Professional Topography: The true meaning of professional.

April 1, 2010
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Every dictionary and encyclopedia defines the word “professional” in different ways. 

Every dictionary and encyclopedia defines the word “professional” in different ways.

These definitions often involve the possession of a well-defined body of knowledge, education and experience; the application of that body of knowledge; and conformity to ethical or technical standards. When I get into discussions with other “professionals,” sometimes I also hear descriptions like well-dressed, carries himself or herself well, etc. A definition I like to use is as follows:

A professional:

•  provides service at a higher level than one would get from a layperson;

•  advocates for clients yet is impartial;

•  possesses ethical standards of performance for the work and the client relationship;

•  will admit when he or she is wrong or doesn’t know; and

•  works with other professionals and stakeholders for the good of clients, the profession and society.

Note that I did not call this the definition of a professional surveyor--just a professional. You may think that it is not complete, and you may not even agree with the direction I’m taking on this, and that’s OK. But it is important for all of us “professionals” to think about this matter. Before we can decide that we want to be professional, we must be very clear about what that word means--not only to ourselves but also to everyone we work with, including our clients.

My suggestion is that you write down what you want that word to define. Break it down. Then figure out what it should mean in terms of speech, actions and even dress. 

Moving Beyond a License

Once you have defined the full meaning of “professional” for yourself, think about whether there is any hope of getting other surveyors, geomatics professionals, geospatial data managers or other related titles to uphold what you might consider to be the broad definition. Ideally, all surveyors need to subscribe to the same general set of criteria for being a professional. But will we ever have a majority of surveyors agree on a broad definition?

I doubt we could get a majority of surveyors to uphold any definition, except maybe the possession of a surveying license. But I would vehemently disagree that mere possession of a license is enough to call oneself a professional. Many licensed surveyors fall short of my definition of a professional.

And my definition may not even be adequate. For example, where does the ability to communicate well verbally and in writing fit in? Most surveying curricula and certainly the ABET criteria require the development of communication skills, but such skills are often lacking in real-world practice.

Perhaps most importantly, my definition doesn’t address the question of competence. What is the appropriate level of competence? Clearly, it should be at a higher level of service than a layperson, but that leaves a lot of room for variation.

One of my favorite examples of a lack of competence and professionalism is a sign I saw a long time ago that had a word misspelled. Whose responsibility was it to spell check the sign? It would be very easy for the sign company to say, “Hey, we just followed the customer’s instructions.” But is that the desired level of service?

Agreeing to Agree

Numerous questionable areas exist within our practice that surveyors respond to differently. But I’m not sure those differences are acceptable.

For example, when some surveyors have finished their fieldwork, done their analysis and are finally ready to set a particular corner, they will set it no matter what--even if it is 0.02 feet from an existing monument that appears to have been set for the same purpose. Other surveyors will accept the position of the existing monument. Likewise, some surveyors treat the results of their boundary line location as a secret to be kept between the client and themselves. But others--correctly, in my opinion--realize that every line set also sets the line of at least one other adjoiner. Paraphrasing Maurice Schumann, When will surveyors realize that they never only mark their client’s line?*

In general, we surveyors lack an awareness of and appreciation for what it means to be professional. Is this because we don’t consistently practice the role of professional? Is it because we get trained in so many different ways, many of which don’t address the issues covered in a discussion of what it truly means to be a professional? I believe there are many reasons. But certainly the lack of a structured path to licensure prevents many licensed surveyors from understanding what professionalism entails beyond the license.

As a profession, we aren’t addressing issues like these seriously enough to ever achieve overwhelming majority support for the “right way” to be professional.

*See “Opinion: There’s No Such Thing as ‘the Client’s’ Line,”

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