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Tell me about it

Cartographers use their technical, scientific and design skills to make maps. The work may involve producing detailed town plans, Ordnance Survey maps, road atlases, maps of other countries, specialist maps for geological, political and environmental purposes, navigational charts used by sea-going vessels, or weather maps used by meteorologists.

Cartographers may revise out-of-date maps or work on regions that have not been mapped before. They research information from a variety of sources and may have to take into account new road or housing developments, whether the land use has changed, or the impact of an environmental or meteorological event on an area. They use the latest high-tech equipment and graphic design and image manipulation software to measure, model and analyse geographic information.

They may also use aerial photographs, collect and analyse data from sensors and satellite technology, and undertake topographic (land) and hydrographic (marine) surveys.

Cartography has been revolutionised by information obtained by photography from satellites.  Unlike earlier mapmakers, whose challenge was to obtain the relevant information, today there is so much information available that the problem has become how to select what is required.  What we are able to map has also changed and will continue to do so.  We can now map the seabed with great accuracy and our increasing exploration of space will bring with it new demands for maps and charts.

Entry level

Cartographers usually have a degree in a mapping-related subject such as single or joint honours courses in geography, earth sciences, surveying and mapping science, geomatics or geographic information systems (GIS). You should check college and university prospectus details carefully to ensure that the course has sufficient emphasis on cartography/GIS/mapping. These courses usually require the study of geography, and possibly also a science subject, at A level/H grade, or equivalent. Other useful subjects include art and design, design and technology and ICT.

The degree courses with content of most direct relevance to working in cartography are Surveying and Mapping Sciences or Geographical Information Science at the Universities of East London, Newcastle upon Tyne and Portsmouth.
GIS courses tend to place great emphasis on practical mapmaking and you would gain a lot of 'hands on' experience, either designing on paper or creating maps on a computer screen.
Many other universities offer courses or modules in cartography, usually as part of a geography or GIS degree.

At postgraduate level, the main course with a substantial element of cartography (map design and visualisation) is the MSc in Geoinformation Technology and Cartography at Glasgow University.

Making the grade

You would normally be trained on the job in a range of specialist surveying techniques and computer packages. Larger employers like government departments often run structured training schemes lasting from six months to two years.

You could also take short courses in such subjects as photogrammetry, GIS, digital mapping and map design. The Remote Sensing and Photogrammetry Society and several universities offer various useful short courses.

Your employer may provide sponsorship for postgraduate study, which could be necessary to achieve career progression. The Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) offers Chartered Geographer status, together with specific validation for GIS professionals.

The Survey Association offers a Survey Technician Training Course aimed at new entrants to geomatics careers, or those with experience but no formal training.

Personal qualities

As a cartographer, you should have a genuine feeling for maps, combined with the precision, patience and powers of concentration necessary to undertake work in which the preparation of a single sheet may take several weeks. Artistic flair and a sense of design are valuable assets.

Cartographers have to be experts in communication: in real life roads are not red, nor motorways blue, and there are no dotted lines marking the borders between countries, but we see these things on a map and immediately know what they mean.

Looking ahead

Computerised mapping techniques and GIS have both revolutionised cartography and reduced the need for as many cartographers as before. There is enormous competition for the comparatively few employment openings which occur.  Potential employers include government departments and national organisations like the Ordnance Survey, Met Office and Civil Aviation Authority; local, district and regional authorities; and the private sector such as map publishers, the AA or RAC.  There are also opportunities to work abroad, for example for oil companies.

About 10% of cartographers are self-employed, and short-term contracts are becoming increasingly common. Membership of the two main professional groups, the Society of Cartographers and the British Cartographic Society, is useful for making contacts and keeping up with developments.

Alternative suggestions

Other possibilities might include architect, architectural technologist, artist/illustrator, graphic designer, surveyor or town planner.

Take-home pay

Cartographers themselves will tell you that their rewards are more often aesthetic than financial. This is not a career area likely to make you a great fortune. As a graduate trainee, you could expect a starting salary of between £18,500 and £21,000, progressing over three to five years to about £22,000 to £30,000, and rising with experience and responsibility to £35,000 to £45,000.


Most cartographers work normal office hours, Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm. Some employers may offer flexitime options.

Sources of information

Association for Geographic Information: Error! Hyperlink reference not valid.
British Cartographic Society:
British Geological Survey:
Ordnance Survey:
Royal Geographical Society:
Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors:
Survey Association:
Society of Cartographers:
UK Hydrographic Office:
Remote Sensing and Photogrammetry Society:




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