The Job and What's Involved

mapCartographers make and study maps. They need a combination of technical, scientific and design skills to be able to represent features such as a landscape on the surface of the Earth or the moon, or the population distribution of a modern city.

They may work on:

  • Detailed town plans used by local people and visitors.
  • Ordnance Survey maps used by walkers or military personnel on exercise.
  • Road atlases that help people plan journeys.
  • Maps of other countries containing information to help people who are travelling to, or working in, a region.
  • Specialist maps for geological, political and environmental purposes.
  • Navigational charts used by sea-going vessels.
  • Weather maps used by meteorologists.

Maps are no longer simply flat, paper documents. The development of geographical information systems (GIS), for example, means computerised maps can become part of sophisticated systems for seeing, modelling and analysing what is happening in the world.

Cartographers can be involved in many different aspects of map making. These include:

  • Photogrammetry - creating accurate maps from aerial photographs.
  • Remote sensing - using sensors in satellites and aircraft to gather spatial and environmental data about the earth.
  • Topographic surveying - working on the ground to accurately measure and plot topographic features such as roads, paths, houses, rivers and other natural features.
  • Cartographic design and communication - designing maps to communicate effectively, which involves using colour, symbols and styles to help people understand information.
  • 3D visualisation - representing spatial data as virtual 3D images to make it easier to communicate information.
  • Map production - producing paper and on-screen maps.
  • Desktop publishing - combining images and text ready for printing and publication.
  • Web design - designing and publishing map material on the internet.
  • Map curatorship - collecting, preserving and promoting maps and data.

Cartographers may work on regions that have not been mapped before, or they may revise out-of-date maps. 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 event on an area.

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

Many work in an office, sitting at a desk with a computer. They usually work with a team of other cartographers.

They may travel around the country or overseas when doing surveys.

Starting salaries for cartographers may be around £14,000 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

There are good opportunities for cartographers and mapping specialists, especially for those with skills in computerised mapping techniques or geographic information systems (GIS). Employers include:

  • Local and central government departments.
  • Universities.
  • The Ministry of Defence.
  • National mapping agencies such as the Ordnance Survey, the Hydrographic Office and the Meteorological Office
  • Oil, gas, water and electricity companies.
  • Companies that design, produce and sell GIS software.
  • Publishers, including atlas producers.

The number of opportunities within smaller cartographic companies has increased. About 10 per cent of cartographers are self-employed, and short-term contracts are becoming increasingly common.

The government agencies advertise in the national newspapers. Many commercial companies use websites, such as that for the British Cartographic Society, or advertise through the Society of Cartographers. Job adverts may also be found in journals such as Geomatics World, on websites such as Geo Recruitment ( or with specialist recruitment agencies.

Education and Training

Cartographers usually have a degree in a mapping-related subject such as a single or joint-honours qualification in geography, surveying, mapping sciences, geomatics or GIS. The British Cartographic Society has a list of degree courses, identifying those that specialise in cartography or have cartography modules. Foundation degrees may also be available.

These courses usually require the study of geography, and possibly also a science subject, at A level/H grade, or the equivalent. Other subjects can be useful too, including art and design technology, maths and computing. Cartographers with more than one language are always sought after and have more opportunities to work overseas.

Relevant HND courses include subjects such as physical geography, geographical information systems and geography techniques. These may sometimes lead to junior posts such as cartography or mapping technician.

Applicants should check college and university prospectus details carefully to make sure the course has enough emphasis on cartography or mapping.

The Association for Geographic Information (AGI) runs a student placement scheme to help students find work experience. A list of organisations offering placements is available on the AGI website.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Training on the job includes learning new technology such as digital mapping systems. The UK Hydrographic Office offers specialised training in marine cartography for new employees, including how to use hydrographic digital data systems.

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

There is an NVQ/SVQ Level 4 available in Spatial Data Management.

Cartographers use industry-standard computer graphics packages and dedicated cartographic and GIS software. Training in these packages is available commercially or from further education colleges or adult education centres.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A cartographer needs:

  • To be able to analyse and manage information from different sources.
  • Patience and concentration.
  • A logical approach to collecting and presenting data.
  • Precision and accuracy, paying great attention to detail.
  • Numeracy skills.
  • Design skills.
  • Computing skills.
  • The ability to work well alone and in a team.
  • Technical and scientific knowledge.
  • Normal colour vision.

Your Long Term Prospects

Experienced cartographers may progress to senior or management positions. Some may choose to specialise in an area such as photogrammetry or GIS. The willingness to relocate may be important in smaller, commercial companies.

Postgraduate qualifications may be needed to achieve career progression. There are currently several postgraduate courses in GIS or topographic sciences that are relevant to those working in this area. The Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) offers chartered status with different routes for graduates, postgraduates and those with experience, but no degree.

Those with language skills may have the opportunity to work abroad.

Get Further Information

Association for Geographic Information (AGI),
Block C, Fourth Floor, Morelands,
5-23 Old Street, London EC1V 9HL
Tel: 020 7253 5211

British Cartographic Society (BCS),
Administration, 12 Elworthy Drive, Wellington, Somerset TA21 9AT
Tel: 01823 665775

British Geological Survey, Kingsley Dunham Centre,
Keyworth, Nottingham NG12 5GG
Tel: 0115 936 3143

Ordnance Survey (OS), Romsey Road, Southampton SO16 4GU
Tel: 08456 050505

The Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers),
1 Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AR
Tel: 020 7591 3000

The Society of Cartographers (SOC), Department of Geographical and Earth Sciences, University of Glasgow, Glasgow G12 8QQ
Tel: 0141 330 4780

The Survey Association (TSA), Northgate Business Centre,
38 Northgate, Newark-on-Trent NG24 1EZ
Tel: 01636 642840

The UK Hydrographic Office, Admiralty Way, Taunton, Somerset TA1 2DN
Tel: 01823 337900

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