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Civil Engineering Reference Manual for the…

Civil Engineering Reference Manual for the PE Exam

by Michael R. Lindeburg PE

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This is the source book for EIT's getting ready to take the civil engineering PE exam. If you get familiar with the book's content, referencing during the PE exam goes pretty smoothly. I remember watching other testers walking into the exam with 12-20 reference books. One guy had dolly cart with about 40 books on it! Because I got myself really familiar with the book's content, I went into the exam carrying only 7 books including this one. I actually referenced 5 of them (including this one). And I passed. I keep this book at my work desk for periodic referencing. ( )
  usma83 | Feb 18, 2016 |
(For the convenience of gr-ers who only want a review of this book, I've bolded the pertinent info below, like this. Feel free to ignore the rest of the whining and exposition and chit-chat.)


I need to be studying like the wind in every waking hour not occupied by work, but I want to pause for a bit to review this hulk of a book that is only fit for burning.(1)

This is a guide intended to prepare an examinee who is 4 years out of college to take an 8-hour exam(2) covering a number of subjects in the civil engineering field.(3) Considering that we are in the age of specialization, that's a tall order because most civil engineers fall into one area and team up with other specialists to complete a project.(4) There are very few jack-of-all-trades engineers, Renaissance men/women who are capable in all areas. A typical good engineer will have enough knowledge of the other subjects to understand how the pieces fit together, when to bring in another specialist, and what questions to ask. Thus, the reasoning behind testing every specialist on all subjects. Okay, good, I track that.

So. A reference that will prepare those who have not thought about any other subject other than their specialty for at least 4 years. The problem lies in how (un)thorough it can be, with so many topics within the 5 general areas. There are 89 chapters in this book, billions(5) of equations, and still it's only a cursory skimming of certain core practical theories and assumptions. Can a candidate for a professional license become proficient enough for the exam using this book? Yes.(6) But for someone who tries to excel, who goes for an A when a B is enough, who has the urge to strive for perfection, to anally cross every t and dot every i, who believes a job worth doing is worth doing right, the necessity of basically failing in the non-specialty areas is eye-stabbingly grating. What, you ask, is my problem? Be content to pass and get the license! I ask you, in return, who would you rather have designing the infrastructure you so trustingly and unthinkingly drive over, walk on, stand, sit, go under every day - anal me, or a 'just pass' person?

I want to discuss the ridiculousness of standardized testing now, but I’ve procrastinated enough. Maybe after the exam. Back to studying. Sigh.

(1) Not really, but I want to relieve some pressure here.

(2) The PE exam format: A 4-hour 40 question "breadth" morning segment, covering all topics but generally divided into Geotechnical, Water Resource, Structural, Transportation, and Construction. Lunch hour. A 4-hour 40 question "depth" afternoon segment, where the examinee selects one of the 5 topics and tests on that. The exam is based on a number of codes used in actual practice, and it's recommended that you obtain them for use in the test...hopefully your company already has most of them and will allow you to borrow them, since they run upwards of $300 apiece. Then a few months of hand-wringing while the examining board grades "on a curve" (the Oregon examining board can be very slothlike).

(3) This is how it works: Earn a 4-year degree from an accredited institution. Pass the 8-hour Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam. Work for 4 years under the supervision of a licensed engineer. Pass the 8-hour Professional Engineering (PE) exam. Voila! Now you can be sued.

(4) A geotechnical engineer won't design a column. A structural engineer won't design streambank stabilization. A water resource engineer won't track budgets and schedules. A construction manager(4a) won't analyze horizontal and vertical alignments. A roadway engineer won't determine a soil's compressive capacity. You see what I did there? Full circle.

(4a) Not an engineer, but an essential member of a project team. In fact, in college, a few people who started out as civil couldn't cut it with the technical requirements and switched to construction management, and now make a much larger salary for less mental rigor and more glad-handing...not really, but I resent them a little.

(5) A slight exaggeration.

(6) Those two sentences right there are probably the real book review. The rest of this typing is just gratuitous wallowing.



2.5 months later, the test is done. Now the waiting. For the afternoon depth portion, I chose the structural module.

At the testing site, people were lined up for the open doors at 7:15am with their suitcases and crates and bags full of reference material. Some were relaxed with only a couple books under one arm (I snuck a peek at their titles, they were there for mechanical), some were groaning under the weight of a couple shelves-ful; the national testing board recommends plastic crates to use as mini-bookcases during the test and many of the testees (heh) were clutching these to their sides with a finger since their arms and every other finger were laden with a freakin' library. I had a modest 6 textbooks, 8 codes, a reference manual, and an approx. 8" thick stack of bound papers. My knees creaked to carry them.

