for you. I am lucky to be in such a situation and as such, am thinking about getting my Professional Engineer (PE) certification.

This is actually not as common for electrical engineers as it is for other engineering disciplines. For example, most civil engineers can’t touch anything until they have obtained their certification. With the recent bridge disaster in Minneapolis, I can’t say I really object to this. However, just today I was talking with 2 of the 4 PEs at my company, both of whom happen to be in my group, and both were very convincing on reasons why it’d be good for a young engineer to take the Fundamentals of Engineering (or FE, the qualifying exam).

  1. Use it or lose it
    • Even the sites about the FE exam say it: The sooner you take the exam after school, the higher likelihood of passing it. It makes sense. You’re closer to your exam-taking, all-night-cramming, super-stressed-out days of engineering school. Once you enter the practically driven world of the workplace (as opposed to “academically driven”, to put it nicely), you lose some of those skills and they are hard to get back.
  2. Self-employment
    • Aside from the bridge builders and the others who need a PE to sign off on stuff, working as a consultant or a contractor sometimes requires that you have a PE (as an electrical engineer). As I’ve written before, self-employment is an eventual goal of mine, so that’s another reason to consider this.
    • Many power companies actually require that their engineers have their PE. This is because they work “directly for the people” and because the engineers sometimes actually work as contractors for the power company. Oh, and the stuff they make can really kill people quickly, forgot about that.
  3. Feather in the hat
    • As one of the two engineers I was talking to put it, “If you have 100 electrical engineers in a room and ask who has a PE, maybe two will step forward”. Great point. This is a way to show that you’re capable of achieving AND that you’re willing to stand behind your designs. As I really love reading about (and how this blog kind of came to be), careers these days are all about branding and a PE just helps strengthen your brand.

I could tell myself I’d wait until after grad school, but let’s be honest: grad school is about graduating and getting the paper. I think any time I take this exam, I would need to study pretty far in advance. So why not now?