How to Become a Cartographer in 5 Steps

Research what it takes to become a cartographer. Learn about job duties, education requirements, licensure and employment facts to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Culture & Media Studies degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Does a Cartographer Do?

Cartographers collect and analyze geographic information to make maps. They use geodetic surveys and sensing systems to collect information needed. They represent the data collected visually and review the data. Cartographers revise and update the maps as needed. They use interactive maps to display the information as more people want online and mobile maps available.

Take a look at the following chart for an overview of how to enter this field.

Degree Required Bachelor's degree
Education Field of Study Cartography, geography; specialization in GIS may be helpful
Key Skills Cartography, surveying, mathematics, GIS, earth sciences
Licensure and Certification Licensure varies by state; optional certifications in GIS and/or remote sensing
Job Growth (2014-2024) 29% (cartographers & photogrammetrists)*
Average Salary (2015) $65,410 (cartographers & photogrammetrists)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What Is a Cartographer?

Cartographers create maps based on information gathered from surveys and photos. They determine a map's scale, size, layout and content by extracting such details as topography and hydrography from satellite and aerial photographs. Their maps may be rendered using a combination of hand drawing, mechanical drafting, stereoplotting and computer graphics. Cartographers also revise and correct existing maps and charts, as well as build digital databases.

Step 1: Earn a High School Diploma

High school math courses in geometry, algebra, trigonometry and calculus will provide you with the necessary foundation for a cartography career. Classes in computer science, earth sciences and drafting can also be helpful. Knowledge of computers becomes especially relevant for working with Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Additionally, art classes may develop your drawing and visual representation skills.

Step 2: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

According to O*Net Online (www.onetonline.org), a majority of cartographers have bachelor's degrees. The material covered in cartography, geography or surveying programs match the skills you'll need as a cartographer. Some schools combine cartography with Geographic Information Systems to form one concentration. In such a program, you can learn about spatial analysis, remote sensing and computer cartography. Geography programs may have a concentration or focus in cartography, and they're likely to include technical courses in computer mapping and GIS.

Step 3: Obtain a License

No governmental entity licenses cartographers, but the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that cartographers may need to become licensed surveyors in certain states (www.bls.gov). You might want to check with your home state to find out if it's among those that do. The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying administers the licensure exams, a three-stage process. First, you must pass the Fundamentals of Surveying exam, consisting of 170 multiple-choice questions, before working with an experienced surveyor. After at least four years of supervised experience, you can take the Principles and Practice of Surveyors exam, which is made up of 100 multiple-choice questions.

Step 4: Obtain Employment

Voluntary certifications often require a combination of education and experience, so you may want to consider earning work experience. The BLS listed that architectural and engineering industries provided many jobs to cartographers, surveyors and photogrammetrists in 2015. Local, state and federal agencies, as well as scientific consulting services, also provided job opportunities. Approximately 11,970 cartographers and photogrammetrists were employed as of 2015. Employment was projected to rise 29% for these workers during the 2014-2024 decade. Public use of interactive online maps and an ongoing need for maps in national security, emergency planning, resource exploration and other purposes was expected to drive demand for cartographers.

Step 5: Gain Certification

As of June 2011, certification for cartographers wasn't available from any organization. However, if you've studied GIS or remote sensing systems, you may pursue certification from the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (www.asprs.org). This association has two possible certification options, including the Certified Mapping Scientist - GIS/Land Information Systems (LIS) and the Certified Mapping Scientist - Remote Sensing designations.

To obtain the first, you need three years of experience in mapping, three years of experience with Geographic or Land Information Systems and a passing score on the certification exam. The second requires three years of experience in cartographic or photogrammetic applications along with three years of experience with remote sensing and date interpretation before qualifying for the exam.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

If you are looking for other careers similar to cartography, you may be interested in civil engineering, geography or landscape architecture. All of these options require a bachelor's degree. Civil engineers design, build and maintain projects related to roads, airports, bridges, and tunnels. Geographers observe data and use research to study the Earth. Landscape architects prepare and design construction on parks and other outdoor spaces.

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