What a PE (Professional Engineer) is and How to Become One

What is a PE and how to become one

My name is Luke Rowley and I am a licensed Professional Engineer, or PE. When I began studying engineering way back in college, I had no idea what a PE was or how to become one. In this article, I’ll answer all those questions and others you might have about Professional Engineers.

PE is a title that stands for Professional Engineer, which is a licensed engineer who can design and put their seal of approval, or stamp, on engineering projects in the state(s) in which they are licensed. Getting a PE license requires completion of the right education, experience, and two exams.

Getting a PE license isn’t easy, but it can be enjoyable and it’s definitely worth it. I’ve had my license for only a short time but I’m already seeing a lot of benefits that I hadn’t even imagined. 

Let’s start by getting into the common questions about Professional Engineers and how you can become one yourself!

Common Questions About Becoming a PE

I’ll be honest, when I began my engineering degree almost 10 years ago I didn’t even know what a PE was, let alone how to become one. Even during college I didn’t really understand what it was, but I didn’t really need to. It’s a title that really only applies after you graduate and begin working. 

Whether you’re still in college or already working in the field, these are some of the most important questions you’ll need answered if you want to become a Professional Engineer.

Can you Become a PE Without an Engineering Degree?

Most states require that you have a 4-year degree from an ABET-accredited (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) university to get your Professional Engineer’s license. If you got your degree outside of the US you may have your education evaluated by NCEES to determine if it meets the requirements. 

In some states, however, it is possible to get licensed without having a degree. The only caveat is that you have to have a lot more years working under a licensed PE, sometimes up to 12! Plus, NCEES statistics in their annual reports show that it’s much harder to pass the exams if you have more years of experience.

These requirements all vary by state so it’s best to check your state’s information. I’m going to be compiling guides on this for each state and will update here when I’m done. For now, just search for “[your state’s name] PE requirements” on Google and you’ll find most of what you need. 

How Much Does It Cost to Get a PE?

The cost of your PE license depends on the cost of your degree and the cost of the exam. On average, an engineering degree will cost you about $40,000. The tests themselves are over $500 just for the fee. After factoring in study materials and courses, it’s closer to $2,000. 

Considering the cost of a degree and the cost of exams and preparation materials, you can expect to pay, on average, between $40,000 and $50,000 to get a PE license. If you can go to a more reasonably priced school or get scholarships, you may be able to get your license for as little as $12,000.

That might sound steep, but it’s 100% worth it considering that PE’s can make upwards of $50 an hour! Plus, it’s your career and you’ll make that back and more! There are also ways to reduce the cost, such as getting grants and scholarships for school. 

I got really lucky and had a pell grant because I made so little money and got married while still in college. I didn’t have to pay anything for the last two years of my degree! Still, I ended up paying over $10,000 for my degree, but it was well worth it. 

The test itself cost me over $2,400, and you can see a breakdown of that right here. You can’t really avoid the cost of the test and study materials, but you can make it a little cheaper than what I spent. 

If I knew what I know now I would have purchased a review course like School of PE for my first attempt instead of waiting until after I’d failed. If I would have known to do that I would have saved hundreds of dollars!

Can I Call Myself an Engineer Without a PE?

If you don’t have a Professional Engineer’s license but are working toward one, you’d call yourself an “Engineer in Training” or EIT for short. EIT would be your official designation at work and on business cards and resumes. Legally, you can say you’re an engineer, just not a Professional Engineer.

When it comes to everyday conversations, you’d probably not say “I’m an Engineer in Training.” If you’re just talking to family and friends, it’s okay to say that you’re an engineer. But if they begin asking you to design and sign off on engineering projects you can’t do that yet and would need to be clear about that.

When Can I Call Myself a PE?

You can only call yourself a PE after applying for and obtaining an official license with the state board of whichever state you want a license in. To complete the application, you’ll need to have finished an accredited degree, the years of experience your state requires, and passed the exams.

I’ll get into the details of how this works in a moment. For now I’ll just say that I wasn’t a licensed professional engineer until the state sent me an email with my license number in it!

What Percentage of Engineers Have Their PE License?

According to NCEES, there are 800,000+ licensed Professional Engineers in the US. That includes individuals that have licenses in multiple states, so the number is likely closer to 400,000. With about 2 million engineers (according to the BLS), that’s about 20%, or 1 in 5 who have their PE license.

