Career Choices

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Author – Sally Cooney, Production Director at PCGraphics (UK) Limited

Some Thoughts about Career Choices
(or  How I Became a Cartographer)

It was back in 1995 and I can remember sitting in the Careers Office of Southampton University in the January of my final year. They say that any student who reads Geography at University doesn’t know what career they what to go into, and they were right!

I’d had a great time at Southampton, including an expedition to the Arctic for a month (you can read more on that topic here), but I was looking for a career. I knew that I’d always loved geography, maps and drawing and set about trying to find something which combined all three. I had a flash of inspiration when I thought about the Cartographic Services within the University Geography Department, maybe I could make a career out of that?

I was accepted on an accelerated Masters course at Glasgow University which would “convert” me in to a Cartographer. As this was my second degree, I had to fund myself with a Career Development Loan (£6000 at that time) to pay for course fees and living for 12 months. Believe me, there’s nothing like paying for the course yourself to concentrate your mind! I had to be pretty sure that I’d get a job at the end of it all. To be honest, I didn’t enjoy much of my time in Glasgow, for me the spirit of being a student didn’t really apply as a postgraduate.


Just before I finished my course in Sept 1996 I was offered my first job at ESR, a cartographic company in Byfleet, Surrey, as a Junior Technician. I was amazed that I could be paid for something I loved doing. It hardly seemed like work!

As a junior, the pay wasn’t great but I was making some headway in paying off my Career Development Loan. I spent most of that year drawing town plan maps for Thomson Directories, 400+ of them all over the country! I loved it, and the in-depth knowledge of that project would become very useful to us in the years that followed.

In October 1997, ESR was falling apart and a select few were invited from ESR to join Lovell Johns in Oxfordshire. This was a big step for me with a steep learning curve, but I advanced from a junior technician to be running some significant projects.

In September 1998 an opportunity became available to be more than just an employee. At 25, and with only 2 years cartographic experience, Paul, who had been my manager at both ESR and Lovell Johns, asked whether I wanted to be involved with his newly setup company, PCGraphics. I didn’t take long to decide. I wasn’t especially happy living away from home all week at Lovell Johns and this meant that I could move back to Surrey permanently where I’d bought a house in 1996.

Being a Director took some getting used to, especially in the early days of the company, but now we’re master of our own destiny, as they say, and life is a bit easier.

Cartography has been a great career for me but whether it’s so easy to get into these days is open to question. One of the previous articles on this blog talked about the demise of many of the larger cartographic companies over the past 15 years or so and, while there are still a number of mapping companies around, very few of them are the size they used to be, which does cut down the number of opportunities. But, if you’ve got a degree in Geography and, like me, don’t quite know what to do with it, then cartography is probably still worth considering.


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Arctic Adventure

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Author – Sally Cooney, Production Director, PCGraphics (UK) Limited

Arctic Adventure

In the summer of 1994, I spent four weeks on a glacial research expedition to Spitsbergen, the largest island in the archipelago of Svalbard, situated in the Arctic Ocean some 400 miles from the North Pole. It was part of my Geography degree and became the topic of my dissertation.


There were only six of us to go – two lecturers, two postgraduates and two little undergraduates (of which I was one). It was a character building and life changing experience for me. We had to fundraise to pay for our travel and I recall doing a carwash in Safeway’s carpark and roping in all my University friends to help. I had to raise £1000 to fund the trip.

We flew to Oslo, on to Tromso and then on to Longyearbyen in Spitsbergen. I was 20 years old and it was the first time I’d been on an aeroplane. To get to the research site, we had to travel on a very small boat for 12 hours. Some of this journey was on the Arctic Ocean where the waves were as big as the boat. I get seasick at the best of times and I was not at all well on this voyage!

We camped just near Van Kuelenfjorden, hundreds of miles from any civilization. The weather was about zero degrees but that’s not so bad when you’re wearing four or more layers of clothing. Being so close to the North Pole, I was expecting more ice and snow, but it was the summer, so much of the terrain was gravel. However, this also meant we had daylight for twenty four hours a day. You can get used to this though if you’re tired enough.


