Surveying or land surveying is both an art and science of determining boundaries, lines, and corners using the three-dimensional position of the points and distances between them. This scientific technique uses physics, geometry, trigonometry, and engineering principles to make accurate calculations.

land surveyor doing field work with equipment

IMAGE SOURCE: Pixabay, public domain

Land surveyors gather information through observations, field measurements, questionnaires, or research of legal documents. The science also involves data analysis in planning, designing, and establishing property limits for real estate and construction. It may include re-establishing real estate boundaries based on historical records and creating subdivision plats or maps before residential construction.

The art of surveying has probably existed for millennia. The Great Pyramid of Giza, over 4,500 years old, is an engineering marvel, standing at an original height of 481 feet and a base of 230.3 meters (755.6 feet) square. In 1880-82, Egyptologist Flinders Petrie performed the first accurate survey when he determined the four sides of the base differed by only 58 millimeters or 2.3 inches. That feat must have required some form of surveying techniques to be that precise.

More baffling is how the builders of Giza and two other pyramids aligned them with the four cardinal points (not magnetic) with an average accuracy of three minutes and 38 seconds. (A minute of arc is equal to 1/60th of one degree. The Egyptian architects may have devised a ground rod or gnomon to align the structures with the cardinal directions. The ancient surveyor could find the east-west coordinates when the shadow’s tip runs in a straight line by observing the rod’s shadow.

Another iconic megalith is Stonehenge from 2,500 BCE, whose planners and builders might have used peg and rope geometry. This procedure uses wooden pegs and rope of defined lengths to establish accurate dimensions, including length, width, and height.

The modern instrument is a total station that consists of a theodolite (a precision instrument for measuring angles in horizontal and vertical planes) with an electronic measurement device (EDM). Current top-of-the-line total stations don’t require a reflector or prism to return the light pulses used for calculating distance. The current state-of-the-art surveying devices are robotic, capable of forwarding point data to an office computer.  This technology requires only one operator in the field.

Less sophisticated equipment used by a land surveyor is a weather-proof nylon or fiberglass tape measure, handheld compass, hand and digital levels, measuring wheels, and transit or theodolite (to measure horizontal and vertical angles).

Land Surveyor Education

Associate’s Degree

For example, an associate degree is a popular choice for working on construction sites and zoning projects. Glenville State College in West Virginia has an associate degree in Land Surveying whose coursework is approved by the West Virginia Board of Land Surveyors.  The 60-credit hours’ program covers Survey Math, Retracement Surveys, Cartographic Surveying, Construction and Route Surveys, and Remote Sensing Aerial Photo Interpretation. Graduates will be skillful using compasses, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), transits, and theodolites.

Before working on their own, surveyors require a license granted by the state where they practice. Requirements vary but generally include passing exams and acquiring supervised experience in the field. West Virginia requires license applicants to have at least thirty hours of surveying or related courses with a two-year or associate degree. In North Carolina, candidates with an associate degree need four years of experience, plus four additional years of supervised experience as a land surveyor.

The web-based curriculum at Great Basin College in Nevada instructs students in remote sensing techniques, mine and construction surveying, boundary analysis, photogrammetry, and GIS or Geographic Information System. An Associate of Applied Science in Land Surveying and Geomatics is another option, and the latter manages, creates, and analyzes mapping data into a geographical context.

Students at Great Basin also use software like Carlson Survey and Mathcad, study satellite imagery, and learn about GNSS or Global Navigation Satellite System. In addition to GPS, graduates will have the skills to use precision optical and electromechanical survey instruments. The program culminates in a capstone project incorporating boundary surveying, mortgage, topographic, hydrographic, construction, or deformation survey.

For convenience and cost-savings, many community colleges have two-year surveying programs. Texas, for example, allows two-year associate degree graduates to become a Registered Professional Land Surveyor. Check your state’s Board of Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors for school listings.

Bachelor’s Degree

The 125-credits online Bachelor of Science in Surveying Engineering at the University of Maine centers on surveying practices, engineering, and business. Surveying/Engineering consists of 47 credits, Communication 15, Statistics/Math 14, Business 12 credits, plus an assortment of 19 credits in electives. Examples of the engineering courses are AutoCAD for Surveyors, Photogrammetry, Site Surveying, Practical GPS, and Advanced Surveying. Business classes include Technical and Business Writing, Boundary Law, Survey Law, and Financial Accounting.

Online students need a local surveyor as a mentor, who will also provide the equipment and assist in the fieldwork assignments. The school requires that you complete a minimum of 30 credits there, with at least 15 at the 300 level or above.

The University of Texas-Tyler offers a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Technology specializing in Surveying and Mapping. Individuals aspiring to be registered professional land surveyors (RPLS) may want to consider this program. Coursework samples are GIS Applications, Computer-Aided Mapping, Photogrammetry, and Engineering Design Surveying Lab. Graduates will know how to apply mathematics theories in surveying and have experience with the latest equipment.

At the undergraduate level, a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering would teach surveying. The engineering degree may create more job opportunities than a concentration in land surveying. However, you may not have as many courses dedicated to topics like GIS, GPS, and photogrammetry. The Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Kennesaw State University has a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering with only two classes in surveying. Due to the expanse of knowledge in this field, students study structural analysis,   geotechnical engineering, fluid mechanics, materials’ strength, and concrete structures.

However, surveying is crucial to civil engineering in determining three-dimensional relationships between locations and calculating angles and distances critical in constructing bridges, roads, and public buildings.

Southern Illinois University Edwardsville has a Bachelor of Science in Construction Management with a Land Surveying specialization. The General Education Requirements cover specific categories, such as Physical Science, Construction, Business, Humanities, and Foundations (English, Philosophy, and Math). During year two, students have their first class in Surveying Fundamentals in Construction; year three has boundary surveying; year four includes Advanced Survey Systems and Survey Computations. The curriculum may not suit those who prefer a heavier dose of the technologies involved in surveying, like GPS and GIS.

