Mapping the Path: What Does a Cartographer Do?

cartographer pouring over maps

When you hear the word ‘cartographer,’ you may think of ancient civilizations with people carefully creating maps by hand. Today, however, with technological advancements and satellites hovering above us, the art and science of cartography extend far beyond drawing physical features on a piece of parchment or tracing political boundaries.

Take, for example, your last road trip. The GPS system that you relied on throughout your journey is a result of expert cartography. And it’s not just tourism or transportation; various sectors, including urban planning, environmental management, and even public health, depend on the precise work of cartographers.

In this guide, we’ll go in-depth into what it means to be a cartographer,  shedding light on what a cartographer does, potential career paths, the skills required, and much more. So join me on this engaging exploration, and who knows, by the end of this, you might realize that cartography might just be the career you’ve been seeking. 

What Is a Cartographer?

To get started, let’s take a second to talk about what a cartographer actually is. In the simplest terms, a cartographer collects geographical data and transforms it into understandable, visually appealing maps. These maps can serve various purposes – from helping a casual traveler navigate a new city to assisting government officials in critical decision-making regarding environment conservation or urban planning. 

Consider Google Maps, for example. The detailed maps that help us navigate from home to unknown terrain are the result of meticulous work by digital cartographers. In essence, anytime you read a map or use a GPS, you’re experiencing a cartographer’s work firsthand.

Today, cartographers use sophisticated technology and software to create highly accurate and interactive maps. The advent of satellite imagery and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) has revolutionized the field, making cartography more accurate and comprehensive than ever before. 

Duties and Responsibilities of a Cartographer

As a cartographer, you wear many hats. It’s a multifaceted profession that requires a myriad of skills and abilities, allowing you to provide indispensable services in various fields. 

Here’s what you can expect to do on a typical day on the job:

Collection and Analysis of Geographical Data

Arguably, the most essential aspect of cartography is the collection and analysis of geographical data. This means you will be interpreting complex data from a variety of sources, such as satellite images, field and drone observations, existing maps and records, and aerial photographs. This data could relate to features such as landforms, vegetation, water bodies, and even man-made structures.

For example, in creating a topographic map of a designated hiking area, you would need to collect and interpret data regarding elevations, features, and routes to accurately depict it in a form that hikers can easily understand and use.

Design and Production of Maps

After collecting and analyzing data, your next primary duty is the design and production of maps, which include physical and digital layouts. 

In the digital age, this often involves the use of advanced software such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS). You design maps to be visually appealing and easy to understand, taking advantage of color and symbol selection to effectively communicate information.

For instance, while mapping out land use in a given urban area, you could be using different colors and symbols to distinguish between areas of residential, commercial, and industrial use.

Updating Existing Maps

The world is always changing, and so are maps. As a cartographer, it’s your responsibility to ensure maps are up-to-date and accurate. 

This might involve adjusting boundaries after a survey, adding new public transportation routes or facilities, or updating features to reflect recent changes in landform or usage.

For example, after a major construction project in a city, you would update the map to reflect the latest additions and modifications in the urban landscape.

Research and Presentation

Finally, cartographers often engage in research to challenge existing geographic understanding and improve mapping practices. You’ll contribute to the development of cartography as a discipline and share your findings through presentations or written reports.

For instance, you might research how different color schemes affect the readability of maps for people with color blindness and then present your findings at a professional conference.

Different Types of Cartographers

Although cartography may sound like it’s a single position, there are actually several different types of cartographers out there. 

Regardless of the type of cartography one specializes in, the central ethos remains the same: to present complex geographical data in an understandable, usable, and aesthetically pleasing manner. Each category, though, offers unique challenges and rewards, giving aspiring cartographers plenty of paths to explore.

Let’s explore some of the more common ones and what they typically do.

General Cartographers

General cartographers create maps for a broad audience. These maps include those we commonly see in textbooks or as part of informational brochures. They meticulously ensure that their maps are easy to understand and visually appealing to the general public.

