How to Launch a GIS Career
February 5, 2012
I was recently asked to respond to the following inquiry. My response here is also posted on the Association of American Geographer’s (AAG) website under their Jobs and Careers FAQ
I have heard that the field of geography is growing, especially in the area of GIS. I graduated with a degree in geography a couple of years ago, but I cannot seem to find a job. It seems like there are hundreds of applicants for each position, and no one will give me a chance. Are there too many geographers out there or not enough employers who understand what geographers can do for them?
I think there are a few things going on here:
(1) it’s a tough environment for relatively new graduates to find work. I think this is true across most fields of study.
(2) GIS technologies and GIS careers are constantly evolving and the technology you learned as an undergrad is almost certainly well behind the curve now. You have to keep up with the latest and greatest.
(3) Perhaps most importantly, you need to define a career path that you want to follow for at least a few years. Unfortunately, geography departments don’t really provide much guidance on careers in the private sector (wouldn’t a GIS + MBA skill set be nice?) and just looking for a GIS job isn’t really focused enough. For example, perhaps you’re interested in location decisions in which case you might contact retailers, consulting firms that work with retailers, real estate brokerage firms, local planning departments, etc. Or, perhaps you’re drawn to environmental issues – I think that environmental health or health GIS or “geohealth” will be a hot field at some point. In any case, I would recommend that you identify a sub-field of geography or an application area of GIS that really interests you and pursue it like you would a favorite hobby. Volunteer to gain experience. Read books and articles about the topic. Find out who the key players are and try to contact them. In the meantime, you also have to make a living, right? Take whatever job you can find to pay the bills and be on the look-out for jobs that fit into your career focus. You might even consider forming a sideline LLC and offering your services on a contract basis. Offer to do a pilot study for free and then charge a low hourly rate to continue gaining experience. You can raise your rates when you get busy.
On the skills front, it’s not enough to know how to use some GIS software program. I think there’s an army of people trained to use ArcGIS but that same army may not really understand how to approach a complex problem that involves a variety of geographic data elements and pull it all together with appropriate methodologies to come up with a well-defended solution. To gain these skills, you need to get involved in a project with real deliverables and deadlines. The best way to do this, of course, is to find a job but you can also do this as a graduate assistant working for a research professor or as an intern working for a company, etc. Don’t just learn how to use software, learn how to solve problems.
Finally, geographic technologies are still in their infancy, in my opinion. If you find a niche that addresses an important problem that you’re passionate about and stick with it, you’ll find a way to make a good living. I guarantee that people who can “think spatially” and take the time to develop analytical skills and the ability to communicate effectively will find good opportunities in the coming years.
But, no one will “give” you a chance. You have to make it happen.