Spatial Career Guide – Geographic Information Scientist

April 10, 2012 at 4:11 pm  •  Posted in Education, Geography by  •  1 Comment

This is my fourth post in the Spatial Career series.  In previous posts I’ve written about how to prepare for a career as a GIS Software Developer, as a Geospatial Analyst, and as a Cartography/Visualization Specialist.   In this post I will describe how to prepare for a career as a Geographic Information Scientist.

The most important word in this job title is “Scientist”.  If you love GIS and maps and geography that doesn’t mean you will love being a scientist.  The most successful GIScience people are scientific researchers who happen to be interested in geographic data.  So, you should love the idea of doing science as much as or more so than gazing at maps and other representations of spatial data.  It also means you should be pretty good at math, an excellent technical writer and a voraciously curious investigator (so much so that you’re willing to spend hour after hour combing through volumes of scientific literature).  Beyond that, you have to be highly specialized in a particular thread of scientific inquiry.  You might be interested in computational methods or cognitive science.  Or, you might specialize in a particular physical science or social science discipline and focus your efforts on developing new spatial methods that will allow researchers in the discipline to pose and answer new questions.

As a scientist you are most likely to find a job in government or in academics.  You can find opportunities in the private sector, and the opportunities here may grow, but they are often tied to the same sources of grant funding or they involve collaboration with government/academic scientists and you’ll be judged by similar criteria as you advance within your organization.  In any case, unless you become an entrepreneur (which could be a great way to go if you have the right combination of skills – probably worthy of a separate blog post), you’ll be working on building a CV (rather than a resume) and you’ll want to publish as much as possible.

I think the best way to provide guidance for this path is to study a bit about current GIS-oriented scientists who are successful in the field.  Hopefully this will help illustrate some of the options available as well as some of the common threads.  So, I would encourage you to learn as much as possible about top GIS scientists.  Here are a few key players that come to mind for me along with links to their web pages.  This isn’t meant to be comprehensive or a ranking or anything (names are listed in alphabetical order).  This is simply meant to get you started.

For a more complete list of top GIScientists, take a look at the program committee for the upcoming GIScience 2012 conference. Find their CVs and read about what they studied, where they earned their PhDs, what positions they’ve held and what they’ve published.  This will paint a picture and provide a set of possible road maps.

After reading about some of these successful scientists, you might note that they fall into a few different categories.  You’ll want to learn about the different topics of interest within GIScience.  Here’s a quote from the website describing the vast array of topics:

“GIScience brings together leading researchers from all disciplines to reflect the wide spectrum of scientific research areas such as cognitive science, computer science, engineering, geography, information science, mathematics, philosophy, psychology, social science, environmental sciences, and statistics.”  

So what should you do as an undergrad to prepare for a career in Geographic Information Science?  Well, this may not go over well with some of my fellow geographers, but I would recommend majoring in something other than geography as an undergrad and then plan to study geography in graduate school.  So if you want to become a computational scientist focused on geoinformatics you should probably study computer science as an undergrad.  If you’re going to focus on quantitative methods you should consider a major in mathematics or statistics.  For cognitive science, perhaps you would want to major in psychology or neuroscience.  If you want to follow a path like Dawn Wright, study oceanography or another earth science so you can blend an understanding of that science with GIS-related methodologies.  And so on and so forth.  If there is a geography department on campus I would certainly take a few courses in geography.  Rather than recommend a particular subject I would try to find out who the best geography faculty are at your college/university and take whatever they are teaching.  You might take an intro class and then one or two higher level courses.  Or, if you’re ambitious, just ask the professor if you can register for an advanced course without the prerequisites.  In advance, simply purchase the intro level textbooks and read them.  Wow, what a concept – reading the material instead of listening to a set of lectures!  Should save both time and money.

If you’re going to be a scientist you should plan now to attend graduate school for at least a Master’s degree and probably a PhD.  For graduate school, you should choose first and foremost an advisor that does the kind of science you want to do.  If that advisor is housed in a department of geography, you’ll learn all the geography you need to know.  In fact, not having been taught geography as an undergrad may work to your advantage.  My advisor told me that he was happy that I didn’t need to “unlearn” some concepts that are frequently taught but confusing or misleading.  Furthermore, if you come to grad school with a degree in a different scientific discipline you’ll have a unique perspective that may provide an advantage when it comes time to select a research focus.  Often the most fertile ground for new discovery is found at the intersection of multiple fields.

I suppose that this post is a bit less concrete than previous career-related pieces I’ve written.  If you’re somewhat undecided about what to study as an undergrad but want to pursue this path and need something more specific, then here’s a recipe that should work for most:

1. Major in mathematics, computer science or physics.  These majors are available at almost all universities and will provide solid quantitative training and a good base to build from regardless of your career trajectory.  If you’re not interested in any of these subjects you may not be interested in a career in GIScience either.

2. Volunteer to help a professor with a research project or sign up for independent study and do your own project.  Ideally, the result would be a research paper.  If it’s really good, maybe submit to a journal for publication.  If you get published while an undergrad you’re a slam dunk for grad school admission.  The project doesn’t necessarily need to be a GIScience topic with a GIScience professor.  The idea is to see if you like doing research.  Same with #3 below.

3. Attend an academic/scientific conference.  Even if you don’t present work, this is a good idea because it will expose you to an important part of academic life (and the “unique” social behavior of academic types).  Better yet, take your research from step #2 above and present your work.  Learning how to do a presentation will end up being more valuable than any single class you’ll take in college.  And, don’t worry about not being an expert.  Just talk about what you know and make your presentation easy to understand.  I’ve seen a lot of presentations by people who are clearly intelligent but can’t manage to make their findings coherent or comprehensible.  I’ve also seen a few presentations that were a disaster in all possible ways.  No one humiliates these presenters and no one will humiliate you either.  Gain experience early in this important arena.

4.  Talk to Assistant Professors about what it’s like to become a scientist and/or an academic.  Read books like a A PhD Is Not Enoughand Getting What You Came Forand other similar books.  Becoming a scientist is a huge time commitment.  Go in with your eyes open and be prepared for a long haul.  You won’t be able to sustain the momentum necessary to charge through the PhD let alone tenure review if you don’t have some love in your heart for science and academics.  Find out the real scoop.  It may not be as glamorous as you think.  Or maybe it’s better than you thought possible.

5. Have fun and take some classes that you’ll enjoy even if they won’t add to your scientific credentials.  You’re going to be in school for a long time and you won’t make much money for several years so lighten up.  Be a fun, happy scientist who loves their work and enjoys the process of discovering and sharing knowledge.  Try not to be an arrogant pain-in-the-ass scientist who takes themselves too seriously and craves recognition and respect above all else.  I’ve seen both types and, believe me, you want to be the former.

I hope this helps.  GIScience is gaining in importance and I don’t see that trend changing anytime soon.  If you dream of a tenure track professorship at a major university, I think this is probably your best bet within the discipline of geography.




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