First, let me say I’m not a fan of 100% on-line education unless it’s the type of education where you go on-line and teach yourself something for free. To me, the future of formal education involves a huge dose of on-line resources but still also includes face-to-face interaction with a Professor or Learning Coach of some sort. Maybe an 80-20 split with 80% of your time learning from on-line resources and 20% of your time working directly with a knowledgeable person who can both enhance your learning and verify your level of knowledge acquisition. Until such options are more widely available I recommend pursuing the traditional graduate school model, in person, on campus and learning from a Professor who you can have coffee with on a regular basis.
That said, I fully understand the demand for 100% on-line education because, for one thing, there aren’t many hybrid or blended learning options available (hopefully this will change) and the flexibility is essential for working adults (especially parents) who want to further their education and move up the economic food chain.
So, for on-line GIS education, I’ve identified 10 Universities offering a 100% on-line program leading to a Master’s Degree in GIS (or similar). Note: I did not review graduate “certificate” programs and I don’t have plans to do so unless I hear otherwise from readers. Also note that while tuition and time to completion are key elements, I did not take them into consideration for the purposes of ranking. I don’t have a formal methodology for the rankings themselves; rather, this represents a qualitative review of the curriculum and faculty as observed on each program website. So, please take this list for what it’s worth – it represents my opinion and nothing else.
|1||Penn State University|
|2||University of Southern California|
|3||University of Denver|
|4||Johns Hopkins University|
|5||North Carolina State University|
|6||Northern Arizona University|
|8||Northwest Missouri State University|
|9||University of Central Arkansas|
If I’ve omitted a worthy program please let me know in the comment section below.
Since I started blogging about careers in GIS and graduate programs in geography I’ve received many emails and comments from people who want to get into grad school. Many of them don’t really know where to start. When I started thinking about grad school back in 1991-1992 I didn’t know where to start either. If I could go back in time, here are the three key insights I’d share with my younger, better-looking self.
Before I get into the 3 insider secrets let’s define what I mean by grad school. The type of grad school I’m talking about here is a research-oriented Master’s or PhD program. I’m not talking about Medical School, Law School, B-School (except if you’re going for a PhD in Business rather than an MBA). Engineering school may well be a completely different world as well.
My PhD is in geography so my experience is most relevant to those considering a Master’s or PhD in geography. That said, geography is unique and I’m a bit of an oddity as well. Geography cuts across social sciences and physical sciences and shares some sliver of an academic Venn diagram with Computer Science, Statistics and perhaps even Visual Art and Graphic Design (via Cartography). In my case, I had a Professor of Computer Science on my dissertation committee. I took grad level courses in Economics and Business Statistics and for 5 years I worked closely with PhDs in Operations Research and Supply Chain Management. I also worked for the USGS and interacted with environmental science types for 2 years. So I think it’s safe to claim some ability to provide guidance outside the realm of geography. However, you will need to decide for yourself how applicable my experience is to your particular field of study.
Secret Tip #1. Grad school is an apprenticeship. If you think about grad school as another set of courses to take with a project or thesis to write at the end, similar to the typical undergraduate college experience, you’re missing the mark. The best way to approach grad school is to think of your advisor as a mentor who will help to train you in a particular area of research. This is most certainly true at the PhD level and you’ll get more from your studies if you treat a Master’s degree the same way.
In addition, this has implications for selecting target academic departments. Rather than exploring different programs you should be evaluating different professors as potential mentors. Most students, I think, spend a lot of time weighing the pros and cons of various programs, departments, and Universities. And I don’t mean to dismiss this approach all together. In fact, it’s critical to find a department and a University where you can be successful. But, in my opinion, your choice of advisor is more important than any other consideration. This means that in searching for the right graduate school you should focus first and foremost on finding the right professor to become your research mentor. Turns out that this is good practice for graduate school generally and for research specifically because you need to start by conducting a literature review. This forces you to read research articles and identify an area where you’d like to make a contribution. Along the way you’ll begin to identify key players in your field of interest. Write down their names. Find out where they teach. Look at their CV. Read their papers. Send them an email. Try to reach them by phone. Meet them at a conference. Offer to buy coffee or lunch. Ask if they need a hard-working grad student to help advance their research agenda. Don’t be annoying but be persistent. This will put you on their radar screen. And, as you’ll see below, you don’t want to be anonymous when you apply for admission.
Secret Tip #2. Standardized scores are critical. It’s not really fair but it’s the reality facing admissions committees in any department that receives far more applicants than spots available. It’s not fair because standardized tests are culturally biased. If your cultural background is markedly different than most of middle America it can be a challenge to achieve a good score. If you’re a lousy test taker coming from middle America you’re in even worse shape because members of the committee won’t be able to excuse a low score.
Why are test scores so important? Because the logistics of admissions make it so. Here’s the reality. A graduate department admissions committee might consist of 2-3 faculty and 1-2 grad student assistants. Let’s say the committee has 20 spots available for new students and receives 120 applications. First the committee will likely have a few slam dunk candidates (try to be this type). Maybe a professor has already expressed a desire to bring in 1 or more students (see Secret #1 above to join this crowd) or maybe a student has already secured their own external funding (via NSF grant or comparable). These applicants, let’s say 5 of them, are already in and now you’re down to only 15 spots available from 115 applicants. Wouldn’t it be nice at this point if the committee read each and every application package word for word and thought long and hard about how successful the candidate might be? Yes, it would be nice. But it would take too much time. So, what does an admissions committee do? They rank the candidates. What’s the easiest/best way to rank candidates? Standardized test scores.
