Surveyor or Engineer – What’s the Difference?

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There have been many instances during my long career as a surveyor that someone has referred to me as an engineer. I would usually feign an attitude of being insulted and explain that even though I had to work with those guys, I was not one of them. This type of reaction would cause some interesting responses—usually a laugh because they knew I wasn’t actually offended by their misunderstanding. But sometimes the other party would want to know more about the differences between a surveyor and an engineer.

There are obvious differences in the eyes of the various state boards of registration, so I can start with those explanations regarding the fact that surveyors are the only ones who can legally certify the location of property boundaries. I also like to use an analogy that many lay-persons can understand. I will often say that calling a surveyor an engineer is like calling a car mechanic a plumber because they both use wrenches to turn fasteners.

Obviously, there are areas of overlap in the professions of civil engineer and land surveyor. Engineers are allowed to perform topographic surveys, or as some registration laws state, “engineering surveys,” used for the design of proposed features. In many states, surveyors are allowed to perform some minor engineering, including storm water management design, so it can be easy to assume that we’re all doing the same type of work.

I am mostly inclined to think of ways to keep the peace and find common ground that promotes unity, especially when the two disciplines being discussed here are working for the same firm, with common goals, but I must say that there are some inherent differences in what we do and how we do it. Of course, it is always dangerous to generalize or stereotype a group of people, but I’ve found some common personality traits that can be directly traced to the roles of these professions.

As most of us can attest, a surveyor, by necessity, is focused on examining all of the facts, proving those facts with calculations and measurements, and then forming an opinion on what is “the truth.” In many cases, an opinion is formed based on all available evidence and data, with no hard proof that this opinion is “the truth.” Sometimes “the truth” is never fully known; such as when the true intent of the original surveyor is not evident, or there is a missing piece of the puzzle, such as an unrecorded document. The consummate surveyor will make his best judgement and acknowledge it could be proven incorrect at a later date with additional information that was not available at the time of the survey.

On the other hand, most of the engineers I’ve encountered in my long career, be they co-workers or otherwise, seem to search and reach a decision on a topic and then refuse to waver from that opinion. It seems necessary for them to take this steadfast stance due to the nature of their job.

First, they have to design and create something to work within the irregular surface of the earth. Then they have to defend that design to clients, reviewing agencies, other design professionals (think architect), and then prove that it will work. They are not likely to go back on their word and admit that maybe there was a better way.

This doesn’t make one type of professional better than the other, it just points out that we have different vocations and therefore, differing philosophies on how to make decisions. It is interesting how many times I’ve seen engineers I’ve worked with making snap decisions on normal, everyday occurrences. Once when I was discussing the location of a new project with the engineer who was assigned the job of project manager (this was before online maps so there was not a quick reference at hand), he said that it was located near a certain exit off of a highway. When I questioned that fact, he went from saying “I think that’s where it is” to “I bet that’s the exit” to finally saying, “Yeah, I’m sure it’s right there at that exit.” It turned out that the project was one exit north of where he thought it was.

Whether a person is a surveyor, engineer, or some other type of professional or worker, I think it is best if we take the time to seek “the truth,” even if we must realize that it is not always attainable.

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