How Do I Become a Geospatial Information System (GIS) Engineer?

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Have an interest in landscapes and the richness of their environments? Consider a career in GIS or geospatial information systems. Geospatial information system engineers design, build, update, upgrade, maintain, and modify GIS applications or more specialized geographically-oriented utility programs.

The ability to research and develop software-based solutions to GIS challenges is also critical to the position. Increasingly, GIS technologies are being used in many different contexts to improve the precision of surveys for development, real estate, and private interests.

Due to these numerous varied needs, the field comprises a wide swath of professionals with highly divergent employment histories. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the occupations of a cartographer, photogrammetrist, surveying technician, mapping technician, geographer, and geoscientists, in general, will grow significantly into the future.

Read on to learn how to become a geospatial information systems engineer, including information about educational paths, credentialing, career requirements and outlook, salary, and resources for prospective GIS engineers.

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What is a GIS Engineer and What Do They Do?

The majority of GIS programmers or GIS engineers possess an undergraduate degree in either computer science or engineering and (typically) a master’s degree or graduate-level certificate in geospatial information systems and technology. GIS engineers can also be identified as GIS specialists, technologists, associates, managers, or developers, depending on the job’s specific requirements.

The educational background of a GIS engineer comprises studies in database management, programming, cartography, geospatial information systems, spatial analysis, web technologies, engineering, mathematics, geography, topography, drafting, design, and computer science. Ultimately, GIS engineering is about making detailed, user-friendly maps that tell researchers what they need to know about a surveyed landscape.

Qualified candidates for GIS positions possess skills in the research and development of software-based solutions to geospatial challenges. Because geospatial information system engineers design and build complex solutions, most employers prefer that applicants have at least a bachelor’s degree.

Generally, degrees in geography, computer science, engineering, or urban planning are preferred. Candidates with bachelor’s degrees in other areas should consider pursuing further training, skill development, and education in GIS before considering entering the field. Those individuals interested in managerial positions in GIS typically pursue advanced degrees.

Regardless of the level of one’s GIS education, these professionals are expected to design databases; analyze user needs; evaluate software requirements to determine the feasibility of design within time and cost constraints; adapt to new hardware or to improve performance; modify existing software to correct errors; store, retrieve, and manipulate data to improve system capabilities; use scientific analysis; and apply mathematical models for prediction.

Geospatial information systems tools are used in several areas, including geology, urban planning, health, city government, transportation, business marketing, archaeology, emergency services, real estate, city planning, municipal planning, fleet services, demographic studies, and market and political research.

Check out this step-by-step guide to becoming a GIS engineer.

Step 1: Graduate from High School (Four Years)

There are many ways that secondary students can prepare for a career as a GIS professional. It is recommended that one take a variety of courses in geography, geometry, algebra, chemistry, and physics. As admission to GIS programs tends to be highly competitive, it is advised that students pursue advanced placement coursework and maintain as high a grade point average as possible.

Step 2: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree (Four Years)

The first step toward pursuing a career in geographic information systems is to earn a bachelor’s degree in a related field. There are many careers available to those who possess entry-level bachelor’s degrees. While most GIS professionals have their BS in GIS, some have taken different educational paths with undergraduate degrees in computer science, engineering, or data management.

The core curriculum of BS programs in GIS emphasizes cartography, cognitive science, information science, geographic information systems, geospatial analysis, and data visualization.

University of Oregon

The University of Oregon’s Department of Geography hosts an excellent undergraduate program in geographical information systems. The college boasts two labs: the Spatial Computation, Cognition, and Complexity Lab and the InfoGraphics Lab. The program provides students with both the technical skills and conceptual knowledge base for developing and conducting data visualization and geospatial analysis.

Some of the topics students will explore include GIScience, remote sensing, advanced geographic information systems, advanced cartography, spatial analysis, geographic data analysis, location-aware systems, qualitative methods in geography, and geospatial project design.

