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January 13, 2014 8:58 AM   Subscribe

A friend is looking at college programs to pitch to their kid and they are of a practical bent, so looking for things with good placement rates, etc. Apparently, Geographic Information Systems has a 100% placement rate, which sounds like a good fit, but they (and I) know nothing about it. Is there a site with a good overview of the day to day work (I've read a couple but it's like "They do stuff with maps and use programs to do things with maps," which answers the question but isn't quite helpful), what it actually involves, what skills are good to have, where these jobs are located, etc.? It's a field I know nothing about and the stuff I've found Googling has been either vague enough that it doesn't help or so incredibly specific I have no idea what it's talking about. I did look here but everything dated to 2010 or so.
posted by Ghostride The Whip to Work & Money (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
These two agendas for major GIS conferences might provide some clues. The first is for a more code-heavy, edgy open source branch of GIS while the second is from the world's leading vendor of GIS software. Between the two you might get a sense of how these folks spend their time.
posted by migurski at 9:07 AM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, 2010 is not that far back in this industry.
posted by migurski at 9:07 AM on January 13, 2014

This entry from the Occupational Outlook Handbook is probably a bit on the vague side, but the OOH in general is a great resource for anybody looking for info about employment fields they may not have heard of, and might be useful to your friend.
posted by asperity at 9:11 AM on January 13, 2014

GIS is used for so, so, so much. It can be used for logistical operations, it can be used for data analysis, for data visualization, for design. It combines programming, data, and design, and is a tool that is very widely applicable.
posted by entropone at 9:23 AM on January 13, 2014

What is the kid actually interested in?

I know lots of people who work with GIS in one form or another, but a lot of them are former liberal arts majors in fields like anthropology, archaeology, urban studies, and geography. It stands to reason that a lot of people from the hard sciences (geology comes to mind) would also ultimately find careers in GIS related fields, as well as people from the arts world (architecture, various areas within design).

I would be leery of getting a degree just in GIS and not any other area, and especially leery of picking a school solely because it has a dedicated GIS program.

This is a pretty good rundown of what "a career in GIS" would mean.
posted by Sara C. at 9:29 AM on January 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Is this degree required for great jobs that require this certificate in particular? I ask because there's a lot of recruiting in Seattle for low level tech contract Maps work at google that does require a (any) BA/BS, but pays around $14/hr (low for Seattle cost-of-living) and is very entry level tech skill. I hope jobs like these don't count toward the 100% placement rate, but having been through the world of lofty promises made by the people trying to sell me on grad school programs, the skeptic in me wonders. Apologies for the anecdata only--this is gleaned from reading the local blogs/news and talking to people who have worked these contracts.
posted by Lardmitten at 9:32 AM on January 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Aside from those working on their doctorates in geography related disciplines, or doing academic research, people I know who have GIS certs or degrees largely have government jobs. Our city (~60k population) has a person in charge of managing geographic information, acting as a liason between the various departments that need to track geographic information (water conservation and resources, the various branches of public works), utilities, developers, and anyone else who needs access to that data.

Other local cities and the county have several people in similar roles, and there are assorted local (and wider scale) companies (from surveying and engineering companies to aerial photography services to location data providers) that provide services to these groups. There's a local GIS user's group that I've been to once or twice, and there's an annual "let us show off our data" fair that that group puts on. You can probably find something like that near you.

And I've got another friend who's a cartographer who does similar work at the state level (and then does maps for travel books on the side).

I think it's largely going to end up in a civil service career with a pension. Lots to be said for that, if that's the way you swing.
posted by straw at 9:33 AM on January 13, 2014

Ever searched for directions on Google Maps? Congratulations, you're a GIS user!

GIS is a huge field, and has special applications in many industries. Energy, civil engineering, environment, law, planning and land use all make heavy use of it. Jobs are pretty much anywhere/everywhere, but you're not going to find much use for (say) silviculture or hydrology where there are few trees and water.

GIS are basically computer databases that deal with spatial relationships rather than numeric or text. GIS primitives are points, lines and polygons in space, and they're used to represent roads, lakes, spill sites, archaeological finds, noise sources, houses, oil-bearing rock, property lines, etc. The analysis of how these objects interact (will a chemical spill reach a river? Can we extract this resource which is near a national park? What municipal water pipes will need replaced next year? Has this landowner's building encroached on that property? What does this pattern of hearth remains and post holes say about the people who lived here 3000 years ago?) is the essence of GIS. A paper map is basically a single view of a GIS that has crawled onto a page and died.

Some GIS move quickly (dynamic plume/spill modelling), some slowly (archaeological finds). The fields I've worked in tend to have heavy analytical, geographic, geological and environmental specialisms. Some GIS involves field work; much of it relies on desk-based collation and analysis. An understanding of database technology is very useful, even although spatial queries are all their own technology compared to traditional dbs. Some GIS applications require cartography/design skills.

