When the lead singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Karen O, sang the words “Maps, wait! They don’t love you like I love you”, she was clearly trying to undermine the sheer love and dedication that cartographers have for their maps. Nice try, Karen. But nobody loves maps more than cartographers. FACT.
Anyway…if you want to be the next Sebastian Münster, Vincenzo Coronelli or Bill Rankin, you’re in the right place!
Essentially, cartographers are map-makers. These talented professionals are still incredibly important in modern society. Although much of the world has already been mapped out, many parts are not depicted at useable scales. Moreover, the world‘s landscape and travel routes change frequently and thus many maps become obsolete. Cartographers are still needed!
Cartographers no longer use a compass, a sextant, a quill and a bit of parchment; modern practitioners use hi-tech surveying techniques, such as geographical information systems (GIS), to record topography and analyse geographical information. They then use this data to produce maps for the internet, atlases, ordnance survey maps and internal computer systems.
Cartographers play a vital role in government organisations, such as Ordnance Survey, the Ministry of Defence, the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office and the Department for Transport. The RAF and the Royal Navy also take on their fair share of cartographers. Other cartographers will find work in the world of publishing or surveying.
As a cartographer, you might be responsible for reproducing and updating old maps. Alternatively, you might be tasked with presenting existing data in new, innovative ways.
Whatever kind of project you work on, part of your role will involve data analysis and liaising with other people, such as surveyors, designers or editors. You’ll also be responsible for maintaining databases of geographical information.
Cartographers don’t only create OS maps, satellite images, political maps and physical maps; they also produce diagrams, charts and spreadsheets. Some artists, such as Aaron Koblin, create maps as part of their innovative data visualisation projects.
Salary & benefits
Despite the immense skill and knowledge required for a career in this area, entry-level cartographers only usually earn between £18,000 and £22,000 per annum.
As you gain more experience, your annual salary may increase to around £24,000. However, the highest salary a cartographer can earn, even at the very top of the profession, is around £48,000 a year.
Cartographers don’t work in a particularly intense environment, and flexible working hours are quite common. The majority of cartographers, however, choose to work a typical nine-to-five.
Some cartographers work on a freelance basis.
Unsurprisingly, there isn’t an abundance of cartography jobs out there! Consequently, it can get pretty competitive. That means it’s a good idea to get a degree in a relevant subject, such as geography, earth science, surveying, graphic design, geophysics, computer science or geographical information systems (GIS).
You may even wish to boost your employability further by completing a relevant postgraduate degree. For instance, you may wish to do a specialist course in GIS, photogrammetry or surveying.
Whilst you’re at university, it’s a good idea to gain relevant work experience shadowing a cartographer. You could even complete a work placement in the cartography industry.
Training & progression
If you work for a governmental organisation or a large company, you will probably start your career as part of a structured training programme, where you’ll learn the latest cartographical techniques and find out how to use different bits of software and equipment. Following this initial training period, you’ll continually pick up new skills and knowledge whilst on the job.
As you gain more experience, you will inevitably move into a position with more managerial responsibilities. Alternatively, you can break out on your own and pursue freelance opportunities.
You could also use your skills and branch out into different fields, such as surveying, mineral exploration or archaeology.