Member Voices: Which P.E. Exam Should I Take?

J.P. Mohsen, Ph.D., F.ASCE, is a longtime professor and chair at the University of Louisville and director of ASCE’s P.E. civil, S.E. and P.E. environmental exam review courses. In today’s Member Voices article, he explores the differences between the P.E. Environmental exam and the P.E. Civil exam.

Often, I’ve wondered why there are two different exams with focus on environmental engineering. The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying offers a P.E. environmental exam and a P.E. Civil exam with a depth focus on water resources and environmental.

How does an applicant decide to take one and not the other? Does holding an environmental P.E. license allow you to do more or give you the authority to do certain types of projects that the civil P.E. would not?

Well, it turns outs that a P.E. is a P.E. The P.E. licensure does not specify any discipline.

According to the civil engineering code of ethics, a registered professional engineer should perform services only in their areas of competence. Going back to the question of how an individual would or should decide which environmental exam to take, let’s examine key factors that set the two exams apart.

The biggest difference in the two exams lies in the NCEES specifications.

The specifications for the P.E. civil water resources and environmental exam vary substantially from the P.E. environmental exam specifications. A typical civil engineering program does not cover such topics as air quality, environmental assessment and remediation, hazardous waste and emergency operations. Therefore, it does not prepare its graduate to take a national exam on these topics.

Some civil engineering graduate programs may offer an air quality course, but most don’t. The P.E. civil water resources and environmental exam requires applicants to take a four-hour morning civil engineering breadth exam. This component of the exam covers typical topics that are primarily covered during the second and third year of a civil engineering undergraduate curriculum. Unless an applicant has a civil engineering degree, he or she is not prepared to take the breadth part of the civil exam because they are tested in topics such as structural analysis and design, construction materials, geomechanics and geometric design.

The two exams are offered in different format, and the number of times each exam can be attempted differs too.

Starting this past spring, the P.E. environmental became a computer-based test. It is now a closed-book exam and examinees have access only to an online reference handbook during the exam. The exam is offered multiple times, and an applicant can be taken up to three times in a year. However, the P.E. civil water resources and environmental exam is still a paper-pencil, open-book exam, and is offered only twice a year on designated dates.

So, your decision to take an environmental exam should be based on your educational background and knowledge base, not your area of practice.

If you have an environmental engineering degree, or a degree other than a civil engineering degree that qualifies you for the P.E. environmental exam, then you should choose to take that exam. For a graduate of a civil engineering program, it would be more appropriate to take the P.E. civil water resources and environmental exam.

Learn more about ASCE’s upcoming live exam review courses.

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  1. States have rules relative to the practice of engineering. Some have regulations relative to “titles.” In California the only disciplines which are recognized for the practice of engineering are civil, mechanical, and electrical. They have two authority/title acts: structural and geotechnical which required the civil PE first, then additional testing and experience. Environmental engineering is not recognized as a practice or title act in CA. So if you get the Environmental PE, it will probably not be recognized. Definitely take the Water Resources/Enviro “civil” PE. It is more flexible. For those states that have title acts, i.e., so you can call yourself an environmental engineer, the Environmental PE maybe an additional test you want to take. But if the title “Environmental Engineer” is not regulated as a title act, as it is not in CA, you can be a civil and still call yourself an environmental engineer. But you cannot call yourself a structural, geotechnical, traffic engineer etc, without first passing the special exam since these titles are regulated. (As a civil engineer, you can still practice in these areas as long as you are competent, you just can’t use the title. In short, the best thing to do is to check with your Board of Registration requirements before you make a decision you’ll regret.

  2. I believe some states do license PE’s by discipline. I have a PE license from MA and it is for environmental. Also I believe some states actually list which exam you take and pass. Your thoughts?


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