How to prepare to take the GIS PLS & Why I’m Doing It

How to prepare for the Mapping Sciences Exam

As many of you may be aware, I’m preparing to take the two exams necessary to earn the GIS PLS in North Carolina. This article is not a debate (I have a lot of opinions, just as you may have), but the purpose is to assist those who have decided to pursue their own State Board Professional Certification. This is not a comprehensive guide, nor is any part of this post designed to replace your own research and legal counsel if you need it. The purpose is to get some information out there for others who are considering the same thing, and to demystify the process so that you know exactly what to expect and can prepare well. I’ll be updating this post as I and others develop helpful tools and information for you all. Have you done it? Want to comment on this post to add information for your fellow professionals? Please do. You can follow my journey by following me on twitter at @SAI_RTP.

Here’s some basic info. I expect to update this post as I run across more resources.
What are these test? How can I find out more about them?
• There are two exams.
• You can take the Fundamentals of Surveying (FS) at a computer center. As of 2016, it cost $225 to take it. You register for it at the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) website. Guidance on how to register is here. The test is available at Pearson VUE testing centers. There is one in both Raleigh and Durham. The testing center policies are here.
• Principles and Practice of Survey Exam (PS) is also known as Mapping Science Exam. As of 2016, it cost $225, and this one is a in person test, and only offered on specific dates. You can check the dates here.

How do I prepare for this exam?
As of writing this, there have been a few people take and pass the exam, with approximately 45 or so who were accepted during the first year grandfathering. One of the people who actually took both test shared their experience with me, and I’ll of course update this post with my own advice after I’ve completed the process and field questions (those not forbidden by the non-disclosure test applicant’s sign). This is what I’ve found out to date.

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The North Carolina Board of Engineers and Land Surveyors (NCBELS) has a General Guidelines document. There are no authoritative sources mentioned at this time for the test questions within that document. Those I’ve been told are on the American Society of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS) website somewhere, as that organization had a heavy role in developing the test. I’m still looking for it, and if I find it I will update it here.

NCEES provides practice exams. These cost money, but may help you prepare. They can be found here.

A local GISer who took both test used the following books to prepare.

Test#1 (FS)- “Elementary Surveying – An Introduction to Geomatics by Charles D. Ghilani, Paul R. Wolf
Test#2 (PS) – “Elements of Photogrammetry with Applications in GIS by Paul R. Wolf, Bon. A Dewitt
FREE Math Refresher Courses can be found here: www.khanacademy.org
This person also recommended a practice test to prepare. Those can be purchased when you register at NCEES but are also available on Amazon.
Another Math Tutorial for Algebra I-Trig can be found here. http://www.yaymath.org/#!index/c125u

A nice man in New York who has taken these exams for multiple states recommended this book,  “Elements of Photogrammetry with Application in GIS, Fourth Edition“, to study for the fundamentals exam. It can be purchased on Amazon.You might also find older copies on some used book sites, or know a friend who has a similar reference.
Another resource is Fundamentals of Surveying Exam Prep

There is also some survey law on the FS test, and you can find some information on that here.

Some of my reasons are below, but there are two points I feel are very important to consider up front when tackling this issue.
#1-I do not believe fear is an acceptable reason to hold you back. There’s a lot of fear associated with testing. As an ‘A’ student, I watched many “D” students outscore me in High School on the ACT test. I stink at standardized testing, but I muddle through somehow. I refuse to let the fact I have to take one intimidate me. In my opinion, that’s just stupid. So realize there is nothing to fear, and while this might be aggravating to encounter half-way down your career path, like anything else in GIS, so what? You can do it too. I’ve worked with a lot of GIS people of very diverse educational and work backgrounds. I’ve never once met someone I thought wasn’t intelligent enough to pass a test on what they do. They might have to study things they don’t use in their job (and so far a lot of what I’m studying is in this category), but no one I’ve met or worked with is incapable of understanding the subject matter. I enjoy talking to my fellow professionals simply because we are all exceedingly intelligent people, regardless of your educational background. You have to be to stay on top of the learning curve in this field and stay employed.