Our biggest worry was the threat of polar bears in the area. We did take rifles as a contingency measure and made a “bear alarm” trip wire round our camp to wake us at night if one of these enormous beasts should fancy a midnight snack on a sleeping researcher.

I don’t think I realised at the time the danger of what we were doing. I’m not even sure the rifles we were given were working properly. When I heard about this poor chap in August 2011 it brought it home to me just how at risk we were.



The following is taken from an article in the Holme Valley Express and Chronicle dated January 13, 1995.


An Ice Way to Spend Summer

The “geography field trip” conjures up pictures of rooting around on the moors, dabbling about in a riverbed or gawping at soil sections.

But for a student from Burnlee it meant a near 2000 mile journey to a godforsaken spot in the Arctic Circle, just 400 miles from the North Pole.

Sally Hill, a third year geography student at Southampton University, spent a few weeks last Summer in the freezing wastes of Spitsbergen, a group of Norwegian islands which in the summer months bask in 24 hours of daylight.

Well maybe “bask” is not quite the right word.

Cloud and rain were rarely far away and the midsummer temperatures struggled to get very much above zero while Sally and the rest of the small party studied the island’s glaciers and glacial sediments. Wind chill often brought the temperatures down to -10 degrees.

All this, in Sally’s case, for the sake of gathering the information for her 10,000 word dissertation.

The first leg of their journey took them from Heathrow Airport to the Norwegian Capital Oslo. From there they flew on via Tromso in the far north of the country to the island group itself, deep in the Arctic.

What lay before them from there, said Sally, was a gruelling 12 hours in a small boat which took the by now desperately seasick group to the barren shoreline that would be their home for the next several weeks.

They lived in small tents, their only lifeline to the outside world via a Cambridge University group living in fur trapper’s huts elsewhere on the archipelago who were in radio contact with the nearest settlement.

The islands are so inhospitable that year-round habitation is impossible. Spitsbergen’s population of seal hunters, whalers and, of all things, coal miners leaving as winter closes in, in what for us would be early autumn.

Life for the students and the expedition experienced lecturers was pretty basic in their temporary tent village.

Day-to-day tasks like cooking, washing up, fuel gathering and the dreaded water collecting were rotated between the members of the group. Heat came from driftwood fires.

And daytime studies were a far cry from the warm university library where most of the students polish off their dissertations in centrally heated comfort.

A normal day would see the group out on the surface of the glacier or scrambling about in the shifting sediments on its leading edge.

There were icy rivers to be crossed, where one slip could end in disaster, and ice bridges to be crossed whose strength was unpredictable.

Food was rationed…and perhaps that was just as well.

Sally, who received cash from the Holme Valley Parish Council and who recently gave a slide presentation on the trip to a full council meeting, highlighted one particular element which had stomachs churning.

A type of Norwegian cheese was one of the staples – “a bit like fudge that has gone off a bit,” Sally told the councillors who helped her out at the start of this year with a £100 grant towards the trip.

But the cheese, gruesome as it might have been, was the least of their worries. There were other far more serious perils lurking along the shoreline…in the shape of polar bears.

Bears had been see roaming in the area just a few weeks before the students’ arrival – and the risk of attack had been spelt out. The group had been issued with old Spanish rifles and dum dum bullets to be used as a last resort.

A shot could only be fired if life was threatened – shooting a polar bear going about its normal business can carry a fine of up to £1000 under Norwegian law. But, said Sally, members had been told they should start worrying if a bear began to “advance towards them at a rapid trot.”

In the event, an easy stroll was quite beyond the capabilities of the only bear seen on the entire journey, never mind a brisk trot.

The bear in question was stuffed and put on display in a large glass case in one of the Norwegian airports they passed through on the way home!

expedition_2 expedition_1

Thanks to the hard work put in on the trip to Spitsbergen, I came away from Southampton University with a 2:1 Second class honours Degree in geography, which led me into cartography and, eventually, running our own company.


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