In February, two bills altering the licensing requirements for surveying in rural areas were introduced in the Alabama Legislature. In a news story on the bills, the following rationale was given: “PVC pipe made everyone a plumber. The wire welder made everybody a welder. GPS made everyone a surveyor.”1 This perception of the profession should be of great concern to the surveying community.

In February, two bills altering the licensing requirements for surveying in rural areas were introduced in the Alabama Legislature. In a news story on the bills, the following rationale was given: “PVC pipe made everyone a plumber. The wire welder made everybody a welder. GPS made everyone a surveyor.”1 This perception of the profession should be of great concern to the surveying community.

As positioning technologies evolve and mapping capabilities become more prevalent due to GIS, the notion of “everyone can be a surveyor” could surface again and again. Some reasons for this perception is the lack of understanding of what a surveyor does and the knowledge base and skills upon which the profession is founded. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that we closely examine what makes an occupation a profession, what the characteristics of the surveying profession are and what we need to do to reverse the public’s inaccurate perception.

Table 1. Drastic changes have occurred in surveying in the last 25 years.

Protecting the Profession

While the surveying community is divided over mandating a degree for licensure, most agree that a license must be obtained. In addition, to attract young people to the profession, surveying must be viewed as a respected and reputable career option. So, what makes an occupation a profession, and what makes a profession reputable?

Several definitions state that a profession is founded on knowledge, skill and education. Respect for professionals arises from expertise, education and the impact their work makes on society. Specialized knowledge, skills and expertise justifies the special privilege bestowed on licensed professionals to practice their chosen profession and, in turn, bars others from practicing. At the same time, the knowledge and skills required to become a professional land surveyor (PLS) have yet to be concretely determined. If such a body of knowledge is developed and implemented, the profession will be better protected.

Defining a Knowledge Base

There are two approaches to defining and developing a knowledge base. The first is based on a detailed listing of theories, technologies and procedures needed for today’s practice of surveying. This approach is used by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) to determine what should be included on the fundamentals of surveying and professional practice portions of the licensing exams. This approach was also adopted by the Association of American Geographers (AAG) and the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science (UCGIS)2 and requires periodic updating of the knowledge base in response to changes in technology and other requirements. This approach, however, may have its shortcomings for the surveying profession, which has gone through dramatic changes in the last 25 years. Today, surveying is practiced with different equipment, different technologies, different field procedures, different data processing routines along with new requirements for deliverables or survey products. The changes are not mere changes in equipment and technology; they are much more profound in terms of new knowledge and skills necessary to distinguish a professional surveyor from the “GPS made everyone a surveyor” crowd.
The other approach is to establish a broad foundation that will enable an individual to develop specific understanding and abilities necessary to become--and remain--a professional. This approach recognizes that a knowledge base should be defined in more general terms, and to some extent, be independent of the evolution of surveying technologies. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) followed this approach to develop its body of knowledge.)3,4 The ASCE documents delineate outcomes that are expected to be achieved by professional civil engineers at different stages of their careers.

In this discussion, we will apply this general approach, which is less technology-specific, to the surveying profession and attempt to define what should be learned and how it should be learned to enable PLSs to function as professional experts regardless of the tools they use. This knowledge base is intended to equip the professional surveyor with the necessary background to master new technologies as they evolve.

What Should Be Learned?

Before addressing the issue of what should be learned, it is prudent to define what a professional expert in land surveying does. Is the function of a PLS to use tools or technologies to perform specific tasks, or is the function of a PLS broader? If the function of a PLS is to perform a task, then we may hear the “GPS made everyone a surveyor” statement time and again. Many tasks that required specialized skills in the past can now be performed with RTK GPS following a short training session; technology could mislead individuals into thinking--and claiming--that they have the competence to perform surveying tasks.
Viewing the role of the PLS from a broader perspective--as the master creator, analyzer, integrator and technical leader of spatial information--does not necessarily mean a PLS is to perform all the technical field and office work. This could be done by technicians who work under the supervision of a PLS. In most professions, it is common practice for aides and technicians to perform routine tasks, while the professional person is involved in the higher-level aspects of the work. In surveying, these higher levels include problem definition, scope, methodology, means, analysis, creativity, synthesizing alternatives, iteration, regulations, codes and safety issues. This separation elevates the PLS to a more prestigious status (and will also alleviate the perception of a shortage of PLSs when the real shortage is of surveying technicians and aides). This role of the professional can potentially attract young, educated people to surveying.
To enable the future PLS to attain this professional level and to master new technologies and advanced data processing methodologies, the PLS should have a minimum technical core of knowledge and breadth of coverage in the areas noted below.
While these criteria do not constitute a complete surveying knowledge base and, to a large extent, are not related to specific surveying equipment or tools, they do establish a foundation for lifelong learning and foster the ability to adapt to new technologies and skills as they evolve.

