Spatial Career Guide

27 Suggestions for Pursuing Different GIS Career Paths
March 28, 2012 at 7:27 am  •  Posted in Education, Featured, Geography by  •  27 Comments

In a recent post I argued that Spatial is Indeed Special but that GIS software skills will soon be obsolete.  Recent graduates trying to establish “GIS careers” (perhaps we should start calling them Geospatial Careers?) have begun complaining because the opportunities they were promised haven’t materialized.  I recently tried to provide some guidance for those attempting to launch a GIS career.  But, if you are a current undergraduate studying GIS within a geography department what should you do to prepare for one of these spatial careers?  Should you continue taking ArcGIS classes or should you spend more time on other skills?

As I was thinking about this blog post I thought perhaps I should call on the AAG and Geography Departments to create a more unified and consistent curriculum across the discipline.  This would serve to improve the standing of geography in the private sector (because employers would have a better idea what to expect from geography grads) and grads would have better opportunities.  But then I realized that the divisions within geography are too wide and the wheels of academia too slow moving for any sort of useful compromise and near-term change.  I also realized that no one in academics is likely to listen to what I have to say, perhaps for good reason.  Instead, I’m better off focusing on communicating directly with current undergrads who can take control of their own education and career.  This may require creating your own curriculum and going outside your home department so you’ll have to be a bit entrepreneurial but you’ll need that in your career either way.

So, in a series of blog posts to follow I will make suggestions to undergrads who are interested in one of the spatial career paths that I mentioned in the Spatial is Indeed Special post and a few others.

Here are the 4 different paths that I mentioned and I’m adding two more: spatial statistician and geospatial database administrator.

  1. GIS software developer
  2. geospatial analyst
  3. cartography/visualization specialist
  4. geographic information scientist
  5. geospatial database administrator
  6. spatial statistician

I will cover each of these 6 career paths and how to prepare while you’re still in college in a series of posts to follow over the next week or so.  I understand some of these career trajectories better than others so I welcome input on any or all of these.  Also, please let me know if another career path should be added to this list (or if you feel like 2 or more should be consolidated).

Stay tuned for more!


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  3. Michael Scott / March 29, 2012 at 9:29 pm / Reply

    Hi Justin,

    This should be a fun set of posts! Four thoughts:

    1) Work is underway on a core curriculum for 2-year post-secondary schools at the GeoTech Center
    2) You mention the divisions in (academic) geography being too wide and the wheels turning too slow. This is true, but for good reason. Major institutions like Universities shouldn’t be blowing in the wind…they should be a lot like turning a battleship – slow and deliberate. Having said that, I would suggest that getting agreement from geospatial professionals in business about what is critical and what is not from a degree program is just as difficult.
    3) A university education should not be focused on job training. As a student, if you are spending your time in college focused on what job you want when you’re done, you’re doing it wrong. Having said that, I firmly believe that Universities do a disservice to their students if they ignore market and technology trends in curriculum and methods. But it’s a fine line that must be re-examined all the time.
    4) One more career track – GIS Manager

    Thanks for putting the post together and I look forward to reading the responses and the follow-ups.

    • Justin / March 30, 2012 at 3:23 pm / Reply

      Thanks, Michael! Hope you saw the first one on GIS Software Developer:

      (1) I saw David DiBiase’s piece on the GTCM yesterday. Interesting. I may do a separate post on the topic.
      (2) I agree to a point. Shouldn’t blow in the wind, shouldn’t stay the same for 200+ years. Battleship is the right pace but I would argue that most Universities move significantly slower.
      (3) I agree that there should be a balance between using college as an opportunity to prepare for a career and to acquire knowledge that may not lead to a career. The problem is that Universities promise to prepare you for high-paying careers but don’t actually follow through, as you mentioned. This is dishonest.
      (4) GIS Manager is an interesting suggestion – I think for GIS Manager you still need to identify what spatial path you want to pursue. But, I’ll spend some more time thinking about it.

      Thanks again! Hope to hear more comments from you along the way.

      Best, Justin

      • oane / April 1, 2012 at 1:25 pm / Reply

        is there way in a research level to for a person with a Dbms background to merge with Geo spatial ( i am new in geo spatial ) ????

        • Justin / April 1, 2012 at 3:24 pm / Reply

          I would say that, yes, in general someone with a database background can find a place in the geospatial world. Can you provide a bit more info on your background and where in particular you might want to go within geospatial? Thanks, Justin.