At the end of the program, graduates can pursue opportunities such as GIS technician or specialist or developer, web cartographer, spatial data analyst, land survey technician, electrical distribution designer, and transportation planner, among others.

  • Location: Eugene, OR
  • Accreditation: Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
  • Expected Time to Completion: 48 months
  • Estimated Tuition: Residents ($14,421); non-residents ($40,464)

Arizona State University

In terms of online programs, Arizona State University offers a 100 percent online degree in geographic information science. The program provides students with a solid understanding of computer programming, statistics, and GIS software. Graduates develop in-demand skills for analyzing and solving spatial data problems.

To get accepted into the program, applicants must have a high school diploma, a minimum GPA of 3.0, official transcripts from every institution attended, ACT or SAT scores and TOEFL scores for international students.

​Comprising120​ credits, the program includes courses in programming principles in GIS, statistics for geography and planning, geographic information science, and advanced statistics for geography and planning.

On successful completion of the program, graduates can take up roles such as cartographers, GIS technicians, computer programmers, geospatial intelligence analysts, and information technology managers.

  • Location: Tempe, AZ
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Schools and Colleges
  • Expected Time to Completion: 48 months
  • Estimated Tuition: $608 per credit

Strayer University

Strayer University’s online bachelor of science in information technology program prepares students for research-heavy careers in GIS focusing on the practical usage of GIS technology in everyday life. Students in this program will have six concentrations to choose from: Cybersecurity; data management; data analytics; networking; IT project management; and software development.

The major admission requirements for the program include a completed application and enrollment agreement, a diploma from an approved high school or its equivalent, and a valid, current & legible government-issued photo identification.

As part of the program, students will delve into topics such as introduction to information systems, using math to inform your world, research & writing, introduction to business, introduction to networking, and an information technology capstone.

Students through the program develop the knowledge and skill to solve organizational problems, communicate technical information to a range of audiences, and apply security best practices in managing and using information systems and technology.

  • Location: Washington, DC; more than 50 campuses across the US
  • Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education
  • Expected Time to Completion: 48 months
  • Estimated Tuition: $1,480 per course

Step 3: Seek Employment as a GIS Technician (Three to Five Years)

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in GIS, it is good to enter the workforce to gain experience. All advanced GIS positions require a minimum of three years of industry experience. Many graduate degree programs have a similar requirement or require that students provide proof of having attended seminars or post-secondary training.

GIS technicians are specialized technologists who handle the data side of things. They are responsible for maintaining and updating data, records, statistics, and software given to them by GIS professionals. This data includes quantitative and qualitative types, such as environmental readings, aerial photography, water treatment data, population figures, and much more. The jobs board My GIS Jobs is a fantastic resource for those looking for entry-level technician or technologist positions.

Step 4: Become Certified in GIS (Timelines Vary)

Certification is a process by which an institution evaluates the level of a candidate’s GIS knowledge and experience. The GIS Certification Institute (GISCI) offers the GISP credential (geographic information systems professional). The GISP exam tests an applicant’s knowledge of the fundamentals of geographic sciences. This GISP certification process can be started at any time in your career. At final GISP approval, applicants must have four years of equivalent full-time geospatial experience, meet the portfolio requirements, show knowledge of GIS across a broad area by completing the GISCI geospatial core technical knowledge exam, and complete all required requirements within six years from the date of portfolio approval or passing the exam.

Additionally, the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS) offers a certified mapping scientist – GIS/LIS credential, which involves a peer-review process, a verification of trained skills, and an extensive written exam. This certification program is open and voluntary to all qualified individuals, whether or not they are members of the ASPRS. Candidates are required to have at least six years of active experience in the specialty category they are applying for.

