What's the deal with GIS these days?
September 3, 2010 10:44 AM   Subscribe

So I'm really excited about the possibility of working in Geographic Information Systems - please help me get a sense of the lay of the land.

Hi all,
So for some time now (a year and change), I've been trying to figure out how to retool myself from guy with a liberal arts degree and some spotty experience shuffling paper in nonprofits to someone with strong technical skills who can proudly be an indispensable cog in the world of environmental conservation and restoration projects. I've also been trying to come up with a solution that won't have me completely abandon my educational background (like, going into engineering wouldn't work).

The answer I've come up with is to learn GIS. I'm currently taking a graduate course in ArcGIS and another one in statistics, and have been pleasantly surprised to discover that I like it, a lot -- as in, think about it in my sleep, eat dinner 2 hours later than I should, and snub addictive websites in favor of studying. The idea of spatial analysis appeals to me as someone who loves the synthesis of data from multiple disciplines and also on this weird level that is purely aesthetic.

I've put together a decent list of natural resource management Masters programs where I can do a concentration in GIS, and in light of the application process, the time has come to put my convert's zeal aside for a second and seriously consider my future career options.

That's where I'm hoping you all will be able to help. There are 3 major areas about this path that concern me:

1). What are the actual JOBS? As I browse job listings, I see mostly mid- and senior-level "GIS analyst" positions with an obscene number of technical skills required, from programming in 4 languages to inscrutable alphabet soups of software to physical science degrees. There's obviously no way I'll be able to do THAT much retooling in a 2-year Masters. As I construct my statements of purpose, I find myself at a loss for what to say in terms of a realistic career plan, except in the vaguest and most generic terms. Ideally I would be a spatial consultant of some sort in restoration of bottomland hardwood forest (what? it's my favorite forest!) - figuring out which parcels of land have the ideal flood regime for new cordgrass, that kind of thing. But without a notion of what's realistically available on the job market to someone with my qualifications post-Masters, I'm feeling a little naive about my vision.

2). GIS technology seems like one of those things that's going to get easier to use every passing year. Before long, my 12-year-old cousin is going to be analyzing alluvial groundwater deposits on his PSP between bouts of "Bomberman." So I find all the hype about GIS as this incredibly promising growth sector to be nearly as disconcerting as it is encouraging. The standard of expertise seems destined to change, and fast. How can I go beyond just being the guy who knows which menu to click on to find an obscure tool in a computer program of above-average complexity?

3). Global outsourcing. Already I see the devilish specter of ITT-Bombay in the Facebook search results for GIS. I personally welcome our Indian and Chinese overlords, and am excited about their contributions to late capitalism. However, I'm also not too keen on investing money and time into some OMG fun new tech skills just to see yet another computer-based field get hit with a wave of downsizing. I know no one can really "answer" this, but should I really believe the hype about GIS as a "smart choice" of skill-set?

Thanks for reading and I'm really eager to hear your thoughts!
posted by geneva uswazi to Work & Money (11 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Regarding #1, actual jobs are quite varied, but a lot of them will require some kind of technical background. I have GIS in my job title and I do use ArcMap for cartographic purposes and some spatial analysis, but I also do a ton with PostgreSQL, PostGIS spatial analysis, Python and other programming languages (though less for straight up spatial analysis and more for other aspects of my job, one of which is building web applications with a spatial component). Only having technical experience with ArcGIS is not going to get you very far. Learning about databases, open source spatial analysis tools, and probably also web programming might give you a far better shot at getting a job in the field.

FWIW, I never took an actual class in GIS. My other coworker that has GIS in his job title does have a Masters in GIS. It probably gets him more money and a slightly more advanced job title, but I think experience is just as good sometimes.
posted by radioaction at 11:17 AM on September 3, 2010

I completed a BA in geography from an excellent university last June and I'm currently a GIS research assistant at a mid-size nonprofit, so I'm pretty much at the bottom rung of the GIS world, but maybe I can help you out. Unfortunately I didn't get this job by applying for it - as an undergraduate, I did some work for an economist, which became more and more extensive and formal until the point where I just started working full-time starting the Monday after graduation. (GIS wasn't even my primary interest - my thesis was a comparative urban morphological analysis that used a lot of historical maps but no GIS whatsoever.) Ideally, I suppose, your situation would be the same - find a GIS department that intersects with other parts of the institution (rather than a stand-alone job training kind of degree) and try your damndest to meet the sociologists, biologists, and economists that use GIS.