This is just a rough estimate, however. Some estimates say the number could be as low as 10%, or 1 in 10. If you’re curious about the numbers of licensed engineers in each state as well as test pass rates and other cool statistics, check out the NCEES reports.

Do I Have to Retake the PE Exam to Keep My License?

You do not have to retake the PE exam to keep or renew your license. Many states do have continuing education requirements that you must meet to keep your license, and you’ll always have to pay the renewal fee before the license expiration date.

Even though it makes sense there’s still that tiny fear that you might have to endure the grueling 8-hour PE exam again to keep your license. Aren’t you relieved that if you pass the PE you never have to take it again?! Plus, renewing is super easy and in most cases just requires that you go through a form and pay a fee online.

Does the PE Certification Expire?

Your PE license will expire if you do not renew it within the renewal period. Most states require you to renew the license every couple of years. To renew, you usually just have to fill out an online form and pay a fee. For many states, you also have to have completed professional development hours.

As of this writing, I’m licensed in Utah and Colorado, both of which require me to renew every two years. They usually send reminders before the renewal date so I don’t miss them. Utah requires that I have 30 professional development hours between each renewal, but I don’t have to report them unless I’m audited. 

How to Become a PE Yourself in 4 Steps

The process of becoming a Professional Engineer comes down to four steps:

  1. Get an engineering degree from an ABET-accredited university.
  2. Work for 4+ years under a licensed PE.
  3. Pass the FE and PE exams.
  4. Apply for a license in whichever state you’d like to be a PE in.

If you’re worried about some of these steps, don’t fear, there are special cases for some of them so you can still get licensed even if you don’t follow the conventional path. 

This is usually the easiest and fastest path compared to others, though, so I’m going to focus on it as we go through each of these. I’ll mention some of the exceptions that I know about, but there may be some I’m not aware of so just ask NCEES if you’re unsure about something.

Let’s break down each step so you know what to expect as you work to become a PE yourself!

1. Get an ABET-accredited Engineering Degree

This one is pretty straightforward. All you have to do is find out if the university you want to go to or are already going to is ABET-accredited. 

To do this, simply google the following:

“Is [name of school] ABET accredited?”

Then you want to make sure you look at results that are only from the university itself. 

Let’s take my alma mater, Brigham Young University, as an example. If I search if it’s accredited I see that there is a page that tells me that the college of engineering is ABET-accredited. If the college is accredited, that means every degree that falls under it should be also. 

I already knew that BYU was ABET-accredited when I started looking into the degree, so I was good to go right from the start!

Finding an accredited school is one thing, but getting that degree is a whole other topic for another time. All I can say for now is that if you’re at this stage, good luck, stick with it, don’t give up, and you’ll be done before you know it! I was amazed at how fast the time went by for my degree. Plus, college is fun!

2. Get Work Experience Under a Licensed PE

Getting your work experience to become a licensed PE is pretty straightforward as well. When you graduate, you need to work for a company that will have you working with a licensed Professional Engineer. 

It’s important to note that your experience doesn’t count until after you’ve graduated, though. So don’t get too excited if you find a job part way through college and think you can get your PE license sooner!

What makes this easy is that engineering companies are well aware of the experience requirement so they set you up to get it right from the start. They want you to get your PE, so they’ll do a lot to help you along the way. Plus, working under a PE makes it a lot easier to know what you need to do to get your own license because you can ask them all about getting theirs!

I was lucky enough to get a job within just a couple of weeks of graduation and my first day was actually the day after I graduated. I worked there under a licensed Professional Engineer for four years and it was as simple as that.

It wasn’t always easy, but I learned a ton. You’ll quickly realize that school isn’t great at preparing you for the real engineering world, but you’ll learn fast. And it’ll be fun, too! I really enjoyed being a new Engineer in Training.

One other thing to be aware of is that the experience doesn’t all have to be at the same employer. So if you hate your first boss you can jump ship and still get your experience to become a PE!

3. Pass the FE and PE exams

This is where things tend to get a little complicated but it’s not too bad. In simple terms, you need to pass the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam (FE) and Principles and Practice of Engineering Exam (PE). 

You can take both exams anytime, even while in college in most cases (some states are picky about this), but you probably wouldn’t want to do that. 

