Surveyor - Cartographer: How to Begin a Career in Cartography

Jan 29, 2018

Learn how to become a cartographer. Research the education and career requirements, licensure information, and experience required for starting a career in cartography.

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  • 0:03 Should I Become a…
  • 1:01 Career Requirements
  • 1:37 Steps to Become a Cartographer

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Should I Become a Cartographer?

Cartographers create and revise maps by gathering, interpreting, and analyzing geographic data. While maps and charts are typically used for educational and informational purposes, they can also be used for political and cultural reasons. As population density changes, cartographers will review data to make updates and form graphs. They may also review satellite images and aerial photographs to make thematic maps.

Cartographers work on a full-time basis; those who perform work in the field may have longer hours in order to gather all the data they need. The rest of their workdays are spent in an office setting. Some travel may be required to locations that need to be mapped. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a median annual salary of $61,880 for cartographers and photogrammetrists in May 2015.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's degree
Degree Fields Cartography or geographic information systems (GIS)
Licensure and/or Certification Licensure varies by state; voluntary certification available
Experience 3-5 years in a GIS industry; quality assurance experience preferred
Key Skills Critical-thinking, decision-making, problem-solving, time management, and coordination skills; detail-oriented and have basic computer skills as well as experience with GIS/mapping software and photo imaging software
Salary (2015)* $61,880 (median for cartographers and photogrammetrists)

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS); O*Net Online; Job Postings ( and - September 2012)

Steps to Become a Cartographer

Let's see what steps you'll need to take to become a cartographer:

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

In order to work as a cartographer, students will typically need a bachelor's degree. Some colleges and universities offer programs in cartography and geographic information systems that provide students with classes in remote sensing, photograph interpretation, and GIS. These programs focus on data collection, advanced mathematics, analytic geography, and mapping techniques.

Success Tip:

  • Gain hands-on training with GIS/mapping software. Since employers require cartographers to have training with mapping software, students can use their degree program to gain hands-on training using the equipment. Schools may allow students to participate in GIS laboratories, which can provide students with critical mapping techniques and knowledge used in the field.

Step 2: Complete Initial Licensure

According to the BLS, some states will require cartographers to obtain a surveyor license to practice in the field. The licensing process begins with passing of the Fundamentals of Surveying (FS) exam, which is administered by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES). This closed-book exam assesses individuals in math, science, and basic industry principles, such as field data acquisition and graphical communication. Students may sit for the FS exam prior to college graduation. Additionally, state specific licenses may also be necessary.

Step 3: Gain Experience in the Field

After passing the FS exam, licensure candidates generally must gain 4 years of acceptable work experience. Though requirements vary by employer, many ask for 3-5 years of experience in the GIS industry for careers in the field. Additionally, the BLS stated that some cartographers come into this occupation through working as technicians in surveying or mapping.

Success Tip:

  • Develop your skills in GIS software. Proficiency and extensive experience in mapping design and software is necessary to succeed as a cartographer. Positions as a GIS technician or analyst provide individuals with fundamental skills in performing geospatial operations and working with geospatial software, such as ArcGIS.

Step 4: Earn Final Licensure

Cartographers with at least four years of experience may sit for the Principles and Practice of Surveying (PS) exam. This NCEES-administered, open-book exam tests individuals on specific cartography and surveying topics, including legal principles, professional practice, and different methods of surveying.

Success Tip:

  • Earn voluntary certification. Certification is offered through the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS). In order to receive certification, individuals must demonstrate work experience and pass an exam. Certifications available include the Certified Mapping Scientist, Certified GIS/LIS Technologist, and Certified Mapping Scientist, Remote Sensing. The GIS Certification Institute also offers certification, which requires students to demonstrate work experience and contributions to the profession through a portfolio-based program. Recertification is also required. Certification in a specialization can ensure continued employment in this job market.

To become a cartographer, you'll need a bachelor's degree along with experience in the field and a license.

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