More recently, the developer of the ArcGIS application, the Esri Academy, began offering a technical GIS certification program. Applicants may choose desktop certification exams that include the ArcGIS Desktop Entry exam; ArcGIS Desktop Associate exam; and the ArcGIS Desktop Professional exam. Enterprise certification exams include the Enterprise Administration Professional exam and Enterprise Geodata Management Professional exam. Specialty certification exams include ArcGIS Online Administration Specialty exam; ArcGIS API for JavaScript Specialty exam; ArcGIS API for Python Specialty exam; and ArcGIS Utility Network Specialty. All core exams, including retakes, are $250.

Step 5a: Earn a Master’s Degree (Two Years, Optional)

A master’s degree in geospatial information systems or science equips learners with the requisite higher-level theoretical basis on which to build a career as a geospatial science professional.

Expect coursework in the computational sciences, GIS, natural resource management, economics, computer science, and additional software. Areas of concentration typically include project management, technical communications, and group dynamics. Since those with MS GIS degrees usually go on to manage teams, foundational coursework in human resource management is beneficial as well.

Course topics in a GIS master’s program generally include geospatial professionalism, geospatial information science and technology fundamentals, spatial data foundations, geospatial modeling, geospatial data structures, geospatial web services, and geospatial programming fundamentals.

Clark University

Clark University’s Graduate School of Geography, the International Development, Community, and Environment (IDCE) Department, and Clark Labs combine together to offer a traditional campus-based graduate program in geographic information science where students get to work closely with expert faculty members to assess, research, and apply geospatial approaches to some of the most pressing societal challenges.

Students in this program can choose from the following four concentrations: conservation applications; community global health applications; remote sensing; and GIS for development and environment. The program specifically focuses on applications of geospatial technologies to problems of the environment and sustainable development, such as land use, conservation, public health, food security, agricultural development, climate change adaptation, and global change.

The curriculum explores topics such as advanced raster GIS, advanced vector GIS, introduction to geographic information science, web mapping and open source GIS, advanced remote sensing, geospatial analysis with R, and approaches to global health.

For admission to the program, applicants need to complete an online application form and submit a personal statement, letters of recommendation, a current resume, all academic transcripts, and proof of English language proficiency for international students, among other requirements.

Graduates of the program can pursue roles such as GIS analyst, research editor, cartographer, GIS specialist, and economics and planning officer.

  • Location: Worcester, MA
  • Accreditation: New England Commission of Higher Education
  • Expected Time to Completion: 24 months
  • Estimated Tuition: $6,035 per course

University of Wisconsin, Madison

University of Wisconsin–Madison offers an online master of science degree in GIS development or cartography. Students in this program gain skills in web mapping, mobile application development, and GIS programming.

Applicants to the program must have a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited institution or a comparable degree from an international institution, a minimum undergraduate GPA of 3.0, GRE scores, and three letters of recommendation. Non-native English speakers must submit TOEFL scores.

The program comprises 32 credits providing students with a foundation in mapping and GIS. Some of the courses in the curriculum are an introduction to cartography, an introduction to GIS, graphic design in cartography, GIS and spatial analysis, spatial databases, geo-computing, and interactive cartography & visualization.

  • Location: Madison, WI
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission
  • Expected Time to Completion: Full-time (12 months); part-time (24 to 36 months)
  • Estimated Tuition: $800 per credit

North Carolina State University

North Carolina State University offers an online master of geospatial information science and technology program training students to become geospatial professionals. The program is ideal for both working professionals as well as students who have just entered the workforce.

To get accepted into the program, applicants must have an undergraduate degree with a GPA of 3.0 or higher, completed graduate school application, a current resume, official transcripts from each college or university attended, a personal statement, and three letters of recommendation.

The program consists of 33 credits including courses such as fundamentals of geospatial information science and technology, geospatial professionalism, spatial data foundations, geospatial data structures & web services, geospatial modeling, and geospatial programming fundamentals.

The program opens up several opportunities for graduates. They can take up roles such as data manager, GIS analyst, geoscience technician, mapping technician, physical scientist, senior data analyst, and senior data scientist.

