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.
[…] real estate, natural resources, logistics, etc. I think students would jump at the chance to make their geography degrees more marketable and I can assure you that geographers with better business skills would find more opportunity in […]
I have read your article Mr. Holman and it seems the loudest talking point is simply to become involved in some form. Not having access to the software like I have previously while in school, staying fresh is a bit tricky. Are there any sources to follow that may share local projects? I research these type things fairly regularly but around here they are typically funded by larger firms.
I would like to get into transportation GIS, but lack CAD skills as they were not an offering in my department. I am more interested in the efficiency of alternative transportation. I am not certain that CAD is needed as much as strict analysis is.
I would be happy to speak with you further through email if that line of contact is an option. I hope to hear from you and look forward to advancing into a career soon.
This may seem a little amateurish, but I have been practicing with ArcGIS through the trial versions that are offered with their training tutorials. They are good for 6 months. I graduated in late 2009, took two years off and just recently started pursuing a new job. I have actually learned more using their books than I did while in school. Especially their books geared towards specific projects such as Humanitarian Assistance and Homeland Security. It lets you get more in tune with the finer aspects of the program instead of just the basics that are generally taught in college. Even if you don’t use the books, it still gives you the ability to use the program on a limited basis while looking for a job to keep your skills sharp. Although, I have found that convincing a prospective employer that you’ve kept your skills sharp after spending some time out of school isn’t as easy as it sounds.
I too have limited CAD skills. Honestly, the notion of ever having to use CAD in a future job was not even brought up in school; it wasn’t even part of the curriculum. I’ve been searching hard for a job in recent weeks and have noticed the needs for CAD experience so I researched it a little bit. Autodesk offers most (if not all) of their software as 3 year trials for free. From what I have gathered it is a fully functional license with the only exception being watermarks. When time allows I am going to try and become a little more familiar with CAD just so I can say I have some kind of limited experience. AutoCAD Civil 3D is a rather large download so if you have a slow connection you might want to set it up to download overnight. I think it was 3+ GB.
Great article BTW. I am looking to relocate out of South Florida to a few specific locations. Based on what Mr. Holman says it looks like I may have to start digging a little deeper, perhaps find organizations and employers who may not even be looking for somebody in the field yet but may in the near future. I am getting the impression that most positions that may be available for a recent grad like myself may not even be publicly advertised.
Not amateurish! Sounds like you’re taking the initiative. Remember, though, don’t focus only on learning to use GIS tools (or CAD tools). You also need to develop spatial problem solving skills. How do you select the right data to address a question? How do you display the data? How do you use quantitative methods to develop new data layers that might reveal unique patterns? In other words, become a geographer or geospatial analyst or whatever you want to call it. Anyone can learn to use GIS just like anyone can learn to use LotusNotes. What will set you apart and land a good job is your ability to solve problems. Cheers, J.
Hi Grant – thanks for the comment. I recognize that it’s not easy to get started in a niche area. My advice would be to choose a freely available open source software package like Quantum GIS (http://www.qgis.org/) or something comparable. There are tons of open source technologies now. Maybe start your own blog and create a portfolio of sample GIS projects or perhaps reach out to a company that interests you and volunteer to do something/anything GIS related for them. Maybe you could blog about free GIS software and how companies could save money by using it? If you do a good job hopefully they’ll ask for another project and you can ask to be paid. I guess in general my advice is to take whatever action you can on your own. I know it must be very challenging to want to start your career but not have a position/project to work on. This may sound weird but it’s actually a terrific opportunity to strike out on your own, do exactly what you want to do with your time and create your own path forward. Once you have a job someone else will tell you exactly what to do and you’ll wish for freedom again. For now, you are your own boss – even if you aren’t paid. Make the most of it! Best wishes, Justin
Grant, I worry about that, too. I’m graduating in a little over a month, and I’m going to lose access to a lot of great software tools. I’m still not sure what I’m going to do about that, since I have some ongoing ArcGIS projects that I want to continue. I definitely intend to learn more about open-source tools, which are awesome in their own right. Google Maps APIs seem like they’re fairly simple to use, so that might be a way to get started, though they can’t do a whole lot in terms of actual analysis.
Aside from the software access issue, one thing I’ve found really useful in expanding my skills and gaining more knowledge of current stuff is collaborating on a little GIS software development project with a friend who’s a computer scientist. I initially just asked him for some help on a class project, and it evolved into a full-scale ArcGIS public transit tool development project (see http://www.transit.melindamorang.com for geek-out fun). I knew the GIS stuff, and he knew the advanced computer programming tools, and we’ve both learned tons. So, find a friend and stay current together?
