Spatial Career Guide – How to Become a Geospatial Analyst

March 31, 2012 at 7:51 am  •  Posted in Education, Geography by  •  19 Comments

In my last post I proposed 5 skills to develop during college that should help you become a successful GIS Software Developer as part of my series of blog posts on Spatial Careers.  In this post I’m writing about the Geospatial Analyst career track.  This one is more challenging because the path isn’t well defined.

The job title Geospatial Analyst means almost nothing unless you know what industry, government agency or sector of the economy you’ll be working in.  There are several sub-sectors here and you almost have to choose one to target before you start outlining the courses you plan to take in college or the extra study you might pursue during your spare time.  Here are a few categories of employer types and industry types:

  • Military – Geospatial Intelligence Agency, CIA, other DoD
  • Environmental – EPA, Nature Conservancy, other non-profits, environmental consulting firms
  • Retail/Commercial Real Estate – Large retailers, consulting firms, technology firms developing relevant applications for real estate decisions and real estate professionals
  • Municipal/County/State Government Agencies – Maintaining a GIS back-office for local government agencies to assist with tax collection, utilities, etc.
  • Urban Planning – Similar to local government but focused on planning and design.
  • Geohealth – CDC, NIH, hospitals,  public health agencies.
  • Other commercial/business uses.
  • Other government agencies, e.g., Census

You can’t really prepare for all of these simultaneously.  For example, if you work in the environmental sector you better know how to handle raster data and remote sensing imagery with software like ERDAS Imagine, maybe ENVI, and a few others.  But, you’ll never touch any of that stuff in Retail/Commercial where you probably want to know some economic geography along with some spatial analysis, statistics, cartography and GIS (actually MapInfo Pro is more common in this sector than ArcGIS and a new software offering called Alteryx is now a big deal).  If you work for the Geospatial Intelligence Agency they will teach you all the tools you need to know.  I don’t know if this is still true but for some time their geospatial analysis applications all worked with an obscure data format called VPF.  Anyway, hopefully you get the idea. Each sector has its own skill set.

So if you know you want to be a geospatial analyst but you don’t know what area of application most interests you I guess I would recommend that you start trying to find out.  Contact people in various fields and ask them questions about how they spend their time.  Do something that you’ll find fun and interesting on a day-to-day basis rather than worrying about which sector pays the best.  Everything changes too fast for you to accurately forecast the future of a professional niche but you can predict how you’ll like various tasks, topics and application areas with some degree of certainty if you know yourself.  And, if you’re doing something you enjoy you’ll be more successful.

If you just don’t know and want to be prepared for anything I would suggest the following:

Take a combination of Human and Physical Geography.  Not just the intro level classes.  On the Human side, take political, urban, economic and cultural geography course offerings.  Don’t just go through the motions, read some of the big thinkers.  Take a look at Yi Fu Tuan’s work on perceptions of place/space.  See what Sack has to say about territoriality.  Read Carl Sauer’s work on cultural landscapes.  Study Christaller’s theory of central place.  Think about these ideas and how they apply to modern problems.  On the Physical side, take classes in climatology, biogeography and geomorphology.  Pick up recent copies of the Annals of the Association of American Geographers (they will be in the library, on every faculty bookshelf and probably strewn about the department office) and browse through some of the articles on environmental issues.  Take an individual study course with a professor you like and dig into a topic – maybe offer to do some research for a paper that they want to publish.  Don’t get hung up on the particulars – just be sure you’re somewhat fluent in both Human and Physical geography so you know what you’re looking at when you start staring at maps 8 hours a day.

Take the standard set of Cartography and GIS courses but don’t worry about depth of knowledge with any one technology unless it’s within the context of a cool project where you’re also thinking about a real problem.  Don’t forget to take cartography classes as well.  GIS is not the same as cartography.  You should understand how to design information graphics.  Read Tufte’s work on data visualization(but don’t worship him) and develop an eye for what makes an effective graphic.

Learn something about remote sensing and other major sources of geographic data – again, ideally within the context of a project.  Don’t spend months stitching together images for a cornfield in Iowa unless you have a project (and preferably a paycheck) to justify the time.  Instead, just get some ideas about remotely sensed imagery and how it can be used to solve problems.  Figure out how the images are processed into analyzable data.  Think about the different resolutions of data available and what scales are appropriate for different types of problems.  Learn about other data sources as well.  NOAA and the NCDC have good stuff.  Census has data coming out their ears – know the difference between a block group a census tract and a CBSA.  Same with NIH, National Cancer Institute, CDC, etc.  Poke around.

Also, read what I wrote about problem solving, writing/communication and teamwork (bullets 2, 3 and 4) in the GIS Software Developer post.

That’s about it.  When you look to join the workforce be sure that you angle for jobs where you’ll be doing *analysis* rather than data management.  Some GIS technician jobs may be titled GIS Analyst or Geospatial Analyst.  But if you’re just digitizing or editing .shp files you are definitely not analyzing anything and your GIS software user skills will decline in value.  If you get a job as an analyst where you are responsible for analyzing a variety of data sources and making strategic recommendations you’ll have a bright future.

If this all sounds a bit too amorphous then becoming a Geospatial Analyst may not be for you.  Part of being an analyst is taking a big pile of seemingly unrelated data elements and synthesizing them into something that can guide a decision framework.  If you’re not comfortable with this you might prefer a career as a GIS Software Developer or one of the other spatial paths.



  1. Pingback: Spatial Career Guide for Undergrads Currently Studying GIS – Curriculum Suggestions for 6 Geospatial Career Paths | Geographical Perspectives

  2. Lwanga Charles / April 1, 2012 at 4:29 am / Reply

    Thanks Justin
    this is very rewarding.I enjoyed rewarding it and I hope to take up some of the issues you have mentioned as far as becoming a Geospatial analyst is concerned .

