Guide to College Majors in Geographic Information Systems

What is GIS?

Anyone who has ever tracked down driving directions on the Internet has used a geographical information system. At its simplest level, Geographic Information Science (GIS) can be thought of as high-tech mapping, but the complicated software and the people who work with it are responsible for so much more than simply creating a map. GIS professionals use information about geographical features to assess real-world problems and provide solutions.

GIS uses digital technology to help people work with geographic information. GIS professionals acquire, manage, analyze, visualize, and represent geospatial data, or information related to geographical locations. This relatively new discipline incorporates geography, cartography, spatial analysis, and fields such as geovisualization, geodesy, geocomputation, cognition, and computer science.

GIS comprises four aspects:

  1. The data used to create useful information
  2. The software that assembles that information
  3. The hardware that serves as the workstation
  4. The people who work with all of these elements

Geographical information systems capture, edit, store, manipulate, and analyze a variety of data that are used to create a display such as Internet mapping sites. GIS professionals are responsible for compiling the data and presenting it in an understandable, visual form like a map or text directions.

The key component in GIS is geography - information about the earth and the objects found on it. Its use has billion-dollar implications for businesses and governments. It can be used for choosing school sites, targeting market segments, planning distribution networks, responding to emergencies, or redrawing government boundaries. GIS specialists make devices that view and analyze data from a geographic perspective. They link locations to information, such as people to addresses, buildings to parcels of land, or intersections within a city grid system.

The GIS field began in the second half of the 20th century, when computer programmers discovered that maps could be made by changing data into code. For generations cartography had changed little, but the addition of computers, aerial photography, satellite imagery, and improved data-collection techniques have provided an almost infinite amount of geographical data. The vast amount of information now available must be managed and presented in an understandable fashion to the people who need it.

What Does a GIS Major Do?

GIS professionals collect geographically related data and use that data for analysis and planning. The data might be used to create property boundaries, to write descriptions of land that can be used for legal purposes in leases and deeds, or to plot demographic patterns for land development. The data can be turned into text, maps, charts, and even three-dimensional drawings. Mapping is one of the most common practices of a GIS specialist.

The GIS computer technology is not a decision-making system. It requires well-trained professionals skilled in the geographical information systems process. They work with specialists in other fields such as government and public administration, business, criminal justice, natural resource management. Together, they use the data to create maps, integrate information, visualize scenarios, resolve complex issues, and present ideas.

Most computer programs are designed to provide access to relevant data. Geographical information systems go beyond simple access. They allow users to visualize relationships that might not be possible with traditional maps and charts. More than that, the technology can create "what if" scenarios in which the GIS user takes the information about a particular location and inserts it into a new situation. For example, a planner might want to know what would happen to the infrastructure of a city if its population were to increase significantly during the next decade.

One illustration of effective GIS use is in city traffic control. Transportation officials can create maps that display an analysis of road conditions and traffic counts. The system can track road construction or accidents and analyze the impact on traffic patterns. Transportation officials can plot new courses or other changes to resolve the situation.

The specialized maps and analyses that GIS professionals generate can help solve problems in any number of areas. The timber industry and real estate companies use the information to determine the viability of projects. The data can determine the growth potential of forestland, or it can determine the impact a new housing development might have on the surrounding area. A retail company might like a map of family income related to ZIP codes. Business owners can even select the best potential locations for a new store. Mapping also allows police to study crime patterns, and marketing officials to analyze the impact of an advertising campaign.

One area in which GIS technology is having an important impact is in the study of nature. Phenomena such as floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes can be tracked to determine effective emergency response or to help predict potential dangers. As more information is collected and technology advances, more possible uses for GIS skills will develop.

The number of applications already available has even sifted down to the personal level. Consumers now enjoy computer-generated driving directions, Global Positioning Systems in their cars, personalized weather maps, and computer programs for home landscaping and architecture. GIS professionals help develop programs such as these.

GIS has become a multibillion-dollar industry that employs hundreds of thousands of professionals around the world. The ability of the technology to combine and synthesize nearly every form of geographic information has made it a major tool with global applications. Its use stretches from the individual to international companies.