Melinda – great idea! Both research and business are team sports!
With over five years into GIS field and experience in some cool GIS projects, I gained reasonable depth and breath in how GIS is applied in real world. Still, I found no easy answer to this question, especially with the rapid growth in technology for GIS and the way people and company embrace them.
As pointed out, it is not enough to know how to use GIS software. It is equally important to have good understanding of the dataset itself. Therefore, having problem solving skills and analytical mind is part of the requirements.
Nevertheless, GIS applications today are hardly as straight forward as that of its infancy. Most GIS applications today require background of other disciplines because that how GIS are applied in real world. Except in government agencies, GIS is hardly used in spatial data creation. Most GIS applications are used along with urban planning, environmental studies, transportation, etc. This means that GIS will have to marry with other discipline to produce a solution.
Second, the way people use GIS is no longer limited to GIS software. If you consider expanded definition of GIS as ‘location-based’ application, you will see a wide range of technologies brought into GIS world. People create ‘location-based’ products and solutions, maps, data without even using traditional GIS software, such as that of ESRI. The growing numbers of usage of Google map in GIS context proves that. This also brings computer programming, software development, database into GIS world.
If we ask the question today, what is GIS? What technology and software are considered GIS? I suspect that we could not get a straight answer as if we would in a couple years ago. If we bring in web technology into GIS, it would even harder to answer this question.
The implication of these changes has impact to the expectation of job skills for GIS professional. All these changes shape the landscape of GIS job market. Then, it would be more than just a simple supply and demand of job opening and labor supply. Would the job market prefer an experienced GIS but limited programming experience, or would the job market prefer to hire a programmer who knows some GIS? Or would that be the case that companies now putting the requirements of skill sets that were traditionally of two separate positions into one under the job title of GIS?
DL – Thanks for the comment! I agree that you should pair an interest in an application area with GIS both to (1) make yourself a more attractive applicant to a particular subfield but also to (2) find a field that interests you and will keep you motivated. I wouldn’t discount #2. Doing something you enjoy and feel good about makes a big difference in terms of work quality and performance over longer periods of time.
Your last question – would the market prefer a GIS person with limited programming experience or a programmer with some GIS – is a good one and probably worthy of a separate blog post. But, the short answer answer from my perspective would be, focus on one of 4 paths (in no particular order): software development, database programming/admin, cartography/visualization or quantitative/statistical/spatial analysis methods. Any combination of these would work as well but you should probably hang your hat on one as your main craft to develop sufficient expertise.
[…] if you’re considering a GIS career, you might want to reframe the question. Instead of learning ArcGIS and getting a GISP […]
Another way, one can make it happen 🙂
A cross-curriculum University program that equips you with Geography, Statistics, Law, International Politics and Business Studies. Journalism and analytic skills can get you a lucky think tank consultancy break or if you bide your time, a BI entry.
Technology updates with plenty of tech writing & reviews, web research & analysis, passion for the environment and lo! you just cannot but be pulled within the geospatial arena. GIS integrates all your interests, has applications in all sectors that have academically empowered you and much more!
Volunteer activism with social media in your spare time, (when you need to burn those extra energies) can have you Web 2.0 and crowdsourcing enabled. Learning, empowering yourself with geospatial skills in areas of interest are an ongoing process, webinars, developing long-lost cartographic skills in postal history research comes of use in digital mapping. And while you wait, choose your best GIS degree program, wait for the right time to enter this burgeoning market and launch on your own, doing what you love to do.
Find the areas lacking and break-in. For instance, I have found Geospatial needs more of applications specialists who work in tandem with developers, as this gap remains. Either software and tools remains under-utilised or do not address all the problems. So till things come through, check-out your region, the gaps, the way your strengths could be utlised and meet the right people. And if you are lucky (as I was) use your time to share what you have learned through Papers and Blogs. Sharing of knowledge an dinformation always enriches you.
This is how I launched my GIS career / firm, that seeks to incorporate ‘something old and something new’ – traditional solutions in tandem with Web 2,0 and GIS.that are sustainability driven with an effective ROI.
Thanks for sharing your experience and thoughts, Sangeeta!
Good points, thanks Justin!