The typical day would be hard to define because it's such a varied field. It's all about data handling, though. The huge name is ESRI; they're the way IBM was in the 1960s for computers. If you keep on top of the latest ESRI software, there will be work for you somewhere. ESRI's dominance is being chipped away by smaller, more cost-conscious players.
posted by scruss at 9:38 AM on January 13, 2014

You should be weary of placement rates, especially if they are 100%. Those statistics are easy to manipulate and often have conditions to give an overly positive outlook. I wouldn't choose a career based on that information.
posted by Aranquis at 9:50 AM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

If a person is really that practical, then a better strategy would be to pitch things that are timeless and have a relatively constant demand that scales as the population of the USA increases and can't be outsourced. Knowledge of GIS will get you a job, but I don't know if it is all that practical to get a degree in it unless the student has a particular passion for geography and computation.

The department of labor has plenty of statistics on average salaries and projected growth rates of the field if you're being purely practical about it.
posted by deanc at 9:54 AM on January 13, 2014

I hold a degree in geography specializing in GIS. I have tried for 3 years for entry level positions to no avail. I applied to literally every government job (took me about 4 months) and close to three dozen private firms. One interview waiting room I chatted up a guy sitting next to me and found out that he was a PhD interviewing for the same entry level position. That's when I decided to do something else. Ymmv.
posted by schyler523 at 10:23 AM on January 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure that pursuing a bachelors or even an associates degree in GIS is the way to go.

I'm currently enrolled in a GIS certificate program that's very well attended. Almost all of the students involved either a) have a degree in a field where GIS is relevant or b) already have a job that touches on GIS in some way and want to sharpen their skills.

Clearly, I think it's worth it for me to spend the money and take the time to develop my GIS skills, but I think that it's a better idea to approach GIS training as something that's useful for a specific purpose rather than an educational end in itself.
posted by ursus_comiter at 10:32 AM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have a friend with a bachelors in GIS. She was unable to find work in her field for a year after getting her degree, and that's with several lovely internships, awards, and other shiny things on her resume. She's now getting her masters, hoping that might make her a bit more employable. So I would be very, very wary of the 100% placement rate. It's always a good idea to ask questions when looking at placement rates, such as, "Placement in the field?" and "Placement in a steady job?" (as opposed to a 3 month contract) and "Placement in something above minimum wage?" (because paying back a 4-year student loan on minimum wage is pretty awful). For instance, my first job out of college was at a lab, so it counted as a "placement" for my biology degree. However, it was a 3 month contract, had no health insurance, was $10/hour before taxes, and was basically a paperwork pushing job in the front office that minimally used my freshly-minted lab skills. That's probably not what you're envisioning when you see "100% placement".
posted by RogueTech at 10:58 AM on January 13, 2014

Thanks, guys, I know very little beyond what I told you. I know from hanging around lawyers that the "100% placement" thing can be a bit of a red herring but this is all good info for an area I know nothing about.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 12:36 PM on January 13, 2014

I have a degree in Geography with a minor in GIS. I've been steadily employed as a GIS specialist/cartographer since graduation, but I work in an area (DC) that has a lot of GIS-type jobs. Friends with similar credentials in other cities have not had the same luck. Most of my employed GIS friends aren't GIS specialists, but use it occasionally as part of a different job. The most successful ones majored in either a hard science or computer science but minored in GIS.

The American Association of Geographers has an About Geography Careers section (on the sidebar: what geographers do, where geographers work, etc) that may help.
posted by troika at 12:50 PM on January 13, 2014

Another person here with a BS in Geography, concentration in GIS, minor in environmental studies, plus two years of grad school in a similar but more rigorous program. (I put myself through school doing IT work and have an IT-related AS degree.) I didn't have the advanced math skills to double-major in a hard science, so Geography was as close as I could get. I graduated with research experience & good internships; got my post-school Real Job via networking with a guy from an internship. Worked for 3 years locally in the energy industry before I realized I was already pretty burnt out and needed a break.

I'd say that GIS can be a practical career, but only to a certain extent, and with a lot of caveats. GIS jobs usually follow a path like, GIS Technician > GIS Analyst > GIS Specialist or GIS Programmer > GIS Coordinator or Manager. That's it, or you go back to school for a PhD and fight 300 people for every academic posting. Some of my grad school friends who graduated the year ahead of me ended up in federal positions, like USGS, Census Bureau, USFS, Army Corps of Engineers, three-letter-acronym-beginning-with-C, etc. Also have friends who ended up in local county government or in the private sector, like me.

Job description example: I started out as a GIS Analyst, so I was the head GIS person at my first job after my supervisor. I ended up having ~6 techs that I unofficially supervised/mentored, taught the field staff the basics of using the GIS software, was responsible for fixing and organizing their extensive backlog of data into geodatabases, worked with my supervisor to standardize their cartographic output, took care of the plotter (larger poster-size printer), produced X number of maps/week depending on project load, cross-trained with CADD staff, etc. I needed really good people skills, ability to work quickly and manage frustration, excellent eye for detail, ability to find data and solve problems that nobody else could solve, have advanced Excel skills, etc. My IT training definitely helped, but I regret not taking some advanced programming classes in college.