The questions surveying societies should ask themselves are: How can all of this knowledge be learned? Can this knowledge be acquired by working under any PLS for any length of time? Is continuing education, which is now mandated in most states, effective if the foundation of this knowledge base is not mandated first?
As food for thought, consider that from its study, the ASCE concluded that its knowledge base (which includes elements comparable to those described here) cannot be achieved in a four-year degree program. Initially, the organization recommended that the minimum educational requirement for entry into the civil engineering profession be a master’s degree plus experience. 3 Later, it was changed to a four-year degree plus 30 additional post-graduate college credits and experience or a master’s degree and practical experience.4What should the minimum educational requirements be for entry into the surveying profession?

Proposed Body of Knowledge

Mathematics, science and technology
• Mathematics must be beyond algebra and trigonometry. Calculus and linear algebra must be included in order to understand error theory and least squares adjustment. As surveying technology evolves, redundant observations are easier to obtain but require the use of least squares adjustment. Redundant observations are the most important vehicle to supervise, monitor and assess the quality of work performed by technicians.
• Statistics, including statistical testing and blunder detection theory, which is an indispensable means for QC/QA.
• Computer science.
• Physics, which is important to understand how modern surveying tools work. This understanding will make it easier to comprehend how to work with the equipment and how to minimize and evaluate possible error, which will distinguish the PLS from the “GPS made everyone a surveyor” person.
• Information science and information technology, especially as it relates to geospatial information, since almost every task a surveyor performs is related to spatial information systems.
• Basic knowledge of the science behind geodesy (ellipsoids, geoids, map projections, geometric representation of the Earth, height systems, gravity), image and sensor-based mapping systems (terrestrial-, air- or space-borne).

Law, ethics and professionalism
• Includes a broad knowledge of the law beyond boundary law. The knowledge should include elements of the legislative process, courts and the court system, statutory law, administrative law, real estate law, business law, legal forms of ownership, etc. This will familiarize PLSs with the framework in which they function.
• The PLS is to hold paramount the welfare of the public. A PLS needs to demonstrate an understanding of and a commitment to practice according to the fundamental principles of ethics and the codes of professional conduct.

Communication, history, social science and contemporary issues
• A PLS needs to be versatile with communication and presentation tools, such as word processing, spreadsheets, slide presentations, graphics, visualization, the Internet, and demonstrate professional etiquette.
• To be effective, a PLS should appreciate the relationship of surveying to critical contemporary issues such as the technical, environmental, societal, political, legal, economic and financial implications of surveying and spatial information projects.

Business, economics and management
• This knowledge is needed because PLSs commonly run their own businesses or surveying departments in larger consulting firms, public companies or local government agencies. It is also needed because a contemporary PLS should be able to manage projects, contracts, people, budgets, schedules, finance, marketing and sales, billable time, overhead, profits, etc.

In-depth specialty
• At least one in-depth specialty in surveying law, geodesy, GIS, image-based mapping or other discipline.


1 Lyman, Brian, Mobile Press-Register, Monday, Feb. 18, 2008, “Licensing bill raises ire of surveyors” located at

2 AAG, 2006, Geographic Information Science & Technology – Body of Knowledge, Association of American Geographers, Washington, DC.
3 “Civil Engineering Body of Knowledge for the 21st century: Preparing the Civil Engineer for the Future,” American Society of Civil Engineers, copyright 2004.

4 “Civil Engineering Body of Knowledge for the 21st century: Preparing the Civil Engineer for the Future, Second Edition,” American Society of Civil Engineers, copyright 2008, located at