If you have an interest in maps and want to combine your design, technology and geography skills, consider becoming a cartographer

As a cartographer you'll be involved with the scientific, technological and artistic aspects of developing and producing maps. You'll present complex information as diagrams, charts and spreadsheets, as well as in the form of conventional maps.

Maps and detailed geographical information are needed for a range of purposes, from everyday use by individuals to large-scale industrial development. Geographical information systems (GIS) and digital-mapping techniques now dominate the role.

Types of cartographer

You can work within a variety of areas, including:

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

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

Responsibilities

As a cartographer, you'll need to:

  • research and then decide on what should appear on a map
  • design maps, graphics, illustrations and layouts
  • communicate information through the use of colour, symbols, style and other means
  • use computers to compile and produce graphs for specialist and general users
  • research, select and evaluate map source data for use in the preparation or revision of maps and charts to various scales
  • analyse and evaluate mappable information
  • liaise with clients about their requirements and with external contacts, such as surveyors and designers, regarding the supply of information
  • collate data provided by remote sensing techniques
  • operate a photogrammetric plotting instrument or a digital photogrammetric workstation (DPW), which views the photographs stereoscopically, or in a 3D format
  • design, maintain and manipulate geographical information (GI) databases
  • work with geographical information systems (GIS) to see, model and analyse landscape features
  • use desktop publishing packages to edit and formulate information
  • capture, maintain and output digital geographic data
  • generalise map data to allow for a reduction in scale (derived mapping)
  • check the content and accuracy of maps, charts and printing proofs.

At a senior level, you'll need to:

  • take responsibility for a range (or all if in a small company) of products
  • manage budgets, staff and production schedules
  • cost out new business
  • liaise with other departments and with clients.

Salary

  • Starting salaries typically range from £18,000 to £22,000.
  • With experience you can earn between £20,000 and £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

You'll usually work typical office hours (9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday). However, you may need to work longer hours when meeting publication or project completion deadlines.

What to expect

  • Jobs are available in various locations throughout the UK, with some posts, for example in government departments, centred near London and the south east.
  • Work is usually office based and you'll need to enjoy working in a team to meet project deadlines.
  • With experience you may be able to move into consultancy work. A small number of experienced cartographers go on to set up and run their own companies.
  • Being geographically mobile can be helpful, particularly when looking for your first job and when looking to progress your career.
  • There are opportunities to use your cartography skills abroad.

Qualifications

As there aren't any undergraduate degrees specifically in cartography, you'll typically need a degree in a spatial science. Relevant subjects include:

  • earth sciences
  • geographic information technologies
  • geographical information systems (GIS)
  • geography and geology
  • geomatics and geoinformatics
  • land surveying.

A degree in design, and computer science and software engineering can also be useful. Look for courses that include modules or courses in cartography.

A postgraduate qualification can be helpful if you want to enter a more specialised area of the industry and for career development later on. Postgraduate courses are available in areas such as:

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

It's also possible to get into cartography at trainee technician level straight from school or college. If you want to work in the public sector, you'll need GCSEs (or equivalent) in English language and maths, although sometimes geography is preferred. For entry at higher level, you'll need a minimum of five GCSEs, including maths and English, and two A-levels.

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
  • teamworking skills in order to produce maps quickly and effectively
  • 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.

Knowledge of foreign languages can also be useful.

Work experience

As there aren't any dedicated cartography degree courses, you'll usually need to get a job first and receive training once employed. Practical experience gained through work placements or a year-in-industry as part of your degree can be helpful. Sandwich placements and internships are offered by large organisations such as Ordnance Survey (OS).

It's useful to put together a portfolio of any design ideas or maps you've produced to show at interview.

Employers

Cartographers work either in the public sector or with commercial cartography companies. The largest public sector employers are:

  • Ordnance Survey of Great Britain
  • Land & Property Services Northern Ireland
  • Defence Geographic Centre (part of the Ministry of Defence)
  • Hydrographic Office.

Other government departments such the Countryside Agency, DEFRA, the Department for Transport and the Forestry Commission also employ small numbers of cartographers.

You may also be employed by the planning departments of local authorities or by specialist bodies such as the British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey and The James Hutton Institute.

The Royal Air Force (air cartographers) and the Army (geographic technicians) also employ cartographers.

In the commercial sector, typical employers include:

  • publishing-based cartographers
  • utility companies, such as electricity, gas and water
  • oil companies
  • GIS companies
  • land and air survey companies
  • planning or environmental consultancies.

With experience it's also possible to become a freelance cartographer.

Look for job vacancies at:

Employers with vacancies may approach universities with departments that offer GIS or surveying-related degrees. Not all jobs are advertised as 'cartographer' so you should check job descriptions carefully.

As cartography is a relatively small profession, networking and word of mouth play a part in job hunting.

Professional development

Training usually takes place in-house and on the job. You'll focus on developing practical skills in areas such as:

  • compiling maps
  • map design and layout
  • map production (using a range of software packages).

In a larger company, you're likely to have the chance to rotate through different departments and may develop your skills in specialist areas such as GIS, photogrammetry and digital mapping. You might also receive external training in specific software packages.

If you're working for a smaller company, you may find there is less money available for training, although there may be more varied projects to work on helping you build up your skills.

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 Society of Cartographers and the British Cartographic Society is also useful for exchanging information and networking with colleagues through a series of events and conferences.

Career prospects

Career progression depends to a certain extent on the size, structure and nature of the organisation you work for, as well as on your own qualities and motivation.

If you're working in the public sector you're more likely to have a structured promotion route. With experience, you can progress through established grades taking on greater responsibility for projects and decision-making, as well as for more junior staff. There may also be more opportunities to transfer to other parts of the business.

If you're working for a small company, you may need to be geographically flexible to advance. However, you may find the work more varied and interesting. As some commercial cartography companies form part of a larger group, you may find opportunities in other areas of the group.

There may be opportunities to become a specialist in areas such as GIS, photogrammetry, 3-D visualisation, map animation or desk-top publishing, which can open up further opportunities.

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