An Automation One contributor recently passed the Control Systems Engineer (CSE) Professional Engineering (PE) Exam this year (2019) and this article discusses why automation and controls (A&C) professionals would take the exam, what the exam is about, and how the engineer passed the exam.

Why take the CSE PE Exam?

  • Passing the CSE PE Exam is required to apply for a CSE PE License
  • Learn about facets of the controls industry you do not usually focus on
  • Learn pertinent codes, standards, and “tricks of the trade”
  • Strengthen your A&C weaknesses 
  • Increase your breadth of controls engineering knowledge
  • Close the loop on the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam you took during or right after college

Why become a licensed CSE PE?

  • Quantify your A&C experience and skills for your employer, clients, or employees
  • Use the PE License as a selling point when competing for projects and consulting engagements
  • Some companies and public utilities require a PE license for their controls engineers in order to promote them to a senior, lead, or principle role
  • Some states require a PE license when selling “engineering services”

The A1 contributor who passed the CSE PE exam is an engineer and the engineer’s motivation on passing the test was to acquire a PE license for the engineer’s own business in the future and to strengthen the engineer’s technical knowledge while taking more of a leadership/mentoring role in the engineer’s current position in their company. The engineer also wanted to close the loop on the FE exam the engineer passed during college. 

Usually, one cannot take the PE exam without first passing the FE exam. Rules and exemptions vary among states, but the State Board can make an exemption for the FE exam for a qualified professional.

(This article will not use gender specific pronouns to describe the engineer for privacy reasons)

Who should take the PE exam?

Controls professionals in process industries, such as oil & gas, food & beverage, chemicals, and public utilities, should definitely take the exam as the exam is heavily focused on process control principles due to the industries high safety standards, complexity, and diverse skill sets needed in the industry. The knowledge gained while studying for the PE exam can be utilized immediately in the professional’s work place. Some public utilities require a PE license for a promotion to a senior, lead, or principle engineer title.

Professionals in discrete manufacturing industries, such as automotive, aerospace, and packaging, may want to take the test in order to strengthen their knowledge on safety, standards, network topology, instrumentation, change management, maintenance, and motor control. 

Professionals focusing on industrial safety would gain a vast amount of knowledge on how controls systems are implemented and how to quantifiably rate the system’s safety and reliability. The PE license along with an  ISO 17021 and ISO 17065 TÜV Rheinland certifications will give the safety professional bonafide credentials for both the United States and the European markets.

In general, anyone wanting to gain more knowledge in the overall industrial controls field will find it while studying for the PE exam.

How is “Control System Engineering” defined?

Each state will have a different definition of CSE, below shows California’s interpretation:

Control system engineering” is that branch of professional engineering which requires such education and experience as is necessary to understand the science of instrumentation and automatic control of dynamic processes; and requires the ability to apply this knowledge to the planning, development, operation, and evaluation of systems of control so as to insure the safety and practical operability of such processes. The above definition of control system engineering shall not be construed to permit the practice of civil, electrical, or mechanical engineering.

This is the definition according to the California Code of Regulations, Title 16, Division 5, §§ 400-476. 

About the exam

The CSE PE Exam is administered by the NCEES and the current contents of the exam can be found on their website.

The exam is an 8-hour open-book exam. It contains 40 multiple-choice questions in the 4-hour morning session, and 40 multiple-choice questions in the 4-hour afternoon session. The exam is administered only once a year in October. This may change in the future.

According to the engineer, the exam tests not only your controls systems knowledge, but also your mental endurance. Anyone who has ever done an engineering final in college will tell you 4 engineering questions in one hour is difficult, 40 engineering questions in 4 hours will push your non-peak cognitive abilities (your cognitive peak was probably in your early 20s). Another 40 questions after the first 4 hour session will have you questioning whether or not you really want this. Fortunately, the first time pass rate is 66% for the CSE PE Exam.

At least you don’t have to take the Electrical and Computer exam focusing on Power, where the first time pass rate is 50%….yeesh.

The CSE PE exam is created by senior members of the International Society of Automation (ISA). 

From their website:

The ISA is a leading, global, nonprofit organization with more than 40,000 members worldwide. ISA develops standards, certifies industry professionals, provides education and training, publishes books and technical articles, and hosts conferences and exhibitions for automation professionals.

What does the exam cover?