As referenced above, the Great Basin College’s associate degree couples land surveying with geomatics. Are they the same? Similar, however, each has its own qualities as geomatics involves GPS, geodesy, hydrography, mapping, photogrammetry, and surveying. Geodesy refers to the mathematical determination of the earth’s size and shape. The overlap occurs as both use remote sensing (measuring emitted radiation), Geographic Information Systems (GIS), satellites, and drone technology to map land and waterway boundaries.

Therefore, it seems logical that a degree in geomatics should provide the technical knowledge to become a land surveyor. The Department of Civil and Geomatics Engineering at Fresno State has a bachelor’s degree in Geomatics Engineering. Some of the core courses include:

  • Engineering Surveying
  • Municipal Surveying
  • Adjustment Computations (Survey networks and geomatics computation)
  • Route and Construction Surveying
  • Land Surveying
  • Computer-aided Mapping
  • Geodetic Surveying
  • GPS Navigation

Other classes study digital mapping, stereo-photogrammetry, satellite geodesy, boundary survey design, subdivision design, and geopositioning. Furthermore, graduates will have the qualifications to work in:

  • Urban Planning
  • Boundary Mapping
  • Land Surveying
  • Geomarketing
  • Transportation
  • Space Exploration

The Lyles College of Engineering at Fresno State states that internships and cooperative work experiences are available at local, regional, and national companies. The College allied with the Valley Industry Partnership (VIP) to offer students enrolled in computer science, electrical and mechanical engineering, and industrial technology to gain real-world experience.

Master’s Degree

Individuals who want their career to take them beyond fieldwork may consider a graduate program in civil engineering with a concentration in Surveying-Geomatics. Georgia Southern University, for example, has a Master of Science in Civil Engineering with this specialization, which has required classes in Advanced Surveying, Intro to GIS in Geomatics, and Surveying History. Most technical electives are engineering topics, like hydrology, project planning, construction cost estimating, drainage, erosion, and sustainable construction.

Georgia Southern also offers an accelerated Bachelor to Master’s in Surveying-Geomatics that you can complete in five years. Graduates will have mastered surveying equipment, data gathering, GPS, Photogrammetry, LIDAR (light detection and ranging), and land surveying techniques.

Future Land Surveyors

The National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS) is a valuable source of information and education. The organization has a Get Kids into Survey program designed to inspire young students to pursue an interest in the field. The program provides lessons in GPS, satellites, latitude, longitude, and scaling the globe. Classes begin as early as kindergarten.

High school students may look into a Future Surveyors program where they reside, such as the one available through the Maryland Society of Surveyors in Baltimore. Accepted students may participate in summer internships at local surveying firms or government agencies.

College students pursuing a degree in surveying, geodesy, cartography, or related field may join the NSPS for the nominal cost of $10. Those employed in one of these professions may become a non-voting Associate member ($140) or a voting Member ($225).

The NSPS site also has a directory of ABET-Accredited colleges and universities that have programs in geomatics, land surveying, surveying engineering, geospatial engineering, and more. ABET or the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology accredits over 846 learning institutions in 41 countries. You may also search for accredited schools on ABET.

Land Surveyor License

All states require a land surveyor to have a valid professional surveying license before working for clients. Each states defines its requirements with respect to education, experience, and examinations. The typical exams are the Fundamentals of Surveying and the Principles and Practice of Surveying. Some state boards group land surveyors with professional engineers; for example, Montana has the Board of Professional Engineers and Professional Land Surveyors. In comparison, Illinois has the Land Surveyors Licensing Board, the State Board of Professional Engineers, and the Structural Engineering Board.

Delaware, for example, requires land surveyors to have a four-year college education or be a senior and have at least two years of office and field experience in the practice of surveying.

Further details regarding licensing are available at the National Council of Examiners for Engineering (NCEES).

Land Surveyor Employment

An excellent source of information is on employment sites, such as Indeed, LinkedIn, and Glassdoor. Plug in the job title of Land Surveyor, and you instantly see what companies are hiring. More importantly, the job postings reveal the preferred qualifications. Interestingly, many do not specify a degree, but they elaborate on the experience and technical skills needed. Examples of the required skills are AutoCAD Civil 3D, plats. ALTAs, topographical surveys, Adobe Acrobat, GPS, Robotic Total-Station Surveying, and surveying equipment.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported in 2020 that the median annual income for surveyors was $65,590 with a bachelor’s degree. This occupation’s projected growth/change rate through 2029 is a disappointing 2% or a change in only 800 jobs. In comparison, the occupation category of Surveying and Mapping Technicians with a high school diploma was $46,200 in 2020. The BLS projected its growth rate to be only 1% through 2029. According to the BLS, Texas has the highest concentration of technicians with 10,050, followed by Florida with 4,390.

These projected changes in employment seem to contradict the job postings, which are plentiful. With this in mind, it’s advisable to seek the counsel of someone working as a land surveyor or civil engineer in your planned work locale. Their insight may furnish a more accurate picture of the job market.

Texas Surveyors lead the group with 5,000 in 2020, with California second with 4,510, and Florida had 3,360. California had the highest median income at $97,650, beating New Jersey at $89,040 and Alaska’s $88,190. Redding, California, pays the best with an average wage of $112,110, followed closely by Los Angeles ($106,150) and Fresno ($105,130).

Looking at metropolitan areas’ employment, the top three are Houston, New York-New Jersey, and Washington-Arlington, with 1,640, 1,620, and 1,370, respectively (2020 data).

Related Resources:

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