Trends in GIS Careers

GIS professionals often find work with federal agencies like the U.S. Geological Survey, Bureau of Land Management, Army Corps of Engineers, Forest Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Imagery and Mapping Agency, and Federal Emergency Management Agency. However, the vast majority of available jobs are with engineering, architectural, and technology firms.

Advanced technologies continue to increase the accuracy and productivity of GIS workers and devices. Therefore, experts expect modest job growth during the next several years. However, most of the job openings will occur when workers transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force altogether. Surveying and mapping technician jobs are expected to grow faster than average.

The decline in digital technology costs is expected to benefit the employment outlook. This service, which was once limited to major companies and federal agencies, has expanded considerably. Now, small companies and government agencies can afford to purchase their own GIS programs and, frequently, bring a GIS professional on board. In some instances, people with two-year associate degrees might be qualified to handle some of the less-demanding GIS activities.

Preparing for a Degree in GIS

High school students interested in studying GIS should take courses in English, physics, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, drafting, mechanical drawing, and computer science. As students enter college they should focus on studying quantitative methods, computer technology, data handling and analysis, cartographic display, and written and verbal communication.

GIS training includes spatial analysis, geographic information systems, and remote sensing. Coursework generally includes classes in natural and human social systems, applied geography, and cartography. Students who want to develop their resume might consider classes in calculus, finite mathematics, analytic geometry, and computer programming among their elective courses. Elective courses might also include advanced GIS techniques, physical geography, or human geography. Students in GIS programs often have second majors or minors in geological sciences, biology, computer science, mathematics or criminal justice.

Is an Advanced Degree Necessary to Work in GIS?

More community and technical colleges offer associate degrees in mapping, surveying, and GIS skills that prepare them for data gathering, digitizing, and other forms of map preparation. However, most jobs require a minimum of a bachelor's degree. In some instances, professionals in forestry or engineering, for example, might seek a two-year degree to improve their marketability or salary.

The bachelor's degree is considered the entry-level requirement for the profession. Professionals who earn master's degrees can be expected to assume positions of more responsibility. They might be assigned special projects or expected to design and implement new procedures and systems. The PhD is usually for professionals who are planning a career in college teaching or research.

Some colleges offer one- or two-year GIS certificate programs, which have been developed to fill a growing need for GIS skills in today's job market. Many of these certificate programs are at the graduate level, but are not considered graduate degrees. Prerequisites vary; the certificate is often used by graduates in other fields to supplement their professional skills. Check with the individual school to determine its status.

Planning for a Career in GIS

As GIS majors work their way through the courses required for graduation, they are encouraged to participate in other activities that will round out their education and improve job opportunities after graduation. Career advisors recommend that GIS majors take advantage of any opportunity to join in research projects at the college. Some are offered in class, but many faculty members perform research on an ongoing basis and need assistants.

Many companies prefer to hire GIS professionals with an understanding of global cultures. Therefore, if your schedule permits, consider participating in a study abroad program. Many schools now offer packages that blend education and tourism over the course of a week or two, for participants in online degree programs.

Classroom work provides a solid foundation for a career in GIS, but nothing beats experience to make the move into the profession. Internships are one of the best and most practical ways to get that experience, and they can often lead to full-time jobs. Most college GIS departments and career counseling offices have information about how and where to obtain internships.

What Can You Do With a College Degree in GIS?

Although job prospects with a GIS degree are good, you might not find many of them listed among the typical classified ads. They might be hidden in other career listings. Plenty of opportunities exist in both the private and public sectors, although the openings might be listed under obscure titles.

In addition to the federal agencies named above, state and local agencies that need GIS skills include law enforcement, water and sewer agencies, tax assessors, planning and zoning departments, and emergency bureaus.

The private sector employs GIS professionals in specialty mapping firms, surveying and land companies, oil, electric, and gas utilities, real estate agencies, banks and insurance companies, construction companies, and national businesses that regularly seek new franchise locations. Nonprofit organizations such as environmental groups also need GIS professionals on a regular or consulting basis.

