I know the feeling. Everyone around you seems to be passing the exam with flying colors and now it's your turn. It has been a few years since you passed your PE and it's time to decide whether you should take the next step.
Deciding to take the exam was a big decision for me. I knew it would take a lot of time commitment and a lot of effort. I also knew it would cost me some money for books and exam fees…etc.
I finally decided to go for it after careful consideration – that's what I am here to help you do. In this post (Part I), I will discuss some of the things you should think about. I will have a follow-up post (Part II) which will guide you to make your decision step-by-step.
(Update 1/23/2014: Part II has been posted!)
Let's see what you actually gain by taking and passing the SE exam. Knowing how you can benefit can sometimes motivate you when you are just not in the mood to study. It's easy to promise yourself that you'll bury your head in the books everyday until the exam but from time to time, you'll hit that ditch and ask yourself: “Why and what the heck am I doing this!?”
Here are a few benefits I can think of:
By having a “SE” title after your name, people tend to give more weight and respect to what you have to say. (Of course, this also depends on how you present yourself – I'll talk more about this in a future post). But in general, architect/contractor/owners will be more inclined to agree with your opinions which leads to the second benefit.
You know how difficult the exam is. Once you pass, you should celebrate it as one of your greatest achievements. Knowing that you have accomplished such a great feat will boost your confidence level and help you realize that you are not as useless as you thought (j/k!)
Authority and confidence kind of go hand in hand – when others treat you like you are the expert, you will become more confident and subsequently you will present yourself with even more authority – and the cycle goes on.
(Although having a SE is not the ultimate answer in gaining confidence but it's definitely one of the variables.)
3. Appreciation of others
After going through the entire process yourself, you'll be able to see your SE bosses and colleagues a little differently and appreciate them more.
Now and then you probably have gotten the feeling that they just don't know what the heck they are talking about besides bossing you around – but after taking the SE exam, you'll have more confidence in them because you'll know that deep down, they probably know a thing or two since the exam was very difficult and they passed! It's almost as if you have walked a couple of steps in their shoes and have gained some compassion.
By having greater appreciation of the engineers around you will make you humble and friendlier which is a very important trait in our profession.
After spending more than 100-300 hours of studying, you should know more about engineering than before. For me, I was fairly comfortable with steel and wood but not concrete and masonry. After studying, I now have a pretty good understanding of what's going on.
I expect you to feel the same way after studying. Sometimes you may even encounter things that you thought you knew very well but turned out to be the opposite. Even if you are really confidence in your technical abilities, you still never know what new things you might learn in the fine prints.
5. Legal credential
OK the above 4 points are all intangible and somewhat subjective. I got to have at least one objective benefit to balance it out so here it is.
You'll be able to stamp the structural drawings for schools and hospitals (in California) which means potential promotions within the company you are at. If you have a bit of experience dealing with DSA & OSHPD, adding a SE to your title will make you a more desirable candidate to other employers also.
Finally, if you are looking to start your own company, having the title will boost your credibility and will allow you to work on a wider range of projects with your clients.
Now let’s talk about some of the “uncertainties” that you might run into. I prefer to call it “uncertainties” rather than “downsides” or “drawbacks” since uncertainties could potentially have an upside.
These aren't meant to discourage you or anything but are just a few things you might put into consideration during your decision making process.
1. No pay raise or bonus even if you pass
Depending on the size of the firm, the types of work you do, and the economy, you may or may not get a pay raise/bonus from your company.
In mid-sized to large structural firms (more than 20 engineers), everyone is kind of expected to take their SEs so it is gradually becoming an industry standard. Because of that, companies have less incentive to provide monetary award if you pass.
That being said though, based on what I've seen so far from my peers and colleagues, you usually can expect a bonus and not a raise when you pass your SE but I wouldn't count it as a guarantee when deciding whether you should take the exam or not.
2. Cost of registration and exam
Regardless of the pay raise/bonus, there is a good chance that your company will cover the cost of the registration + exam for at least once. Sometimes you just have to ask for it but there’s still a chance that they might say no…
3. Lack of appreciation of from outsiders
The thing about our industry is that most people don't know exactly what we do. When I tell other people that I am a structural engineer, common response: “oh like an architect?” Imagine after studying for hundreds of hours and taking the most difficult exam you’ve even taken in your life, only to hear your friends and family say this after you pass: “Nice congrats! So…what does that mean, are you getting a raise?”
It’s a little discouraging but sometimes you just have to realize that we are not doing this to prove to anyone else but ourselves. I’ll talk more about that in the future.
