CareerExplorer’s step-by-step guide on how to become a surveyor.
Is becoming a surveyor right for me?
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Many surveying degree programs have math prerequisites. High school level courses in geometry, algebra, trigonometry, drafting, computer-aided drafting (CAD), mechanical drawing, and geography help build a base of background knowledge applicable to surveying.
Due to the growing technical nature of surveying, employers are increasingly seeking job candidates with a four-year Bachelor’s degree in surveying, mapping, or geomatics. Some state licensing boards may require completion of a program approved by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).
For graduates who complete a two-year study program and earn an Associate’s degree, or individuals wishing to enter the field with only a high-school diploma, licensing requirements are more stringent (see Step 4, below) and employment opportunities are typically reduced.
A land surveying internships is not only an excellent way to put classroom theory into real-world practice, but in many states it is a requirement for licensing. Because surveying is a broad area, students are typically able to choose an internship that focuses on the specific subfield or specialization they wish to pursue.
Surveying students are generally able to secure internships through their university, which will likely have established relationships with local businesses and government agencies that are involved in surveying. If this is not the case, students can make these contacts independently. Particularly in smaller towns, internships are limited; applicants should therefore plan as early as a year in advance of their desired start date.
Interns spend a lot of time assisting the professional land surveyor in obtaining data in the field, compiling that data, and creating the final product at the end of the project.
To practise any discipline of surveying, an individual must pass a minimum standards exam, administered through the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES), and complete an apprenticeship under a Licensed Professional Surveyor. Specific requirements may vary according to different educational tracks and are determined by each state and territory.
For example, in North Carolina, the following applies:
Graduates with a Bachelor’s degree can take the licensing exam after two years of practical land surveying experience. At least one year of experience must be under the supervision of a professional land surveyor.
Graduates with a two-year Associate’s degree in surveying can take the licensing exam with four years of progressive experience.
Graduates with a high school diploma can take the licensing exam after seven years.
License maintenance and renewal requirements also vary from state to state.
The NCEES administers two licensing exams:
The Fundamental of Surveying (FS) exam covers mathematical, scientific, and basic surveying concepts.
The Principles and Practice of Surveying (PS) exam covers surveying standards, legal principles, professional practices, business practices, and types of surveying. Surveyors may attempt the PS exam after a minimum of four years of work experience. Many states supplement this exam with an exam of their own.
Voluntary certification is offered by The National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS). Candidates can earn the Certified Survey Technician (CST) credential at four levels:
Level one: open to anyone who can pass the exam
Level two: open to surveyors with at least one and a half years of experience
Level three: open to surveyors with at least three and a half years of experience
Level four: open to surveyors with at least five and a half years of experience, who have passed the level three exam
Many land surveyors choose not to specialize. However, the field is composed of multiple sub-disciplines and some surveyors may decide to focus their work in one or more areas.
A photogrammetrist takes aerial photos to create detailed 3D maps. These maps show existing structures, topography, and vegetation. For example, a photogrammetrist can track the movement of an oil spill to anticipate its environmental impact.
Construction surveyors advise architects, engineers, and contractors. They take precise measurements to pinpoint where an underground tunnel, road, or bridge begins and ends; or where water, sewer, phone, and power lines are located.
Forensic surveyors map, analyze, and collect the data used as evidence during court cases. They testify in lawsuits over automobile wrecks, industrial accidents, and boundary disputes. These specialists must be especially precise, since the evidence they provide is scrutinized by forensic surveyors hired by the opposing side.
These surveyors use specialized technology to map the location and shape of the land under oceans, rivers, and lakes. They identify underwater hazards, look for oil, consult on dredging projects, and measure erosion. Hydrographic surveyors are hired as government researchers and by utility, oil, and shipping companies.
Geodesists map the shape and size of the earth. Using Global Positioning System (GPS) technologies, they pinpoint the exact location, within centimeters, of an object on the earth’s surface. This information supports the construction of high quality mapping and charting products.
Geographic Information System (GIS) analysts use software to create and analyze detailed maps which highlight land contours and identify the location of every street sign and fire hydrant. This data is used to plan the building of roads, housing developments, and corporate parks. It also helps in hazardous waste clean-up, by revealing the extent of pollution based on water sources and land slope.
Boundary surveyors measure, design, retrace, and map property lines. This sometimes involves reading and analyzing public records and physical markers that in many instances date back hundreds of years. Home buyers often hire boundary surveyors to identify the accurate boundaries of the property they are purchasing. These land surveyors must be knowledgeable in both the mathematics of surveying and land laws.
The topographic or ‘topo’ maps created by these surveyors are used by civil engineers and architects to design new structures and developments. The topo map, which graphically depicts surface features of the ground, is developed based on the design criteria of home site or commercial projects.
These are the workers on the side of the road with a tripod and neon vest. Land surveyors rely on these technicians to operate the surveying equipment, collect data in the field, and collate the data to help create maps.
To maintain and progress in their careers, surveyors are encouraged to take continuing education courses in data management and analysis, advanced mathematics, and natural resource management. There are several professional societies that provide networking opportunities and promote new surveying methods. Among the most prominent are:
National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS)
Imaging and Geospatial Information Society (ASPRS)
How to become a Surveyor
Most surveyors hold a Bachelor’s degree in surveying and mapping, surveying and geomatics, or surveying engineering technology. Some complete programs in related fields such as civil engineering or forestry. Students should pursue programs accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).
Surveying degree programs generally include a combination of classroom instruction and field experiences to teach applied technical math; computer-aided design; the use of tools such as Global Positioning System (GPS) and Global Information System (GIS) technology; laser rangefinders; and AutoCAD design software. Additional courses focus on physics and geography and may include boundary law, statistical analysis, and photogrammetry. Some programs incorporate cooperative summer internships and/or require students to complete a capstone project.
While requirements may vary between jurisdictions, all U.S. states and territories mandate that surveyors be licensed before they can practise. Licensure is typically based on a combination of completed education and years of progressive experience. In some cases, a portion of the licensing requirement is fulfilled by passing two surveying exams administered by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES). Some jurisdictions may allow unlicensed surveyors to work as a technician or technologist under the supervision of a licensed professional.
Certification in the industry is voluntary and is awarded at four levels by the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS).