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Schooling Help needed

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Hey all,

I am now coming to the end of an undergraduate History (Minor in Physics) degree. I have had a long relationship, both academically and personally, with maps. I am now weighing in on a career in cartography. I am fairly excited about what i have read, it sounds like a fascinating field. I just have some questions for people that have been in the business a while. Keep in mind that, though i'm getting an arts degree, I do not consider myself technologically incompetent. I have quite a bit of experience in digital photography, and practical experience with the Physics end of my degree. I am, however, no programmer. Here are some of my questions:

Which field of GIS/Cartography involves the most field work? Or is this more decided by the employee themselves by choosing to follow the freelance option, or the private sector option, or the public servant option? I have a healthy love of computers and technical digital design work, but i don't wish to spend the entirety of my time on a computer.

Is this a career path that involves travel? Ive been reading quite a bit about problems finding work, and possible relocation as an option. If one does find work, does it usually mainly involve work within the immediate vicinity of the base?

To second the last one, were relocation an option, how universal is a GIS/Cartography diploma from a technical school (COGS)?

Lastly, is there room for aerial photography in modern Cartography/GIS? This would be my optimum area of interest, given my background in digital photography, and hands off experience with remote sensing methodology.

Oh, and Ive read fairly extensively that GIS is essential in this sector, that Cartography is a bit of a dying art. Is there a way for me to work in the GIS field and have training in it, but not to be involved in programming, more involved in actually making maps?

Thanks for your time,
F. F.




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You've asked a lot of good questions. The lack of responses I think is more a response to the overal breadth of the field. We are all coming from a lot of places, GIS, Remote Sensing, Geography, Geology, Graphic Arts, communications, ecology, architecture, engineering and more.

So it's really hard to answer the questions. Here's my take from my background.

I'm a GIS/Remote Sensing guy with a technical leaning (i.e. I'm they guy who liked to take electronics apart and see how they worked). I came to GIS via Anthropology all the while loving maps. I've worked with field ecologists who love being in the field but get enticed to GIS "for the money" or the stability (I'm not sure the money is there for most but compared to ecology wages, maybe so). GIS is, for the most part, a computer jockey role (although I'm sure many find ways to get themselves in the field), remote sensing can get you into the field for ground truthing if you're working on those issues, surveying can get you in the field all the time but seldom making the actual map. So there are a lot of answers.

Cartography today, like most everything else, is digital. You've got to understand the projection issues as well as the data limitations and other issues that come across with GIS as that's source of the base data. All that said, that doesn't mean you need to be a programmer, you just have to understand data and the limitations and capabilities of what you are making. A good graphics eye makes a huge difference. There are a lot of GIS people out there who are not good at cartography work and plenty of graphic designers that aren't either.

I'm not sure this helps but if you'd like to chat it out further, please don't hesitate to send me an email.

Dorn Moore, GISP
Green Space GIS



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Like D said, you've asked a lot of good questions. I certainly can't answer them all, but like D, I'll try to get at some of them by giving you some of my background.

I came into cartography after getting a Bachelor's in Fine Art, spending a few years not doing art, then getting a Masters in Geography. While my thesis was on fluvial geomorphology, I spent as much time as I could on the cartographic side of things. Which these days means on the computer. After an internship with the USGS helping some scientists map their data (GIS to manage the data, graphics programs to make the maps look good) I moved to the Census Bureau, where I help make the maps used to collect and publish Census information. Since we need to make millions of maps over short periods of time we have developed our own cartographic software. To do that we have used a mix of programmers who learn some about cartography, but mostly cartographers who learn something about programming. Of course, our experience is rather different than most cartographers out there, who don't make quite so many maps all in one go; nor do most cartographers write their own software. If you want to spend some significant time in the field, you'll probably need to get into a small firm, or start your own. The larger the business, the more specialized the jobs tend to be.

Good luck!
Andy McIntire
US Census Bureau



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Hello, have you ever considered surveying? While it is not cartography per se, it would allow you to get out in the field, there is plenty of work so relocation would be minimized, and your physics/math experience may come in handy.

Concerning cartography as a dying art...I firmly believe that quality cartography is not a dying art, but just becoming rarer. The advancement and automation of GIS technology has allowed people not trained or experienced in cartography to make "maps" which cartographically may not be up to par, but for the layperson, they are "good enough". And on the other side of the spectrum, with the advent of graphic design technology/popularity, there are graphic design artists who make "maps" that have cartographic issues as well.

Finding people that can strike a balance between the science and artistry of making maps is what is making quality cartography a rare pursuit indeed (in my opinion).

Good luck,

Michael Scisco

Albuquerque, NM


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