Is it Too Late to Pursue a Career in Geography and GIS?

August 14, 2015 at 1:08 pm  •  Posted in Education, Geography by  •  2 Comments

Hi Justin,

I am probably not your typical follower. I am seriously thinking about pursuing a career in GIS, but do not have the degree or experience to start a career so easily. I graduated with a political science degree in 2014 and am currently working as a paralegal at a law firm specializing in real estate. I am still not sold on the idea of law school and have been actively exploring other options, some of which I realize are completely different than law or politics, like GIS.

But I love maps — always have — and I took numerous history and political science classes where studying and interpreting maps were integral parts of the class. I honestly never knew much about the GIS field until recently and from what I have read from a variety of sources, it is an exciting and growing field.

For time and financial reasons, however, I have only given an online GIS certificate from Penn State’s World Campus Program any consideration at the moment in order to start learning the basics and get a future GIS career started. However, I am skeptical of pursuing the certificate. I have heard some say it helps, but very little, and I also need to gain the programming experience you spoke about in a recent post. A master’s program is not something I am considering at the moment, especially since I lack the basic education and skills.

Pursuing GIS would be a major career move, one I think could be very rewarding, but want to know if it’s too late to pursue such an option and what is/are the best way(s) of going about gaining the education, skills and experience for a GIS career for someone in my position. Looking forward to hearing from you.


Dear J.,

No, it’s not too late. In fact, I was in a very similar situation in the early 1990s.

I had a degree in Philosophy and Mathematics. I had a job at a public school as a teaching assistant and planned to get a Master’s in Education so I could become a math teacher. But I didn’t like my job and the prospect of the “How to be a Teacher” curriculum followed by a job as a classroom police officer sounded more like a prison sentence than the beginning of an exciting career. In researching alternatives I stumbled upon geography. I recognized an opportunity to use my quantitative skills in a meaningful way. And, like you, I loved maps.

So I began the long, slow climb. I found a part-time job and took geography classes at a community college. I read everything I could get my hands on and began preparing grad school applications. I emailed and cold-called professors trying to convince them I could make the transition and prove useful in their research programs. I got a huge break when a professor with grant funding asked me to join him as a research assistant at the University of Oregon. Free tuition and a $600 per month stipend. I thought I had hit the jackpot. And I had.

But it took sacrifice. I had friends pulling down big salaries as lawyers and bankers. If we met at a restaurant they’d eat anything they wanted. I drank ice water. I couldn’t afford much beyond rent and groceries. My wife and I lived on a shoestring. Our weekend entertainment was a hike up Spencer Butte and a rousing game of Nerf ping pong. We ate a lot of spaghetti.

I guess I’m trying to say it won’t be easy. And there aren’t really any good shortcuts. If you want a career in geography and/or GIS you have to start at the beginning. That doesn’t mean you have to follow the same path I did. Rather than grad school maybe the beginning is a low-paying job with a company doing GIS type work and a lot of self-study on the side. Maybe it’s the certificate program at Penn State (although I think you’re wise to proceed cautiously as certificates are sort of a dime a dozen). Maybe it means keeping your gig as a paralegal and working your tail off every evening to learn programming and GIS on your own time. Maybe you can parlay your political science degree and some basic on-your-own GIS training to volunteer to do spatial data analysis for a political campaign. The 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns utilized GIS extensively and I suspect there is someone somewhere already looking at voter data in preparation for primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire.

In any case, you will have to blaze your own trail. But, it’s certainly not too late to begin.

You might want to read this blog post I wrote a couple years ago about how to launch a GIS career. It’s intended for people with an undergraduate degree in geography/GIS who are struggling to find their first job. But, it may have some applicability to your situation as well.

Wishing you the very best,



  1. Daniel / February 25, 2016 at 11:36 am / Reply

    Hi Justin,

    I just stumbled on your website today and have found it to be a hugely valuable resource. I live in the DC area and am in a situation that is similar to J’s, except that I am looking at master’s degrees rather than certificate programs. Like J., I also have a full-time job, so the options I am aware of would be either the relatively flexible part-time/evening MPS program offered at Maryland, or a 100% online program such as Penn State’s. Do you think there is an advantage to going either route in terms of job marketability? I’m not sure if an online master’s degree in GIS (without in-person classes or work experience) is a realistic way to start a career change, so I would appreciate your thoughts. Thank you!

    • Justin / February 28, 2016 at 10:57 am / Reply

      Hi Daniel,
      I prefer traditional programs to online. And I prefer MS or MA to MPS. My suggestion would be to take a single class to begin with, probably online, to see how much you learn and how it impacts your full-time job. Job marketability will have more to do with how you can translate your current/past experience as a valuable asset to complement GIS training. One other thought would be to explore the program at John’s Hopkins. I believe it’s fully online but sounds like it might be within reasonable driving distance to give you a bit of the best of both worlds.
      Hope this helps!
      Best wishes,

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