Guide to Geographic Information System (GIS) Careers
A Geographic Information System (GIS) applies geographic science with tools such as maps, data, analytics, and applications, to achieve actionable intelligence. With the rapid advances in technology and data collection over the past 50 years, GIS has developed from a concept to a science.
Providing a framework to gather, organize, and analyze scientific data, GIS communicates insights to facilitate understanding and collaboration for its users. Based on the science of geography, modern GIS can transform many types of data into visualizations through maps and three-dimensional (3D) scenes, thereby revealing insights into patterns, relationships, and situations.
The purpose of GIS is to strengthen knowledge and drive data-driven decisions through participation, sharing, and collaboration. The evolution of the field has made it possible for GIS experts to address new and larger-scale issues like humanitarian and conservation efforts as well as business intelligence for product management and marketing.
GIS technology is currently used in a wide variety of fields, including health, education, sustainability, public safety, government, natural resources, petroleum, retail, real estate, transportation, and related industries.
As the demand for actionable data continues to increase globally, the prospects for GIS career growth are extremely promising. Not only is GIS a growing field, but it also offers competitive salaries, a variety of work and an opportunity to make a difference in the world.
The Emergence of GIS
The field of geographic information systems (GIS) began in the 1960s along with the emergence of computers and quantitative and computational geography. Academic circles conducted GIS research before the field was officially recognized with the establishment of the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis.
Through formal research on key geographic information science topics and the ability to perform spatial analysis and visualization, GIS began its evolution into a powerful platform.
GIS is primarily used to identify and illuminate problems that are driven by geography and with the ability to create bespoke digital map layers and solve real-world problems, GIS has created a method for data sharing and collaboration around the world. Organizations in almost every field are incorporating GIS to make key decisions that change the way the world works. GIS maps can be designed to identify problems, monitor change, manage and respond to events, perform forecasting, set priorities, understand trends, and as a result, solve complex problems.
For example, geospatial data has become part of our everyday lives with popular platforms like Google Maps and Waze using application programming interfaces (APIs) to integrate the data into their apps. As a very different example, Ersi was commissioned by a consortium of more than 100 nations to create an interactive global map of Ecological Marine Units (EMUs) with the purpose of supporting the more knowledgeable and informed use of ocean resources as well as the preservation of environmental resilience.
How GIS Works
Maps: Shared and embedded in apps, maps are a geographic container for data layers and analytics. Often interactive, GIS maps are accessible to virtually anyone with an internet connection.
Data: GIS may integrate many different types of data layers by using spatial location, although most data have a geographic element.
Analysis: Used to evaluate suitability and capability, as well as to estimate, predict, interpret, and understand, spatial analysis can offer a new perspective and directive to benefit or influence related decision-making and technology performance.
Apps: As previously mentioned, apps like Google Maps deliver User Interface (UI) or User Experience (UX) prioritized technology. Whether an app is accessed on smartphones, tablets, or in a web browser, it brings GIS directly into your hands.
GIS and Related Degrees at Glance
There are several academic paths to a GIS career, including the following undergraduate and graduate Degree Programs by area of study:
Geographic Information Science
Get Started in GIS
Like in any field, you have to start somewhere and a degree in a GIS-related program is a great starting point for a career in GIS. Along with practical experience, an education in an associated area of study will also go a long way to advancing your eligibility for job placement in a continuously growing industry.
The most common undergraduate degrees for GIS specialists are geography, cartography, or surveying, and these programs are usually under the domain of geography departments. However, GIS tools are used within an array of disciplines, and courses may also be found in engineering, forestry, geology, or environmental science programs. Many schools also offer minors, certificates, and master’s programs in GIS as well as in other geospatial technologies.
Most employers will have a minimum requirement of a bachelor’s degree for an entry-level position. Although it depends on the industry, the most marketable GIS-related degrees are in geography, computer science, engineering, or urban planning. If you already have a bachelor’s degree in another field or do not want to change your major, you could supplement your college education with a GIS certificate program. Bear in mind, however, that those aspiring to managerial positions in GIS will be more successful if they have a master’s degree.
One way to set yourself apart as a job candidate, or to advance in your career, is to earn GIS-related certifications. A Certified GIS Professional (GISP) can be earned through the GIS Certification Institute. Recognized and endorsed by several states, the Institute’s GIS certification has also been endorsed by the National Association of Counties. Esri Technical Certification is also available for Esri’s ArcGIS software. Esri products currently dominate the commercial GIS software market and are the software applications most often required by employers.
If possible, try to secure an internship while working towards your degree. Hands-on experience will help you determine if GIS is the right career path for you as well as give you some marketable skills on your resume. You may also consider volunteering at a nonprofit or asking if you can shadow someone already working in the field. If not already part of your academic curriculum, consider taking courses in software development as computer programming will be an increasingly in-demand skill in GIS mapping.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual pay for a GIS analyst is estimated to be about $85,220 as of May 2021. However, the BLS categorizes GIS analysts broadly as geographers.
Additional BLS-reported median salaries for GIS-based careers include:
- Cartographers and photogrammetrists: $68,9000
- Geoscientists: $83,680
- Surveying and mapping technicians: $46,910
- Surveyors: $61,600
However, GIS professionals might also have titles like information systems technician, GIS technician, systems analyst, or GIS manager.
According to Prescient & Strategic Intelligence market research, the global GIS market is projected to be worth $25.6 billion by 2030 and registering a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 12.1% during 2021–2030. This forecast is based upon the increasing investments by government organizations, increased use of spatial data and cloud technology, growing implementation of enterprise GIS solutions, and increased demand for GIS-based solutions for location-as-a-service (LaaS) platforms.
Adding to the surging demand for GIS solutions is in part the ongoing effects of the 2021 global pandemic COVID-19, and high adoption of GIS technology to map the spread pattern of the disease to implement surveillance and preventive measures. To mitigate the effects of COVID-19, numerous government agencies are utilizing GIS capabilities, including location intelligence, spatial analytics, and mapping.
2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for geographers, cartographers, geoscientists, surveying technicians, and surveyors reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed January 2023.