What does a Surveyor do, and how to become one

Surveyor working with Theodolite and Laptop

Whenever you are near a construction project or driving, alongside the road you may see individuals in high visibility vests with a tripod and what looks like a camera on top. Or you may have been out walking your dog and have seen little orange flags sticking out of the ground. 

If you have ever wondered what this is, you have just encountered the workings of a Surveyor. Land surveying is a critical part of any large scale construction project and part and parcel of owning land and requires a trained professional with the education and experience to conduct.

What is Surveying 

So, what is land surveying? Land surveys are a critical piece of documentation that defines the location, boundaries, landmarks, topography, and elevation from sea level for any parcel of land. A good definition for surveying is a branch of applied mathematics used to create vital maps that outlines the boundaries of a piece of land.Land Surveyor Engineer

It is used frequently by several entities to identify where buildings, utility lines, pipes, easements, elevations, and additions are on any property. This information is useful for insurance companies, construction managers, municipalities, lawyers, and homeowners.

Surveying is a process undertaken by a trained professional, this includes researching the property records, identifying boundary marks, measuring, and creating a map based on the information they can gather. The final product is a survey map that is a legal document and can be used in court cases involving property disputes, land purchase closures, deed transfers, and more.

Who Needs a Survey and Why?

Commercial, residential, and municipal entities that own any parcel of property must have surveys for different reasons. First, if there is ever a sale of the property, a surveyor Is used to locate the boundary and the size and location of any structures on the property, this is an integral part of assessing the overall value of the property.

Second, if there is ever a boundary dispute between adjacent properties. In that case, attorneys can reference the survey to locate the pin markers that would have been placed by an impartial third-party to investigate the claim and identify clear boundaries.

A surveyor often needs to create an elevation survey for a property near a water body so that insurance agencies can decide on an appropriate amount of flood insurance for that parcel. Finally, suppose a significant construction project is about to commence. 

In that case, construction managers need to be able to identify property boundaries, locate structures, plan site preparation, landscaping, and other potential challenges to plan their project and outline the work needed to be done.

What is the Difference Between a Surveyor and a Survey Technician?


Surveyors and survey technicians work together closely in the field to obtain the needed information. Surveyors can either work independently as a private entity or be part of a large engineering team. They are skilled in research and mapping and divide their time both in the field and in the office.

Land Surveyor EngineerPublic entities may only hire a surveyor if they have a formal education, licensing, and experience mix. Surveyors know how to operate all of the machinery and software needed to complete a survey and possess the ability to create and print maps based on the information they can deduce.

Survey Technicians

Survey technicians gain their mastery through both coursework and fieldwork. They are not required to have the same level of education as a Licensed Surveyor however, training is necessary. They gather the evidence and measurements needed to assist the surveyor in completing a land map.

They will help to locate previous Survey pins and landmarks from other surveys and also have the responsibilities to either research the property and utilize CAD Software to create the land maps overseen by a surveyor who will then turn into legal survey documents

Essential Skills Needed to be a Surveyor

Often, land surveying job descriptions fail to mention a few primary skills. One of the most fundamental skills that a surveyor needs to have is reading a map. Although this may seem like a trivial hard skill, a surveyor must be able to create a document that can be universally understood based on direction.

Another essential skill for a surveyor to have is the ability to research. A surveyor begins each job by obtaining tax maps, title transfers, previous surveys, on the land, and all parcels adjacent to it. They typically work with the local or county municipality and with various attorneys to obtain this information.

Land Surveyor Engineer Once they acquire the paperwork, they conduct a field exam and walk the property. A surveyor will take a mental note of any obstructions such as fences, trees, and other natural elements and visually locate the potential property line. A surveyor may also take pictures of any existing structures that are in place to ensure that they match any building permits that may be on file.

Land surveyors also need to have some soft customer service skills. Before starting a survey, most property owners may not just be curious about their property lines- some of them can be disapproving and claim the information is incorrect. 

Surveyors need to be able to work with the public to obtain information and dissolve contentious arguments. Most people are amiable during a land survey, and often, much of the job does not require much communication with the public. However, having strong customer service skills can help any surveyor complete their job better.