From the NCEES Control Systems Engineer Exam Specifications (effective Oct. 2019), the exam comprises of these subjects: 

1. Measurement (20 questions)

   a. Sensors

   b. Flow, level, and pressure calculations

   c. General calculations

2. Control Systems (20 questions)

   a. Drawings

   b. Theory

   c. Implementation

   d. Security of Industrial Automation and Controls Systems

3. Final Control Elements (16 questions)

   a. Valves

   b. Pressure Relieving Devices

   c. Motor Controls

   d. Other Final Control Elements

4. Signals, Transmission, and Networking (12 questions)

   a. Signals

   b. Transmission

   c. Networking

5. Safety Systems (12 questions)

   a. Documentation

   b. Theory

   c. Implementation

   d. Safety Lifecycle Management 

How to apply to take the test

You can usually apply directly on the NCEES website and the NCEES will verify if you need to do anything extra based on the state you wish to apply for a PE license. Go to your State’s board to verify requirements to take the PE exam.

Below is California’s flow chart on applying for a PE exam license, there are no pre-requisites to take the PE exam.

How the Engineer prepared for the test


  • Engineer went to the introductory ISA local study group meeting for the 2018 CSE PE exam
    • First meeting was free 
    • Reviewed with the instructor on basics and got some study files
  • Engineer performed a self-review for personal weaknesses and strengths in regards to the subjects in the CSE PE Exam


  • March
    • Researched online on which books to buy
      • Engineer spent around $500 on books, printing and binding PDFs, calculator, and miscellaneous items
      • Did not buy specific books on subjects the engineer was strong in
  • April – September
    • Studied between 30 minutes to an hour in the morning before work
    • Studied two hours on the weekend
    • Focused a majority of time on subjects where both the engineer was weak in and the subject had a lot of questions on the test
      • Measurement: Sensors, Flow, Level, and Pressure
      • Final Control Elements: Valves and Pressure Relieving Devices
    • Took 3 practice tests two months before the test
      • ISA practice exam
      • Two practice exams from reference books
  • September
    • Reviewed weaknesses again after tests and concentrated on issues one month before the test 
  • October
    • Stopped studying one week before the test to rest the mind

The Engineer stated that understanding personal weaknesses, consistent studying, and taking as many practice tests as one could get were key in the engineer’s success on the CSE PE exam. It also helped that the Engineer is passionate about A&C and would read technical A&C literature during their leisure time for enjoyment. The reference material the engineer used in their study and during the exam are listed at the bottom of this article.

The engineer followed Bryon Lewis’ Control Systems Engineering Exam Reference Manual: A Practical Study Guide for the NCEES Professional Engineering (PE) Licensing Examination as their main guide to studying. All relevant subjects are covered by this guide and is a good reference base for the test. All the other references were used as supplemental references. 

The engineer took the practice exams found in these reference materials after they completed Bryon Lewis’ Exam Study Guide, which was two months before the  actual test:

  • Control Systems Engineering (CSE) Study Guide, Fifth Edition (ISA)
  • Control Systems Engineering Exam Reference Manual: A Practical Study Guide for the NCEES Professional Engineering (PE) Licensing Examination Third Edition (Bryon Lewis PE, CMfgE, CAP, CCST III)
  • Control Systems Engineer Technical Reference Handbook (Chuck Cornell, P.E., CAP, PMP)

After reviewing the practice tests, the Engineer found which subjects they needed to review again and focused on those one month before the test. The Engineer shutdown studying one week before the test in order to rest their mind and mentally prepare for the 8 hour gauntlet.

What it was like during the test

The Engineer stayed at an AirBnB the night before the test to make sure they were in close proximity and to reduce any risks of being late (remember, this test is only administered once a year).  The items the Engineer brought and items the engineer suggests are listed at the end of this article.

The Engineer had a light breakfast and was at the parking area 30 minutes before the scheduled test start. The line to park was quite long. The Engineer’s test was administered in a state fair grounds type area with multiple convention type buildings. All the pencil and paper PE exams (mechanical, electrical, civil, controls system, etc.) were administered in a massive convention type building with hundreds of tables arranged in rows and columns. The setting was akin to Hogwarts’ Great Hall.