[…] if you’re considering a GIS career, you might want to reframe the question. Instead of learning ArcGIS and getting a GISP […]
[…] haven’t materialized. I recently tried to provide some guidance for those attempting to launch a GIS career. But, if you are a current undergraduate studying GIS within a geography department what should […]
Thank you Mr. Holman for publishing this article; I’m literally at a point in my life, where I am not sure what direction to take in this GIS field. I’ve obtain a BS in Urban/Regional Planning in 2010 and by this fall I’ll have my certification in GIS. Unfortunately, I have been a little frustrated on how to obtain a career, due to my lack of work experience; I have 2 interns that lasted less than a year, but I feel like I don’t have much to descript on my resume when it comes to relating it to job openings. Anyway after reading your article, I realize that I should focus more on how to incorporate GIS as a sub-field to my Planning Degree. Thanks again and wish me luck!
Thank you, Jamie! Planning and GIS is a great combination and there are good opportunities in commercial real estate research if that’s of interest. Let me know if I can help in any way and best of luck!
Definitely, I would greatly appreciate any advice or if you possibly have time to be a mentor of mine, that alone would be a great. I truly have a passion for Urban Planning and love the complexity of GIS and how this two can intertwine, I just need little a guidance on how to do just that. If you have any time I would love to chat with you in further detail via email, my email address is [email protected].
Thank you again.
I am studying M.A. in geography and complete two semester. In the final semester i want to take GIS as special paper. So what should i do after study GIS. plz give some sugestion, after study GIS in M.A. how far i can go infuture. Or can i get any job……..
I’m not sure what to suggest aside from reading this post and perhaps taking a look at my spatial career series, http://www.justinholman.com/2012/03/28/spatial-career-guide-for-undergrads-currently-studying-gis/, where I describe 6 possible paths you might consider. Hope this helps. Let me know if you have a more specific question.
Dear Mr. Holman,
For several weeks now, I have been contemplating on shifting careers and I find that GIS may be a great skill set that cuts across a variety of backgrounds and fields. I am very thankful to have come across your site! To be honest, I have had quite a complex career background and in several months, I plan to take a leap and diversify a bit from the business world to a more worthy cause, so to speak. I am strongly considering to pursue a career in emergency management or disaster relief and I believe that taking some post graduate (diploma) studies in GIS may help shape me to become more efficient in my chosen field someday. May I just have your thoughts on taking up GIS or any of its auxiliary fields (perhaps cartography or remote sensing) as a path to an emergency management career or any other skills training/course that would complement this direction? I am interested in hands on work, such as the immediate responses to disasters, but am also keen on the work that goes on before the disaster itself, such as mitigation for disasters and the use of geomatics. I just hope that at 30 yrs old, I am not too late to delve into the field and get involved into what seems to be both an exciting and challenging career I wish I had known earlier on. Thank you very much for your time and more power to you sir.
Hi Maia – 30 is young! No worries, you’re not too late! But, depending on the nature of your current education and background, you have a lot of work to do. There is a fairly substantial body of work involving hazards and GIS and you’ll need to get up to speed. I would start by reading as much as you possibly can – go to the nearest University library and start searching for articles within your area of interest. You might also check out this MOOC: https://www.coursera.org/course/maps and ask the course professor, Anthony Robinson, about GIS and Hazards and what he might suggest. He knows a lot more about this area than I do. One last suggestion would be to take a look at Risk Management Solutions (www.rms.com) and their competitors. They build cutting edge hazard models and software for estimating financial risk. Very cool stuff. It may interest you to see what types of positions they have available and what sorts of skills they’re looking for. Hope this helps! Best wishes, Justin
I’m 30 y/o with a 2-year General Arts and Science College Diploma that I received 8 years ago. I’ve been accepted into a Graduate Certificate program in Geospatial Management (GIS) at a local College but am not sure if i should actually follow through. After graduating, I moved to Thailand to teach English for a year and have since held many minimal paying jobs both in Thailand and Canada (landscaping, admin assist., sales, customer service rep., data entry, youth worker on a cruise ship, fruit picking, etc.). These jobs have all been temporary but have supported me over the past 4 years as a Buddhist Monk’s Apprentice. I’m currently undecided whether I want to continue my apprenticeship (moving back to Thailand permanently) or to further my education. I’m currently working as a self-employed Gardener but obviously this isn’t a career. I’m afraid that if I do get my Graduate Cert. in Geospatial Management that my background won’t do anything for me career-wise…and that i’ll still be gardening 🙂
Hi Tyler. Very cool background story – big decision ahead. If you want a new path then a GIS certificate might make sense but I would explore several options. Maybe start with a free online course. You may be better off using your knowledge of Thai culture. Do you speak Thai fluently? Feel free to email me via Contact form if you want to discuss details. Best, Justin
[…] my blog I hear from dozens of recent graduates who are looking for an opportunity to gain experience in the GIS industry. Well, here’s your […]
Hello, I am 25 and have had a BA in geography for over two years. I have been applying to at least 3 jobs per month since graduating and volunteering. I have had no luck but I do not want to switch careers and I cannot see how attaining a Masters would be helpful at this point. I am at a loss and frustrated to no end. What am I doing wrong?
