GIS Certification versus Certificate Programs

Caitlin Dempsey


GIS certification and certificate programs are two similarly named yet different markers of a person’s GIS education and skills achievements.  To sort out the confusion, both certificate programs and GIS certification are described in this article.

GIS Certificate Programs

GIS certificate programs are usually a series of GIS related coursework provided by an educational institute.  

A higher degree (such a a bachelors or masters) is not awarded at the completion of the coursework.  Rather a certificate is provided as proof that the coursework was taken and completely in a satisfactory manner.  

The exact combination of coursework varies depending on the institute offering the certificate program but usually includes an introductory course in GIS, cartography, introductory spatial statistics, and remote sensing.  

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The emphasis of a certificate program is on developing the skills to utilize common GIS software programs.  Most certificate programs participants are taking the program in order to gain the experience needed to use GIS in a workplace.  

Certificate programs tend to be short in duration, being held over the course of a few months or a year.

Certificate programs don’t provide a pathway towards obtaining a bachelors or masters degree but serve to add specific education in GIS and geospatial technologies to a person’s resume.  Certificate programs can be taken online through a distance learning course or in-person at the educational institute.

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GIS Certification

GIS Certification is a process by which an institution evaluates the level of your GIS experience.  Those that met the standards as outlined by each organization are eligible to receive a certification.  

At the moment there is currently one widespread GIS certification organization, on other geospatial organization that also offers certification, and one software vendor offering a specialized technical certification.

Offered by the GIS Certification Institute (GISCI), GISP certification (stands for geographic information systems (GIS) professional) looks at the educational background, GIS experience, and contributions to the field of GIS of individuals.  

Based on a point system, those individuals that met the threshold are awarded the designation GISP.  The GISP certification is software independent and doesn’t test for proficiency in any specific GIS software program.  

The certification process is fee based and should be renewed every five years.  Visit the GISCI web site for more specific information about GISP certification.

It’s important to note that the GISCI is currently reevaluating the process by which GISPs are awarded and a new system is being planned.  The current proposal being considered can be accessed here.

Less commonly obtained by GIS professionals, is certification through the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS) which offers a Certified Mapping Scientist – GIS/LIS.  Unlike the process offered by GISCI, the certification by ASPRS is awarded after the successful passing of a peer review of experience and training and a written exam.

This past January, Esri also launched a technical certification program. Certificates are awarded after passing two-hour 90-95 multiple choice exams that are offered for a variety of Esri technical products.  Two levels of proficiency are available: Associate and Professional.

This article was originally written on June 11, 2011 and has since been updated.

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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.