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Becoming a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Analyst - Education & Certification

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Geographic information systems (GIS) analysts are multi-dimensional thinkers. How does the physical landscape interact with the moving parts that traverse it? What can the patterns in such data tell us about the past, present, and future? By linking digital mapping techniques to wider data sets, GIS analysts are figuring out the answers to these questions.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2019), the need for cartographers (a field related to GIS analysts) is projected to grow at double the average rate for all professions into the future. But GIS analysis goes further than traditional cartography by integrating multiple customized digital datasets. The applications are nearly limitless. GIS analysts can optimize a business’s international supply chain, track the migration of endangered animals, chart the spread of a virus, or map the impact of pollution. They work for both the government and private companies—and the patterns they uncover can have a monumental impact.

With more data being collected than ever before, the answers are out there for GIS analysts to find. But it requires a skillset that blends social science, STEM fundamentals, technical expertise, and an obsessive attention to detail.

If you’re interested in finding the answers to complex and life-altering questions, check out our step-by-step guide to becoming a GIS analyst below.

Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming a GIS Analyst

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

After graduating from high school, aspiring GIS analysts need to earn a bachelor’s degree. For their major, they have two main options: geography or geographic information science. The former embodies a strong social science foundation, while the latter focuses more on technical implementation.

Admissions requirements for undergraduate programs vary from school to school, but generally include some combination of the following: a competitive high school GPA (3.0 or greater); SAT and/or ACT scores; letter(s) of recommendation; and a personal statement.

Arizona State University offers an online BS in geographic information science. The program begins with a foundational overview of GIS software, statistics, and computer programming, and then moves into societal and scientific applications. The curriculum makes use of the school’s Spatial Analysis Research Center (SPARC), a GIS-focused research group.

Courses include programming principles in GIS; statistics for geography and planning; cartography and geo-representation; and spatial decision support systems. The program consists of 120 credits and costs approximately $540 per credit for non-residents.

Salisbury University has a BS in geography program that allows students to specialize in GIS. The program’s alumni work at practically every level of the public and private sector and often aid new graduates in finding employment. Specializations cover the following topics: remote sensing of the environment; cartographic visualization; advanced GIS science; spatial statistics; and GIS programming. Note that this is an on-campus program located in Salisbury, Maryland. Tuition is approximately $20,110 per year.

Step Two: Gain Early Work Experience (Optional, Timeline Varies)

After graduating from university, it’s possible to find entry-level work as a GIS analyst. This is a field with applications that range from public health to business logistics—and early work experience can be critical in determining where to focus one’s energies. Plus, it’s possible that an employer may pay part of an employee’s graduate-level tuition.

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

A master’s degree isn’t a requirement for all GIS analysts, but it’s a mark of distinction for those who wish to pursue higher levels of responsibility within the profession. Furthermore, it can allow for niche specializations that define one’s career trajectory. Admissions requirements vary from program to program, but generally include some combination of the following: a competitive undergraduate GPA (3.0 or greater); GRE scores; a personal statement; letter(s) of recommendation; and/or work experience.

USC’s Dornsife Spatial Sciences Institute offers a standout online MS in geographic information systems technology (GIST). It’s designed for individuals who want to develop deep GIS expertise and pursue leadership roles within the industry and many students find opportunities for career advancement before they’ve even graduated.

In addition to a core curriculum, students may choose to follow one of four specialist tracks: spatial application development; spatial data analysis and visualization; spatial data acquisition and integration; or spatial thinking. The program consists of 28 credits and can be completed in as few as 20 months. Tuition costs approximately $53,984 in total.

Clark University offers a master’s in geographic information science at its campus in Worcester, Maine. The university is also home to Clark Labs, which develops its own software-based geospatial solutions. The master’s curriculum is tailored to one of four specializations: GIS for development and environment; conservation applications; global and community health applications; and remote sensing. Furthermore, students can choose between a research track and an internship track. The program consists of 12 credits and can be completed in two years. Tuition costs approximately $70,272 in total.

Step Four: Pursue Industry-Level Certification (Optional, Timeline Varies)

While it’s not a requirement, many GIS analysts choose to pursue industry-level certifications that demonstrate mastery of particular knowledge areas or software platforms. GIS analysis is an extremely technical and data-dense field and being able to parse through it all can require a level of mastery that goes beyond the typical educational routes. Industry-level certifications differentiate the merely competent from the truly expert.

The GIS Certification Institute (GISCI) offers certification as a GIS Professional (GISP) for analysts with at least four years of relevant work experience. Once deemed eligible, applicants must pass a four-hour, 180-question, software-agnostic exam that covers the key knowledge areas of geospatial technology. Total application and exam fees come to $450. Active GISPs have to recertify every three years. To qualify for recertification, one must present 24 achievement points that encompass continuing education, contributions to the profession, and relevant work experience. An annual maintenance fee of $95 is billed during each recertification period.

The Imaging & Geospatial Information Society, a division of the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS), provides the Certified Mapping Scientist (GIS) designation for GIS analysts. Candidates must have three years of experience in mapping science, three years of experience in GIS, and four references from working GIS professionals. Once deemed eligible, candidates need to pass a written exam to earn their certification.

Application fees total $300 for ASPRS members and $450 for non-members. Recertification is required every five years, in which a certified CMS/GIS must demonstrate 100 professional development credits that span across continuing education, contributions to the field, and other forms of industry engagement. Recertification fees are $200 for ASPRS members and $350 for non-members.

The Esri Academy offers multiple technical certifications for GIS professionals who utilize the industry-leading ArcGIS software. Of particular interest to GIS analysts are the desktop certifications, which come in three tiers: entry, associate, and professional. Candidates should have two years or more of applied experience with the ArcGIS platform for lower-level certifications, and four years of experience for professional-level certification. Certification is contingent upon passing a two-hour, 80-question exam that covers several areas of ArcGIS utilization. Core exams cost $250 each.

Helpful Resources for GIS Analysts

If you’re interested in GIS analysis, you better start building a healthy appetite for data. Get started by snacking on some of the resources below.

  • American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS)
  • Directions Magazine
  • Geospatial World
  • GIS Lounge
  • Remote Sensing of Environment: An Interdisciplinary Journal

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