To be honest I'm not completely confident that GIS is a "smart choice" or a "growth sector." On the positive side: You're absolutely right that the software is getting easier to use, but having GIS experience isn't necessarily analogous to being, say, an Excel whiz - since I'm essentially the only dedicated GIS person at my office, my assignments aren't so much "Please do xyz" so much as "Here's some weird files our client sent us, can you figure out what these are, also do you know if any land-cover data exists for this region that could help us with this research," which is interesting and engaging work, and not the kind of thing that can be easily farmed out to Hyderabad. On the other hand, a lot of entry-level GIS work is repetitive "data slave" stuff - map digitization, geolocation, etc. - that can and will be outsourced. For this reason I'd be wary of trying to find work in industry, and I'd focus more on academia and non-profit research, where "data slave" work isn't as prevalent and outsourcing is less likely.
posted by theodolite at 11:21 AM on September 3, 2010

That was a little disjointed but one of the points I tried and failed to make was that it's better to know something about a particular field, and also know GIS, than to just be a GIS technician. I had one excellent professor who was a trained archaeologist who picked up GIS later, using it for all kinds of cool stuff: using aerial imagery to find undiscovered tells, using traffic analysis on an excavated city to estimate which buildings might be the most important, even using spatial statistics to predict how a Babylonian library was organized based on the classifying where tablet sherds were found. The smart money (and most fascinating work) is in coming up with new ways to apply GIS, not learning the software (which, after all, is just a tool).
posted by theodolite at 11:33 AM on September 3, 2010 [6 favorites]

one of the points I tried and failed to make was that it's better to know something about a particular field, and also know GIS, than to just be a GIS technician.

This is what I was going to say. The low-end work is being replaced by outsourcing, free web apps, and easier programs. The high-end work will still be there, but that's more like being a programmer, and has nothing to do with the field work you seem to enjoy. Treat the software as a tool rather than an end in itself, and as an accompaniment to your existing skills, and you will be in a strong position.
posted by Forktine at 12:00 PM on September 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've been in the field for 10 years, so here are a few points from my perspective.

*It seems to me there is significant job growth, although more and more people are entering the field. It seems even small municipalities of <1>
*I don't think GIS is getting simpler in the professional world. Sure, your average Joe can find the location of a Mexican restaurant using Google maps, but the GIS software that professionals use is becoming more advanced. I probably use less than 1% of what my GIS program is capable of. Also, although a 12 year old may be able to physically conduct an analysis using GIS, interpreting and manipulating data and analyzing results is something that takes education and experience.

*I wouldn't worry too much about outsourcing. This may be common in the private sector, but there will still be plenty of federal, state, and local GIS jobs available.

*My programming skills are next to nil, but I've never had any trouble finding GIS jobs. I'm more of a front end data analyzer, data gatherer / creator, and map producer. I avoid programming like the plague. Basically, my job entails reviewing subdivision plats, updating property / zoning maps, generating maps for brochures, plans, packets, etc., measuring properties for tax purposes, answering questions regarding easement locations, creating maps for emergency services, and on and on.
posted by Beardsley Klamm at 12:04 PM on September 3, 2010

That was a little disjointed but one of the points I tried and failed to make was that it's better to know something about a particular field, and also know GIS, than to just be a GIS technician.

