Certification is a formal process whereby a community of knowledgeable, experienced, and skilled representatives of an organization, such as the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE), provides formal recognition that a person has achieved competency in specific areas (demonstrated by education, experience, and knowledge). Certification differs from a “license” that is a permission granted by a government entity for a person to practice within its regulatory boundaries. Certification also differs from a "certificate" that documents the successful completion of a training or education program.
After three years of intensive research and development, INCOSE established its Professional Certification Program in March 2004 to provide a formal method for recognizing the education, experience, and knowledge of systems engineers through the "Certified Systems Engineering Professional" (CSEP) designation. This designation requires at least five years of systems engineering experience confirmed by systems engineering knowledgeable references. CSEP certification is valid for three years from the date awarded, and may be renewed in three-year intervals by demonstrating various ways of continuing education and ongoing professional development. The original CSEP examination was based on the INCOSE Systems Engineering Handbook Version 2A. In 2008, the exam was updated to reflect Version 3.1 of the handbook, which was based on the international systems engineering standard ISO/IEC 15288. In 2010, the exam was again updated to reflect Version 3.2 of the handbook and the latest version of ISO/IEC15288. The exam has been based on Version 4.0 of the handbook since 2015.
The program was expanded to multiple levels of certification in 2008. Now the INCOSE Certification Program has an entry level “Associate Systems Engineering Professional” (ASEP) for those who do not yet have the requisite years of SE experience. The ASEP requires and uses the same exam as CSEP. Upon achieving at least five years of SE experience, the ASEP can transition to CSEP. In 2010, INCOSE introduced the “Expert Systems Engineering Professional” (ESEP) designation for senior systems engineers with at least 25 years of recognized systems engineering experience (20 years if already a CSEP) and demonstrated systems engineering leadership and accomplishments.
In 2008, the certification program added its first extension. This extension, designated “Acq,” was for professionals that work in the United States Department of Defense acquisition environment and was earned by first achieving the CSEP designation and then taking an additional acquisition exam based on the Defense Acquisition Guidebook Chapter 4, on Systems Engineering. The Acquisition extension was retired in 2014.
The computer-based knowledge exam was the primary path to ASEP and CSEP certification until 2018, when the paper exam overtook it in popularity. The paper exam has the same format of questions as the computer exam but is offered to a group in a classroom setting. It also follows a slightly different process from the computer exam, with candidates allowed to take the paper exam prior to joining INCOSE or applying for certification. These steps are still required for those who wish to get certified after taking the exam.
The INCOSE Certification Program beginning recognizing equivalency from other programs in 2013, starting with the German SEZert. This led to agreements with INCOSE UK and SESA (Australia) for country-local paths to certification and then to academic equivalencies. In 2018, INCOSE recognized its first Academic Equivalency, allowing students to meet the knowledge requirement for ASEP and CSEP certification through their coursework, without taking the knowledge exam. This is anticipated to be a useful path for candidates to demonstrate knowledge in languages other than English and without travel to testing centers.