Based on my experience, your friend's son will really want to identify how he wants to use GIS. I felt very disillusioned after a few years into the workforce. So many STEM fields use GIS nowadays, but often it's the geologists, engineers, biologists, etc. who are using it directly. Some of them become very advanced users of the software, akin to someone being, say, an Excel or Photoshop power-user. Others do the bare minimum, but there you are in, somewhere in the middle. Despite the fact that GIS is a very technically complex science of its own standing, I found that I was often kind of...looked-down upon by the "real" scientists because they didn't understand what it was about besides "blah blah maps," and that got old after a while.

If your friend's son decides that they like the technical side of GIS, the most commonly-used software is ESRI's ArcGIS. Sometimes MapInfo, or other specialty software related to that field. He will want to have good solid skills in map layout & reading, math, IT, programming, and problem-solving. If he has the opportunity to learn some GPS and/or surveying devices, along with some basic AutoCADD or Microstation, that would give him a lot of options job-wise after school. He'll also want to consider where he wants to live, and if he will be happy doing whatever form of GIS is most common in that area. Around DC it's government work, for example; in OH/WV/PA, it's energy. Sometimes you can find a job with a land trust or community development agency, sometimes real estate, utilities, marketing. etc. In my area, the availability of GIS jobs has dropped steadily and there's an overflow of shiny new grads vs. jobs. Once people get into a position, they're kinda stuck for a few years until they can obtain enough skills to advance to the next level. I know two former Analysts, one is long-term unemployed right now and the other had to take a Technician-level job. All three of us would likely have to relocate right now to find something commensurate with our levels of education and experience.

I'd also like to add that while my grad education gave me the credential that I needed for being hired with a better title and pay grade, I've been overeducated for most of my jobs. My academic background didn't apply much to my work and I always ended up teaching myself what I needed to know on-the-job. I also got bored easily bc I had advanced skills but never got to use them. I missed academia once I was in the work force, but I haven't decided yet if I will go back or not, given the current outlook for teaching jobs. Often, GIS Analysts can end up doing some pretty interesting, complex work, but it might take you 5-8 years of grunt work to get to that level. Depends on the job, really. There are a lot of factors to consider. If your friend's son can reach out through his school, maybe he could look into an informational interview or job-shadowing day with some local GIS professionals to get a better feel for what he'd most enjoy about the field.
posted by cardinality at 2:07 PM on January 13, 2014

Paging Desjardins, desjardins to the green courtesy phone…

She's in GIS, and she's asked several questions that deal with it. Maybe tap her for advice?
posted by klangklangston at 5:23 PM on January 13, 2014

I've been working as a GIS specialist / analyst for the past 3 years for a local city government. Like a few of the previous posters, I have a BS in geography and minor in GIS.

The best advice I can give to anyone interested in GIS is to try and figure out which direction you want to go with it. I'm going to echo cardinality a little here, because for so many people now, GIS is just another tool on their belt. Biologists, geologists, archaeologists, etc. all use GIS now and frankly, I feel that they are better off than GIS generalists, who may have a better understanding of the software but have no depth of academic knowledge in any one discipline. Would you advise someone to get a degree in MS Word or Excel? Probably not. This is a bit of hyperbole of course but for a lot of disciplines, GIS is moving in this direction.

The other path to take is that of the true "GIS professional" , somebody who knows the software forwards and backwards, but also knows programming languages like SQL, python, java, knows their way around a relational database, and knows about web APIs like Silverlight. Having these skills will you set you apart from the pack, because the vast majority of people coming out of college with a Geography/GIS degree will not know these things, and I'm including myself in this camp.

The unfortunate truth for GIS job seekers is that like so many other tech fields, the distribution of GIS jobs is looking more and more "bimodal". There are good job openings at the high end for managers and coordinators, or people who have good programming skills, particularly around building web applications. At the other end you have data entry and techs, who don't get paid a whole lot. The middle jobs, the general mappers and such, are just not as plentiful.

I don't want this come off as overtly negative, GIS can be an interesting career where you get to put your hands into a lot of different subjects. But if I had to advise a person 10 years my junior, I wouldn't tell them to do the same thing I did. I got lucky while I was in school and landed an internship, which got my foot in the door for my job when I graduated. Many of my fellow students were not so fortunate. All of that being said, if this person decides they ultimately want to be a GIS professional, then for the love of GOD they need to develop their CS skills in a few programming languages and subjects like database management. If this path sounds completely unappealing to this person, then they are far better off majoring in something else and picking up GIS as another tool.

Memail me if you have some more specific questions. Best of luck to your friend's kid.
posted by ajax287 at 6:46 PM on January 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

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