Geospatial Career Q&A with Undergraduate

June 4, 2012 at 9:53 am  •  Posted in Education, Geography by  •  6 Comments

I recently received the following email from a student nearing graduation with a bachelor’s degree and seeking geospatial career advice. 

Mr. Holman,

You’re obviously a busy guy, so I’ll try not to make this too protracted. I just wanted to say “thank you” for writing your blog.The perspective you have as someone versed in both academic geography and business is not something we students get access to everyday–it has proved extremely helpful and left me extremely hopeful that academia isn’t the only option for us geographers.

I’m a soon-to-be-graduating senior geography student. Though I have a formal concentration in GIS, undergrad students here are required to take a wide range of classes (both physical and human geography) in addition to this concentration. This is fine with me–a varied perspective’s sort of necessary to navigate life–but it’s left me as a jack of all trades and master of none. The only really *specific* thing I have going for me is independent research experience. This, I feel, has really improved some of my so-called “soft skills,” even if it hasn’t been particularly valuable in other ways.

My main concern is over how to spend this summer. I have to take just a single geography course in order to graduate, but I want to take a few others to gain some additional skills (and maybe accumulate a little knowledge in the process…).

My main interests are in cartography, statistics, and data visualization–much of this rolls over from my original major, graphic design and illustration. I’m hopelessly addicted to beautiful graphics and the information they can tell us.

So as an either/or proposition, would you recommend an independent study in database management–to help organize all those spatial datasets– or a (possibly unpaid) internship stitching together shapefiles? While this internship would perhaps be a little dull, it does constitute real-world experience using GIS. Alternately, I could register for independent study to learn how to program in R.

In conjunction with one of these “courses” I plan to take trigonometry to set the foundation for calculus. Calculus, at a minimum, seems to be required for almost every graduate program in computer science or statistics, and would certainly be helpful for those in geography.

Thank you for your time. I understand if you’re not able to answer these questions in depth; I’m just looking for a little perspective.

In response, I asked the following question: if you could do anything, anything at all, what would it be and where would it take you in the next 5 years?  Focus on what you would be doing day-to-day rather than on job titles, organizations, etc.

Hmmm. That’s a tough question. I’ve thought about it before, but never gave myself a really solid response.

After much deliberation:

Starting something and then growing it into something substantial is something that’s really been on my mind, whether it be a business, a non-profit, a school, a website, etc. I like the idea of making something from nothing, and I relish working hard. Bonus points for the autonomy and flexibility that seem to be inherent to this approach. However, while I think I’ve taken a relatively entrepreneurial approach to my education, I haven’t exactly broken new ground in the “real world.”

Specifically on a day-to-day basis though, I’d like to spend time communicating with people. It doesn’t have to be in the traditional, face-to-face sense either. One of my strengths is finding and synthesizing a lot of information, and then writing about it as I understand it. On the flipside, I really enjoy doing the same thing with graphics–condensing a lot of data into a very small, detailed blurb of information.

Hope that helps.

This is great.  Now, any subject areas of particular interest?  You mentioned climate.  Are you big into climate change?  Is there a topic for you that generates the most enthusiasm?  

 Here’s another way to approach the same question.  Imagine you have been sentenced to life in prison with no access to computers or pen/paper or any material that would allow you to be creative.  But, you had a 3-month window in which to produce one final masterpiece data graphic.  Your only chance to make an impact before a life of confinement.  What story would it tell?
I know – you’re probably thinking “this guy is nuts”.  Might be true but please just try to answer the question as best you can.  There are no right or wrong answers. 
Justin,Wow, my only chance to make an impact before a life of confinement! Could you have picked a tougher question?While [specific area of research, kept hidden to protect anonymity] has been good to (and for) me, it was a happy accident; it’s not really where my chief interests lie. I’m more interested in medicine and medical research, but it’s tricky to figure out what can be done in this field sans a bio/chem degree. Medical mapping/epidemiology is one of the more traditional routes people in my position sometimes take. I’d like to find a way to gather more and better data, or find some better way to use existing health/illness data. The solutions don’t have to be technical–it could be something like increasing transparency and providing better access to information.My “masterpiece” data graphic is only tangentially related to what I described above, but I think it’d make for a cool presentation:List some of the most successful people in science, the humanities, sports, and entertainment and then chart the number of rejections each one received early on in his/her career on the way to success. Rejection in this case could mean failing to receive funding, failing to sell a book, or even losing a job.I don’t know how many young people get the feeling that they can’t do anything substantial, but it seems that it’s easily more than half. This graphic would put into perspective the failures of others so they could see that its okay to fail themselves. Hopefully it would give some of the more naturally timid people a reason not to quit. You’re usually on the right path, its just hard to have perspective when you’re on it.In short, there’s always those apocryphal stories floating around about how so-and-so had to go to 100 different publishers before they received an advance. I want to track down all these stories, confirm them, and then make a visual that presents the data in an elegant way.Just a final thought:Sure, I’d love to have an aptitude for engineering and build something tangible that makes others’ lives easier, or be a doctor and heal the sick directly. But in some ways, being a geographer at the intersection of technology, society, and the environment is a far more interesting prospect. It might just require a bit of creativity and imagination to do something important.Good luck piecing all this stuff into a cohesive blog post!Here are links to my 3-part response:


  1. deogawanka / June 5, 2012 at 1:40 am / Reply

    I too await your next blog. 25 years apart, but I share his passion for health GIS. Am currently mapping some stuff from social perspective, although data is a tough area in my country, almost non-existent or questionable.

  2. Darren P / June 9, 2012 at 7:27 pm / Reply

    There is a line in the students letter that struck a chord with me and I am glad that I am not the only one. It was “left me as a jack of all trades and master of none.”

    I often think that maybe I should have concentrated on something specific, however, I am so interested in Geography as a whole that I tend to be like the character Doug from the movie “Up”. I see the interconnectedness of everything whether it is soil, hydrology, planning, viticulture, history.

    That is a very tough question about what the final masterpiece would be, but it is also very simple. I would do vineyard site suitability. I would do that in a heartbeat. Anytime, anywhere.

    A professor of mine once said when I was faced with the prospect of getting hired for a job that I really wasn’t planning on getting.. “Take what you can get, until you can get what you want.” Although I am now 42, I have plenty of time to get what I want even if I had to take what i could get…

    • Justin / June 10, 2012 at 7:21 am / Reply

      Darren – thanks for the comment. I’m not convinced that being a “jack of all trades” is such a bad thing. The flip side of the coin would be a “one-trick pony” and less ability to adapt. It sounds like you’re fortunate in that you know exactly what you’d like to be doing. Now, go get it!
      Cheers, J.

  3. Pingback: Geospatial Career Q&A with Undergraduate Part 2 – Summer Suggestions | Geographical Perspectives

  4. Pingback: Geospatial Career Q&A with Undergraduate Part 3 – Hitting the Job Market | Geographical Perspectives

  5. Pingback: Geospatial Career Q&A with Undergraduate Part 4 – Long Term Career Planning | Geographical Perspectives

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