Topographic Cartographers

Topographic cartographers hold an interesting role as they are tasked with mapping physical features on the earth’s surface. The detailed maps they create depict natural and human-made features, such as mountains, valleys, rivers, and roads, providing valuable information for hikers, engineers, or environmental scientists.

Geospatial Information Science (GIS) Cartographers

GIS Cartographers heavily rely on technology to collect, store, manipulate, analyze, manage, and present geographic data. They often work with massive datasets to create digital maps and interactive visualizations for a wide range of industries.

Thematic or Statistical Cartographers

Thematic and Statistical cartographers are specialists who focus on specific themes represented spatially. This may include everything from population densities and climate patterns to migration routes and political voting patterns.

Digital Cartographers

Digital cartographers specifically work on creating maps for digital platforms. With the surge in demand for online maps and GPS technology, Digital Cartographers have taken center stage, constructing detailed and comprehensive maps for web applications and navigation devices.

Sample Job Titles of Cartographers

As in many professions, there are a variety of job titles that fall under the umbrella of cartography. Much of this depends on who the employer is and the specific duties outlined in the position. 

Here are some examples of job titles and roles that correspond to work in the field of cartography.

GIS Analyst

A GIS analyst uses Geographic Information System technology to analyze spatial and geographic data. The focus is on creating digital maps and evolving map designs using complex software tools. 

This role might involve using census data to analyze traffic trends, environmental data to track pollution, or property data to assist in city planning.

Geospatial Analyst

Similar to a GIS analyst, a geospatial analyst employs satellite images, GPS, and spatial data to make predictions and decisions for industries like defense, environment, and public safety. The role includes data collection, storage, and transformation into actionable insights.


Drafters convert specifications and design data from engineers and architects into detailed maps and drawings. They could focus on architectural, civil, or electronics drafting and usually work with CAD software.

Land Surveyor

While a land surveyor’s primary job may not be creating maps, they do play a significant role in the process. They measure and document geographical features of a particular area, which become the basis for cartographers to generate accurate maps.

Topographic Analyst

This job consists of gathering data to create maps of physical features of the Earth’s surface. These specialists may work in fields like geology, climate study, and urban planning.

Remote Sensing Technician

These professionals collect data from satellite imagery and airborne sensors to create maps showing natural resource locations, infrastructure, or environmental changes.

What’s the Work Environment of a Cartographer Like?

As a cartographer, your work environment can be as varied and diverse as the landscapes you map. Let me explain. Broadly, the nature of your work can be divided into two parts — office work and fieldwork.

Whether in the office or the field, your work is usually a mix of solitary and collaborative. You will often spend hours alone, focused on intricate details on the map. But collaboration also comes naturally. You may frequently work with teams and engage in discussions with geographers, engineers, planners, environment scientists, and even policymakers.

Here’s a breakdown of what both environments are like. 

Office Work

In the office environment, cartographers generally work in front of a computer using state-of-the-art software to draft and refine maps. They analyze and interpret data, run complex spatial calculations, and create visual representations of geographical information. Your offices are usually comfortable, well-lit spaces equipped with the latest technology. 

At a desk job, you would spend a substantial amount of time sitting, so incorporating small physical activities or gentle exercises throughout the day is a good idea to remain fit. Maintaining good posture while working also helps in reducing any potential health issues.


For instance, collecting primary data can sometimes take you to different corners of the country or even the world. You might climb hills, traverse forests, or sail across rivers to capture the most accurate geographical data. 

You could be using a myriad of tools ranging from traditional compasses and measuring devices to modern GPS and remote sensing equipment. Fieldwork can be challenging, but it is rewarding and breaks the monotony of working indoors.

Skills and Requirements to Become a Cartographer

As an aspiring cartographer, there are certain skills and requirements you need to equip yourself with. You’ll need both hard and soft skills to excel and thrive in the field of cartography. 

These skills are absolutely essential as they will guide and assist you in your daily tasks, such as collecting data, understanding and analyzing spatial relationships, and bringing raw data to life in the form of a map. 

