Master's program options for Geography/GIS undergrad
December 13, 2013 7:49 AM   Subscribe

Do any of you know what my options might be as a Geography/GIS undergrad looking for Grad programs? And I guess more specifically, can you all think of any programs/occupations that use GIS to a certain extent as a supplementary tool rather than the sole tool?

I graduated from a big state university with a B.A. in Geography with a concentration in Geospatial Analysis. I decided to go traveling for a couple of years after graduation, which ended up being the best decision of my life. However, I’m a little unsure of what my next move should be.

I currently have an internship with a land trust making maps and other fairly basic GIS tasks, which is all fine and dandy but it does get pretty boring. I’m just sort of trying to figure out what I want to do with GIS because I do realize the capability and power of the program. Do I want to make GIS my occupation, eg. GIS Specialist/Technician/Analyst? Or do I want to specialize in some other area and use GIS as a complimentary tool with projects. From what I’ve read in many articles/ forums(including metafilter discussions), unless you’re really excited about just doing GIS data entry/feature editing/database management/programming, GIS-specific positions like the ones I just mentioned might not be the best career path.

At this point I’m considering going to graduate school to become more focused in a particular field but I’m unsure of what my options are. Any advice/suggestions/resources/contacts would be most appreciated. Thanks a lot guys!
posted by to Education (24 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
A former student in my lab (in a graduate program in Ecology and Evolution) entered with a B.A. in Geography, and his research focused on the environmental factors underlying the distribution of a number of tree species. Lots of GIS and spatial modeling used as a tool, but not the sole tool by a long shot. In general plenty of master's students in our Ecology and Evolution program use a GIS/landscape modeling component to their research. Is that the kind of idea you are looking for?
posted by pemberkins at 8:02 AM on December 13, 2013

Do I want to make GIS my occupation, eg. GIS Specialist/Technician/Analyst?
In my opinion, no. You want to make your occupation a specialization that *can use* GIS as a toolkit to answer questions and solve problems. To say you are a GIS specialist is equivalent to saying you specialize in Microsoft Word. It's a tool and a means, not an end.
posted by hobu at 8:07 AM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yes, this is exactly the kind of answer I'm looking for, pemberkins. Getting feedback from people who know of or know specifically about different academic programs/applications of GIS is what I'm after. Thanks for your comment!

hobu- this has sort of been what I've been thinking lately. Do you use GIS at all? or do you have any suggestions about industries or grad programs(of which I'd be eligible for as a geog undergrad) that use GIS as a tool, not the tool. I know of a few, I'm just looking for different ideas or suggestions. Thank you for your response.
posted by at 8:23 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding ecology as a field that uses GIS extensively. The subfields of community ecology, landscape ecology and watershed ecology in particular are very spatial and use GIS as a primary data analysis tool.

Many branches of social science (beyond geography) do as well, such as political science and sociology--think about analysis of census data and the cool possibilities there.
posted by hydropsyche at 8:26 AM on December 13, 2013

City Planning. I'm have an MCP, I am a transportation planner, and I have GIS open as I type this.
posted by millipede at 8:26 AM on December 13, 2013

My wife just finished a PhD in Geography at a big state university, and although her focus was more on "human" geography, a decent amount of her cohort were Gizzers of some variety. I obviously don't have intimate knowledge of how GIS was used, but generally it seems like what prior commenters are saying - GIS was a tool that let them show information about their primary area of study. The GIS folks generally seem to be headed more towards the private sector (as opposed to academia, where most Humies end up), or government planning-type jobs. A lot of the masters students she was there with end up working for companies like Recon, where they're sort of a consultant that gets used to produce reports, often in conjunction with construction project (it may just seem that way to me because I work with firms like them a lot for development projects as an architect). Other people in my wife's cohort ended up working for local government planning, or were working with fire agencies, things like that.
posted by LionIndex at 8:27 AM on December 13, 2013

My father-in-law has a master's degree in geography from UC Davis. He's been working in the banking industry for 30 years in residential banking - using GIS and other tools to plan the locations of new banking branches or atms, closing underutilizes locations, helping determine the utility of acquiring other banks, and the best location for the rollout of new bank features.
posted by muddgirl at 8:38 AM on December 13, 2013

I disagree with hobu's reductionist view of GIS Specialists. I'm a GIS Specialist/Cartographer and I love it. It's a lot more than just "data entry," my position involves a lot of spatial analysis and remote sensing interpretation, too. It's exciting, challenging work. However, if you don't love cartography, then it may not be for you. But you don't have to choose right now, I've moved easily between positions that just considered GIS part of the job and positions where GIS was the full job.

