Geographic Information Systems (GIS): Academic Requirements, Professional Outlook

Geographic Information Systems (GIS): Academic Requirements, Professional Outlook

Geographic Information Systems (GIS)

"GIS" is an acronym for either Geographic Information Systems or Geographic Information Science. GIS professionals use computers and other technology to gather information about a location and display it in a series of overlain "maps." These maps can show different types of information about a location.

GIS is quickly becoming an indispensable tool for many industries. The expansion of the Internet has allowed scientists and others to quickly share GIS data, meaning anyone with the right software can create a GIS map. GIS is used in almost any industry imaginable; some fields where you may see it include geology, resource management and extraction, urban and community planning, and coastal management. GIS is even used in fields as diverse as medicine and business marketing!

The Academic Requirements

Education and training are needed to understand GIS concepts and technology. Most students take one or more GIS courses at a college, university or training center. There are also options for online courses and self-study through books and CD-ROM programs.

Students in formal academic programs will study remote sensing and GIS theories and methods and their practical applications. Strong math skills are pretty much a necessity, and computer skills are also important.

There are several programs leading to Bachelor's or Master's degrees or a certificate. Obtaining a certificate in GIS along with another degree is a great way to broaden your skill base and boost your resume.

Here are some courses that we've seen:

  • Remote Sensing of the Environment
  • Digital Imaging Processing
  • Environmental Analysis and Modeling Using GIs
  • Spatial Data Analysis
  • Energy and Environmental Policy Analysis
  • Groundwater Hydrology
  • Community and Ecosystem Ecology
  • Modeling Social and Environmental Systems
  • GIS Database Design
  • Geostatistics
  • GIS Project Management
  • Issues in Cartographic Design

Professional Outlook

Graduates of GIS programs can enter a number of different types of jobs. One of the most common jobs is Professional Services Support. People in this field assist clients in the design, development and implementation of their GIS. They may work as consultants, staff support, database services staff, or programmers. Some graduates work in product development - they create and improve upon the technology used in the GIS industry. Other GIS professionals are teachers, either privately through a program devoted to GIS training, or in a high school, college or university.

Students who graduate with a certificate in GIS and a separate degree can use their GIS training in their chosen field. They may develop or use GIS to help their company or agency analyze important data. Almost any science, engineering, or planning field can use GIS. Examples of complementary fields include Environmental Science, Ecology, Urban Planning, Environmental Engineering, and Natural Resource Management.

GIS professionals usually work in offices, in front of computers. Most hold 9-5 jobs, though some programmers work irregular hours. After synthesizing and analyzing data, a professional will usually prepare a report with a team and present it to a client. This report will contain the useful information gathered from the GIS analysis in a clear and concise format. Therefore, communication skills and the ability to work in a team are important.

Here are some job titles that we've seen, including some of the organizations that offer them, all of which included a requirement for experience in GIS:


Boston University, Center for Energy and Environmental Studies, Master's in Environmental Remote Sensing and Geographic Information Systems

  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, Surveyors, Cartographers, and Photogrammetrists and Surveying Technicians
  • Clark University, Geographic Information Sciences for Development and Environment Program
  • ESRI
  • GIS Careers
  • Northwest Missouri State University, M.S. in Geographic Information Science
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