Is a GIS Degree Worth It?

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Key Takeaways 

  • A GIS degree provides specialized skills in high demand for various sectors, including environmental services and urban development.
  • Higher-level GIS degrees can lead to advanced career opportunities but require a significant investment in time and education.
  • The value of a GIS degree depends on personal interests, career goals, and the rapidly changing technology landscape in GIS.

    Introduction to Geographic Information Systems (GIS)

    A geographic information system (GIS) captures, stores, checks, and displays location-based data. As a computer system, it’s vital in modern data management, analysis, and visualization. 

    In data management, GIS enables its users to combine data from diverse sources. These data sources include GPS devices, satellite images, environmental sensors, and census data. The effective and efficient data integration means its users create comprehensive datasets faster.  

    In other words, GIS combines location data and useful descriptive information. Think of integrating data about where things are and what things are like there. GIS professionals can then use the datasets to understand patterns and relationships. 

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    GIS platforms also provide efficient storage and retrieval of large datasets. Users access the data for their decision-making processes and dynamic updates. 

    In data analysis, GIS provides tools for the analysis and interpretation of data. These include spatial queries, 3D and predictive modeling, and map overlays. Users can identify trends, patterns, and relationships based on the data. 

    As for data visualization, GIS enables the display of data via a viewable format or medium. GIS organizes the spatial data into layers for proper analysis. The visualization tools include schematics, 3D scenes, maps, tables, real-time views, and charts.

    While it’s a complex and changing technology, GIS applications are common in our daily lives. These applications contribute to the increasing popularity of GIS professionals in diverse industries.  

    Among the most common GIS applications that ordinary citizens experience include: 

    • Urban and regional planning 

    City and town planners use GIS-generated maps for planning new physical infrastructure. Housing projects, green areas, and roads and bridges are a few examples. 

    • Environmental science 

    Environmental scientists and specialists use GIS-generated information in the management of natural resources. Interactive maps aid in planning and monitoring conservation programs. GIS aids in environmental risk assessments, too, such as in proposed development projects. 

    • Public health and safety 

    Public officials use GIS-generated data to track disease outbreaks and traffic patterns. GIS is also useful in disaster response, recovery, rehabilitation, and emergency preparedness. First responders use real-time information in risk assessments and decision-making during disasters. 

    Real estate, retail, and insurance companies are among the biggest GIS users, too.

    Exploring GIS Degree Levels and What They Offer

    Your access to the wide range of GIS degree careers depends on your education level. As you earn more advanced credentials, your access to leadership roles improves. Let’s look at the GIS education degree hierarchy. 

    Certificate Programs

    In-person and online GIS certification programs are short-term programs. Students are able to earn a certificate in less than a year. 

    Interested individuals can choose from two types of certificate programs: 

    • Entry-level certificate programs attract individuals seeking foundational GIS knowledge and skills. If you’re planning on a quick entry or adding GIS to your skill set, go for it. 
    • Advanced certificate programs welcome current GIS professionals who want to update their skills. GIS is an ever-changing field. Continuing education through advanced certificate courses is a must. 

    Associate’s Degree

    The two-year associate degree programs provide more comprehensive education than certificate programs. Students receive a well-rounded education in general education and GIS-specific courses. Introduction to GIS, remote sensing, and spatial data collection and management are typical. 

    Graduates qualify for entry-level, non-supervisory positions. These jobs feature livable GIS degree salary ranges of about $58,000 – $66,000 in average annual wages. 

    Bachelor’s Degree

    The four-year bachelor’s degree is the more popular Geographic Information Systems education. Students gain a comprehensive understanding of GIS concepts, principles, and practices. Courses in environmental science, geography, and urban planning broaden their education. 

    Students develop practical knowledge and skills through hands-on learning experiences. Internships, fieldwork, and capstone projects are typical among undergraduate students. 

    Graduates qualify for entry-level positions with higher salaries. 

    Master’s Degree

    The master’s degree programs emphasize advanced GIS technology topics and their applications. Students complete a master’s thesis or a capstone project to show their subject mastery. Concentrations, such as urban GIS or geospatial intelligence, may be available. 

    Master’s degree holders with relevant work experience qualify for leadership positions. 

    Doctoral Degree

    The doctoral degree in GIS is a terminal degree. GIS professionals interested in advanced positions must prepare for the challenges ahead. The rigorous coursework covers topics like:

    • Advanced geospatial theory
    • Advanced GIS management and analysis
    • Research design and methods

    Earning a doctoral degree can take 3-7 years. The time-to-degree depends on your submission of a significant doctoral dissertation.  