    • Justin / April 1, 2012 at 6:44 am / Reply

      Glad you enjoyed the post!

  3. Pingback: Spatial Career Guide – Cartography and Visualization Specialist | Geographical Perspectives

  4. Eva / April 4, 2012 at 3:35 pm / Reply

    “GIS is not the same as cartography.” SO important for my students to hear this from another source. I’m constantly harping on people to take cartography classes while they have the opportunity. I see so many bad maps in my professional (non-teaching) work, and I just can’t bear for students to walk out the door, so to speak, without getting this critical part of their education.

  5. frank / April 4, 2012 at 6:04 pm / Reply

    Hi Justin. I love this. Thanks for the insight. Its really helpful. I also have a dream of becoming a GIS analyst as well.
    Thanks and stay blessed

  6. julie kanzler / April 6, 2012 at 6:42 am / Reply

    Hi Justin, I have been doing GIS for 15+ years, and would like to say that this post is very good advice. However, I feel you’re missing one thing. It’s so important for GIS professionals to get a grounding in programming concepts as part of their educations, regardless of the field and the position. GIS is very hours-intensive (i.e., costly) without some degree of automation, so I consider scripting and model building part of the core capabilities of the GIS professional (not just the GIS developer). I am all for mentoring and teaching inexperienced professionals how to use models, scripts, and programming to automate and build tools, but it’s really difficult when they don’t understand the concepts of variables, loops, and conditional statements. I think a basic scripting class would be sufficient, and a formal logic class wouldn’t hurt.

    • Justin / April 6, 2012 at 12:48 pm / Reply

      Julie – thank you for pointing this out! I refer to some suggestions in my similar post on pursuing a GIS Software Developer position but I failed to mention programming. For the aspiring geospatial analyst I agree that the ability to automate tasks is extremely valuable. I would recommend taking a course at a community college or buying a book and doing some self-study. If you prefer to take computer science at a University you will need to wade through more theory than you need but, depending on the instructor, this can be a good way to go as well. Thanks again for this comment!

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  8. Buy Direct / July 21, 2012 at 7:15 am / Reply

    Hello there, You’ve done an incredible job. I will certainly digg it and for my part suggest to my friends. I’m confident they’ll be benefited from this website.

    • Justin / July 23, 2012 at 10:00 am / Reply

      Thanks for the feedback!

  9. randydutton / October 20, 2012 at 7:53 pm / Reply

    My twin sons are at Lackland AFB studying Geospatial Analysis. They can’t tell me specifics but how relevant is their coursework to non-DoD fields?

    • Justin / October 21, 2012 at 7:25 pm / Reply

      Hi Randy, I don’t really know anything about what type of training they are receiving but I would think their coursework and military experience would be quite relevant. Regardless of what technologies they are being exposed to they are definitely learning to think spatially, to problem solve with maps and to consider a geographical perspective. To break into a non-military geospatial career may require additional training and perhaps a ramp up on different technologies but I suspect they’ll be relatively well situated. Hope that helps! Let me know if I can answer anything more specific. Best, Justin

  10. Tesfaye Ayele Yimam / September 9, 2013 at 8:08 am / Reply

    Hello, Justin!
    Thank you for your valuable professional comment. Could you, please, share us exemplary Geo-spatial analysis made, particularly on Urban and Environmental sectors?

    • Justin / September 9, 2013 at 2:17 pm / Reply

      Thanks for your comment. Could you be a bit more specific as to what you’re looking for? There are hundreds or thousands of possible studies. Thanks, J.

  11. Jeanette Harlow / December 5, 2013 at 12:36 pm / Reply

    Very helpful! So hard to pin down my initial interest in Geology with my new education in Geospatial Analysis as to what to do and where to seek employment. Thank you for sharing.

    • Justin / December 5, 2013 at 12:37 pm / Reply

      Hi Jeanette – glad to hear you found the post helpful! Best wishes, Justin

  12. Michael / February 14, 2014 at 1:11 am / Reply


    First, thanks so much for writing these blog posts–very helpful to students considering this field.

    My question:

    I already have an arts degree (not related to GIS), and am interested in changing directions and becoming a Geospatial Analyst. I have two options: (1) do a second degree in Human Geography (this would actually only take me 3 semesters, which can be done in 1 year thanks to my university’s trimester system) and then a 1 year diploma in GIS; or (2) do a Bachelor of Science degree in GIS. This second option would take about two years, and the program I am considering is quite weighted towards computer science (half of the courses are in computer science and math).

    Am I interested in programming? Not so much, but I hear that it is an asset for GIS. I’m much more interested in the mapping and analysis side of things.

    Given my circumstances, which of these two-year paths sounds wiser to you?


    • Justin / February 14, 2014 at 11:00 am / Reply

      Hi Michael, thanks for your kind words. Is your “arts degree” a Bachelor’s degree or an Associate’s degree? If you already have a Bachelor’s degree, I would encourage you to pursue a graduate degree. Either option you present here will require 2 years; a Master’s degree would require about the same time commitment but I think you’d walk away with better training and superior credentials. That said, perhaps there are good reasons to only consider these two options. I don’t think I can really help you choose without knowing more about both programs. If the GIS diploma is just a curriculum geared toward learning ArcGIS and other ESRI software I wouldn’t recommend that path. But maybe it’s more than that. If the BS in GIS degree offers lots of math and computer science that might be great but if the math/cs curriculum is too theoretical it may not be sufficiently beneficial. In any case, could you provide some additional context and information about the 2 programs so I might be as helpful as possible? Thanks, Justin

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