Here are some common GIS job titles:

  • GIS analysts create graphic representations of land areas that can be used for analysis. Experienced analysts can earn extra money by developing computer programming skills that rival their cartography abilities. Because companies and clients prefer systems that can be used for projects many times, most analysts focus on building software that can routinely produce complex maps and reports. For more sophisticated or specialized projects, analysts develop highly detailed computer models of a territory that can be manipulated using a familiar user interface.
  • A GIS manager develops, implements, and directs the GIS unit with an agency or firm. Many companies promote managers internally from the ranks of their GIS analysts. This internal recruiting produces managers that understand the unique challenges faced by the company's analysts. Based on the organization's goals, a GIS manager develops long-range plans to assure consistent growth in their department. They also oversee the short-term goals of project teams, making sure that analysts have the resources and the training to accomplish their tasks. GIS managers often set and enforce the budgets for their department, while implementing the policies and procedures of the organization. Along with basic GIS skills, the GIS manager must be able communicate effectively and have a thorough knowledge of applicable state and federal regulations.
  • Cartographers do more than make maps. They also perform geographical research and compile data. They collect, analyze, and interpret spatial data. They validate latitude, longitude, elevation, and distance information by combining surveying results with sophisticated satellite images. Modern cartographers overlay other types of information onto the maps they create. For example, lawmakers may hire cartographers to map out the population density of a region in advance of congressional redistricting. Agriculture companies and government agencies request customized maps that report on key trends like land-use patterns and annual precipitation levels. Marketers and large businesses review maps that reveal demographic characteristics when selecting locations for new stores or distribution centers.
  • Photogrammetrists measure and analyze aerial photographs that are used to prepare detailed maps and drawings. These specialists concentrate on parcels of land that are inaccessible, difficult, or expensive to survey by other methods. Map editors develop and verify the contents of maps, using these photographs and other references. Some states require photogrammetrists to obtain licenses as professional land surveyors.
  • Land surveyors provide much of the information used to create GIS databases. They measure distances, directions, and angles between points and elevations of points, lines, and contours on, above, and below the earth's surface. Sometimes their work includes researching legal records to determine boundaries and land ownership issues. Some surveyors specialize in high-accuracy techniques such as satellite observations, geophysical prospecting for subsurface exploration, or hydrographic surveying of harbors, rivers, and other bodies of water. Surveyors with a background in computer programming work at the forefront of GIS technology, deploying state-of-the-art surveying equipment to refine the work of previous generations.
  • Surveying technicians operate survey instruments and collect information in the field. They work with land surveyors and other specialists to refine raw data and return it to the laboratory. Many surveying technicians focus on a specific skill or expertise with a type of system or equipment. These specialists continue the work at their offices by using their field data to perform complex computations. They use computer-aided design tools to mock up early drafts of the material that will later be integrated into GIS platforms.
  • Mapping technicians use field notes to calculate mapmaking information. They triangulate the shape of a region by rectifying the small differences between various sources of raw data. Once they manually correct any errors and address any potential discrepancies from a surveying team, these specialists draw topographical maps and verify their accuracy.
  • Practicing professionals can earn extra income by teaching. As more community colleges offer classes in GIS, experienced professionals can spend a few hours per week as an instructor or adjunct faculty member. Colleges and universities also need professionals with advanced degrees to teach and perform research that will continue the expansion of GIS uses.
  • Related Occupations. GIS is often used in conjunction with the work of civil engineers, architects, and landscape architects because accurate surveys are essential in land development and construction projects.

Did You Know?
GIS was used for recovery work following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The attacks highlighted the value of GIS in emergency planning and response, but they also raised issues of homeland security and public access after restrictions were placed on Web sites that offered access to massive amounts of geographical data.

Certification, Licensure and Associations

Unless a GIS professional moves into surveying, no license is required. All 50 states and all U.S. territories license land surveyors. Many professionals without formal survey training start as members of survey crews and work their way up to become licensed surveyors. However, as survey licensing requirements become stricter, formal education requirements are increasing.

Many GIS degree programs offer preparation for surveying licensure as a concentration or as a set of electives for students that think they may want to develop skills in this specialty. Students interested in pursuing a surveying career can obtain more information about licensure from their program's career counseling office.

Trade and Industry Associations

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