How to become a cartographer: a step-by-step guide

Updated 30 September 2022

If you're interested in geography and the environment and have good computer skills, you may find a career as a cartographer very rewarding. Cartography is a scientific field about the art, science and technology involved in map-making. Learning more about the responsibilities and requirements of the role can help you determine whether this career is suitable for you. In this article, we discuss what a cartographer is, list their duties and outline steps on how to become a cartographer.

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What is a cartographer?

A cartographer is a professional who creates, updates and analyses maps to communicate spatial information. Cartographers also design charts, graphs and other geographical illustrations. They create geographical illustrations based on photos, remote sensing systems and geodetic surveys. Satellite and aerial photos provide them with details on the hydrography and topography of space so that they can determine a map's size, scale, layout and content. This information also helps them revise and correct existing maps and build digital databases. Cartographers create maps using a combination of computer graphics, hand drawings, stereo plotting and mechanical drafting.

Related: What is a cartographer? Plus skills, requirements and salary

What does a cartographer do?

A cartographer's primary responsibility is collecting and analysing geographical data to inform the map-making process. The information cartographers gather may include annual precipitation patterns, population density and demographic characteristics. Some other cartographer responsibilities include:

  • communicating map information using colour, symbols and style

  • preparing thematic maps in digital or graphic form for social, environmental, political and educational purposes

  • compiling and producing graphs on computers for specialist and general purposes

  • using desktop publishing packages to edit and formulate information

  • checking that everything they produce is up to date, easy to consume and to scale

  • using Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to map out and analyse landscape features

  • operating a photogrammetric plotting instrument or a digital photogrammetric workstation (DPW)

  • communicating with clients about their requirements

  • collaborating with surveyors and designers regarding the supply of information

  • conducting research to determine what information and features to include on a map

  • generalising map data to allow for derived mapping

  • staying up to date on the latest computer mapping software and techniques

  • revising existing maps to make corrections, adjustments and updates

  • formatting maps using fonts and layouts

  • researching and evaluating map source data to prepare for the revision of maps and charts to various scales

How to become a cartographer

There are specific education and experience requirements to consider if you want to become a cartographer. Learning about the essential requirements for cartographer jobs can help you decide whether the career is right for you. Steps on how to become a cartographer include:

1. Completing your A-levels

Finish secondary school and pursue your A-levels or equivalent qualifications. Most schools and colleges require you to achieve five A* to Cs or equivalent to enrol in A-level courses. The A-level courses you choose establish the basics of subjects you cover at university, so it's essential to select courses that relate to cartography. Consider taking courses in computer science, geography and mechanical art where possible. Education institutions have different entry requirements for these courses, so check before applying.

2. Earning a bachelor's degree

Complete a bachelor's degree in cartography or another relevant subject to become a cartographer. Some other related courses include:

  • oceanography

  • geography

  • computer science

  • engineering

  • civil engineering

  • maths

  • environmental science

  • earth sciences

Land surveying courses such as geography and environmental science train professionals to use GIS, computer mapping software, remote sensing systems and conduct spatial analysis. They also teach you some underlying mathematical elements necessary for the role. Be sure to check the entry requirements for these university courses and institutions because they may have different criteria for you to meet.

Related: A guide to humanities degrees (plus FAQs and salary info)

3. Exploring internship and apprenticeship opportunities

Some individuals choose to complete an apprenticeship right after school or college as a cartography trainee technician. If you want to take the vocational route, some potential apprenticeship options include the geospatial and mapping science specialist degree apprenticeship and geospatial survey technician advanced apprenticeship.

Alternatively, consider exploring internship opportunities while completing your undergraduate studies. Such opportunities allow you to gain real-world experience in the field and give you a competitive edge over other candidates when applying for cartography jobs. You can also use internships to build your professional network and establish important connections. Talk to the careers department at your university regarding internship positions.

4. Considering postgraduate studies

Although a postgraduate study isn't an essential prerequisite to becoming a cartographer, it gives you a competitive edge over candidates, and some employers may require it. Consider completing a master's degree in:

  • GIS

  • remote sensing

  • geoinformation technology and cartography

  • surveying

  • photogrammetry

  • geospatial and mapping sciences

  • digital mapping

5. Becoming a member of a professional body

The Royal Geographical Society is the learned society and professional body for geography in the UK. Members can access career opportunities and stay up to date on geographical research. You can also learn about chartered accreditation requirements and how they can boost your employability when applying for cartography jobs.

There's also the British Cartographic Society, a charity that offers a unique forum for sharing knowledge about aspects of maps and map-making. Joining the British Cartographic Society allows you to meet and network with industry professionals, including cartographers, national mapping agencies and GIS specialists. Maintain regular contact with them and ask them to keep you updated on any full-time cartographer opportunities they come across.

6. Gaining professional experience

Since cartography jobs are highly competitive, many employers require you to have practical experience in the field. Cartographers usually start as mapping technicians or surveying technicians. These entry-level positions typically come with on-the-job training, allowing you to work your way up to becoming a cartographer. These positions also teach you the technical and IT skills necessary to progress in your career. It's beneficial to have at least three years of industry experience before applying for a cartographer job.

7. Developing your skill set

Cartographers usually develop their skill set through education and practical experience. It's crucial for cartographers to develop their computer skills to keep up with the development of GIS technology. Computer skills also allow you to navigate web-based mapping technologies and feel confident compiling geographical information from online databases. Be sure to target these skills in your CV and cover letter to boost your chances of employment. Some other essential skills to develop when becoming a cartographer include:

  • Teamwork skills: Cartographers regularly communicate with surveyors and other contacts when compiling information for the map-making process. Teamwork skills ensure they work well with other industry professionals and consider their advice when working on mapping projects.

  • Organisational skills: Cartographers have high standards of accuracy by taking a systematic approach to their work. Develop organisational skills to manage your time effectively and carry out the procedures necessary to achieve these high standards.

  • Problem-solving skills: These skills allow you to identify problems as they arise and use your field-related knowledge to select the most appropriate solution. Some potential issues cartographers encounter are a lack of geographical data and strict project time constraints.

Related: Top 9 basic computer skills and why they're useful

8. Earning a professional license

Earning a professional license could increase your earning potential as it shows your commitment to continuing professional development. The Royal Geographical Society offers the Chartered Geographer (CGeog) accreditation for individuals looking for professional licensure. It's an internationally recognised accreditation for professionals who demonstrate expertise in applying knowledge and understanding, geographical skills and innovation in a professional setting. Be sure to check the eligibility criteria before starting your application.

The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) is also a globally recognised professional body that provides opportunities for you to gain chartered status. These courses require you to pass a series of assessments before gaining chartered status. There are two main types of RICS qualification you can obtain, and these include:

  • Associate qualification: This is an entry-level qualification for individuals with at least one year of industry experience and a relevant bachelor's degree. You can also apply for this qualification if you have two years of relevant experience and a relevant higher or advanced qualification, or four years of relevant experience with no qualifications.

  • Chartered qualification: This accreditation requires you to have five years of relevant industry experience and any bachelor's degree or at least 10 years of related experience operating at an advanced level.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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