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  5. Ravi Dhungel / April 1, 2012 at 10:35 am / Reply

    This is really interesting post for me. Thanks Justin for your insights and Michael for your constructive criticism. I would like to add few more abstractions I have been analyzing since i start my graduate study last year. Its all about this technology and how instructional paradigm, and industries are thriving to achieve the common goals but in vagueness and disparities.
    First all let me illustrate my findings.
    1. GIScience is predominantly taught in the academic environment as a course in Geography after the inception of the word by Dr. Goodchild in 90’s. Although GIScience itself is growing and geospatial technologies promotes these technologies to solve multidisciplinary problems, GI Science is still evolving and developing. Most european countries and very few American schools use the word geo-informatics that addresses the problem domain far better than most universities.
    2. As Justin said, Geography is vague..seamlessly vague, typically they teach GI Science courses like Remote Sensing,GIS,Cartography,Visualization etc, Water resources courses like Hydrology,Policy etc., Climatology courses, Organic Food, Human Geography, Natural Hazards,Sustainable Development etc. ..that makes the Geography and its inherently interdisciplinary. This is the strength and weakness for GI Science. Everything occurs in Geography.
    3.The students who are in Geography department and who likes to take courses in GIS have two different objectives, one who just needs an application of GIS technology for the spatial analysis of their problem domain; literally every academic department enjoys the spatial analysis and geostatistics and others who loves to explores advances of GI science and are looking forward to be Geo-spatial professionals.
    4.Although the Applied Geography and Spatial Analysis have been in the academia since early 50’s, there has not been substantial development in this academic discipline because most geographers have little computing knowledge. With the advent of computing and availability of computer resources, Geographers are in the dilemma of opportunities and challenges that existed in the edges of swords.
    5. Interestingly , Spatial data is considered as one of the largest data sets that needs thorough understanding of high power computing knowledge and analysis. Geographic problems are computationally intensive. This emphasize the geographers to cross the boundaries and move towards the computation.
    6. Undergrad and grad students in geography realize the bottleneck of the technologies they are pursuing in the department when they are about to graduate, most jobs expects the students to have programming knowledge. Although , they are using one of the most sophisticated software like ArcDesktop or ERDAS IMAGINE but they lack the basic programming ,design and database skills.
    7.Although ESRI and ERDAS products are defacto standards in the teaching paradigm at US universities in Geography department, with the rapid deployment of the new versions of these software, instructors and students are finding difficult to cope with challenges underlying with the advances in the computer science and industries.
    8.Interestingly, although the employers knows that they cant get the peoples with both of these backgrounds (GI Science and Computer Science), I doubt how these vacancies are filled up!! and not surprisingly if anyone has both of these skills, he would love to go for generic IT service providers rather that geospatial industry. Even ,if we see the hiring salary, IT easily surpasses geospatial industry.

    Now with the change in computing paradigm and development in Geo-spatial industries, I think we need to add following career Tracks.
    ofcourse GIS Manager
    GIS co-ordinater
    Geovisualization and Analytics
    GIS Planner
    GIS cloud Engineer
    GIS System Administrator

    Well, with the changes in the computing paradigm in the recent years, its very likely that the geospatial industry will move towards cloud computing environment. if that’s the case, what would be the impact ? Hopefully the funda’s and conceptual aspect of GI science will remain unchanged.

    And lastly, no-matter how things are moving in academic, Geo-spatial industry would continue to grown in the coming years with the advent of location based services, GPS , and satellite imageries, the prospects of GI professions looks better than ever.

    However, being a graduate student double majoring in GI science and Computer Science, I can peep problems through both of my eyes yet i feel like programming would not only be the basic tools for GI science people but for every academic discipline and obviously, the Geography department should be focusing more on computational courses and students should take the courses in computer science departments.

    • Justin / April 1, 2012 at 3:22 pm / Reply

      Ravi – thank you for taking time to share your thoughts. You raise a lot of interesting issues and I can’t address them all here. I would agree with one point – programming has become a prerequisite skill and all serious GIS folks should acquire at least a basic understanding.
      Thanks again! -Justin

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  12. Gerry James / September 9, 2012 at 6:58 pm / Reply

    I think this set of posts has promise to be very interesting and useful. I would like to provide one other thought regarding potential career paths in geo-spatial. Geo-spatial consulting is a very important career path with the ever changing use of technology in this field. Not to mention the willingness to use geo-spatial technologies in sectors that previously wouldn’t have considered this approach. Granted consulting is typically a path taken after some experience is attained, however, it is good for those considering a career in geo-spatial to be aware of this potential path.

    Anyway, just my 2 cents. I look forward to reading the upcoming posts.

    • Justin / September 10, 2012 at 10:50 am / Reply

      Hi Gerry – thanks for the comment. I agree that it’s good for young people to be aware of opportunities in consulting. I don’t think a separate blog post is warranted though in that the first step, as you acknowledge, would most likely be to develop expertise within one of these six paths. Thanks again! Best, Justin

      • innocent charles / February 23, 2015 at 3:58 pm / Reply

        hello am very intereristng to this course of gis I wish to get scholarship for master am from Africa tanzania

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