4. Time wasted
You probably have heard of the term “opportunity cost”. The hours you've sent studying, you could have been doing whole bunch of other things – spend time with your significant other, play video games, watch a movie, watch your favorite TV shows, read books, play basketball with friends, party, go on vacations, play with your dog, play with your kids, work overtime…etc. whatever it is that you like doing.
If you don't pass, you may start thinking about the things that you could have done instead of studying and that could be upsetting. However, the upside is that if you are optimistic, you can think about all the new engineering things that you learned while studying that made you more confident. You’ll also know that you have the dedication to do whatever it takes to accomplish your goals.
The Cost & Effort
Now that we've talked about benefits and uncertainties, what's the required cost and effort?
1. Cost of registration & exam fees
Currently in California, the registration fee is $125 and the exam fee is $1020! Yikes! (It's not cheap so you really have to take this seriously…) You are required to pay both. As far the exam fee though, if you pass one part (vertical or lateral), you just need to pay half the next time (i.e. $510 for each portion) so that helps a little.
2. Cost of reference books
This is a little tricky because most of the time you can probably borrow some of these books from your colleagues or friends. Either case, I am just going to list their cost so you get a good idea (I got the list from the exam spec).
|Reference Books||Cost||Get it from Publisher||Get it from Amazon|
|AISC Design Manual 14th Edition||$175||Link|
|AISC Seismic Design Manual 2nd Edition||$175||Link|
|AISI Spec 2007||$110||Link||-|
|NDS Special Design Provision for Wind & Seismic 2012||$60||Link|
|PCI Design Handbook 2010*||$173||Link|
(*Not sure how important this PCI one is… There are usually 1-2 questions on the exam and I actually didn't have this one when I took it. Personally I don't think it's worth getting it.)
One more thing you need to think about though… the new code is in effect January 2014 but the exam hasn't adopted the new code yet. Which means that all of these books you are buying are essentially outdated! I am not sure when NCEES will starting using the new code but that's what it is right now =(
3. Cost of studying material
The book I recommend for studying is the Structural Engineering Reference Manual ($210) hands down. I also went through the practice SE exams ($110) from PPI and NCEES ($50).
These three books adds up to around $370. You can probably borrow the practice exams from someone who has recently gone through the process of studying but I highly recommend having your own Structural Engineering Reference Manual so that you can highlight and add notes…etc. I'll talk more in the future about how I use these materials to study.
4. Cost of calculator
You probably have one of those non-graphic Casio/HP/TI calculators from your EIT/PE days. Same policy applies to the SE.
I used the HP 33s but I don’t know if they are still making them. I programed in the quadratic equation because you never know when you might need that…
You can opt for the HP 35s ($43) which also allows you to program your own functions. I haven’t personally done it myself but this link gives out some instructions and it seems helpful.
If you don’t really care for the ability to add your own functions, a regular TI30XA is perfectly fine.
No matter whichever calculator you use, you want to make sure you practice using it prior to the exam so that you are familiar with it. One way I’ve practiced is to pretty much calculate everything using the calculator that I’ll be using for the exam. So…stash your TI-83 & TI-89s in the drawer for now.
5. Hours of studying
The author of the Structural Engineer Reference Material recommended 300 hours of studying. Based on my own experience, I spent about 250 hours. Yes I tracked it so I know what’s up. I actually even created a spreadsheet to help myself manage my own expectations and help me stay on track (yay engineers & spreadsheets!). I’ll talk more about that in a future post.
Basically, think about spending 1 hour a day during the weekdays and 3 hours a day during the weekends. That adds up to 11 hours a week. 300/11 = 27 weeks = 7 months!
I actually did about 3 hours during the weekdays and 7 hours during the weekends which is 29 hours a week – so took me about 2 and half months. Originally I wanted to do 5 hours per day but that turned out unreasonable and impossible. The spreadsheet helped me figure out if I would have enough time to finish what I wanted to study prior to the exam.
You’ll have to estimate roughly how much you can handle and adjust accordingly but you get the idea.
Like I mentioned before, there will be times when you are like: “WHY THE HECK AM I DOING THIS!?” And knowing what’s in it for you will really help you stay on track. You will need to be dedicated and stay focused. Which means you can only watch one Breaking Bad or Mad Men every other day instead of everyday.
To Be Continued…
Well I hope this post gives you a pretty rough idea of what you have to gain and what you have to lose. I knew when I was studying, I hated saying no to friends & families when they wanted to hangout. Luckily I do have a very understanding wife and she helped me out a lot during this period when I was studying.
What do you think? Is there anything I might not have thought about? Does this help you? Please let me know! Stay tuned for Part II and thank you so much for reading!
(Update 1/23/2014: Part II has been posted!)