Hard Skills

In terms of hard skills, a solid background in geography can give you a heads-up. Combining this with relevant knowledge in the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software will significantly elevate your ability to excel in this field. GIS software is the primary tool used by cartographers to collect, store, retrieve, analyze, and display geographic information. 

For example, proficiency in using software like ArcGIS and QGIS would be particularly beneficial. Moreover, a good understanding of data analysis techniques, mathematics, and spatial analysis will also be a significant asset.

Soft Skills

As for soft skills, things look a little bit different. A few skills you’ll want to have in your repertoire include: 

  • Attention to detail: A small error can have broad impacts, altering directions or misrepresenting geographical features. 
  • Problem-solving: Problem-solving skills come in handy as you often face challenges during the map creation process that require swift and effective solutions.
  • Analytical skills: You’ll be looking at data from different angles, making connections, interpreting, and working out the most accurate way to represent that data on a map. 
  • Communication skills: You don’t want a map that’s difficult to comprehend, causing confusion and misunderstanding. So, developing strong communication skills can significantly impact how effectively you can make your maps tell their stories.

Remember, these are just a couple of the key skills to hone in on if you’re interested in being a cartographer.

Educational Requirements for Being a Cartographer

The path to becoming a cartographer often starts with a strong educational foundation. 

Primarily, you’ll want to focus on programs in geographic information systems (GIS), geology, geography, surveying, engineering, or a related field. Both Bachelor’s and Master’s level programs are common pathways for aspiring cartographers. 

Furthermore, certain institutions offer diplomas and degrees specifically in Cartography. Examples of this include the Bachelor of Science in Cartography and Geographic Information Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Master’s in Cartography at Technical University Munich in Germany.

Besides your secondary education, you’ll also need practical training and experience. This can take the form of internships, co-op positions, or entry-level work in related areas. Many universities and colleges have partnerships with businesses and government agencies to provide these opportunities. 

These experiences help you apply what you’ve learned in your studies to real-world scenarios, understand the day-to-day operations of the field, and build connections within the industry.

Licenses and Certifications Required to Work as a Cartographer

Becoming a professional cartographer does not merely end with acquiring a degree or honing your technical skills. On top of this, specific licenses and certifications can enhance your credibility, making you a valuable asset in the cartography industry.

Earning these licenses and certifications can be a testament to your technical abilities and your commitment to maintaining a current, cutting-edge understanding of the cartography field. They serve to reassure prospective employers that you’re a top-tier professional who is capable of delivering precise, high-quality work.

Let’s go over what to know about licensing and certifications. 


It’s important to note that not all states require cartographers to have a license, but it can certainly provide a major boost to your credentials if your state does. In states like Texas, Maine, and Nevada, it is mandatory to have a Professional Surveyor’s license. 

This typically involves completing an accredited degree program, gaining professional experience, and passing the necessary examinations set by the state. It should be remembered that the licensing rules vary from one state to another, so it’s best to check the specific requirements where you intend to practice.


Though these aren’t typically required, they can set you apart from other professionals in the field. The American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS) provides a well-recognized certification for mapping scientists and technologists. 

There is also the GIS Professional (GISP) certification provided by the GIS Certification Institute. For this, you typically need to demonstrate your educational background, professional experience, and contributions to the profession, such as volunteering or participating in academic publications. 

There are several other specialized certifications available depending on your specific field of interest within cartography. For example, the National Society of Professional Surveyors offers a Certified Survey Technician credential. 

Start a New Career as a Cartographer

Embarking on a path to become a cartographer opens up a world — quite literally — of fascinating opportunities. It’s a role that harnesses creativity and precision and binds it with the thrilling realm of geographical exploration. 

One day, you might be illustrating the terrain for a popular new hiking app, using your skills to guide adventurers and outdoor enthusiasts safely on their journey. Another day, you might be on a team that’s mapping areas of devastation after a natural disaster, helping to guide the emergency response effort for quicker, more efficient help to those affected. 

So, without further ado, take the first step and launch an exciting new career as a cartographer. Or, if you’re not quite ready to take the plunge, you can check out our other articles on job searching to help you find your dream career.

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