As for industries, consider the federal government (or one of their many contractors)!
posted by troika at 8:39 AM on December 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

Yup, yup, yup: ecology (and particularly conservation) is crying out for people with GIS skills who swap job satisfaction for having less to live on than engineering and petrochemical companies can offer. Having solid GIS expertise and building the ecology/biology/social expertise on top of it is a very viable career path, and will put you ahead of people with just the latter. Super bonus points for being able to do spatial stats or mathematical programming through GIS.
posted by cromagnon at 8:45 AM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

Ecological niche modeling is what pemberkins is talking about. GIS is essential in that field.
posted by dinofuzz at 8:45 AM on December 13, 2013

There's a very, very long list of occupations/fields (including mine) that use GIS sort of like how I also use excel or field survey gear -- it's a necessary tool but not a full time thing. It'll be a required skill in a job ad but not something you do 24/7 or are expected to know all of the nuances.

But at the same time I rely on having access to full time GIS specialists who can do the super complex stuff that I don't have the time or interest in learning how to do. In other words, both are viable paths and it's more a question of what gets you excited than some categorical one path is good and the other is bad. From the job ads I've noticed in passing, entry level GIS work pays noticeably poorly but really good people are in high demand and are hard to find. I'm guessing that it is because it is easy to train someone to the entry level (make maps, work on databases) but to be good you need both cartography skills and the analytical skills of a good programmer, which is not a common skillset.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:54 AM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

Wow guys, seriously thanks for all the responses. This is my first time posting a question, or anything for that matter and I wasn't sure what would happen. So far I've got ecology/conservation, social sciences, gov't planning/city planning, and business/banking allocation. I'll explore more deeply into these fields and again thank you. Feel free to keep the ideas coming, all are welcome!
posted by at 9:02 AM on December 13, 2013

I know in my province the enforcement officers for the department of natural resources use GIS. They use it to track the locations of various things, from fishing locations to illegal hunting camps, to the current location of all the trucks in their fleet so that they know who to send to which incident to get the quickest response. They also use GIS for natural disasters, especially forest fires.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 9:06 AM on December 13, 2013

The insurance industry uses a lot of GIS-based analysis, and of a sophisticated kind too, since it's increasingly called upon to predict a future which doesn't resemble the past as much as it used to.
posted by jamjam at 9:12 AM on December 13, 2013

So far I've got ecology/conservation, social sciences, gov't planning/city planning, and business/banking allocation.

It's almost more a question of what fields don't need GIS. Try laying out and constructing a natural gas pipeline without involving GIS, for example -- all of the extractive industries use it, the military has serious GIS capacity, it's used in public health and international development... That list is going to be too long to be useful, honestly.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:12 AM on December 13, 2013

I understand what you're saying Dip Flash, I do realize it's used all over the place. But I think at least with what I have so far, it is helpful as a form of brainstorming. I'm not sure what I want to do but I know that grad school is something that's in the cards and has to be considered very carefully. So looking into a bunch of different industries to see what sparks my interest and subsequently, the education requirements of jobs in those industries is sort of where I am right now.
posted by at 9:28 AM on December 13, 2013

Yes, Ecology! Ecology, and all of the related branches of biology like eco-evolution, population dynamics, population genomics, conservation biology, etc are all fields where GIS skills are extremely desirable. GIS techniques are exploding in a big way in that part of biology, and we still have a real dearth of people who are trained in it – most of us are sort of trying to pick it up as we go along. Someone with real GIS training is a big asset to an ecology lab, and even more so if they also have some training in programming (Python is very popular) and/or statistics (R is the package of choice there, mostly). Many ecology labs would have no problem hiring on a grad student whose background was GIS-related rather than Biology-related, and would happily train you up on the relevant parts of the field during your program.