Wait, why don’t grades matter as much or more? Well, because how do you compare a straight A student who graduated with honors from East Tennessee State University to a student who graduated with a 3.1 GPA from Dartmouth? How do you compare a Film Studies major with a 3.8 GPA to a Mechanical Engineering major with a 2.9 GPA? You tell me who’s the better prospective grad student. Not so easy is it?
And what about the applicants personal statement? Doesn’t that matter? Yes, it’s the tie-breaker. So, after the insider admits (again, see Secret #1) the committee will likely group the remaining applicants as follows: (1) top candidates, (2) middle of the pack and (3) no chance. So the “no chance” group is tossed out right away. No one probably even bothers to read their entire application packet because their GRE scores are so low. It’s sad, yes, because some of these applicants may have been very successful. But do you think the tenured Associate Professor who chairs the admission committee is going to get promoted to full Professor based on diligent student admissions efforts? Nope. Let’s say there are 25 applicants in the “no chance” group. So now we’re left with 90 remaining candidates in the “top candidates” and “middle of the pack” groups. Who are these top candidates? They are probably the applicants who scored highest on the GRE, with a few exceptions. So the committee will scrutinize this top group looking for reasons to exclude someone. Maybe they toss out a few but 10 applicants in the top group are given the green light for admission. That leaves 5 spots to fill from a pool of 80 remaining applicants. So now the committee members go to work combing through these applications to see who rises to the top. Let’s say each member of the committee dedicates a full 15 minutes to each application packet. That’s 20 hours of work. Or 5+ hours each for a 4-person committee. Maybe they have a week to come up with recommendations and meet again for another hour or two to make decisions.
So, you can see that it’s difficult to stand out. Your personal statement is absolutely critical. Your GPA is critical too. It helps to have attended a well-respected undergraduate institution. But, due to ease of use in the ranking/sorting process, I would argue that your GRE or GMAT is the most important factor if you are applying “anonymously”, meaning you failed to take my recommended approach in Secret #1.
Secret Tip #3. If you’re not offered funding you probably should not attend. If you’re going for a research Master’s or a PhD your studies should be funded by the department in exchange for teaching or research and/or related administrative work. This is the standard arrangement. If you’re admitted but expected to pay full tuition my advice is don’t go.
This is perhaps the biggest difference between research-oriented grad school and MD, JD, MBA and other professional programs. The best MA/PhD candidates don’t pay tuition. This is one reason why I think the PhD is a great path even if you aren’t after a tenure track professor gig. The education is outstanding and it’s “free” or at least you walk away debt free. This is in stark contrast to the high-flying doctors, lawyers and bankers who make bigger bucks but typically must pay off big grad school debt as well.
There are certainly exceptions to this rule. Sometimes it makes sense to pay full-fare for a Master’s degree that will set you up for the best possible PhD opportunities. But, generally speaking, if you are granted admission but the department doesn’t consider you worthy of a teaching or research assistant position, you’re better off waiting a year to try again or going elsewhere.
It’s not just the financial part of the equation; there is also an important perceptual difference. You won’t be thought of as a colleague by faculty if you’re paying tuition and attending classes like an undergrad. On the other hand, if you’re helping to teach or do research and you’re involved in department activities the faculty will think of you as part of the starting line-up. And when you’re a starter you get to play (and learn) more than those sitting on the bench.
There are certainly other considerations and probably many more insider secrets that I don’t know. But, these 3 tips just might set you far enough apart from the field to grab the attention of a professor in your field of interest. And finding the right advisor can make all the difference.
I was lucky enough to find a great mentor who was willing to give me a chance. His gamble and guidance certainly made all the difference in my career.
In each of the past 2 years I have produced rankings for the top graduate geography programs in the U.S. You can see my 2012 NRC-based rankings and my 2013 rankings in previous posts. This year I don’t see a compelling reason to revisit geography department rankings, so I suppose that means I’m satisfied with the 2013 rankings, at least for now.
[highlight color=”options: yellow, black”]New rankings are now available! Check out my 2015 Top Graduate Programs for Spatial Careers![/highlight]
This year I’ve decided to produce a set of rankings for students interested specifically in GIS-related graduate studies. Note that these rankings are meant to highlight outstanding GIS programs within geography departments. So, while there may be other graduate programs that produce outstanding GIS-practitioners, scientists, programmers, etc I have focused on programs that are led and taught by academic geographers. Also note that, along with my previous rankings, I do NOT recommend selecting a graduate program based solely on these rankings. You can use this as a starting point but be sure to explore as many programs as possible, seeking to find the best individual fit.
Top 10 Graduate GIS Programs
If you’ve read my Spatial Career Series you know that I like to divide the GIS world into a few different areas and the “specialty” rankings below reflect that perspective. All of the programs listed below would likely provide a top-notch education in most elements of GIS but I’ve grouped and ranked programs by their primary area of expertise/focus…or at least what I perceive to be their primary strength.
Top Cartography Programs
Top Spatial Statistics Programs
Top Remote Sensing Programs
Top Computation Programs
Here are some other top notch programs that didn’t make one of the lists above but deserve serious consideration.
I’m certain that I’ve left out many well-deserving programs and for that I apologize. Who did I miss? Who doesn’t deserve to be here? What else did I do wrong? I want my readers to hear alternative and opposing views so let me have it in the comments below.