Building a GIS Career

Caitlin Dempsey

Updated:

The use of geospatial technologies is increasingly being used in a variety of fields.  GIS, which stands for geographic informations systems, is being used in many different industries and the skills required to be a successful GIS professional have evolved over the years.  

Below are recommendations on building a strong background in preparation for a career in GIS based on what the majority of employers are looking for.  However, keep in mind you will find a wide variety of work and educational backgrounds among those working in GIS jobs.  

This post is a work in progress and will be updated as new skills and achievements are identified as being essential for developing a successful GIS career.

How to get started in GIS

The starting point in building a successful career in GIS is a solid education. This involves taking classes in cartography, GIS, spatial analysis, database management, web technologies, and programming.  


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As you start your educational and early career journey, make sure you collect examples of your best work as a GIS portfolio will become an important part of your GIS job search.

There are a lot of GIS certificate courses emerging that help solve the confusion as to which classes to take, but any department offering GIS coursework is a great starting point. Start by taking a general “what is GIS” themed course. This is important because it is important to understand the general concepts in GIS before actually attempting some of the functionality.

Taking a good cartography course is critical as well. Often overlooked by many seeking GIS knowledge, a comprehension of cartographic techniques is especially important for understanding mapmaking and for learning how to create maps that are effective in communicating geographic data.

The end process of visualizing spatial analysis can be tricky. Understand the methods by which one can display data is essential to effectively communicating with maps.

Minimum level of education for a career in GIS

Most employers strongly prefer at least a bachelor’s degree.  Depending on the industry of the job listing, that degree would preferably be in Geography, Computer Science, Engineering, or Urban Planning.  

Job seekers that already have a bachelor’s degree in another major should supplement their college education with a certificate program or hands on work experience in GIS.  Those striving for managerial positions in GIS will be more successful if they also have a master’s degree.

Consider your career trajectory

Those working exclusively as GIS professionals will need to have solid programming skills. It’s rare to find a job in GIS that has growth potential where you can avoid needing to program.

If you’re not interested in developing programming skills but still want GIS in your professional tasks, consider specializing in a field that utilizes geospatial technology. For example, urban planners use GIS as part of their day to day job function.

Learning GIS software applications

The next step is to take coursework that applies the concepts of GIS and cartography. These courses are always software specific so it’s important to choose a class that teaches the software you will be using once employed.

Currently, Esri products dominate the commercial GIS software market while open source QGIS has made enormous strides in its adoption. The prevalence of difference GIS software packages varies depending on the industry and country.

If you are unsure which software to learn, I suggest developing hands on experience with both Esri’s ArcGIS suite of software and QGIS, as these are the software applications most often required by employers. QGIS is more widely used in various European countries, particularly among academics. Esri is virtually dominants all of the government agencies that have GIS in the United States.

You can also do a job search of companies and agencies in the area you want to work in to see what GIS software and tools they are requiring for employment. Classes specific to a GIS software package can be taken at many universities and colleges, through satellite courses from the software companies themselves, or through online or distance learning.

A growing option is the offering of GIS MOOCs (massive open online course), some of which are offered for free.

Become familiar with GIS data

You will also need to be familiar with the various types of GIS data, the more common file formats and data storage options. GIS has come a long way from the Esri shapefile being the most common and widely accepted GIS file format. Lidar, drone imagery, remotely sensed data, satellite and aerial imagery are just some of the geospatial data that you need to be familiar with handling.

Taking your GIS skills to the next level

The current trend in GIS is customization and application. More and more GIS packages are being altered to serve a specific GIS purpose. This could range from an Emergency Response System to an application customized to allow a user to generate mailing lists based on a spatially selected area. Many of the software packages contain some ability for customization using programming languages.

The type of language will be affected by the software application. For example, Python is a common scripting language for extending ArcGIS and QGIS functionality. For browser based mapping applications, knowing the various web-based languages is important. More: Learning GIS Programming.

Since GIS analysis is involves the integration of spatial and tabular data, some knowledge of relational database management (RDBMS) is a must. Taking a class in SQL (structured query language) is important to mastering RDBMS and understanding structured query language (SQL).

Getting GIS experience

The only way to truly become proficient in GIS is to simply use it. The coursework will only serve to provide a base knowledge of the field and without some form of practical experience, most companies will not be interested in hiring.

