PE preps: Part the First

For those reading on Facebook, this is posted on my WordPress blog (

I graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 1992 with a BS in mechanical engineering. After being commissioned as an Ensign in the Navy Civil Engineer Corps, Andrea and I packed up Brandon and Colin and went adventuring in Staten Island New York. I learned about the Civil Engineer Corps (CEC), construction contracting and, gulp, NYC contractors (but that’s for another story). No real engineering going on here.

After three years, I got transferred out to Port Hueneme, California to the Naval Facilities Engineering Service Center, where I had a special job planning and executing a move of 550 people from various places into a new building that was under construction. After that was done, I was shuffled around to the fill the needs of the command, ending up as the Environmental and Safety Division Director. Still no real engineering and I’m starting to understand that the CEC is about managing engineering and not really “doing” engineering.

Next up was Public Works at Point Mugu as the Shops Engineer. Shops Engineer – great, some engineering! Not exactly. But I did learn a bit about Public Works, though. And when the Navy sent me next to graduate school, I got suckered by my detailer (person-who-tells-me-where-my-next-job-is for the non-military readers) and ordered to Texas A&M for the Master of Engineering in Energy Management program. I had already been accepted to MIT for graduate work, but couldn’t figure out how to get there, as the Navy wasn’t going to pay for it (only one, two max, student(s) per year to either Stanford or MIT and I wasn’t an Admiral’s Aide, so wasn’t going to be competitive for that one slot). Anyway, before I left CA for Texas, I find out from my new advisor that the Master of Engineering required an internship that was not happening while I was still active duty – the Navy had plans for me, even if it didn’t know what they were! The kicker? Not only was that year one of the “two” years, but in May, neighbor down the street was told that a never before heard of third slot had opened up and was ordered to apply to MIT! Too late for me. Oh well.

So, given that I could not meet the requirements of the degree tailored toward professionals not sticking with academia, I had to convert to a straight Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering, though still with the emphasis on energy management. Now this is where most CEC officers took the time to study for and take the Professional Engineer License Exam (PE, for short). Two peers that were civil engineers transferred with me, and slapping myself in the forehead for not knowing you could do this, they invented a degree program over in the Civil Engineering Department that they called MS of Public Works. Me? Well that was the most brutal 10 months of my military career. Graduate Fluids and graduate Thermodynamics, two courses I aced as an undergrad, crushed me. I’m still cringing. Could be because the program I was in was designed to prepare for PhD work, and instead of learning advanced methods of applying my engineering knowledge, I was struggling to derive the Navier-Stokes equations and model the air flow over an airfoil with some kind of mathematical transposition that I’ve long since forgotten. To top it all off, after all my emails and calls requesting follow on orders were ignored for 5 ½ months, I get an email on February 4th, 2000, telling me I had to go overseas and my choices were:

1) Adak, Alaska unaccompanied for a year,

2) Korea, or

3) Korea.

Not much of a choice!

Oh, and just to make things worse, the earmarked graduate courses that I took at OU that were accepted by TAMU in 1999 when I applied suddenly were disallowed when they did the degree review because too much time had lapsed. So I had to scramble to do additional work to get some more credits. (Not whining, it’s just more backstory.) Anyway, we never got our official passports in time (we CEC grad students were generally an administrative burden to the NROTC units), rushed travel ones through the system, had our packout screwed up (only one of the three packouts was scheduled – and they tried to schedule the other two for three days after we arrived in Korea), but still survived that and left for Korea on August 1st, 2000 with 14 bags, four kids (two were 3 and 1), two car seats and a cat. Oh, yeah. I forgot to say that I was ordered to Fleet Activities Chinhae for duty as the Public Works Officer. And Contracting Officer – but that was a surprise, because the billet wasn’t coded for anything other than PWO.

So, having been shipped off to Korea (actually, flown off) before I had even graduated, unlike my stateside peers who had plenty of extra time not doing graduate work and weren’t isolated on the other side of the world and had the opportunity to take the PE, I became the PWO of a small base in Korea. Being small only meant the scale of projects that we did. I still had all the reporting and budget requirements, planning, contracting, you name it, of a big base, but I had three of my military subordinate billets gapped (not filled – vacant – empty) for a total of 23 out of 36 months, and another was gapped 12 months. To say I was understaffed was an understatement. No time for PE, even if I managed to get it set up for proctoring in Seoul – 250 miles away.

I retired in 2003, but stayed on as Deputy PWO in a civilian capacity for three and a half more years. That might have been a good time to take the PE, but we went through a complete reorganization of Naval shore facilities, then a re-org of Naval Facilities Engineering Command, and wrote three compete budget programs in a 12 month period for October 2004 to 2005. By that time, I was so far removed from testing that I really did not want to study again for an eight hour exam. Still, when we determined to move back, and chose Texas, and bought a house, and then moved, I applied and was approved to take the PE in April 2007. I landed six days before the test and with the first move, my return to Korea, and then my move, quality study time was too disrupted. Too stressed out, and lagged, I decided to skip the test.

Enough history. Fast forward to today. I’ve reapplied to take the PE and renewed studying for the Civil Engineering exam. Why civil? Because it’s easier than mechanical and is closer to what I’ve been doing for the past 18 years. BUT, not only do I have to relearn in the next 16 weeks all the things I’ve forgotten from 2000 and 1992, but I have to actually learn the things I never took in school for this exam: like transportation engineering, soils, hydrology (close to fluids, but not too close), and a number of other subjects. Steep learning curve packing four years into four months.

Brain tired. It’s not easy. But I have to do this.

…to be continued.


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