  • Location: Raleigh, NC
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
  • Expected Time to Completion: 24 months
  • Estimated Tuition: North Carolina residents ($505.28 per credit); non-residents ($1,504.56 per credit)

Step 5b: Earn a PhD (Three to Five Years, Optional)

The terminal GIS degree is a PhD. These programs are firmly grounded in technical and technological studies of software, content management, database management, GIS business theory, spatial data foundations, and advanced geospatial programming principles.

PhDs in GIS usually go on to teach at colleges or universities, manage large research teams in labs or at private companies, or work for the federal government as a geographer or cartographer.

These two doctoral programs boast innovative curricula that incorporate all of the latest advancements in the field.

North Carolina State University

For a face-to-face experience, consider this PhD in geospatial analytics from North Carolina State University. This innovative program focuses on experiential learning and integrative thinking.

The major admission requirements for the program include a bachelor’s or master’s degree with a graduate or undergraduate GPA of 3.0, GRE scores, unofficial transcripts, a personal statement, three letters of recommendation, a current resume, and TOEFL scores for international applicants.

Made up of 72 credits, the program includes courses such as geospatial analytics for grand challenges, geospatial data management, environmental earth observation & remote sensing, geospatial data mining and analysis, geospatial computation & simulation, and geo-visualization.

  • Location: Raleigh, NC
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
  • Expected Time to Completion: 48 months
  • Estimated Tuition: North Carolina residents ($505.28 per credit); non-residents ($1,504.56 per credit)

Arizona State University

Arizona State University offers a PhD program in geographic information science helping students develop the skills, abilities, and knowledge needed for a career that is focused on research or post-secondary teaching.

This program is specifically designed for students who have completed a master’s degree but it also has an option for students with strong potential to enter this PhD program directly after completing a bachelor’s degree. For admission to the program, candidates must have a strong interest and passion in geography, GIS, spatial analysis, or other related fields, have demonstrated research skills, and have a minimum undergraduate GPA of 3.0.

Students in this 84-credit program can focus their research on one of the four available interdisciplinary themes, which include: computational spatial science; earth systems & climate science; sustainability science & studies; and transportation planning and policy. The curriculum includes courses such as GIScience issues and debates, geographic information science programming, spatial statistics for geography and planning, and geographic research design and proposal writing, among others.

  • Location: Tempe, AZ
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
  • Expected Time to Completion: 48 months
  • Estimated Tuition: All applicants are considered for multi-year guaranteed funding packages; contact university for details

Step 6: Recertify and Reskill as Needed (Timelines Vary)

Be sure to pay close attention to how long any certifications are valid. It is important to reskill as necessary in a technologically-focused industry, especially with a career so involved in software applications. Each of the certifications detailed above is valid for different lengths of time and some of the recertification requirements can be satisfied by extracurricular coursework, internships, externships, or assistant positions.

Where Do GIS Engineers Work?

As mentioned above, most GIS professionals hold MS degrees in engineering, computer science, or GIS. A master’s degree in GIS is a powerful credential that can open doors for those interested in careers in the field. A graduate degree ensures employers that applicants are capable of critical thinking, higher experimental functions, advanced software usage, and the ability to adapt.

Positions such as GIS computer programmer or GIS software developer require a postgraduate level of subject expertise, so an MS is highly recommended. GIS engineers work in all corners of the market, namely in natural resources, government, business, private consultation, government consultation, public safety, transportation, mapping, statistics, geospatial imaging, health and human services, sustainability initiatives, utilities, communications, and military intelligence.

GIS engineers often find themselves working in the field, organizing studies and surveys of topography and environments for a high variety of uses. Places like universities, real estate and investment firms, non-profits, city and municipal offices, courthouses, media companies, independent surveyors, environmental organizations, and charities are just a few of the sorts of places that hire GIS talent.

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