All Articles

A Year of Professional Development

I recently got a job offer with a company that I’m very excited about, and one of the fringe benefits they offer is full support for professional development. Since I left my PhD program 18 months ago, I had to restart a number of professional memberships in the U.S., none of which acknowledged me as a recent student since my record was overseas, so I had to pay full membership fees if a “young member” fee wasn’t possible.

Yes, I could have chosen not to do so, but I basically used the network I built from these organizations to help me find my new job after losing most of my network leaving academia. While my first employer in 2013 provided a professional development budget ($500 a year) and at least a single professional society membership, my most recent employer did not provide any fringe benefit related to professional development. What follows is just a record of showing how difficult it is to be engaged in my profession without substantial financial support.

###September 2018: SEAoNY Membership - $90 - I joined SEAoNY to be part of the local chapter of NCSEA and join the Diversity Committee and SE3 Initiative

###October 2018: AEC Hackathon Participant - $160.41 - I paid handsomely to participate in a hackathon, because I was desperate to try and find likeminded programmers within my industry. This did not have a great ROI, as I was in a losing battle with a sinus infection as a result of 60-70 hour weeks for project work (so no all-nighters for me!). Most of the big players knew each other really well (and had preformed teams) or had already networked prior at the $500 symposium of the previous 3 days.

Pyladies NYC - FREE - I started attending the newly established monthly study breaks for Pyladies, as Pyladies NYC was actually my introduction to Python back in 2014. I was also looking for an outlet to have at least a little of my time taken up by programming and non project work. I cannot say enough good things about the women that run Pyladies NYC. They are a great group of people that are extremely welcoming and inclusive and made me feel at home in the Python community. I attended most of these in my year of professional development, as well as a number of free workshops and lectures.

###January 2019: IABSE Membership - $105 - I was a semi-active member of this organization when I first graduated from school. I still very much enjoy the journal, and I was planning on working on Future of Design in NYC, so I figure it would be worth it to re-up my membership.

###April 2019: ASCE Structural Engineering Institute (SEI) - $280 - I reupped my membership for this organization (it fills a similar spot to SEAoNY and NCSEA), because I wanted to apply for a scholarship for its annual conference in April. I was fortunate enough to get one of the scholarships for the conference that included full conference fees ($670 for young members) and a $500 stipend. This was just enough to cover an Airbnb and flights. At the conference, I was able to meet some people from SE3, as well as get involved with the sustainability committee. My employer was kind enough to cover the 3 days of PTO out of a marketing budget.

NCEES PE Licensure - $750 and counting - This was by far the most expensive aspect of professional development in the past year (and I’m STILL not done). The PE exam fees ($350 for the 8 hour and $150 apiece for Seismic and Surveying for California specific exams) are only covered by my previous employer if you pass on the first try, and there are no paid days off for studying or taking the exam. The subject exams (Seismic and Surveying) also require processing fees of $75 a piece from the Prometric test center where they are administered.

Additionally, the references required to pass the exam (and I do not use that term lightly; you cannot pass the exam without some of these references as the code will be explicitly referenced) cost several thousand dollars all totaled up if you can’t get them from your employer. When I worked as a bridge engineer, I didn’t have access to most of these references, as my company never did masonry or timber bridges. What follows is a reference by reference breakdown. While being a member of the organizations that write these codes will cut down on the reference cost (i.e. being a member of AISC), there’s not much incentive to do so if the membership outstrips the savings for buying the reference. The figure above also doesn’t include the price of the actual registration once you have completed all the requirements.

  • AASHTO - $660
  • IBC - $320
  • ASCE 7-10 - $240
  • ACI 318-14 - $269
  • AISC 14th Ed - $400
  • NDS & Supplement - $150
  • PCI - $500
  • TMS 402/602 - $150
  • Lindbergh PE “Bible”- $150 - $200

This is also not the end of licensure, the SE exam is significantly more difficult and more expensive. If your employer doesn’t provide support for this (or financial incentive) it’s difficult to justify its cost if you never are responsible for stamping drawings.

###June 2019:

Future of Design - FREE (organizer) - I was on the organizing committee for this single day conference, which had a single day cost of (I think) $75. This was an interdisciplinary conference as well, including people from architecture, engineering, and MEP.

Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation - Emerging Leaders - $350 - I participated in this to meet women in the built environment but outside my field. It was a pretty short but very informative program.

ODSC - (FREE) - I was able to attend this conference for free courtesy of Pyladies, since I was an active member that attended the study groups and helped out as needed. Again, Pyladies is super awesome.

###August 2019: IABSE Conference - ($1100) - Sigh. There’s a lot I could say about this conference. I did not pay the registration fee, because I was a last minute fill in for a session on the SE3 results. However, the conference is supported by requiring its presenters to pay the full fee (there is no reduced speaker cost), and at this point I was just starting my time at Recurse Center. I was unemployed and not about to foot this bill, even for the networking opportunities it presented.

###August 2019 - October 2019: The Recurse Center - FREE - My time at the Recurse Center meant much more to me than professional development (more on that later), but it was definitely a key part of setting me on a better path professionally.

###November 2019: Pydata NYC - FREE - I applied (and was accepted) to volunteer at this upcoming conference (plus I get a free t-shirt). Again, the Python community is really great.

NCSEA SE3 Summit - $100 - I’ll be attending only the session about SE3 (the larger summit is significantly more expensive).

All told, for the things I actually paid for, my professional development costs were about $2000 (I also had to fly to California for the licensing exam, forgot to include that tidbit). If I were less fortunate and wanted to take my licensing exam with an employer with fewer resources (or god forbid, no resources), my costs would have been around $5000. If I had paid for all the conference fees for the structural engineering conferences, it would have been around $7000. Of course, I didn’t have to do all these things, but there’s no denying this is a crazy cost for young engineers that just want to get involved in their chosen industry (especially if their employers are not supportive).

My starting salary after a Master’s degree at Stanford was $57k in Seattle (no income tax), and I knew people that took substantially lower salaries after graduate school in other areas of the country with higher taxes. I was also fortunate to graduate from my Master’s program with zero student debt. Master’s programs for structural engineering can easily run anywhere from $40k to $80k depending on the program.

One of the main criticisms I hear from older structural engineers is that young employees aren’t engaged in the profession, but the sad fact is, they can’t afford to be. Maybe you’ll be lucky and find an employer that supports professional development, but to me, it seems like we’ve been sold a bill of goods for a profession that is simultaneously becoming more exclusive through increasing costs and barriers to entry while salaries can’t even keep up with inflation.

Published Oct 24, 2019

Striving to stay curious.