Are you thinking of Building a Solid Career in GIS ?: Amateur Career Counselor

I am not the type who usually gives career advice…!!….because I believe the word “career” is an over inflated concept that limits the full use of our diverse human potential…’s like choosing to use one head when you have the luxury of…two…… (I know——not the best example!)
However in the spirit of “comradism”, I sought answers and below are some insights from ………DISCLAIMER: AN AMATEUR CAREER COUNSELOR!………….Stop Reading…Now!!
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.
The “BIG DATA” rave has helped peak interest in GIS (hint!)..…many GIS professionals know we live and breathe “BIG DATA”……and there couldn’t be a better time for us to make our presence felt!
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.
…….”if you think education is expensive, try ignorance”…….
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 company offering GIS coursework, after training support and useful resource materials are 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 are 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 among commercial software’s, 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. QGIS is the leading opensource GIS suite out there and with new releases coming up every year, the functionalities keep getting better each year….
There is no telling what could happen in the future….!! from experience, after using ArcGIS for nearly 8years, I have found it much easier and faster to perform GIS operations in QGIS than in ArcGIS.
Thanks to numerous free plug-ins that QGIS offers…….i.e. it takes about 2-3 steps in QGIS, while a similar procedure may take you 5 steps in ArcGIS…couple with ArcGIS cost implications…..(it cost a leg literally),….. not many GIS graduates actually get to practice their skills beyond the classroom, QGIS is a fantastic open source software that you should learn. I have made an extensive comparison in this article
With the current trend in GIS employment, I would strongly recommend you learn both QGIS and ArcGIS suite, because almost all government GIS related jobs require ArcGIS, however non-governmental organizations are more flexible and are currently promoting the use of QGIS which is great news…..!!
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.
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 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).
How do I get GIS Experience
As with all fields, nothing beats real-world experience. Currently employers don’t care how many Master Degrees, you have accumulated…….because we have reached at a level I would like to call academic saturation point, were Masters Degree have literally become Bachelors!…..Personally I would take experience any day of the week, with or without academic papers…!!
Therefore 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.
Finding a GIS Job
Once you’ve completed your coursework and gotten hands on work experience, where do you look for a job? There are quite a few job sites on the internet some specializing exclusively in GIS employment opportunities. So write up a resume and cover letter and hit the internet. Aim for jobs that meet your education and experience level. In general, the hierarchy and required GIS experience for hands-on (i.e. non-managerial) positions is as follows:
Upon conducting a search through a number of career postings both locally and internationally, I found a number of positions advertized that essentially, has similar requirements for applicants. What differed were the position title, the level of technical experience and quite often, the salary. The following are just a few of the commonly used Career Titles that are used by employers seeking employees:
  • GIS Intern
  • GIS Technician/Data Specialist
  • GIS Analyst
  • GIS Coordinator or Manager
  • GIS Mapping Technician
  • Engineering Technician
  • GIS Mapping Assistant
  • GIS Application Specialist
  • Engineering Aide
GIS Intern
GIS positions are hands-on, requiring frequent field visits to collect data and just with almost every higher level (Technician, Analyst, etc.) position will require some hands-on job training.
The best way to achieve this is through an internship. Internships are mostly low-paying, part-time jobs but they are the best way to get further GIS training and to develop your GIS skills in a real world setting.
Learning GIS out of a textbook is a great way to get started, but in reality, few GIS tasks are solved as neatly as the “follow steps 1-10″ of your workbook. Getting an internship has become more competitive in recent years.
To be a competitive candidate for an internship, only apply once you’ve taken a solid groundwork of GIS courses especially an “Introduction to GIS” class, a second advance GIS class, a separate cartography class (if available), and a class covering databases.
While an internship provides on-the-job training, you will mostly be expected to learn on your own so it’s important to already have a good baseline to start from.

