What do I do with this %&#@$ degree?
August 16, 2006 2:27 PM   Subscribe

I'm a "web developer," but I want to be a geographer. What do I do with this disjointed skillset?

(Note: I am aware that undergrad majors really don't mean anything. Please bear with me.)

I double-majored in geography and international affairs (International Environmental Resources) at a fairly prestigious university in DC. Through university, I worked as a web developer/coding monkey to pay the bills, and I'm still in that field. I like it, but I really want to use my knowledge of geography. I'm okay with being an office slave--finding an office job in DC is as easy as shouting for one--but I'd rather do something more technical.

GIS would seem to be the obvious answer, but my undergrad program was weak in it, and my skills in statistics/analysis are definitely not up to snuff. I have a natural affinity for working with computers, but I'd clearly need more training to actually be able to work in this field. Any other jobs in geography that sound interesting require an advanced degree, and one graduate student in the family is enough. (Hopefully, he wouldn't be as impatient as I was.)

Geographers/GISers, what can I do with my coding skills and geography knowledge? I've looked into certificate programs in GIS, but are these viewed as inferior to a graduate degree? Or is there some other career path that I'm missing?
posted by timetoevolve to Education (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
i just took a job a couple of months back that included GIS work. Never did it before, but I have plenty of experience with databases. I just sent my boss a series of maps I did that made her go 'wow.'

don't sell yourself short. gis is simply a database tied to a physcal object on a map. you already probably understand this, so you are more then half there.

as a profession, may i suggest urban planning? i did a lot og geographical work there. currently, i work for a team of actuaries processing and mapping their data.
posted by lester at 2:35 PM on August 16, 2006

Did you actually take any GIS classes as an undergrad? Most entry level GIS positions don't require you to be an expert in the software. You'll learn that on the job.

Obviously, you need to understand the basic concepts of spatial analysis - if you have a Geography degree, you should be in good shape there. As for learning the software, simply having computer skills of any sort goes a long way. Even though I was a Political Science major, I remember running circles around some of the Geography grad students in my GIS courses, simply because I grew up using computers, had programming skills, and wasn't afraid to experiment with the software. Sometimes, I could do in 5 minutes what took them a half hour. Ultimately, GIS work is technical work, so computer skills matter.

Web development skills can actually be quite valuable in the GIS employment market, as more and more companies are dumping their GIS products into their own proprietary web applications and the like. Also, if you have programming skills as is, learning the scripting languages GIS professionals often use should be a piece of cake. As a GIS manager told me in a recent job interview, "It's all syntax."

If your GIS experience in school wasn't all that extensive, I'd suggest taking a look at a certificate program. If anything, it'll at least get you up to speed with what's being used in the industry today. And, of course, it'll look nice on the resume. A graduate degree is valuable, but it's not really all that necessary if you're just getting started.
posted by jal0021 at 4:52 PM on August 16, 2006

lester - I've actually thought about urban planning. I took several classes relating to it, and were I not entirely sick of taking out student loans, I'd go get an MUP.

jal0021, I did take a few GIS classes in undergrad. Just intro-level stuff, but I'm not wholly unfamiliar with the software and concepts. However, I was scared away from the spatial analysis side because the prof pretty much taught it as Statistics in Disguise. :)

My geography studies were mostly in physical geography--hydrology and environmental resources, for the most part. Our program wasn't very strong in GIS, but I've also heard the notion that most of the day-to-day skillset is learned on the job. I'm glad you confirmed that for me.

Thank you both for your answers!
posted by timetoevolve at 8:10 PM on August 16, 2006

I'm going to second/third/fourth the notion that you don't need to be particularly versed in the actual use of any GIS software to do well on the job. There's two factors -- one, there's no guarantee that anybody applying for a GIS job will have experience with the particular flavor that the company uses; two, new software comes out regularly (at least with ESRI) and generally leaves old geographers behind.

If you have web skills, you're pretty much desperately needed in the GIS world. Everything is switching over to web services and on-line databases. ESRI offers three day courses in various aspects of their software if you're interested. If you know how to do web or database administration, it'll get your foot in most doors.

Once you're there, you can pick up on projects that other people are working on; they'll probably need help with coding. See how you like it, and when their position opens up, you're set. I don't know that geography at this point absolutely requires a graduate degree.
posted by one_bean at 8:36 PM on August 16, 2006

And, finally, if you've got some time and want to go to Sweden for a little while in a couple of years, Lund University offers an on-line MS in GIS for free which I hear isn't as flaky as it may sound. You can do it at home, but have to go overseas to defend your final thesis. Neat.
posted by one_bean at 8:39 PM on August 16, 2006

Another suggestion would be in the surveying industry. I graduated with a %@$ geography degree, headed west (Canada) and ended up in the survey industry (oilfield and residential) working in both the field and office.

After searching out many different options this field ended up meshing nicely with my skillset. Lots of landuse planning and development, which also tie in to the previously mentioned Urban planning.
posted by vidarling at 8:40 PM on August 17, 2006

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