Surveyors also need to be professional and ethical. They commonly work with municipalities and lawyers, and their documents need to be as honest and accurate as possible to avert any future issues. They are highly regarded in their field and therefore need to carry a strong ability network and carry a professional demeanor.

Land Surveyor EngineerSurveyors work in every season, weather condition and must work in a variety of situations outdoors. Regardless of whether it is raining, snowing, or blistering hot, they need to withstand the elements. Surveys require a lot of walking, and many times, that includes hauling equipment for hundreds of feet at a time. 

There are often instances that surveyors need to climb through brambles and wild rose, hope over fences, cut down tree limbs, and cross over streams to set their landmarks and survey pins. Having a love for the outdoors or at least the ability to withstand outdoor elements is essential for this position.

Although surveying seems like a manual job, much of the job is to use pretty advanced surveying technology and software. A surveyor needs to be able to operate and troubleshoot the equipment and be able to take the information gathered, enter it into sophisticated software and mapping systems, and produce a final document that is accurate. A strong ability to do the math, think logically and operate various technology systems are essential for this position.

Surveyor’s Tools and Technology

Land Surveyor Engineer

Measuring Tools for Distance

One of the fundamental tasks for a surveyor is measuring various distances because the accuracy of the measurements is crucial when completing a land map. There are different measuring tools used by surveyors, including measuring tapes, measuring wheels, rulers, and chains.  Surveyors also utilize the Stadia Lines built into Transits, Automatic Levels, and Theodolite that will make more precise measurements over longer distances. 

Measuring Tools for Location

There are two common methods to help surveyors determine location. The first is a Lensatic Compass. When you are in the middle of the woods conducting a survey, you can sometimes become “space lost” and become unaware of which direction you are facing- but this information is crucial. They are most commonly used for determining the angle between two different points on a map to determine location and distance.Land Surveyor Engineer

The second is a GPS Receiver, these are more accurate and have more functions than the one built into your smartphone. The features available on different models can range from simple latitude and longitude coordinates with elevation to the ability to measure distances, angles, and area with added receivers and accessories. 

3D Scanners 

Combining GPS technology with 3D Scanning technology surveyors can produce a Very accurate 3D layout of the land that can be used for models and digital survey programs. Although many traditional surveyors do not use these as frequently because of dependence on satellite function in low traffic areas, surveyors just coming out of college are being trained on these new systems of technology.

Measuring Tools for Angles

One of the fundamental pieces of equipment for a surveyor is a Theodolite it is used for measuring angles between designated visible points in the horizontal and vertical planes because the accuracy of these measurements is crucial in construction and completing a land map. 

Land Surveyor EngineerAuto levels and Transits are very accurate and still common in small-scale construction I and are mainly used for checking if the thing your building is level over longer distances when a Spirit level or Water level won’t work.

An inclinometer or clinometer measures High angles of slopes or depressions in relationship to gravity’s direction. This instrument is also handy for objects that you cannot reach the tops of, including trees and buildings. 

Levels, Poles, Mounts

To obtain accurate and steady measurements, surveyors will typically use levels, poles, and mounts. Levels assist a surveyor in reading elevation and are commonly used with bi or tripods. They can be more traditional with an optical lens or more sophisticated using a digital handheld device. The use of poles and mounts helps surveyors get an accurate read on unlevel land. They can be utilized as an accompaniment to most of the other pieces of equipment to create a precise reading.

Metal Detectors

Surveyors are professional metal hunters. They are seeking out Survey Pins and markers from previously completed surveys. Usually, on a prior survey map, they can estimate where the property line ends. However, with age and debris, these pins can be buried underground several inches, making them difficult to locate by eye. Metal detection equipment will help a surveyor find the pins more efficiently not to have to post new site pins.


Prisms and reflectors help surveyors set control points with accuracy. By mounting them to survey poles, they can get incredibly accurate reads from one point to another. A prism helps the theodolite measure angles because it provides a light source a theodolite can capture.

Although prisms are useful, most surveyors have different types of reflectors that work in the same way. They can be mounted to different tripods, or poles so that the instrument can pick up reflecting lights and the measurements can be taken at the correct angle for the most accuracy.

