Finding the Right GIS Program

Caitlin Dempsey


Finding and choosing the right GIS educational program is critical to setting you on the right path towards a GIS career.  Make sure you consider all your options before picking a GIS program to attend.

Assess your own educational needs

Make sure you pick the right educational pathway that fits in with your existing educational background.  

There are two main types of GIS programs: those that leads to a degree (most commonly a bachelor’s degree) and those that are not degree-based called certificate programs.

Most GIS jobs require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. You might be able to find some job listings that will accept a GIS certificate program but those often require a significant longer amount of GIS experience in lieu of a college-level degree or are very low-paying.

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If you don’t already have a bachelor’s, search for a program that offers a degree.  

On the other hand, if you already have a bachelor’s and are moving over from an unrelated background, getting a second bachelor’s isn’t worth the extra time (if you’re really set on acquiring another degree it would be better to invest that time in a master’s degree in an area that allows you to learn and apply GIS).

If you already have a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field, your time (and money) would probably be better spent attaining a GIS certificate.

Be critical of the course content

Make sure whatever program you choose offers a well-rounded GIS education.  

The coursework should not be just about learning how to use GIS software.  Courses in geographical analysis, cartography, database management, basic programming, data creation and manipulation, and GIS software are all required background courses for understanding GIS.

Length of the GIS program

Three weeks won’t cut it.  

A lot of universities and colleges are eager to jump on the GIS program bandwagon and some come through with mini certificate programs, offering 2-3 GIS related courses as a quick GIS program.  

If the entire certificate program revolves around a few weeks, you can be sure that, at best, you will be exposed to some basics to using GIS software and not much else.

More expensive isn’t better

Higher tuition isn’t necessarily reflective of a better GIS program.  

According to, the average salary range for a GIS technician in the United States, a typical entry level position in the geospatial field, is between about $44,000 and $71,000.

Actual salaries will vary greatly depending on the region and industry you ultimately land a GIS job in.  Make sure the financial burden of attaining a GIS education doesn’t outweigh the potential salary.

Employment placement and mandatory internship

A good professional GIS program will make sure that its students are being prepared for a career in GIS.

If the program teaches you a series of courses and then shows you the door, it probably isn’t the right program for you.  Preparation for a GIS career should include providing access to internship opportunities.  

Most GIS employers require some hands on experience for any position outside of a GIS internship.  

Once students are ready to start looking for a permanent GIS job, the GIS program should have employment placement guidance in place to help students search for and obtain a GIS job.

Past student feedback

The best critics for any GIS program are past students.  

Top questions to ask are: did the program prepare them for a GIS career?  Are they currently employed in GIS?  What pluses and minuses do they have for the program?  

One of the best places to ask for reviews and recommendations for GIS programs is via the GIS group (with over 20,000 members) on LinkedIn.

This article was originally written on September 21, 2022 and has since been updated.

More GIS career resources

Building a Career in GIS :
From classes to employment, a “how-to” guide to getting a job in GIS. Find out what steps you need to take to enjoy a career in GIS.

GIS Job Descriptions :
Descriptions of jobs in the GIS field organized by industry, job type and location.

AAG Career Guide
The American Association of Geographers has recently revamped their career section to create the “AAG Online Career Guide“. Take some time to explore their extensive collection of resources. Don’t forget to explore the bubbled links along the top for more information and tools for developing a career in geography.

GIS Job Interview Resources

How to Survive a GIS Job Interview
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Ten Tips to Prepare for a GIS Job Interview
Kristina Jacob, a GIS professional with a California city, lists her top ten tips for preparing for a GIS job interview.

GIS Internship Resources

Finding a GIS Internship
Looking for a GIS internship? Find tips here on where to look to find an internship in the field of GIS so you can develop your hand-on geospatial technology experience.

Impressions of an Intern
Essay written by Anthony Calderon, a GIS student at the California State University, Northridge. Anthony discusses what he considers important about internships in GIS.

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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.