Become a Mapping Scientist: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Find out how to become a mapping scientist. Learn about the job description and duties, and read the step-by-step process for starting a career as a mapping scientist.

Should I Become a Mapping Scientist?

Mapping scientists gather and analyze geographical information and create graphics from the data. Some work as cartographers, or general mapmakers, who use various kinds of input and cartographic techniques to design maps. Others specialize as photogrammetrists, who support mapmaking by collecting and using aerial photography, satellite imagery and other data to model the earth's surface.

Many mapping scientists rely on geographic information systems (GIS), which gather and manipulate spatial information digitally. Known as GIS specialists or analysts, they can generate maps with various kinds of spatial graphic and non-graphic information combined. Travel or even temporary relocation near survey sites might be necessary in this field.

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Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's degree generally required
Degree Fields Geography, cartography, geomatics, computer science, surveying or related field
Licensing and Certification Some states require licenses in surveying; others have licenses specific to photogrammetry; voluntary certifications available from the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS) and the GSI Certification Institute
Key Skills Strong attention to detail; good critical-thinking skills; ability to make decisions and solve problems within limits of available technologies and data; familiarity with GIS, GPS, web-based mapping software and remote sensing systems; knowledge of cartographic principles
Salary (2014) $60,930 per year (median salary for cartographers and photogrammetrists)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2014).

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

A 4-year degree in a relevant field is the credential normally required to become a mapping scientist. The field of study can vary, with relevant choices including geography and other geosciences, cartography, engineering, surveying, forestry and computer science. Whatever major they choose, aspiring mapping scientists should take some coursework in math and computer science generally, and geometry and GIS specifically. A mapping scientist ought to have a good grasp of the complex computer calculations and systems on which they depend to gather and make use of data.

It is also possible to become a mapping scientist by first working as mapping technician. Technician positions may not require a bachelor's degree; an associate's degree or certificate in GIS or a closely related field may suffice. Associate's degree and certificate programs in GIS typically cover the basics of geography and mapping concepts and teach GIS design and usage.

Success Tips:

  • Take an art class or two to sharpen visualization skills. Art classes can complement more technical and scientific coursework in helping students learn to visualize various kinds of information. Future mapmakers may also find that art classes can aid them in making more attractive maps.
  • Find an internship. Many schools encourage students to complete internships with government agencies or companies to gain hands-on experience in the mapping science field. Students should speak with an academic advisor or their career services office about how, when and where to apply.
  • Apply for provisional American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS) certification. Aspiring mapping scientists can begin working toward a professional credential before graduation. ASPRS issues provisional certification to students who pass its certification exams. Once they have sufficient experience, mapping scientists can complete the certification process.

Step 2: Take the Fundamentals of Surveying (FS) Exam

In some states, mapping scientists need to have a surveyor's license. The licensing process involves passing a 2-stage exam, the first stage of which, the FS exam, is designed for students enrolled in an undergraduate program. The FS exam covers such areas as math, applicable laws, geology and surveying methods.

Step 3: Work as a Mapping Scientist

After graduation, mapping scientists can go to work for a range of employers. Several federal agencies hire cartographers and GIS specialists, including the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Forest Service. State and local governments also need mapping scientists for a variety of functions, from maintaining legal maps of property lines to ensuring that public service agencies, such as fire departments, have accurate spatial information. Private employers also engage mapping scientists for purposes as diverse as plotting efficient delivery routes to determining the location of a cell phone tower or retail store. At the entry level, new graduates normally join a mapping project team as junior members; as they gain experience and knowledge, they might come to manage projects themselves.

Success Tip:

  • Join a professional organization. The Cartography and Geographic Information Society (CaGIS), the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS) and the Association of American Geographers (AAG) are among the professional groups that provide a variety of continuing education opportunities, career services and other benefits to mapping scientists. Membership can help mapping scientists network and stay up to date with the latest technology.

Step 4: Complete the Licensing Process

Mapping scientists who need to be licensed as surveyors can complete the process after obtaining four years of professional experience. The final step is to pass the Principles and Practice of Surveying Exam (PS), which covers surveying standards and practices, legal guidelines, business practices and types of surveys.

Some states have licensing categories specifically in photogrammetry. Requirements to earn these licenses vary, but normally they include passing a state-specific examination; professional experience may also be necessary. State licensing boards can provide further information.

Step 5: Earn Certification

Mapping scientists with work experience can advance their careers by pursuing certification. While voluntary, certifications can be a valuable credential. The leading issuers of certifications in the field include the GSI Certification Institute (GSICI) and ASPRS. GSICI's GSI Professional certification can be earned with a flexible combination of experience, education (at least a bachelor's degree) and contributions to the profession (e.g. participating in conferences or events or having GSI-related articles published). ASPRS offers certifications in photogrammetry, remote sensing and GIS/LIS at the professional scientist and technician levels. ASPRS certifications are granted after applicants pass a peer review of their education, experience and references as well as an examination.

Both GSICI and ASPRS require recertification every five years. GSI Professionals must earn points based on continuing education, employment and contributions to the profession to recertify. Those with ASPRS certifications must demonstrate their continuing professional development through work experience, continuing education and professional activities (e.g., conferences or publishing), plus submit new references, to recertify.

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