Hard to say. Could you send a copy of your resume and a sample cover letter for review?
I just wanted to drop a career option here. GIS is becoming huge in the mining world. Geologists are using it a lot now. But mining engineers are using it more now because it is such a powerful interface with other 3D mining programs, it is an excellent tool for quick and easy map building. Then the drawings can be dxf’d to mining programs, updated, then dropped right back in to GIS, and update the database! Super easy, so easy in fact I did it for 5yrs without official training!
I mainly used it to model Leach fields (like miles of farms stacked on top of each other). Each field had say a 100 small quadrants, or spatial features, with each quadrant having 10 or more attributes. These were all stacked at probably 50 layers or lifts! So that’s 500k attributes in the data base. The mine I worked at, at the time had 15 of these leach pads so thats 7.5 million attributes! Sounds crazy huh. You could search the data base for lets say, what leach pads were under leach in may 2002, were only a certain ore type, which ones leached over 120 days, and which ones were under a 60% recovery. Boom! You know have a 2D (with elevations) map showing you millions of tons or poorly leached areas. Now you can go back and releach those areas or sonic drill them to make sure the ore is leached or not! Plus you can come in with some of the most amazing professional drawings that are so much more visual clear with displayed attributes etc.
On top of that! Its fun!
Hi Allen – thanks for sharing your experience! Great to hear that GIS is fully infiltrating the mining industry. Best, Justin
I just came across your post looking for examples of using GIS for mapping/modeling leach fields. I work at a copper mine and I’m hoping to transition our leach field mapping from AutoCAD to GIS. If you’re willing, I’d love to speak with you in more detail about your methods… ([email protected]).
[…] 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. […]
Similiar to most others who left comments here, I’m a bit weary about how to get a career started with a degree in Geography/GIS. I’m an American currently pursuing a Master’s in Environmental Geography at a German university, but am considering changing gears after not landing an internship with the US Geological Survey or the Bureau of Land Management this summer. GIS and geography in general are new territory for me, since my Bachelor’s is in History, but I think I’ve found the perfect mixture of passion and marketability of a skillset with GIS.
I guess my biggest fears are 1) that employers don’t (yet) recognize the applicability of GIS to their organizations, which will make it difficult to explain why they should hire me and 2) that my foreign degree will either put me at a disadvantage or just flat-out refused. Have you worked with anyone with foreign qualifications or have you heard any stories abou their experience with the US job market?
Hi Kevin, don’t be discouraged just because the USGS and BLM didn’t hire you for a summer internship. Federal agencies are required to use a strange hiring process heavily favoring veterans and there are plenty of other, and better, fish in the sea. I don’t think your foreign degree will put you at a disadvantage in the long run but in the short run it may be more difficult to find a job since you’re not making local connections with potential employers, etc. The time to have reconsidered attending a German University has passed and at this point I would recommend finishing the degree. Otherwise the past year is almost completely lost. After graduating and returning to the US you’ll have to pound the pavement with a lot of energy but I think you’ll be on equal footing with most other recent Master’s graduates so long as you’ve acquired an equally compelling skill set. Best wishes, Justin
I have done my MSc in Earth Science and Resource Management and I am doing my PhD in sediment dynamics using RS and GIS. Till now I have used GIS applications like ArcGIS and ERDAS. But I don’t have application developing skills. I want to get into GIS Software development. I am planning to take C and C++ courses from a training institute. Can you please suggest me, how should I proceed? What steps should I take? Looking out for your reply. Thank you.
Try this post: http://www.justinholman.com/2012/03/29/spatial-career-guide-5-key-skills-for-future-gis-software-developers/
Yes, that helped me and now I move on to my courses (C++ and Java). Thanks a lot justin
But Justin, Do you think its good idea to go through courses now. Because I am already 30 years old. How long it will take to get into the GIS development field if I work hard from now?
How long it takes will be up to you. My suggestion would be to try to get any sort of job in the field and study programming on the side. Learning on the job will ramp you up much faster. Good luck!
Yes Justin, I am working as a visiting faculty in two colleges. As u said I want to learn the languages on the side. Thank you