However I should add a caveat that you shouldn't go that route unless you a) love scientific research and b) have some realistic ideas for what kind of job you might get after grad school. Grad school in the sciences can be pretty great, but you have to love it (because it's going to be hard, often tedious work and the academic culture is not for everyone) and you have to have a plan for afterward. The job market is not what it used to be, though there are still opportunities out there for someone who does well (i.e. publishes a half dozen or so papers during their time in the program) and is willing to look in some less-traditional directions. However if it sounds like something you would really like to do then I encourage you to pursue it.
posted by Scientist at 9:33 AM on December 13, 2013

And yeah, much of the GIS work that's done in the ecological sciences is spatial modeling stuff. For instance, my project is trying to model environmentally-associated hotspots of adaptive evolutionary potential in Central Africa and create a prioritization scheme for new protected areas. What we'll be doing, in essence, is taking one layer that has information about population-level variation generated from field and labwork, and then feeding it into a model with some other layers that have environmental data for the region. This will give us a new layer that will be a continuous map of the levels of adaptive potential across the region. We will then cross-reference that with additional socioeconomic layers generated from the work that our sociologist colleagues are doing, which will allow us to identify areas in Central Africa that have both high adaptive potential and a high degree of political feasibility for being assigned protected status.

As you can see, that's a lot of GIS work. We have some colleagues who have experience in that kind of thing, and they're definitely in demand. The rest of us are just trying to get up to speed so that we can contribute. Someone with your background could be very useful in a project like mine, or in any of the other similar projects that are out there in my field.
posted by Scientist at 9:42 AM on December 13, 2013

I'm in a MSc in Geosciences, and a lot of people take GIS because it opens up a lot of possibilities within the field to have it on your resume. Many fields within the geosciences use GIS, but there are a ton of possibilities. Here's a great list of jobs geoscientists do. Bonus: you can look for a field that requires a lot of traveling!
posted by DoubleLune at 10:56 AM on December 13, 2013

To say you are a GIS specialist is equivalent to saying you specialize in Microsoft Word. It's a tool and a means, not an end.

Sorry, but this is an absolutely ignorant statement.
Who's going to edit the zoning boundary layer with nothing but metes and bounds information? Probably the GIS Specialist not the City Planner.
Who's going to write the request for proposal for new orthoimagery and LiDar acquisition? Probably the GIS Specialist, not the Hydrologist.
Who's going to write the code to create an online interactive map of construction projects? Probably the GIS Specialist, not the Engineer.
The average person that uses GIS as a tool isn't writing code to create customizable applications, building models to conduct spatial analysis, and likely doesn't understand datums and projections enough to troubleshoot why a layer is shifted 100 feet to the west.
There's a reason why so many companies are hiring GIS Specialists and why there are four year degrees in Geoinformatics and GIS.
posted by Beardsley Klamm at 11:39 AM on December 13, 2013 [8 favorites]

I think Beardsley has it...I'd add that most working analysts now need Python and JavaScript chops for task automation and web stuff. Alternatively, there are a lot of skills deficits in the backend geospatial RDBMS like Oracle Spatial and ESRI Sde.
posted by j_curiouser at 2:51 PM on December 13, 2013

My SO is a Master's student in Forestry and Environmental Policy at Duke's Nicholas School. I know she and a lot of her program-mates use GIS as part of their bread and butter, and her friends who are GIS whizzes are getting many many job offers. You can do forestry policy stuff, you can do industrial forestry stuff, you could be a higher-up at a land trust, and I think people use it for water management and agriculture stuff too. From what I've seen, the program is very flexible and you can pursue whatever avenues of interest you have, so coming in with GIS experience and working with that could work really well for you.
posted by Maecenas at 4:25 PM on December 13, 2013

Regarding Geography programs or continuation of your GIS specialty into a Master's degree, here is the AAG Guide to Geography Programs (direct PDF link).
posted by zachxman at 7:25 AM on December 14, 2013

I'm in a Masters of Public Health program for community health, and have had a brief introduction to spatial epidemiology - you may want to look into this as a field with many questions that involve GIS methods in the answers. MeMail if you would like a reference to a faculty member in my program who specializes in this field, it's outside my area of focus but I'd be happy to put you in touch with someone who may be able to answer your other questions.
posted by pants at 7:48 AM on December 14, 2013

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