#2-Is there something that should hold you back? Yes. Absolutely. If you are uncomfortable assuming the potential financial risk that comes with owning and maintaining a board license, you probably want to think hard about it. Nobody can make that call but you, and we will all be in different situations. I’m not going to think anyone who does not do this isn’t competent. I actually debated it pretty hard myself due to my own financial situation. I’m approaching retirement in the next twenty years, that’s the time to take less risk, not more. It’s not like I made the decision to join a profession that had this risk when I started down this road. Don’t let fear stop you, but don’t take it lightly either. As long as you work under someone else’s PLS or in government, you don’t have to do it. (Right now). UPDATE: Recent revisions in the NC Surveying law language may have changed this. Consult that language and NCBELS to see if you are required to be board licensed if you work for government.

What does State Board Licensure mean? (Layman’s understanding)
Just like Dentist, Doctors, Engineers, and a host of other professionals, deciding to become board certified should be an informed decision. The idea is that if you are guilty of malpractice, you can be held accountable and lose that license, and by losing that license not be able to find a job in your field. This is a level of accountability far beyond what many of us ever anticipated, especially those of us who are at mid or late career. Most professionals who are board licensed take their test very soon after completing their education (and material is fresh in their minds), and they also receive some type of instruction on the responsibility and risk that go along with that license. It is not just a test to prove what you know, but something that can land you at the defendant’s table if you are on a project that ends in a law suit. For technology professionals who have historically not needed this to stay employed, this can be a foreign concept.

Some other motivating factors for my (Kathi Cotney’s) decision?

It will make it less contentious for my company to continue to offer the services I’ve historically offered.
Now that there are a defined set of datasets that are unlawful to work on unless I have this certification, it’s in my interest to remove that obstacle. I have a company, so there is no one else who can ‘seal’ that data for me. I either have to contract with someone, or get it myself. Obviously I trust myself more than anybody else. (UPDATE: as of 4/10/16 Since the original date of this post, I made the decision to close SAI. I am still going through with the test)
I also expect (and rightly so) to increase my fee or expect a higher salary and bonus when working for others.
Anyone who takes on the significant level of accountability and potential loss of ability to work in their field should expect to make more. A lot more. Think engineer, surveyor, etc. This is the single biggest reason I can think of anyone becoming board licensed. Those of us who remember the beginnings of the GISP process can tell you that GISP did not catch on until compensation started to reflect that certification. (GISP has an educational requirement, and contrary to some beliefs you actually can lose it if you are turned in. I saw this type of case when serving on the review committee before the test was released).
Why do I expect to make more? Pay should increase. You are now assuming a legal liability you didn’t have to before, and you will need to pay for continuing education, yearly certification, and professional liability insurance to protect your personal assets at a minimum. That level risk should never increase without considerable compensation, in fact I’d leave a job where someone tried to persuade me otherwise. Personally, that would let me know they weren’t really looking out for me, or that they took my board certification lightly. Much like the other category of professional interns, upon passing your board exams you should demand your employer compensate you according to your worth and the personal risk you carry with you in that job, a risk you will take with you into your next job regardless of the fact you don’t work for the old company any longer (the liability follows you). Hopefully the counseling that may exist in other professions during college will start to be included in GIS programs.
Supporting this certification will be supporting and encouraging my fellow professionals.
It is a way to liberate everyone who has created a career in GIS who did not have the luxury of changing jobs as freely as the rest of us. I’d like to channel Moses here, “let my people go…” Laugh if you want, but this is exactly the type of certification that will allow many who due to poverty or lack of other opportunity have no formal education to prove their knowledge, skills and abilities and then GET ANOTHER JOB. If you have never been trapped by those circumstances, dependent on the kindness of someone giving you a job you would otherwise be denied, it can be hard to imagine. I spent ten years working my way through school, but many of my own family and friends married and had families instead of going to college. There are people vital to our profession, who are in important positions (and should be as the experts in their roles) who now have a new option. That option will allow them to get a position somewhere else, negotiate better pay, or a promotion, where before someone else would have been able to out qualify them based on educational credentials. When GISP came out, there was nothing other than a college degree to assure employers (who did not understand the nature of our work) that they could put their trust in us, and hire us. Now we have a new option.

I hope this post is useful to you as you consider whether to get your GIS PLS. Please don’t post inflammatory comments (this isn’t the post for that) here, but please do include helpful links to other sources to help us prepare for this new challenge. Thanks!

UPDATE-7/6/2016. I did not pass the FS exam on my first try. At the moment, I’ve no plans to retake the test.

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1 Comment

  1. Kent Rothrock - February 20, 2016, 10:22 pm

    Thanks for all the info Kathi. I’ll be joining you on this journey. Let’s stay in touch. Maybe we can exchange study ideas as we approach the exam dates. Talk to you soon and thanks again…

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