Engineering is a great career to pursue if you’re intelligent and want to make a lot of money— but it’s also very broad and covers a wide range of industries. There are many engineering disciplines you can study: for example, mechanical engineering and electrical engineering are very different from aerospace engineering or biomedical engineering.
Basically, there are many different specializations for engineers— and they usually require different forms of certification before you can start working as a licensed professional engineer in your field.
Earning a Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) license and a Professional Engineer (PE) license can open a lot of doors for you in a professional environment. However, both of them also differ in terms of their educational requirements, exam difficulty, costs, and general job outlook.
To demonstrate, consider these comparisons of the process of earning each certification and how they can benefit working engineers.
Education Requirements For FE and PE Exams
Requirements for both certifications are fairly strict. Both of them require you to complete some higher education, but there are some noteworthy differences in the finer details.
To start, the FE exam requires you to complete at least a 4-year degree in a related subject. Your degree must also come from an accredited engineering institution. Bear in mind that this requirement may differ depending on your location— so make sure to check your state’s engineering board to see if you need to put in extra work before you qualify. Once you’ve met this requirement, you’ll be able to sit for the FE exam in your chosen discipline.
In comparison, the PE certification’s education requirements are more substantial; it’s an advanced certification that demonstrates greater technical competence.
To start, you need to be FE certified, which means you’ll have to meet the same education requirements as listed above. However, most states also ask you to have at least 4 years of engineering experience under a registered PE. This ensures that you have the required knowledge and understanding of your chosen engineering discipline before sitting for the PE exam. Once again, this varies by state, so check your state board to see if this requirement applies to you.
As you can see, the PE exam has much stricter requirements than the FE exam. This is largely due to it being a continuation of what was tested in the FE exam, and it’s considered a more advanced form of professional licensure in the industry.
Exam Difficulty For FE and PE Exams
Both exams are fairly difficult but there are substantial differences between them in terms of length and content. This is largely due to PE being a more advanced exam— although your chosen engineering discipline can also lead to further variations in content.
According to the NCEES, the FE exam consists of 110 multiple choice questions and you have 6 hours to complete it. It has one scheduled break in the middle that lasts for 35 minutes. The test is computer-based and is administered at official NCEES approved testing centers. It is available for 7 different engineering disciplines:
- Electrical and Computer
- Industrial and Systems
Although much of the content on these specializations will vary, every version of the FE exam has sections on mathematics and ethics.
The PE exam’s question count and testing time also vary based on which discipline you’ve chosen. Despite that, there are some commonalities to be found. Typically the exams are around 80 questions in length and take 9 hours to complete. Each exam also has a 50-60 minute break midway through. Another key difference is that the PE exam is offered for 16 disciplines— those listed above (minus Other) plus these new ones:
- Agricultural and Biological
- Control Systems
- Fire Protection
- Metallurgical and Materials
- Mining and Mineral Processing
- Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering
Further information on each discipline can be found on the NCEES website.
Which is harder, the FE exam or the PE exam?
It can be tough to see which exam is more difficult when comparing the 2. Despite the FE exam having more questions, the PE test has a much longer time limit. This implies that the questions are much more difficult and take more time to complete. Plus, the higher number of available disciplines can lead to more difficult specialized exams. On the other hand, If you take the FE exam, it will have a positive effect on your PE exam proficiency— so there’s no obvious answer to this question!
Exam Costs For FE and PE Exams
Enrollment for the FE exam costs $175, payable directly to the NCEES through their website. However, certain state boards may ask that you file a separate application and pay an additional fee as part of their exam approval process.
The PE exam’s application fee is more expensive but still affordable. It costs $375 to sit for the PE exam. Your state board may have other requirements just like with the FE exam, so make sure you check in with them ahead of time.
Additionally, passing the test can be difficult if you haven’t prepared for it first. That’s why it’s generally recommended to complete a FE review course or PE prep course. Courses can be fairly pricey, but they’re well worth the money if they can guarantee you a passing grade.
Engineering in general is a very safe career path to take. It’s experienced stable growth in the past few decades, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a very high employment growth rate for every engineering discipline. Civil engineering in particular appears to have the best prospects as 23% of the new jobs are expected to be for that discipline.
However, the real difference between career outlooks for these 2 certifications is their salaries. I’m sure it comes as no surprise that PE holders make more money, but exactly how much they make is promising.
According to ZipRecruiter, the national average salary for FE engineers is $71,997. However, wages for this group tend to be extremely variable and can lie between $33,000 and $98,000. Despite that, this is still a good career to pursue— and you can expect consistent pay increases as you gain engineering work experience.
In contrast to the FE, PE engineers tend to have much more stable salaries. The national average for them is $88,663 and their salary range is much closer: $73,500 to $100,500. These paychecks are much higher to reflect the far more difficult work being done.
You really should work towards getting a PE certification if you’re interested in becoming an engineer. It’s a natural progression past the FE exam and tends to have much more stable pay. Completing the exam is difficult, but you should be more than prepared for it once you’ve met all the prerequisites!
Bryce Welker is an entrepreneur and owner of over 20 test prep websites dedicated to helping professionals earn certifications and pass their licensure exams. Bryce is a regular contributor to Forbes.com, Inc.com, and Business.com where he shares his knowledge to help others boost their careers.