Become a Cartographer

Cartographers gather geographic information from a number of sources (survey data, aerial photographs and global positioning satellite systems) to produce maps, charts and drawings of portions of the earth's surface. If you have a love for maps and want to be a mapmaker, here are the steps to become a cartographer.


Choosing a Path

  1. Understand the job description. All cartographers must be able to visualize data using both analysis and artistic imagination. They use a close attention to detail and accuracy in order to translate the data into a map, and have a reputation for perfectionism.[1] Computer programming skills and mathematical ability are increasingly valued in the cartography job market, but you do not necessarily need advanced experience in these subjects.
    • Most cartographers have office jobs, and spend 35–40 hours a week working mostly on the computer and drafting table.[2]
  2. Learn about different types of cartography. Cartography is a wide field that combines elements of geography, engineering, programming, and design. While there are many specialized jobs out there, you can divide these roughly by how much mathematical and programming approach they use:
    • Cartographers who focus on creating traditional maps use technical drafting skills and geographical knowledge, but often computer programming as well. A minority of them perform aerial surveys or ground surveys.
    • Photogrammetrists use data from aerial surveys, LIDAR remote sensing, and other sources in map making. This typically involves heavy use of mathematical analysis and computer graphics programming.
    • GIS specialists use Geographic Information Systems technology to build maps connected to non-visual digital databases. This increasingly popular specialization relies heavily on an education in both geography and programming.
  3. Consider related fields. While not technically cartographers, there are people in closely related fields who share many of the same skills and interests. Here are a few of the most closely related options:
    • Surveying technicians or cartographic technicians map physical locations from the ground. While they are paid less than cartographers, they get to travel and spend much more time outside.
    • Map librarians maintain permanent collections of current maps and atlases, while map archivists oversee collections of historical and unpublished map materials. They are not as reliant on programming skills or artistic ability, instead focusing on archival work, library science, and historical analysis.

Completing Your Education

  1. Study relevant high school subjects. Most high schools do not have classes directly related to cartography. However, a strong base in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and preferably calculus and statistics will give you a useful head start. If available, take classes in technical drafting and any type of computer programming.
  2. Consider a cartographic technician program. These are usually two or three year programs available at colleges or trade schools. Focused on practical experience, you'll graduate qualified to work on survey teams mapping locations on the ground.
    • You may enter these programs with or without a bachelor's degree. It's common for people to transfer from a technician program to a university partway through the degree — or vice versa.[3]
  3. Get a bachelor's degree from a university. University programs tend to provide less practical experiences but stronger knowledge of theory, and a broader range of coursework available to choose from. There are many degrees that could lead to a job in the field:[4][5]
    • Geography is probably the most common major for a cartographer, as most universities do not offer degrees in cartography or geomatics.
    • Civil engineering, forestry, or computer science can all provide relevant background, as long as you take the coursework described below.
  4. Take essential coursework. No matter what your specialty, take all the classes you can in the principles of map design, the history of maps, and data collection for mapping. If you are aiming to a very specialized branch, you'll need a university that offers the following courses:
    • Hopeful GIS specialists will need courses specifically on GIS technology.
    • Develop your interest in photogrammetry with coursework in remote sensing, image processing, and LIDAR (light-imaging detection and ranging).
  5. Take additional coursework. You don't need to be an expert on all of these, but try to take at least an introductory course in these, and additional courses in those that relate to your desired specialty:[6]
    • Geography is useful for all cartographers, including both physical geography and human geography.
    • Computer science courses are useful for many cartographers. Consider studying computer graphics, web-based technology, and data collection and analysis.
    • Algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, and statistics are all valuable and may be required for more programming-heavy majors already.
  6. Look for internships. Training with actual cartographers can boost your practical knowledge as well as the desirability of your resume. Many of these are only available while you are a student or recent graduate, so start looking before you complete your education. Job search sites often include an internship section, and you can search online for internships related to your specialty as well.
  7. One example is the ASRPS photogeommetry internship.

Getting Hired

  1. Build a portfolio. Some organizations require a portfolio of completed maps from job applicants. Save any work you do for coursework or internships. After graduating, spend your own time to improve old maps using what you've learned since you made them.
  2. Try to find lower-level positions. Build your experience by getting hired as a cartographic technician, or a project cartographer hired on a temporary basis. Entry-level cartographer positions are definitely worth applying to, but depending on your education and portfolio you may need this surveyor or freelance work on your resume.
  3. Look for government jobs. Federal, state, and provincial governments are often major producers of maps, and hire many cartographers. Look online for your government's job postings board, or visit a local government office. At the local level, cartographers often work closely with city planners, county assessors and public works departments.
  4. Find private sector jobs. Surveying firms, civil engineering businesses, and environmental consulting firms all use cartographers at their core, but you may not realize how many other companies use cartographers as well. Software companies often use mapping technology, and need cartographers or GIS specialists to help them develop it.[7] Insurance companies have been keeping and analyzing map records for centuries. Publishers sometimes have a cartographer on staff to update their atlases.
  5. Get certified. Government organizations and professional cartographer organizations often have certification programs for different specialties of cartographers. Certification often requires significant job experience, but can help you find further jobs or advance to become a cartographic supervisor. Here are a few examples:


  • Some of the top U.S. universities for cartography include Clark University, UC Los Angeles, UC Santa Barbara[8]
  • For a list of Canadian cartography colleges and universities, click here.