Become a Topographer: Step-by-Step Career Guide

A topographer is a specific type of cartographer. Topographers use contour lines to create 2-dimensional representations indicating the 3-dimentional aspects of portions of the earth's surface. Increasingly, these maps may be created digitally as well as on paper.

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Should I Become a Topographer?

Topographers collect, analyze and plot data into the form of a map. They might gather data from surveys, photographs, GIS and other remote sensing technology, such as satellites and light imaging resources. While it's possible for maps to contain both spatial and non-spatial data, topographers primarily use spatial information such as latitude, longitude and elevation. Potential topographers should have strong visualization skills and a high degree of accuracy in their work. Topographers usually work at a computer in an office, though they may travel to view areas being mapped.

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  • Cartography
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Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's degree standard; master's degrees for advancement
Degree Field Cartography, geography or engineering
Licensure/Certification Surveyor licensing required in many states; voluntary professional certifications available
Key Skills Drawing, computer, visualization, detail-oriented
Salary $60,930 (2014 median annual salary for cartographers and photogrammetrists)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Step 1: Complete High School

High school students interested in becoming topographers should take classes in mechanical drawing, computer graphics and computer science. Common core classes such as mathematics, physics and U.S. history also provide good preparation for postsecondary study.

Step 2: Obtain a Postsecondary Degree

Topographers usually hold a bachelor's degree in a related field, such as cartography, geography or engineering. Possible course topics in a cartography program include geography, earth science, resource conservation, data analysis and the history of geographical theory. Most programs take four years and include training in Geographical Information Systems (GIS), a necessary tool for modern cartographers and surveyors.

Master's degree programs in geography and cartography are also available. A student with an undergraduate degree in a non-related field may be required to take additional geography courses in order to complete the program.

Step 3: Gain Work Experience

Topographers most often work in the industries of architecture or engineering. They are also commonly employed by local, state or federal government. Students may find internships or entry-level positions with land, field, or geologic surveyor offices.

Step 4: Pursue Certification and Advancement

Several states require that cartographers be licensed as surveyors. This generally involves passing an exam, working under an experienced surveyor for four years and then passing the Principles and Practice of Surveying exam and a written exam through the state licensing board.

Topographers might obtain specific voluntary certifications pertaining to mapping science or GIS. The American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS) provides several certifications related to mapping. Certification may require completion of a written test as well as an evaluation of past work and experience. As professional recognition, these certifications can aid workers pursuing promotions and career advancement. Experienced topographers may take on leadership positions within cartography projects.

Growth is expected within the field due to the increased use of maps for national security purposes as well as technological advances that require increased data to construct maps. In fact, job openings for cartographers and photogrammetrists should increase by 20% from 2012-2022, and opportunities for technicians should rise by 14%, per the BLS.

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