How to Become a Cartographer or Geographer with the CIA

Geography, according to the Association of American Geographers, combines the social and natural sciences to better understand our complex world. While physical geographers study patterns of climate, water, and landforms, among others, human geography studies the spatial and geo-locations of different kinds of people. Within geography is the subfield of cartography, which involves designing paper or digital maps.

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The Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) Directorate of Intelligence (DI) employs both geographers and cartographers to produce maps that contribute to the Agency’s complex intelligence analysis and is used by the President of the United States and other senior policymakers.

CIA cartographers research, design, and produce both reference and thematic maps to aid in the Agency’s intelligence efforts. These maps are often used in presentations, publications and interactive products. It is common to find cartographers working on regional accounts in such areas as Europe, the Middle East, Africa, the Western Hemisphere, and Eurasia.

Cartographers often work as part of a cartographic or interdisciplinary team that may produce any number of mapping projects at any given time. Their work involves understanding and defining specific project requirements as to produce a unique and relevant visual presentation. In order to fully understand the region for which they are producing maps, cartographers must have a significant amount of regional expertise.

How to Become a CIA Cartographer or Geographer

Cartographers – The CIA requires all candidates for CIA cartographer jobs to possess a bachelor’s or master’s degree (with a minimum GPA of 3.0) in geospatial information systems, cartography, geography, or a related discipline, provided it has an emphasis in thematic cartography.

Further, all candidates must possess a portfolio that includes at least 5 cartographic products. Individuals for cartographic jobs with the CIA must possess knowledge in:

  • Map projections
  • Typography
  • Data generation
  • Topographic mapping
  • Reference mapping
  • Cartographic design principles
  • Color and symbology theory
  • Thematic and statistical mapping
  • Display hierarchies
  • GIS principles, which include:
    • Data types
    • Data layers
    • Analytic functions
    • Geographic coordinate systems
    • Data formatting
    • Geographic functions
    • Statistical functions
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Candidates must also have in-depth knowledge of the newest software and hardware platforms used in cartographic and graphic production, such as:

  • ESRI ArcView GIS
  • Avenza MAPublisher
  • Microsoft Office
  • Adobe software, including InDesign, Photoshop, Flash, Acrobat, and Illustrator
  • Intergraph GeoMedia Pro

All applicants must be U.S. citizens, and they must successfully pass a medical examination, a psychological examination, a background investigation, and a polygraph examination to be considered for a career as a CIA cartographer.

Geographers – Individuals who want to become OSC geographers must possess a bachelor’s degree in geography or a closely related discipline. Ideal candidates possess foreign language fluency, a strong background in geographic information systems, cartography, or an allied science, and a willingness to travel both domestically and abroad.

Candidates must be United States citizens, and they must complete a background investigation, a polygraph examination, a medical examination, and a psychological evaluation to be considered for CIA geographer jobs.

Open Source Center Geographers – Geographers may also work for the CIA’s Open Source Center (OSC). These CIA professionals are called upon for their expertise in foreign mapping, geospatial technologies, and geographic information.

Their combined skills in geography and GIA, cartography, remote sensing, imagery analysis, urban planning, etc. allows them to review and assess all sources of geographic information in any number of formats.

OSC geographers provide geographic services, such as information, maps, and data, which are used for CIA intelligence analysis purposes.

CIA Cartographers: Interactive Multimedia Emphasis – In addition to traditional cartographers, the CIA often utilizes cartographers with interactive multimedia expertise. These cartography professionals produce thematic maps that are designed for both web and mobile environments. As such, cartographers with multimedia expertise must have expertise in programming languages such as Java, C++, Visual Basic, C#, and PHP. Cartographers in this area are responsible for all aspects of map production, including design and programming interactivity.

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