Unlocking the World of GIS: Your Guide to Entering the Exciting Field of Geographic Information Systems

159
1
Wednesday
Julie_Lazor
New Contributor II
4 1 159

As Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, becomes more and more popular and widespread, this once small, niche field has quickly become used everywhere. With so many exciting and interesting career opportunities in this field, or so many other fields adapting GIS technology to their own needs, you might be asking yourself how you can enter the GIS field. Where would one even begin? 

 

Meet the Author

julie-lazor-headshot.pngMy name is Julie Lazor and like many of you who may read this article, I am new to the GIS field. I originally did my undergraduate degree at CSU Long Beach in Environmental Science and Policy, B.S. with a minor in Biology. However, after taking one remote sensing course and one GIS course in my undergraduate degree, I was hooked!

After graduating, I was looking for ways to continue my education, and my interest kept returning to the GIS field. Even from just the two introductory courses I took, it felt like the opportunities were endless in the field. I decided to just jump right in, and go for my master’s degree in Geographic Information System at CSU Long Beach, which I completed August 2023. 

During my master’s degree, I immediately knew I was right… the opportunities are endless. While this is such an exciting reason to be in the GIS field, it can also be daunting for newcomers to be able to properly navigate the field and understand what types of careers and research is available for them. And while I decided to go all in for a master’s degree, many of you might not want to take that full plunge. Worry not! As I will discuss in this article, there are not only many ways to enter this field, but also many ways to leverage your current skills to be able to land the GIS job (or skillset) of your dreams.

 

So, what is GIS exactly?

First things first, let’s define exactly what GIS is. Despite how popular this field is, many people still do not know exactly what GIS is. And trust me, once you enter this field, you will be answering this question a lot. Geographic Information Systems is defined by Esri as, “A spatial system that creates, manages, analyzes, and maps all types of data”. More simply put, it’s like a digital map that can store, manipulate, analyze, and present geographic data. It combines different types of information like maps, satellite images, and databases to help people understand and visualize patterns, relationships, and trends in the real world.

Even by definition, one can see that GIS encompasses a lot of different aspects of many different fields. What many people do not know outside of the GIS world, is that GIS, like its definition, is a multifaceted field with many different niches. This leads us to our next question, what type of jobs can one do in GIS?

 

What types of jobs can you do in the GIS field?

As previously discussed, GIS is not a one size fits all field. It is a tool that crosses many different industries including Environmental Science and Studies, Biology, Urban Planning, Utilities, Agriculture, Public Health, Emergency Response, Real Estate and more. This is exactly one of the many reasons why GIS is such a powerful tool to be able to use, it inherently creates more job opportunities.

For someone who wants to enter this field, I first recommend you narrow down what industry you are interested in, and then from there, understand how this industry uses GIS. If you are not particularly interested in one industry alone, then it might help to better understand the job roles available and then find your interest from there. Some examples of the different types of jobs in the GIS field are:

  • GIS Analyst: Responsible for analyzing spatial data, creating maps, and generating reports to support decision-making processes in various industries such as urban planning, environmental management, and business analysis.
  • GIS Technician: Involved in data collection, database management, and map creation using GIS software. 
  • GIS Developer/Programmer: Specializes in developing custom GIS applications, plugins, and scripts using programming languages like Python, JavaScript, or Java. They may also work on web-based GIS platforms and mobile GIS applications.
  • GIS Specialist: Offers specialized expertise in specific areas of GIS, such as remote sensing, geospatial analysis, cartography, or spatial modeling. They often provide technical support, training, and consultancy services.
  • GIS Project Manager: Oversees GIS projects from planning to implementation, ensuring that deliverables meet quality standards, deadlines, and budget requirements. 
  • Remote Sensing Analyst: Utilizes satellite or aerial imagery to extract valuable information about the Earth's surface, such as land cover, vegetation health, or environmental changes. They often work in environmental monitoring, agriculture, forestry, or disaster management.
  • Geospatial Data Scientist: Applies statistical and machine learning techniques to analyze spatial data and extract insights for decision-making. They often work on predictive modeling, spatial clustering, and pattern recognition tasks.
  • GIS Consultant: Provides advisory services to organizations seeking to implement GIS solutions or improve their existing spatial data infrastructure. They assess client needs, design customized solutions, and provide training and support.
  • GIS Educator/Trainer: Teaches GIS concepts, tools, and techniques to students, professionals, and community members through academic programs, workshops, or online courses. They play a crucial role in developing the next generation of GIS professionals.

 

Again, these are just a few types of job roles available in the field. Within all of these job roles, there will be a lot of overlap in skills. Where it will be more crucial to know what type of job role you want, would be for jobs such as a developer or remote sensing specialist where you may need a more advanced set of skills to qualify for a role. However, something to keep in mind is that these skills can be continually buildable. Meaning, you can always start at a more entry level role and work your way up once you are in the industry. 

