Becoming a Topographer: Careers, Salary Info & Job Description

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Topography is a subdiscipline of cartography, and some cartographers create topographic maps. What are the pros and cons of a career as a cartographer? Get real job descriptions, career prospects, and salary information to see if becoming a cartographer is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of Becoming a Cartographer

Topographers, who work within the subdiscipline of cartography, work with measurements to compose maps of the Earth's surface, fusing scientific and artistic means to visualize and present data. In what follows, you can learn about some of the pros and cons associated with a career in cartography.

PROS of Being a Cartographer
Education background can be in a variety of subjects (geography, GIS, and engineering are a few)*
Faster-than-average job growth expected (20 percent between 2012 and 2022 for all cartographers and photogrammetrists)*
Continually learn about and integrate new technologies, keeping the mind sharp and preventing boredom*
Draw on a range of scientific practices and artistic skills*

CONS of Being a Cartographer
Responsible for very precise work*
Must keep track of huge amounts of data*
Depend on computer technology, requiring frequent continuing education to keep up-to-date*
May involve training beyond the bachelor's-degree level*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Essential Career Information

Job Description and Duties

Topographic maps are 2-D maps that convey features of the Earth's surface. They're created with contour lines and scales, so both horizontal and vertical distances can be represented. Although you might make topographic maps as part of your job, it would be difficult to specialize as a topographer; rather, you would likely have the job title of cartographer.

Cartographers compile and analyze data, perform geographical research, and present geospatial information in the form of maps. You'd work with spatial data consisting of distance, elevation, latitude, and longitude measurements. Additionally, you would work with non-spatial data, such as weather statistics, population density, patterns of land use, and demographic information.

Cartographers compose many different types of maps. Some maps represent topographical features such as rivers and mountains, some show the locations and dimensions of roads and towns, and other maps superimpose statistical data over visual representations of land masses or cities. While most cartographers work in offices and use computers, you may engage in some fieldwork in order to acquire data and validate survey results. Cartographers often work closely with other professionals, such as surveyors and photogrammetrists.

Job Growth and Salary Info

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that in May 2014, the median annual wage of cartographers and photogrammetrists was about $61,000. Employment growth for cartographers and photogrammetrists was predicted to be faster-than-average, at 20 percent, between 2012-2022. The increase in employment was attributed to the increasing use of maps in the planning of national security and local government and the ability of cartographers to accurately visualize spacial information when producing and updating those maps for presentations to clients.

Education and Training Requirements

Cartographers typically hold at least a bachelor's degree in cartography, geography, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), computer science, or engineering. In addition to basic skills in mathematics and mechanical drawing, cartographers increasingly depend on a working knowledge of various technological mediums. GIS is becoming increasingly central to the profession, and it's used to compile information and accurately display data in a digital format. Maps are composed and data are collected and organized through the use of computer software. You'll likely become familiar with desktop mapping, Arcinfo, Internet GIS, and GIS programming. In very general terms, the following skills and traits are important to cartographers:

  • The ability to visualize abstract forms, objects, and distances
  • A sound background in geography
  • Competency in using a variety of computer programs and technologies
  • The ability to organize and assess data
  • The ability to adapt to new technologies and learn new skills

Job Postings from Real Employers

Employers commonly look for individuals who hold at least a bachelor's degree. Many jobs require or highly value knowledge of various technological applications and computer software programs. Entry-level jobs and internships are available to recent graduates, and jobs requiring more sophistication and responsibilities are available to experienced workers. In order to get a sense of the types of jobs available, see the following examples of job postings open during March 2012 on CareerBuilder.com:

  • A utility company in Wisconsin was seeking a GIS intern to provide cartographic support to its planning, engineering, and environmental service departments. This job required strong technical skills, a familiarity with ESRI and ArcGIS software, and at least 1 year of undergraduate education in a relevant field.
  • A company in Virginia was seeking a worker with a bachelor's degree in cartography or a related field. Candidates were expected to have a good understanding of relevant computer programs, GIS technical processes, and data management and cartography. No previous work experience was required.
  • An engineering, construction, and technical service organization in Kansas was seeking experienced terrain specialists. Job duties involve processing data and using computer programs to do inventory of military weapons and control systems data. Candidates were required to have at least a bachelor's degree in a relevant field and 5 years of work experience.
  • A corporation in Colorado was seeking a full-time GIS analyst. Job duties included working with databases, reporting statistics, and obtaining data. Candidates were expected to have a bachelor's degree in one of the above-mentioned acceptable fields, previous work experience in aerial satellite image interpretation, and knowledge of remote sensing techniques. This corporation preferred to hire individuals familiar with a range of software programs, such as ESRI ArcGIS, ERDAS Imagine, and ENVI.

How to Stand Out in the Field

As the skills involved in cartography become more complex, a master's degree in cartography or GIS can help you shine among the crowd; some employers prefer to hire individuals who hold master's degrees because of their increased specialization and competency. Master's degree programs allow students to become immersed in the professional practices of cartography and develop an intimate familiarity with computer software programs and the use of GPS devices.

You could also seek professional certification in GIS through the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS). After working with GIS technology for 3 years, you can qualify to take the written examination. Upon successfully passing the test, you are considered a Certified GIS Technologist, proving your capabilities to possible employers.

Alternative Career Paths

Surveyor

Surveyors collect data by taking field measurements, and they are vital to the fields of cartography and construction. Unlike most cartographers, surveyors typically work outdoors and engage in physically strenuous work that involves carrying heavy equipment, walking, and standing for extended periods of time. In recent years, surveying techniques have become more complex and dependent on the specialized use of technology, such as Global Positioning System (GPS) devices.

Surveyors typically hold bachelor's degrees in surveying, but they may qualify for certain jobs by earning certificates or associate's degrees in surveying technology through community colleges, vocational schools and technical institutes. High school graduates may qualify to become apprentices, but additional training may be necessary before obtaining a surveying license; many locations require a bachelor's degree for licensure. Unlike cartographers, licensure is a standard requirement among surveyors.

According to the BLS, in May 2010, the median annual wage of surveyors was $54,880, which is roughly the same as cartographers. Employment of surveyors was expected to increase by 15 percent, a bit slower than cartographers.

Mapping Technician

Mapping technicians help surveyors and cartographers by collecting field data, assisting in computer-aided drafting, and making various calculations. Job duties may include verifying the accuracy of maps and map data, compiling databases, assessing aerial photographs, and taking measurements. Employment positions for mapping technicians typically have fewer educational prerequisites and expectations than surveyors and cartographers. Many mapping technicians do not hold degrees, although some have associate's or bachelor's degrees.

The BLS reported that the median annual wage of surveying and mapping technicians was $37,900 in May 2010, which is substantially less than the median annual wages of surveyors and cartographers. Employment was expected to rise by about 20 percent between 2008 and 2018.

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