By: Lauren Bergman, Ph.D.
Becoming a Professional Engineer (PE) was a long-time goal of mine. I took the Fundamentals of Engineering exam during my senior year of college and knew the PE exam would be the next obstacle, once I gained enough work experience.
However, after college I went straight into a Ph.D. program, delaying work for a few years. Once I landed my first real job in engineering consulting, I was behind some of my peers work-wise, who had gotten through their first few years of entry-level employment and the PE exam by their mid-twenties.
My family goals were also beginning to take center stage at the same time. My husband and I were eager to start a family, so at 28 years old, I became a mom with only a year and a half of work experience. Becoming a mom opened up a whole new world of joy and purpose in me and reinforced my desire to grow professionally. I continued to work and focused more intently on obtaining my PE license, imagining a day when my daughter would tell her teachers that her mom was an engineer.
Not wanting to lose any momentum, I applied to take the PE exam in the fall of 2019 once I met the requisite work experience, just a few months after finding out I was pregnant with my second child. The planner in me went into overdrive as I mapped out how to make it all fit together. With the PE exam in mid-April and my due date in mid-May, I’d have just enough time to squeeze it all in. I enrolled in an online on-demand course, bought all the exam prep books, and started studying in January. As the weeks wore on, I was exhausted, but I kept reminding myself that preparing for the exam while working with a toddler and being pregnant would be easier than preparing while working with two kids.
Unfortunately, the pandemic had other plans in store.
In late March 2020, as the world began to shut down, I received news from NCEES that they would be canceling the April 2020 PE exam. The exam was only offered in-person every six months, which meant that my life would look a lot different by the time I would be able to sit for the exam the following October. I knew that my loss was relatively minor compared to the sacrifices people were forced into globally, but I still took a week to mourn the 70+ hours of studying I had already committed to and to acknowledge the fear of having to continue my exam prep with a newborn in addition to a toddler.
In August, I picked up my study materials and resumed preparing for the exam, as I was coming to the end of my maternity leave and preparing to start a new job. The period from August through October was really tough. It was hard to start a new, full-time job (after having worked a reduced schedule since my first child was born), handle the physical demands of parenting a toddler and a baby, push through the fog of early parenthood sleep deprivation, and carve out time to study. But the end was in sight and I had already committed so much, so I buckled down.
Looking back on the past year, there are a few lessons that stand out to me about how to tackle preparing for the PE exam with two kids, or achieve other professional goals during early parenthood:
Many people take about two and a half to three months to prepare for the exam, although some test prep companies offer intensive 6-week programs. I enrolled in an online on-demand course, which allowed me the flexibility to watch lectures and work on practice problems on my own schedule. I also began studying at the beginning of January, three and a half months in advance of the exam.
- I made a plan for how many hours a week I could realistically spend studying and then allocated the hours to various days throughout the week, making sure to share each weekly schedule with my husband.
- I planned to finish the lectures a few weeks in advance of the exam so that I could spend the last few weeks working on problem sets and practice exams.
The cancellation of the April 2020 exam certainly put a dent in my initial study plan, but when I picked up studying again in August, I was able to easily resume my study plan and supplement with additional time for reviewing concepts I had studied a few months prior.
Ask for Help
I am fortunate to have a supportive, engaged co-parent and during the intense period of exam preparation, I leaned on my husband a lot. We communicated almost daily about my exam prep, discussing my study schedule and the increased demands for both of us. My husband upped his solo parenting game, taking over previously shared tasks so I could bury my head in study materials. He handled bedtime and bath time by himself on the evenings when I was studying and made plans to take the kids out of the house for a few hours on the weekends. And when we both needed a little extra help, we got a babysitter. It was helpful for both of us to know that this period was temporary, and after I completed the exam, we both felt like we could celebrate.
Women are still underrepresented in engineering, which means that engineering organizations may not be privy to all the challenges women, especially working moms, face. I have to assume that pregnant and breastfeeding moms are in the small minority of PE exam takers. (I was actually the only woman in my cohort of 28 examinees in October.) One of my major concerns in my original plan to take the exam while 8-months pregnant was being seated too far from the bathroom and spending too much time running (or more likely, waddling) to the bathroom every 30 minutes.
After I registered for the exam, I got a note from my doctor attesting to the fact that I was pregnant and then submitted an accommodation request to the testing agency asking to be seated near a restroom. They responded with an even better offer; they were willing to extend my time an additional 30 minutes per 4-hour session. I didn’t end up having to use the accommodation since I took the exam after my son was born, but it was really refreshing to see the testing agency’s supportive attitude and genuine understanding.
Protect Your Time
For most of last year, I sacrificed nights and weekends to prepare for the PE exam. I dealt with increased stress and yearned for free time and family time. I know the temporary challenges were worth it now that I have my PE license, but I also recognize how valuable my time is. I want to preserve my precious non-work time for my family and myself. Moving forward, I am protecting my nights and weekends. I don’t mind working the occasional evening when there’s a tight deadline, and I am happy to spend time doing professional tasks I enjoy (like writing this post!) on the weekends. But I am promising to keep regular evening and weekend work out of my schedule.
The relief I felt when I found out I passed the exam was momentous. I now have my license and new confidence in my ability to take on tough challenges. I am looking forward to the day when I can tell my kids about my experience and hopefully inspire them to take on new challenges and work hard to achieve their goals.
Bio: Lauren Bergman, Ph.D., PE, works as an engineer for the Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority. She earned a B.S. in Civil Engineering from the University of Michigan, as well as an M.S. and Ph.D. in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and two children.