Internships are extremely popular in GIS as they allow the employer a cheap source of labor for lower level GIS tasks and, in turn, provide a valuable training experience for the intern. Most journey-level GIS jobs require prior hands-on experience.

Finding a GIS Job

Once you’ve completed your coursework and gotten hands on work experience, where do you look for a job? There are quite a few job sites on the internet specializing exclusively in GIS employment opportunities.

To find internships check with your school’s geography, environmental science, or urban planning department. Oftentimes, companies and agencies looking for student help will advertise there. You can also directly inquire with places that you are interested in working for. Scour social media as many staffers will post about GIS internships and other geospatial employment opportunities.

So write up a resume and cover letter, polish off your GIS portfolio, and start searching. Aim for jobs that meet your education and experience level. In the geospatial field, there are different GIS job levels. In general, the hierarchy and required GIS experience for hands-on (i.e. non-managerial) positions is as follows:

GIS Intern

Almost every higher level (Technician, Analyst, etc.) position will require some hand-on job training.  The best way to achieve this is through an internship.  

Internships are mostly low-paying, part-time jobs but they are the best way to get further GIS training and to develop your GIS skills in a real world setting.  

Learning GIS out of a textbook is a great way to get started, but in reality, few GIS tasks are solved as neatly as the “follow steps 1-10” of your workbook.

 Getting an internship has become more competitive in recent years.  To be a competitive candidate for an internship, only apply once you’ve taken a solid groundwork of GIS courses especially an “Introduction to GIS” class, a second advance GIS class, a separate cartography class (if available), and a class covering databases.  

While an internship provides on-the-job training, you will mostly be expected to learn on your own so it’s important to already have a good baseline to start from.

More:

Internships in GIS
Impressions of a GIS Intern

GIS Technician/Specialist

GIS technicians and GIS specialists are expected to have at least 1-2 years hands on experience with GIS based software. If you first took an internship you should be able to aim for these types of jobs.

The job titles GIS Technician and Specialist tend to be used interchangeably.  They are both journey level positions.  

GIS Technicians should have a solid grasp on the most common GIS tasks.  Examples of those are: the ability to edit vector data, create data in a GIS software application from a multitude of sources (paper documents, spreadsheets, hand written maps, GPS data, drone collected data, satellite and aerial imagery, etc.), be able to work with external databases including understanding structured query language (SQL), understand projections and coordinate systems, work with GPS receivers to collect data, and  strong cartographic design skills.  

While these are not the only GIS software packages out there, a good majority of GIS positions are looking for proficiency in ArcGIS and/or QGIS

Common tasks involve cartographic output (mapmaking) and data manipulation. A lot of positions will also required some basic programming experience, mainly with Python.

GIS Analyst

GIS Analysts are expected to have at least 2-3 years experience with GIS based software, database management, and scripting languages.

At this level you should be performing more complex analyses and RDBMS. In addition, an analysts should also be primarily concerned with application development and should have a fair amount of programming experience (see Learning Programming for GIS). For example, if you work with Esri’s ArcGIS software or the open source GIS software QGIS, Python will be needed.  

Analysts, having built on their skills developed as a GIS Technician or Specialist, should have strong skills in cartographic design, analytical geography, database design and management, programming, project management, and communication (including strong writing skills).  

Supervisory responsibilities and project management are also common responsibilities with the Analyst supervising technicians and interns.

Further reading: A truly comprehensive list of all the skills needed to be a successful GIS Analyst has been compiled by Michalis Avraam in his post, The essential skills to succeed in a GIS career

GIS Coordinator or Manager

Depending on the company or agency, usually the manager has at least 5-6 years of experience in the field. The manager would also be required to have budgetary and project management experience. Depending on the size of the staff, this position may or may not also involved technical responsibilities.

Geographic Information Officer

At the executive level, having a GIO, a Geographic Information Officer, is an executive level position in the GIS field. A GIO is a counterpart to the traditional CIO, Computer Information Officer.

As with all technical fields, GIS is a rapidly developing field. Keep yourself up-to-date by attending conferences and reading GIS based publications. Ongoing GIS training is also important to keep up with advances in in this rapidly developing technical field.

This article about building a career in GIS was first published on August 18, 2000 and has since been updated with more timely information to reflect changes in the geospatial industry.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.