Assessment: I used 2 textbooks, 7 codes, this reference manual, and flipped through about 1" of the paper. The rest was there as a security blanket. Of paper.

I was anxious, as I become before any test, but sort of deadened due to lack of sleep and an ill-timed 40 hr streak of wakefulness earlier in the week to finish a suddenly urgent-seeming work project. Looking back, that work project wasn't THAT urgent, but my awesome procrastination habit jumped its oxbow and flooded my plains of prioritization, causing me to desire work over study; the partitioning levees for the different sections of life will be rebuilt sturdier.

If I had to do it over again: a) A more thorough skimming of all 1400 pages of this reference manual, b) do not drop money on the crap-companion book of problems, c) work all the problems in the national testing board-produced book of problems, with picture here, d) this one isn't bad but don't take it too seriously, e) I'm undecided on this practice exam but leaning towards no, f) get regular sleep, g) stress less, h) remember all the idiots who have passed this test before you, i) don't get depressed about h).

This exam is like the SATs, where there's no real effective method of studying. Okay, that's incorrect. I'm still viewing this as being something to reach for 100%, A , or a contest. Since these questions are constantly being tweaked and any that are found to be missed by nearly everyone becomes discounted, the results are pass/fail with no numbers attached to the letter sent 12 weeks afterward (12 WEEKS! FOR A BUBBLE SHEET! OMFG C'MON WTF!). The studying is to become familiar with resources, to quickly look up a formula or question or already be familiar with a standard analysis procedure come test day. There's some statistic floating around that the average student studies for 300 hours before this licensing exam. I think I clocked in about half that (but I probably TRIED to study for maybe double that). I don't think anybody needs to study that much for this. Study, but don't push if that means you must forego the taking of walks, playing with a kitten, eating right, exercising, or reading.

This test made me think of family. My parents live in the next town over so I stayed with them the night before instead of hitting the road at 6am; I had a well-balanced brain-nourishing dinner and breakfast, and mom actually packed my lunch, hah! At the exam, where 90% of the maybe-engineers-to-be were male, it seemed like everyone was scratching their faces with the left hand such that the gigantic man-sized wedding ring was blinging in my face. The lady who sat in front of me was beautifully pregnant, I'd say in the 4th trimester she was so huge. On the way to victory dinner at Red Lobster (shut it chain restaurant haters, the cheese biscuits are crack!), my mom reminisced about her own college exam days - my parents rarely volunteer stories about their youth so it's always a treat when it happens and sometimes startling - and giggled as she spoke of Professor Jun, who handed out 2 blank sheets of paper and everybody knew you only had to start & end strong since he'd only read the first and last paragraphs. Tests. Family. Huh.

Also along the lines of familiy, my mom does this thing where she'll bang her toe or arm, look around to see if anyone is watching, and then make an exaggerated grimace of fake-pain. Hilarious! I used to fall for it and then get annoyed, but now I enjoy the showmanship. I'll rate her on reaction time, size of grimace, whether she clutches theatrically at the body part, and vocalization. Sadly, I think I've picked up her habit: Never has one so insignificant (me) complained so much about so little (exam). I restrained myself from updating this "review" every few days with a showy grimace of whining. I don't want to abuse this platform intended for the discussion of books. Much.

For the test itself, I don't agree that getting more questions correct relative to the rest measures much of note. The older engineers in my office spoke of an older format, many permutations ago, when the 8-hr exam consisted of 4 problems. As horrifying as that sounds, it allowed graders to measure understanding of process and code, very important in a process-heavy process (processprocessprocess) like producing a bridge. Now, the test is like modern entertainment, or the modern child's attention span, splintered into indistinguished soundbites of info all separated out from the processprocessprocess that defines it. Who the hell cares whether the factor of safety for uplift resistance of a square shallow footing supporting a column is a) 1.0, b) 1.2, c) 1.8, or d) 2.0 (disclaimer - I signed a nondisclosure agreement concerning the contents of the test, so the facts have been changed to protect the identity of this stupid question)? The given information provided all and only the necessary info to pick out the correct answer, but lost all the intricacy of clearly defining the problem when presented with the client's order of a column on some land, testing soil samples, identifying the type of structure to use, calculating the necessary loads, applying the correct factors based on ever-changing refinement from research, and developing to a useful form for construction. I'm getting bogged down in whining, but I don't agree that this test will necessarily reward all those who can do good work and protect the rest of us from those who just look good on paper. Gah. Standarizing the qualifications for licensing is bad. Maybe a portfolio-type system, showcasing problem-solving or processprocessprocess, would be a better gage of ability. ( )
  EhEh | Apr 3, 2013 |
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