Becoming a Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) Engineer - Education & Certifications

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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 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.

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 specific requirements of the job.

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 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 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 a number of 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.

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.

In terms of online programs, Arizona State University offers a 100 percent online degree in geographic information science. This other online program at Strayer University prepares students for research-heavy careers in GIS and features a program focused on practical usage of GIS technology in everyday life.

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

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in GIS, it is a good idea to enter the workforce to gain experience. All advanced GIS positions require a minimum of three years of industry experience. In fact, 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.

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.

More recently, the developer of the ArcGIS application, the Esri Academy, began offering a technical GIS certification program. Applicants may choose two levels of proficiency for these Esri exams: associate and professional, all dependent on career needs.

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, the fundamentals of geospatial information science and technology, spatial data foundations, geospatial modeling, geospatial data structures, geospatial web services, and geospatial programming fundamentals.

A traditional campus-based graduate program can geographic information science from Clark University will prepare any prospective GIS professional for an exciting future career, while the University of Wisconsin, Madison offers a compelling, cutting-edge degree program for those who want to get their master’s in GIS online.

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. For a face-to-face experience, consider this PhD in geospatial analytics from North Carolina State University. Alternatively, check out this online doctorate in geography with a concentration in GIS from Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

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 are 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 of 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, court houses, 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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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.