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How to begin a career in GIS

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#1
brettcanyon

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I've always been interested in geography, nature, maps etc. and have just recently discovered the field of GIS. I read a post from someone who had a career in GIS working for the US Forest Service and said his job was to go out into the mountains, find the beginning of the trails and hike them as far as possible with a handheld GPS unit. That sounds like a dream job to me.

I am currently finishing up my Associate in Arts degree at a community college, I'll be finished in December, and then I would like to transfer to another school, preferably online. What would be the best education path to take? Should I go for a bachelor degree in geography or environmental studies and then obtain a 1-year GIS certificate after that? Or would it be better to forget the bachelor's degree and just go for the 1-year GIS certificate now? I figure if I go for the environmental studies degree next, I might have more options upon completion. But at the same time, I may do just as well with a GIS certificate.. What would you guys recommend?

Thanks in advance..

#2
MapMedia

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Hi Brett - Here is my take based on my experience (what I saw and know):

If you want to work in the GIS field, and especially work for the USFS or National Parks Service, it is completely possible if you are persistent and flexible.
You will need an actual Bachelors degree from a college or university, not an online school. You should major in Biology or Environmental Science or Conservation and take GIS coursework with this. If you focus only on GIS you will be tied to a desk - if you study environmental science or biology with GIS coursework you will get to combine GIS with science, and do some really cool field work.

I went to Prescott College in Prescott Arizona, but you should try to go to a state college or university, not community college. Universities that come to mind (though maybe out of state) are Univ. Calif. Davis and Missoula, MT. During you college time, try to write your papers etc. on GIS and park management or GIS and environmental science, so you can have a solid understanding of this field when you graduate and start writing those killer cover letters to apply for USFS or NPS internships, which often lead to full time position. Attending science conferences during your undergraduate time is a great idea. That is the golden track, and I have known many happy people who did just that and right now, are probably hiking a trail in the Grand Canyon or Yosemite, doing "work". In fact, my 1st job right out of college was working as a Preserve Manager for the Nature Conservancy, in New Jersey - this was an internship that got extended, then I was offered a staff position. I got paid to hike the preserve, inventorying rare plants and wildlife, collecting tree core samples, and using a GPS to record my work.

My background is GIS and environmental conservation with experience in wildlife management and water quality, so as a scientist, people rely on me to use both science and GIS background to work on very interesting projects. If I had just GIS background, I likely would be further down the foodchain, as a GIS 'grunt', doing IT technical stuff.

That's the best I can describe it. You can do it. Let me know if you have any questions!

Good luck, Chris

#3
Sophie Ryder

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Hey Brett,

I'm relatively new in the GIS field with a professional experience spanning only 2-3 years working in local government and with the emergency services. My degree is in IT systems management with GIS as a module of that course and because I enjoyed it that much I based my major project around GIS. From my experience Chris is right, I am pretty much a GIS 'grunt' sitting at a desk processing data and providing managers with statistics and maps to base their impending decisions on. Actually, since reading this post it has struck me that I am pretty boxed into my position where I currently work, there is little or no progression routes where I can still use GIS. I want to be able to progress but the jobs that are coming up which use GIS in a more thorough and engaging way are usually in the environmental/geographic sector and often require a degree in an environmental science. I love the IT side of GIS but I want to have a more involved approach than purely being given data to work with and told what the outcome must be (lies, damn lies and statistics and all that kinda jazz).

I would suggest doing the degree in geography/environmental science first then you have the knowledge and background of the industry and when you move onto to the GIS certificate you can see more clearly how the GIS can be applied as you're learning the tools.

Hope this helps,

Sophie
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#4
brettcanyon

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Hey guys, thanks so much for your insight. That definitely puts my mind at ease knowing I'm on the right path. I'm looking into a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Studies program, combining it with GIS, and also obtaining a GIS certificate. That's great advice to attend science conferences during my undergraduate time. I'm already looking forward to it!

#5
Ray Clipper

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Hey, I'm new to the forum, but wanted to add my 2 cents.
I have a BS with a double major in CS and Geography, I have worked in GIS for 10 years. After 300 + hours, 8 years and 50,000k in tution, I graduated and am a System Architect, I don't get to do a lot of analysis, but I manage to implement GIS solutions that save my clients money, once they get over the cost of the Licensing (LOL). I suggest a very good understanding of platforms and hardware. This comes in handy when you don't have a very sound IT staff. I can't count the number of times I have installed and configured ArcSDE, ArcGIS Server etc, on Windows Servers and Linux Servers. A good grasp of SQL and some programming doesn't hurt either. I wouldn't expect you to rack up hours (and tuition) like I did.
As long as you have the initiative, you will do well, or at least better than my co-workers that have masters degrees and cant seem to do simple tasks.

#6
ikkokusenkin

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Thank you, thank you, thank you so much! I created an account just to express my gratitude for your insights. I guess that sounds a little over the top but I have been looking all over the internet for this information and I haven't found it expressed so clearly anyplace else. Let me explain...

I have an engineering background, so no special knowledge of biology (beyond the high school level) but I want to work in the field of wildlife/environmental conservation. Now I'm too old to go back and do another bachelor's degree to get the biology background. GIS seems like a good fit -- it's practical enough to make a difference in the real world and computer sciencey/quantitative enough to be palatable (for me).

Up to now, I always assumed that a Masters degree in GIS would let me get into wildlife/conservation work that involved GIS (stuff like this) and, more importantly, that it would let me work in the field. Although, I always had misgivings about how the lack of a biology background would constrain the kind of work I got to do. This thread cleared up a lot of those doubts: the fact that I have an IT/engineering background means that I will be limited mostly to IT work/be tied to a desk -- not something I'd particularly like. Thus, a simple GIS masters will not be enough for me to make a transition to environmental work in the field; I also need the environmental science background and a degree in environmental studies (with a GIS focus) is what I should be looking at.

Anyway, this doesn't add anything original to the thread. Just wanted to say thanks to you wonderful people! :)

Edited by ikkokusenkin, 13 September 2010 - 01:01 PM.


#7
James Hines

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It's much like a hook, line, & sinker game much like trying to land a date. Maybe you will be successful & get that job, or fail & struggle. Getting a degree is a very important aspect of landing a career but it's no guarantee that you will land what you want. Lets not forget that the higher education you have the more potential income you shall receive. Keyword is potential because not every person can get that job. So you may want to think of a plan B career choice or a plan B alternative of achieving your career choice, because the GIS field is not an easy field to get into.
"Abbas of novus versus"




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