A cartographer is involved with the scientific, technological and artistic aspects of developing and producing maps. Cartographers present complex information as diagrams, charts and spreadsheets, as well as in the form of conventional maps. Geographical information systems (GIS) and digital-mapping techniques now dominate the role.

Maps and detailed geographical information are needed for a range of purposes, from everyday use by individuals to large-scale industrial development.

Types of cartographer

Cartographers work within a variety of areas, including:

  • publishing;
  • government;
  • the military;
  • surveying;
  • conservation.

The role varies widely from the development and design of geographical information to more strategic and technical work.

Responsibilities

The traditional methods employed in map-making have largely been superseded by the use of IT, enabling the generation and manipulation of dynamic images on screen. These developments have led to changes in the nature of the profession: within map-making, almost all the data is now collected and transmitted electronically, although in cartographic illustration the change has been less marked.

In commercial cartographic publishing, the work has more in common with book publishing, requiring innovative design skills.

A cartographer's role can vary widely: from the technical role of the development, maintenance and manipulation of cartographic databases to the promotion of effective and efficient visualisation of geospatial information, to the design of bespoke maps.

Tasks also vary depending on the type of map you are working on, e.g. political, tourist, maritime, climate, geological, but typically include:

  • designing maps, graphics, illustrations and layouts;
  • communicating information through the use of colour, symbols, style and other means;
  • using computers to compile and produce graphs for specialist and general users;
  • researching, selecting and evaluating map source data for use in the preparation or revision of maps and charts to various scales;
  • analysing and evaluating mappable information;
  • liaising with clients about their requirements;
  • liaising with external contacts, such as surveyors and designers, regarding the supply of information;
  • collating data provided by remote sensing techniques (the means by which spatial and environmental data about the earth are acquired by sensors located in satellites and aircraft);
  • operating a photogrammetric plotting instrument or a digital photogrammetric workstation (DPW), which views the photographs stereoscopically, or in a 3D format;
  • design, maintenance and manipulation of geographical information (GI) databases;
  • working with geographical information systems (GIS) to see, model and analyse landscape features;
  • using desktop publishing packages to edit and formulate information;
  • capturing, maintaining and outputting digital geographic data;
  • generalising map data to allow for a reduction in scale (derived mapping);
  • checking and appraising the content and accuracy of maps, charts and printing proofs;
  • keeping up to date with emerging specialist software;
  • managing projects, staff and resources, particularly as seniority increases.

Salary

  • Starting salaries typically range from £18,000 to £22,000.
  • Salaries for those with experience can range from £20,000 to £30,000.
  • At senior level you can typically earn between £30,000 and £47,000.
  • Experienced cartographers working on a consultancy basis will negotiate a fee with their client based on their experience and reputation.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are mainly 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, usually based in an office, at a workstation. While many of the more junior roles in cartography are information or desk-based, at senior levels there may be more interaction with other departments or clients.

You may need to work longer hours when meeting publication or project completion deadlines.

What to expect

  • Consultancy work is possible with considerable experience. A small number of cartographers with experience go on to set up and run their own companies.
  • Jobs are available in various locations throughout the UK, with some posts, for example in government departments, centred in London and the south east.
  • Geographical mobility may be necessary early on in your career.
  • Travel within the working day is sometimes needed, but overnight absences and overseas travel are uncommon.

Qualifications

To work as a cartographer you will usually need a degree in a subject related to cartography such as:

  • geographical information systems (GIS);
  • geography and geology;
  • earth sciences;
  • geophysics and geotechnology;
  • marine sciences and oceanography.

Subjects such as surveying, civil engineering and graphic design are also useful, as are subjects that provide the opportunity to analyse and work with data.

Entry with a HND or foundation degree in one of the relevant subjects listed above may be possible.

A postgraduate qualification can be helpful for entering more specialised areas of the industry and for career development later on. Postgraduate courses are available in areas such as:

  • remote sensing;
  • photogrammetry;
  • geomatic engineering;
  • GIS;
  • oceanography;
  • surveying.

Employers with vacancies tend to approach the universities that offer GIS, cartography or surveying-related degrees.

Skills

You will need to show:

  • an interest in geography and the environment;
  • a keen eye for detail as much of the work involves careful research and the collection and manipulation of data;
  • an eye for layout and design, good spatial awareness and colour vision;
  • IT literacy;
  • analytical ability and problem-solving skills;
  • a methodical and systematic approach to work;
  • high standards of accuracy and attention to set procedures;
  • the ability to interpret data, graphical representations and symbols;
  • the ability to work independently.

Work experience

Pre-entry experience is not necessary, but practical experience gained through work placements or a year-in-industry as part of your degree may be an advantage. Summer internships and graduate schemes are offered by large organisations such as Ordnance Survey (OS).

Contact commercial organisations direct to find out about possible work experience opportunities using the British Cartographic Society members' directory.

Employers

Most cartographers are employed by commercial companies. There are also opportunities within the government, particularly in the following departments and agencies:

Small numbers are employed in other government departments, such as:

Utility companies, such as electricity, gas and water, employ people with cartographic skills, as do the planning departments of local authorities, although they may not have the job title cartographer.

Cartographers are also employed by oil companies and by private consultancies.

Some cartographers may work for commercial map publishers who produce the 'A to Z' series, road atlases, (which need constant updating), and historical and commemorative maps. They may find work with companies such as the AA or Google, which provide maps for members of the public to use.

Air cartographers at the technician level are taken on by the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Army employs cartographers as geographic technicians.

Other employers include geographical information systems (GIS) companies, automotive service agencies and land and air survey consultants. They are employed by specialist cartographic and mapping companies as well as by specialist bodies, such as:

For an insight into private companies in this area visit the members directory of the British Cartographic Society.

Look for job vacancies at:

The British Cartographic Society Corporate Directory is useful for speculative applications.

Get more tips on how to find a job, create a successful CV and cover letter, and prepare for interviews.

Professional development

Most large employers, such as government departments and commercial companies, provide in-house structured training courses for new entrants. These typically last from six months to two years. As well as covering areas of specialist knowledge relating to the organisation, training may focus on acquiring and developing practical cartographic skills, including use of specific design software packages.

Commercial employers may provide trainees with an opportunity to visit each of their departments. Skills and knowledge are then developed within the workplace, often with the aid of a mentor, for the remaining probationary or training period.

Training on the job and short courses are provided in a range of surveying techniques such as:

  • digital mapping;
  • map design;
  • topography;
  • photogrammetry;
  • geographical information systems (GIS).

Employers may also provide sponsorship for postgraduate study if you don't already have a Masters qualification. Check with prospective employers about opportunities for training and professional development.

Membership of the two main professional groups is useful for making contacts and keeping up with developments, see the:

Career prospects

Career progression depends on the size, structure and nature of the employing organisation, as well as the qualities and motivation of the individual. For cartographers working for small companies, geographical mobility can be important for career development.

Cartographers in the early stages of their career often work towards gaining greater responsibility for projects and decision-making. This can lead to positions as team leader or into management.

Government departments often have structured promotion progression routes. Within large organisations there are more opportunities to transfer to other parts of the business.

Some cartographers move into related areas such as photogrammetry, remote sensing, geographical information systems (GIS) and some aspects of IT-related consultancy.

There are opportunities for experienced cartographers to move into self-employment, in supplying a specialist product or service to other cartographic companies or publishers.

Cartographers specialising in working with GIS may be eligible to apply for Chartered Geographer (GIS) status. For further information see the Association for Geographic Information (AGI).