Like any industry, education and experience play a huge role in your ability to enter a field. However, there are many ways to gain the critical GIS skills that you need for your dream job. These options are not one size fits all. The most common options for building your GIS skills are:

  • Undergraduate Degree: This option can be great for someone who is currently in their undergraduate journey, or getting ready to start college. Having a GIS degree is a great way to be able to build your skills and be able to join the industry post-graduation. 
  • Master’s Degree: For those who have already completed their undergraduate degree, a Master’s degree is a great way to demonstrate an advanced skill set and easy way to transition from one industry into the GIS industry. While this may be a more costly option, a Master’s degree offers the ability to advance your skill set in a short amount of time, offers more research opportunities, the credentials of a higher degree, and the ability to advance your career. 
  • Microcredential: More community colleges are offering microcredential options. Here is an example of Monroe Community College: https://www.esri.com/en-us/lg/industry/education/stories/ensuring-workplace-success-with-a-gis-micro...
  • GIS Certificate: A GIS certificate program typically offers focused and practical training in GIS technology and applications. This is usually a cheaper and much shorter option for someone to get rather than pursue a formal degree. While many people often seek the higher education route, GIS certificates can still be a great way to expose yourself to the field, build skills in a particular sect of the GIS field, or give yourself the opportunity to do more GIS work at your current job role. 
  • Self-Taught: For people who do not want to bear the financial burden of a degree or certificate, or are maybe just trying to gain specific skills to supplement their existing talent stack, they may choose to self-teach. There are many places to take free or discount courses online such as: Esri Academy, Coursera, YouTube, Google, webinars, and more. Like any degree, but especially for self-teaching, you just want to be sure you can demonstrate to an employer that you can actually perform with these skills. While some companies may do technical interviews to test your knowledge, it is also always a great idea to create a portfolio of your work. 

There really is no “right” advice for the best way to build your skills. There are many people who are self-taught or get a certificate in GIS, while there are many people who choose to go the formal degree route. No matter which way you choose, the biggest thing is to be able to demonstrate your knowledge and ability to do the work. Remember, any route you choose, you can always continue to grow and build your skills as your career progresses.

A piece of advice for anyone in the field or just starting their journey, is do not undersell yourself or your skills. GIS is not just an industry or a degree option, it is a tool that can be implemented across many industries. There are many skills that you probably have or are working towards that will still set you apart as a candidate. On that same note, it is always a great idea to diversify your skills. As GIS becomes more prevalent, and therefore more competitive, think about how you can expand your skills. Like many industries in this new competitive job market, it is often good to have a diverse background of skills and experiences, not just a single degree. 

 

I have the skills, now what?

Internships are a great first step for people looking to get a job post-graduation, or enter a new field. This is a great way to not only build up your resume but also a great way to actually try a job role and see if it is a good fit for you. Esri offers two types of internships: 12-week summer internship and 1-week student assistantship at an Esri conference. Read this blog post to learn more about internships at Esri.

 

Network! Networking is the secret ingredient when it comes to searching for a new job role or to better understand an industry. For people who are new to the field and looking to better understand what exactly a certain job type entails, there are many options to be able to connect directly with professionals in the industry.

  • LinkedIn is your best friend. Work on updating and maintaining your profile with current skills, and start connecting with industry professionals. If you connect with someone who has a job you are interested in, it never hurts to reach out and send them a message to ask more about their day-to-day work! Plus, many recruiters use LinkedIn as a way to find new potential employees. Download this ebook on how to use social media to boost your geospatial career.
  • Join networks organizations. Professional organizations are a great way to connect with professionals in the industry and they often have specific chapters for young professionals, forums for people to ask questions and connect, local events and meet-ups, and mentoring programs. Esri Young Professionals Network (YPN), URISA, USGIF, and AAG are great examples of organizations that have many local events and great mentoring programs where you can be matched with mentors based on your interests. Here's a blog post on suggested organizations to join.
  • Attend conferences. Conferences are a great way to quickly expose yourself to an industry. At conferences, you can attend sessions and workshops to learn a variety of topics and trends within the field, and you have a giant pool of people to network with all in one building. Not only that, but conferences can expose you to many different niche topics that within a field that you may not have even known existed. Two great GIS conferences to attend are the Esri UC Conference and the URISA GIS-Pro Conference. 
  • Put yourself out there! It can be overwhelming to have to meet new people and put yourself out there, especially when you feel like you are a newcomer. However, everyone at some point in their life and career has been where you are. And for many, especially in the GIS field, they are very happy to give back some knowledge to newcomers. To begin, try becoming a YPN Ambassador and join a local YPN chapter.

No matter where you are on your GIS journey, there is always a path forward. There are a plethora of opportunities to advance your skills no matter your budget, and a huge industry of people who are open and eager to help grow this amazing community. 

Students and GIS professionals networking at the AAG Annual Meeting, 2024.Students and GIS professionals networking at the AAG Annual Meeting, 2024.

Share your insights!

Please comment below with your tips for GIS newcomers, or one thing you wish you knew before joining the GIS field. All questions and comments are welcome and encouraged! Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn: Julie Lazor: LinkedIn

1 Comment
Polli_248
New Contributor

@Julie_Lazor  Thank you for sharing such important information! Thanks to this, I've found large specialized organizations that will help me get involved in the study of GIS.