Careers in Cartography What do I Need to Become a Cartographer?

Having read this far you may well be interested in cartography as a career, and you are probably wondering what it takes to succeed in the field. Well, ‘what it takes’ is basically two things, an appropriate background and suitable personal qualities.


The background you need is a combination of knowledge and skills. You need a knowledge of cartography itself, of the cartographic sciences, and of related fields like computer science and the graphic arts, and since cartography has at its core the making of maps you need the practical skills that accompany this knowledge. Potentially that’s a lot of background, so lest you feel overwhelmed let us add an important qualification: a cartographer does not have to be equally familiar with all these fields. While cartography is by its nature interdisciplinary, and while an acquaintance with, say, surveying or printing is important, you do not have to be an expert in everything. A lot depends also on what type of cartographer you want to become. The knowledge and skills needed to be a cartographic editor are different from those required by a cartographic technician, and different again from someone who teaches cartography.

While we cannot avoid generalizing to a certain degree, the primary requirement is clearly a knowledge of the theory and practice of cartography. The best way to acquire this is through a formal program in a college or university, and details of these are given in a later section. You need to know about the mathematical basis of cartography, the principles of map design (including the use of symbols, colour and lettering), the different types of maps that exist, the history of mapping, the sources of map data, the ways in which maps are used–the list of topics goes on and on–as well as the great variety of techniques, from pen to computer, that are used to make maps.

In the course of your education you will inevitably be introduced to the related fields that are so important to cartography. Three of these are worth highlighting here, for when allied with cartography they make for particularly useful combinations.

The first

is computer science. To become a cartographer you have to know how to operate computers and peripheral devices like digitizers, scanners, plotters and printers, and how to run graphics and mapping sofware. That is the minimum. But given the immense and ever growing importance of computers in cartography, any additional knowledge of computer science (and especially computer graphics) can only be an advantage.

The second

related field is geography, the science that studies the distribution of physical and cultural phenomena over the earth’s surface and the relationships between them. The data that appear on maps, whether reflecting land forms and climate or population and industry, are geographical data, and geography provides the understanding of these phenomena that can be crucial to effective mapping.

The third

related field is in fact a cross between computer science and geography. This is geographical information systems. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of GIS as a tool for managing the ever-growing flood of information about the world in which we live and for solving some of the problems we face. Maps are integral to GIS, and it is not surprising that cartographers have long been major players in the development of the field. This involvement continues, and nowadays the combination of cartography and GIS is one that is increasingly sought after.

Personal Qualities

The personal qualities required for cartography also vary somewhat depending on the type of cartographer you aspire to be, so again we have to generalize. It helps a lot, needless to say, if you like maps to begin with. Maps exert a lure that some people find irresistible, and for true cartophiles (map-lovers are so numerous that they have their own special name) an hour or two in a map library is the ultimate joy. If you are one of these people you are half way there.

But there is much more to being a cartographer than a love of maps and the proverbial ability to draw a straight line. Indeed, the latter may not be all that crucial any more, for the computer revolution could well make pure manual dexterity, if not redundant, then at least relatively unimportant.

Other requirements have not changed, however. Cartographers engaged in map design require imagination, artistic flair and the ability to visualize. Cartographers engaged in drafting require the patience and stamina to endure long hours over a light table or in front of a computer monitor. Cartographers of all lands require people skills, organizational ability, intellectual integrity, adaptability in the face of technological change, and the ability to work to deadlines without sacrificing quality. They also require attention to detail and commitment to accuracy–in cartographic circles it does no harm at all to be a perfectionist!