    Career Pathways with a GIS Degree

    According to Lightcast, the GIS job market has increased by 98% (2021-2023). The job outlook is due to increased public funding and the adoption of machine learning. Governments use GIS for neighborhood rehabilitation projects and air quality monitoring, among others. Urban planners use GIS to track land-use patterns and create appropriate plans. Telecommunications providers use GIS, too, to improve services.

    Furthermore, the increasing use of GIS-generated information fuels the demand for GIS professionals. With more industries finding GIS applications, their specialized skills are here to stay. 

    However, GIS professionals must prepare for the increasing integration of GIS and AI. With it, GIS professionals can focus on human-centric tasks like critical thinking and creativity. The ever-changing GIS roles and their convergence with technology demand lifelong learning, too. Even the best GIS professionals keep up with the trends through continuing education. 

    Where to start as a GIS professional? Earning a GIS certificate is a good start, but it’s more of an exploratory credential. Think of it as a way to determine whether GIS is a suitable field for you or not. 

    If you want to enter the GIS profession with more education, earn an associate degree. Possible entry-level occupations include: 

    • GIS technicians 
    • Cartographic technicians 
    • Surveying technicians 
    • CAD technicians 
    • Urban planning assistants 

    A bachelor’s degree is a typical employment requirement for entry-level supervisory positions. The best examples are: 

    • GIS analysts
    • Cartographers 
    • Urban and regional planners 
    • Environmental consultants 
    • Environmental scientists and specialists 
    • Conservation scientists and foresters 

    A master’s degree opens doors of career advancement opportunities for GIS practitioners. Leadership positions for professionals with advanced GIS competencies include: 

    • Spatial data scientists 
    • GIS projects managers 
    • GIS directors 
    • GIS lead developers 
    • Environmental planning managers 
    • Urban and regional planning directors 

    A doctoral degree is best for GIS professionals interested in advanced leadership positions. Universities, government agencies, corporations, and nonprofits are popular workplaces. Possible occupations include: 

    • GIS senior research scientists 
    • GIS college professors 
    • Geospatial research directors 
    • Senior GIS consultants 
    • Chief data officer 

    Lateral career progressions are commonplace in the GIS field, too. GIS technician to cartographer and GIS developer to software engineer are examples. These progressions are also possible because of the ever-changing nature of GIS roles. 

    The Pros and Cons of Investing in a GIS Degree

    Is a GIS degree worth it? Yes, it is. But it isn’t every person’s cup of tea, either. Be aware of its pros and cons to determine if it’s up your alley or not. 

    Pros

    • The increasingly widespread applications of GIS technology mean increasing demand for skilled professionals. The diversity of employers also contributes to the appeal of GIS careers. GIS professionals are employed in the public and private sectors. 
    • The diversity of career paths appeals to aspiring and current GIS professionals. With the ever-evolving roles of GIS professionals, it’s easy to change occupations, gain specialist skills, and expand your knowledge. 
    • The opportunities for positive societal impact are limitless, too. Being an environmental consultant is a good example. 
    • The fast-changing GIS technology brings exciting opportunities for innovations and growth. 

    Cons

    • The cost of education can be a challenge. However, student financial aid makes it possible to earn a GIS degree with little student debt. 
    • There’s a need for continued learning and professional development due to fast technology obsolescence. Advanced education and training mean extra expenses. But their financial rewards recoup the monetary investment soon enough. 

    The pros outweigh the cons, meaning a GIS degree brings good returns on investment. 

    Assessing the Value: Is a GIS Degree the Right Choice for You?

    The best indicators of whether a GIS degree is the right choice for you or not are: 

    • Interests 
    • Career goals 
    • Definition of success (e.g., high income, job satisfaction, and personal fulfillment) 
    • Current financial situation (i.e., choosing between a certificate, associate, or bachelor’s degree) 

    You must consider these factors in making the decision. Follow these basic steps to get started on your decision, too. 

    • Understand the demands of earning a GIS degree and establishing a GIS career. If you can manage them, start planning. 
    • Perform a self-assessment of your interests, career goals, and finances. If you like working with spatial data, go for it. 
    • Research the present and projected GIS job market. Look into possible occupations and their average salaries. Consider the best places for employment. 

    In conclusion, a GIS degree is worth it. But its true value lies in leveraging it and loving your career.