GIS Technician/Specialist

1-2 years hands on experience with GIS based software. If you first took an internship you should be able to aim for these types of jobs. The job titles Technician and Specialist tend to be used interchangeably. They are both journey level positions.
GIS Technicians should have a solid grasp on the most common GIS tasks. Examples of those are: the ability to edit vector data, create data in a GIS software application from a multitude of sources (paper documents, Excel files, hand written maps, etc.), be able to work with external databases (such as Access and SQL Server) including understanding structured query language (SQL), understand projections and coordinate systems, work with GPS receivers to collect data, and strong cartographic design skills.
While it’s not the only software package out there, a good majority of GIS positions are looking for proficiency in ArcGIS. Having a good grasp on working with KML and KMZ files is also critical as some companies are using Google Maps and Google Earth for some tasks. Common tasks involve cartographic output (mapmaking) and data manipulation. A lot of positions are also starting to look for some basic programming experience.

GIS Analyst

If you want an “Analyst position”, it implies that you have got to have a few years of experience in the GIS field along with some sort of specialty such as Environmental planning, or Remote Sensing etc. At least 3-5 years experience with GIS based software.
The following is a summary of what a number of potential employers look for in their “ideal” candidate for a GIS Analyst position. For those of you seeking employment, these would be some great areas to emphasize on your application (hint!)
  • Strong GIS skills with two or more GIS packages (Commercial and Opensource)
  • Strong Macro / C / C++ / Visual Basic programming skills /HTML/Python/Java
  • Understanding of and/or willing to learn math and statistical analysis
  • Strong Oracle or related RDBMS skills including development skills
  • Excellent verbal / written communication skills
  • Genuinely excited and enthusiastic about learning and pushing technical limits / finding new solutions
  • Good writing skills – for documentation, training, processes
  • Formal training (eg. Degree) or high level of experience with GIS.
  • “Hands-on” experience
  • Good analytical / problem solving skills
  • A basic understanding of the concepts behind data management in a relational database
  • Good IT technical skills
  • Ability to think outside the box and solve problems
Analysts, having built on their skills developed as a GIS Technician, should have strong skills in cartographic design, analytical geography, database design and management, programming, project management, and communication (including strong writing skills).
GIS Analyst should also be able to conduct GIS trainings; supervisory responsibilities and project management are also common responsibilities with the Analyst supervising technicians and interns. There is also a growing demand by employers for Analysts to be knowledgeable about open source GIS.

GIS Coordinator or Manager

Depending on the company or agency, usually the manager has at least 5-6 years of experience in the field. The manager would also be required to have budgetary and project management experience.
Depending on the size of the staff, this position may or may not also involved technical responsibilities. At the executive level, having a GIO a Geographic Information Officer, is emerging as a new position in the GIS field. A GIO is a counterpart to the traditional CIO, Computer Information Officer.
As with all technical fields, GIS is a rapidly developing field. Keep yourself up-to-date by attending conferences joining GIS Forums and reading GIS based magazines. Ongoing GIS training is also important to keep up with advances in this rapidly developing technical field.
There you have it…….!!
Thanks for taking the time to read this article, If there is something I have left out please feel free to add in the comment section……if this has been helpful to you, like or share…someone may find this useful too……Happy Hunting!!
You can find all my previous GIS related articles here!
About Author: Samuel Omara is a seasoned GIS and Remote Sensing Specialist, Founder and CEO of Geographic Information Solutions, over the years I have had the pleasure of sharing my skills by building the capacity of various NGO’s and individuals in East and Central Africa to help them accelerate their careers or help organizations leverage GIS efficiency for project visibility, transparency and accountability.

3 thoughts on “Are you thinking of Building a Solid Career in GIS ?: Amateur Career Counselor

  1. Spot on. Having received that thorough introduction to QGIS late last year. I am thinking about buying a Windows laptop so that I can get some good exposure to ArcGIS too. How will you assist on getting ArcGIS to my PC once I buy the laptop. Are you already packaging some trainings in ArcGIS too? But so far, thank you for the great work you're doing in spreading GIS gospel. Best, Richard.

  2. Thanks Richard.

    We have always had ArcGIS training packages, once you are ready with the Laptop we can arrange to start the process of software installation and training.

    Don't hesitate to contact me!
    All the best!

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