I think this is right on the money. A majority of academic research projects and non-academic work in my field (ecology) make use of GIS in one way or another, but I've never heard of someone being hired to a GIS position who wasn't first and foremost an ecologist. Nearly all GIS work will be directly supporting some kind of science/conservation/whatever, and whoever is leading a project will want a GIS tech who both speaks the same language as everyone else on the team and can problem-solve on their own using GIS.
posted by JumpW at 12:06 PM on September 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding theodolite about knowing a field *plus* GIS. That's how you're going to get hired. Jobs are available wherever something is done with GIS-available data. For example, big farms hire GIS people to know how to best apply water, fertilizer, or pesticides. Creative data mashups can give the farm an advantage. For another, municipalities use it to control and enumerate assets like streetlights, fire hydrants and other infrastructure.

I worked here for quite some time and found it reasonable - not real exciting but reasonable. Quite a few companies do similar work.

In my view, most GIS applications haven't been figured out yet and there have to be a bunch of very useful seeds for them hiding in dusty old filing cabinets or in oilmen's heads.
posted by jet_silver at 12:06 PM on September 3, 2010

I'm an urban planner that picked up a lot of GIS in my masters program back in 2003. I also had a lot of relatively hardcore programming and sysadmin stuff in my background, an engineering degree, etc. Almost none of that computer stuff is very useful. 99% of what you'll do, you'll do with MS Access and ArcGIS most places. Like Beardsley Klamm, I use 1% of the capabilities of the software in my job as a facilities planner.

My $.02:
1. If you want to work with forests, get a natural resources management degree. All masters programs in that field are going to teach you as much GIS as you can handle. Unless you want to manage a GIS system at a large organization, you'll be better served by having field-specific knowledge and picking up the GIS along the way.

2. It's getting harder, not easier, I think. The software really hasn't scaled well to the volume of available data we can easily gather these days. Plus, using it effectively requires not just the software skills, but also a good understanding of the data in the system. For example, few people can do the sort of GIS work I do because they'd need to know about both hospital facilities planning *and* GIS.

3. Again, using the software well means understanding the data in it. That's something only the locals can know. Outsourcing it would be hard.

GIS is a tool. Don't go to school to learn how to use a tool, go to learn a profession. You'll pick up the tools you need along the way.
posted by pjaust at 12:21 PM on September 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

Another vote for learning a field plus GIS. It's great that you are interested in natural resource management. I'd stick with that and learn the tech stuff in your spare time. A concentration is not going to delve deeply enough into the programming aspect to get a GIS analyst job - you'll have to take more classes from the CS department or learn stuff on your own.

Network, network, network, network. Also there seems to be one GIS job per person in Colorado.
posted by desjardins at 2:23 PM on September 3, 2010

I gave my take on types of GIS jobs on this MeFi thread.

I definitely agree with theodolite JumpW, and jet_silver on picking a field (e.g. natural resources, conservation, planning, epidemiology, etc), and then studying GIS as it applies to that field. I work as a GIS manager/spatial analyst for The Nature Conservancy, and within our state chapter, all 9 scientists use GIS to varying degrees, and we have 9 others (land stewards, program managers, legal, etc) who also use it. All of our scientists have completed graduate programs in ecology, natural resources, or hydrology. Throughout the organization, we have those who have studied just GIS or geography, but they more often tend to do more conservation-agnostic GIS work, like supporting spatial databases and infrastructure.

If you want to work for a conservation organization and have more of a GIS-centric analysis role (e.g. some of our scientists might spend 10% of their time with the software open, while I probably spend 50-80%), you'd be well-served by picking up basic Python skills. Python is used as a scripting language in ArcGIS, and ESRI has increased Python prominence with the newest version of ArcGIS. In my experience within TNC, most ecologists don't know Python but can do basic GIS, while those with GIS-centric positions can at least do some basic scripting.
posted by indeterminacy at 2:36 PM on September 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

The only thing I'd add to everyone else's good advice would be to donate your skills to a local nonprofit for a while. Our local watershed council is always hoping to integrate land ownership, land use, land cover, infrastructure, etc, and never seems to have all of the skills to do it right. I've helped them some, but some employee turnover, and an insane personal schedule, keeps me from helping out more.

With that kind of background / resume building, you can start to get inroads into organizations that you are interested in.
posted by mossbackfarm at 2:12 PM on September 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

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