The trouble is, adding one big exam to an already stressful college semester is tough. The FE you might be able to do, but for the PE I definitely wouldn’t recommend it. Most states require you to pass the FE before even attempting the PE anyway. 

It can be helpful to take them pretty soon after graduating because everything you learned in school will be fresh, but you don’t have to do this. 

To take the tests, you just have to get an NCEES account and go through the registration process. I’ve covered the PE exam registration process extensively in another post, which you can look at right here. The FE exam registration process is pretty similar, so most of what you see there should apply to the FE too.

I took the FE about a year into my job and it wasn’t bad at all. I didn’t even study other than looking over the PDF reference sheet I knew I’d have during the test and I passed the FE on my first try. There are study resources for this if you’re worried about it though. The best of these is School of PE.

The PE, on the other hand, is a whole different animal. This entire website is dedicated to helping people pass the PE exam because of how difficult it is! It’s doable though if you prepare well. 

I’ve already covered a ton on the PE exam throughout many of my other posts, but here are the top 3 that I think will help you the most:

How Difficult Is The PE Exam Really?

What is the PE Exam Like? What to Expect on Test Day

11 PE Exam Tips To Make Test Day Go Smoothly

The simple version of it is that you register, study, take it, then wait for results. There’s a lot to preparing and most of what I know is in those three articles. 

I do want to give you the top piece of advice that I wish I had known before attempting the PE exam, and it’s this:

Invest in a PE review course! The price is steep but you will pay a lot more money and go through a lot more heartache if you fail. 

I failed on my first attempt and it was devastating. I lost money from not having my license, plus I had to pay to retake the test. If I would have bought a review course first, I’d have passed right away and been much better off. 

There are five or so review courses you can pick from. I’ve used materials from most of them, but the very best I’ve come across is School of PE

Their material and practice exams were the most like the actual PE exam of anything I’d used before. It gave me everything I needed. The test actually felt easy after taking School of PE, and that was a huge deal for me!

If you’re curious about School of PE you can check out my review of it right here. Or you can go directly to their website where you can sign up for a free trial that lets you see some of the lectures for free. 

The trial is nice, but it doesn’t even begin to do the whole course justice. It’s just way better than you can ever imagine. And it was the ticket to getting me to finally pass!

4. Apply For a License

Once you pass the PE exam and finish your experience, which usually happens around the same time, it’s time to party because you’re super close to becoming a PE! You’re not there yet though, there’s just one more hurdle to jump and it’s not too bad. Most of the time.

Every state has a licensing board that you need to apply for your actual PE license with. Remember that until you have this you cannot call yourself a PE. It can be pretty quick if you line up everything correctly, but sometimes it takes a while, unfortunately. 

The easiest way to get everything ready to make your actual license application go smoothly is to use NCEES’s Record Application section in your NCEES account. In it, you’ll see all the requirements you need to transmit your NCEES record to your state board so they can review it with your application and give you a license. 

This requires you to put in your personal information, verify your work experience and education, and provide professional references. Once this is all complete you send it off to your state’s board and at the same time fill out and submit their application. 

Most of the time there’s a section on the application that just has you check a box that lets them know that NCEES will be sending your record over. It does cost $75 every time you send it (as of this writing), and the state board will also have a fee of a couple hundred dollars in most cases.

Once that’s done and submitted, you wait. I had everything lined up because I really needed to have my license asap and it went much better than I could have imagined. Utah’s board does things all electronically thankfully. Not all of them do, which sucks. 

The day I found out I had passed the PE I had already been in email contact with them to ask some questions. At the end of one email I just briefly mentioned that if they could expedite mine that would be great. 

They came through for me and on the same day I found out that I passed the PE they sent it through and gave me a license number! 

It was kind of anticlimactic because it was just a number, no seal or anything. I didn’t really jump or scream in excitement like I had earlier that day after seeing that I had passed the PE exam. But it was still cool to look up in the state’s online system and see my name appear under licensed Professional Engineers! It didn’t feel entirely real until I got my stamp though, which was a really cool moment. 

After spending hours studying, being in classes, and working, and throwing a ton of money at a degree and tests, getting your PE license suddenly makes it all worth it. It’s a symbol of all your hard work and it feels amazing to see it all come to fruition. 

I hope that you get to have that same experience that I did finding out that I passed the PE and getting my own license from my state! 

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