Outdoor Gear

A surveyor needs outdoor gear to handle a whim change of the elements (weather or environmental). Outdoor clothing such as boots and winter gear is essential. Also, necessary outdoor tools such as hatchets, machetes, and shovels are used by surveyors in the field.

Safety Gear

It is imperative that surveyors stay safe on any job. A highly visible vest usually helps to create caution to oncoming traffic when control points or property lines are near roadways. Caution road triangles and lights are also part of the toolbox. Most surveyors and technicians will carry walkie talkies with them when working in large areas so that communication can be made for safety and for finding points from the control point.

Computer Software

At any given time, a surveyor may need to use several different types of computer software in order to complete a job. This includes during data collection, for topographical layers, construction maps from various points plotted, and for creating a professional final product. Most surveyors utilize software programs that can be run on the same kind of operating system, and that can be adhered together using various types of portable devices.

Information gathered by a surveyor eventually ends up on a computer software program. New computer software is now equipped with GPS mapping systems and the ability to make 3D models of a land survey map.

With computer software development, most surveyors can now access and store important information on the field using their phone or tablet device. A surveyor codes each point for the type of measurement, including the property corner, the edge of a building, etc.

The computer software used depends on the surveyor’s needs and comfortability. Some utilize more traditional CAD and coding systems, while more sophisticated software will automatically translate readings of colored coded points into the desired layers of needed map outlines. Traditional surveyors will manually draw these points based on the gathered data. Once the map is finished, the surveyor prints it, and several hard copies are made and saved for future use.

Average Salary for a Land Surveyor

The average salary for a land surveyor is just $60-81,000 per year. However, several factors come into play. First, this is the average salary if a land surveyor is working for an engineering firm. If an individual decides to pursue a career in this field independently, their average salary can be three times this amount based on the number of completed surveys. However, they are solely responsible for paying expenses such as rental fees for their office, upgrades to their software management programs, and expensive equipment.

There are pros and cons to both situations. The job growth for this position is at around five percent. Second, wages differ for various types of surveyors. For example, the salary for a field surveyor and aerial surveying pilot jobs are different.

How to Become a Land Surveyor?

Three major factors come into play when you want to become a land surveyor:

  • You need a degree in survey engineering or a related field.
  • You need to have field experience.
  • You need to pass a licensing exam.

Surveyors take a variety of courses that will help them in the field. These include cartography (map reading and design), geomatics (measurements and analysis of measurements relating to the earth), survey engineering technology, legal and professional practices, and physics and geography.

Although a Bachelor’s degree is required, it does not necessarily have to be in a specific land surveying program. These degrees can often be in a related field, such as engineering, cartography, or forestry.

Sometimes, an individual can meet the recommendations with just a two-year degree and licensure; however, a surveyor can obtain more training for the position’s relevant aspects. Licensure is needed before they can certify any boundary lines legally.

Obtaining Certification

A variety of colleges offer traditional land surveying degrees. However, many of these programs address the requirements needed by that particular state in their programs. So, if you are looking to take your degree outside of the state, you will want to check the differentiating requirements needed to be certified.

Traditional classrooms require you to attend classes in person and provide you with field experience. They will help you to prepare for the Fundamentals of Surveying examination and allow you to work in collaboration with a trained professional and peers in your field before graduation.

Some online land surveying degrees are available as well. The first step is to make sure that the degree is coming from an accredited educational institution. These programs are great for those who work full-time jobs or those who do not live near an institution that offers a surveying degree. Online degrees require students to find a local surveyor to apprentice to get a recommended number of field experience hours.

National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveyors

Once you have a degree in surveying, you can become accredited with the National Society of Professional Surveyors by passing an exam with the NCEES. Ongoing educational credits are available to keep surveyors up to speed on new equipment or procedures.

Although it is not necessary to become certified with this particular institution, it is recommended. They are the most widely known and recognized by most State License Boards.

Being a surveyor is a great career opportunity for those looking to sink their feet in an ever-growing and well-paying field. A love for the outdoors, the ability to be detail-oriented, and the skills to operate computer software and other forms of technology help create a legal document that will be used widely for years to come.

By Bryan Greene

Land Surveyor Engineer


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