In order to get in the exam building, one needed to show a valid ID and a printed copy of the NCEES PE Exam Authorization (emailed to you two weeks before the exam date). There was quite a long line to get in the building as well. Almost everyone had a roller bin or a roller bag to carry all their reference material. Those that were able to carry their reference materials single-handedly were a minority.

Once inside the “Great Hall”, proctors direct you to your table based on your “Exam ID”. Each table had two exam IDs, one for each test taker (two test takers per table). The tables were six foot foldable plastic tables and each test taker had roughly half of that (3 x 2.4 sqft area) to arrange their ID, test authorization, some of your reference material, test booklet, scantron sheet, and calculator. Everything else was either on the floor next to you or in your roller bin or bag. Your ID (driver’s license or passport) and exam authorization form had to be displayed on the top corner of your assigned table at all times.

The Engineer initially had Bryon Lewis’ CSE Study Guide, Chuck Cornell’s Technical Reference Handbook, ISA’s Practice Exam, and N.E. Battikha’s Condensed Handbook on the table as their initial reference materials. 

Multiple proctors verified the Engineer’s exam authorization sheet, ID, and assigned seat before the test began. The proctors also gave out the NCEES official mechanical pencils before the start of the exam. You are given only one.

The main proctor started the test roughly 45 minutes after the “report to site” time printed on the exam authorization sheet.

Engineer’s Strategy During the Exam:

  • Go through all the questions quickly
  • Answer the questions that are quick and easy (not needing to look it up)
  • Mark the questions that were medium difficulty
    • Need to look up, but know which reference material and section the answer can be found at
    • Need to do calculations, but know which equations and reference material to use
  • Skip the questions that are very difficult or a huge time suck and answer those last
    • Don’t know where to look up a question
    • Don’t know which equations to use
  • Stop 10 minutes before the end of the test to fill out scantron
    • The proctor will announce time warnings

During the break between the morning and afternoon sections:

  • The break was approximately 45 minutes
  • Everyone had to leave the testing area with their ID and test approval slip
  • Reference material stayed on the table
  • The Engineer did not go out to eat
    • Had snack and water ready
    • Used the bathroom
  • Engineer walked around outside the “Great Hall”  to get the blood re-circulating and to get amped up for round two of the Thunderdome

Engineer’s feedback on the test

The engineer took the entire four hours for both the morning and afternoon sections to answer all the test questions, review each question once, and fill out the scantron sheet.  These things stood out in the Engineer’s mind right after they took the test:

  • The types of questions were similar to the practice exams, but none of the questions in the practice exams were actually used
  • A lot of questions tested skills in differential pressure calculation for flow and pressure analysis
  • A few “choose the best valve based on these specifications” questions didn’t include units in either the specification or given equation, they were testing on whether you could figure out which units and constants to use based on the application
    • Bryon Lewis’ Study Guide and Chuck Cornell’s Reference Handbook helped on these
  • There were a lot of (relatively) “which measurement type or instrumentation should be used in this application” questions
    • N.E. Battikha’s Condensed Handbook helped on a lot of these
  • The few motor control questions were simple and some were based on experience
  • Networking questions seemed simple and some were based on experience
  • The PLC programming questions were “old school” and did not fit with “modern” PLC programming
  • Don’t wait till the last minute to fill in the scantron bubbles
    • Filling in 40 bubbles takes more time than you think and requires concentration to not fill in the wrong bubbles
  • Bring a jacket, temperature in the room changed throughout the day
  • The test was more difficult than the engineer imagined

The Engineer’s Results

The Engineer got their results on the NCEES website two months after the test, around mid to late December. 

The engineer passed the test and was extremely relieved they would not have to study again and re-take the test.

The Engineer earned their right to enter Engineering Valhalla that day.

Primary Reference Materials for CSE PE Exam

Additional Reference Materials

What to bring and not bring

Mandatory Items:

  • Drivers License or Passport (reference NCEES required identification)
  • Printed copy of the Exam Authorization sent to your email from NCEES
  • Calculator (Reference NCEES allowed calculators)
  • Roller bag or bin to bring your reference materials
  • Reference materials
  • Water bottle
  • Food/snacks

 Nice to have:

  • Jacket
  • Ear plugs

 Do not bring:

  • Loose leaf paper (NCEES doesn’t like that, there is ample space on the test booklet for scratch work)
  • A pencil (the exam proctors provide it)
  • Cell phone (leave it in the car)
Automation One