standard Building a GIS Career



The use of geospatial technologies is increasingly being used in a variety of fields.  GIS 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.

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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.  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.

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 have a bachelor’s degree in another major should supplement their college education with a certificate program.  Those striving for managerial positions in GIS will be more successful if they also have a master’s degree.

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 about 70% of the GIS software market with MapInfo the nearest competitor. If you are unsure which software to learn, I suggest learning about ESRI’s ArcGIS suite of software, as these are the software applications most often required by employers. You can also do a job search of companies and agencies in the area you want to work in to see what GIS software they are requiring for employment. Classes specific to a GIS software package can be taken at most universities and colleges, through satellite courses from the software companies themselves, or through online or distance learning. ESRI offers free modules online for many introductory courses to their products.

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. There are two different areas of customization: desktop applications and browser based applications. For the browser based mapping applications, understanding the various web-based languages such as HTML, Javascript, ASP and so forth is critical.

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

As with all fields, nothing beats real-world experience. 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. 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. To find internships check with your school’s geography 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. Internships can lead to full-time positions.

Next up: Finding a GIS Job.

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  1. Caitlin, you do a real service to your readers publishing these essential articles that address the core of our professional. While I agree with most all of your recommendations and references, I would like to add one more–our Department of Labor Geospatial Technology Competency Model (GTCM). In the GTCM is a precise definition of every critical knowledge, skill, and ability that industry-experts, like Dr. Jan Van Sickle, clearly recommend. Our GeoTech Center has created enhancements to the basic GTCM through longitudinal workforce studies and we have published these a the latest peer-reviewed URISA Journal. You can find all of these tools here:

  2. Hi. I completed my Bachelor’s in Geology in 2009. I had GIS & remote sensing as a subject in my final semester. After completion of Bahelor’s i did a short term course in GIS for getting a job. In this course i got familar with the different GIS application softwares like AutoDesk MAP 5, Arc GIS, Microstation. Currently i am working in a Telecom company as a GIS network executive updating the wireline network of the company in Small World GE software. Lately i have seen a halt in my career because i feel i have forgotten other GIS softwares. I think i need to know more and study further. But i am actually confused what to study. Like for a start i searched for Geoinformatics in M.Sc from European countries; is this the best course which i should pursue to have a career in GIS, or is there any other course which i should look for to enhance my educational skills and further my career opportunities.

  3. Hi

    Do entry positions also need Geography or related bachelor’s? Are there many jobs which don’t need those degrees? What about experienced people?


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