Should I get a GIS minor, certificate, or degree?

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Students often ask me, “What do employers want? Should I get a GIS minor, a GIS certificate, or a degree in GIS like a BS or MS?”

The answer is “Yes!”

Seriously, though, it depends on what you want to do.

First, though, let’s describe the difference in these degrees.

  • A GIS (or related) Bachelor’s degree (or Associates, in some cases) are credentials that acknowledge that you have demonstrated skills and knowledge in GIS, and that you have a rounded education. Someone with a GIS degree should be technically proficient in several domains in GIS and have some programming or database skills and/or data acquisition skills. If you’re looking for a job called “GIS Analyst” or similar, this might be the best path.
  • A GIS minor often has nearly as many classes as a GIS major degree, and includes a specialization in a major that is hopefully related. This is a good path if you aren’t looking for a full-time GIS job, but want to use GIS in your chosen field.
  • A GIS certificate and a minor are similar, and the certificate has the advantage of not requiring simultaneous enrollment in a degree program. That is, you can finish the certificate after you graduate.
  • In addition to certificates from a college, there are also technical certifications from ESRI and the GIS Certification Institute. These are often positioned for mid-career professionals rather than students.

It should be noted that GIS is a relatively new field compared to other sciences. Degrees in Physics, Math, or Geology are fairly standardized to degrees in GIS, so you’ll see a very wide variation in classes and requirements for these degrees. Keep this in mind! You’ll need to choose classes and structure your degree to match your goal…

Next, start with what your goal after the degree is.

  • Do you want a job straight out of college?
  • Are you thinking about going to graduate school?
  • Do you know what type of job and what industry you’d like to work in?
  • Are you transitioning from one career to another? And will that require some effort to change?

Getting a degree is not the end point – it’s just a means to an end. So it’s worth thinking about what you want to use a degree to do.

  • If you’re looking for any job out of college, then you need to have a broad set of skills and some proven accomplishments like projects, internships, presentations, or writing under your belt.
  • If you’re thinking about graduate school – which one? To do what? Think about the skills (writing, research, technology skills) you need to be successful in graduate school.
  • There are many paths that GIS can take you – city planning, traditional energy, renewable energy, utilities, extraction, geology, real estate, parks and recreation, meteorology – so think about which ones would be of interest to you, and tailor your work in that direction.
  • If you are already working, it can be a bit painful to give up your current job to start again. Make a plan to help you transition. You could look into part-time work while you keep your full-time job, or save up to buffer your new career while you move up the GIS ranks.

What do I do if I’m looking for a job after college?

  1. Start today by looking at job postings in your chosen career. You can do this by:
  2. Keep a list of all of the job postings, and look at where they are, what they do, and what qualifications you need to have. This can help plan your career. Which jobs appeal to you? This can help you narrow your focus into one type of career. If you can, hone in on a career path rather than hope for any GIS job.
  3. Talk to people. Email them! Have a brief Zoom or Skype meeting, or even (gasp!!) a phone call! Ask them what they think about their career, how they got into their job, and what they think you need to do to get a similar job (don’t ask to take their job away from them.) Seriously -network! Not everyone may be able to talk to you, but getting comfortable meeting with people is helpful, and you can practice.
  4. Get experience – whether that’s an internship, research at school, class projects, volunteering your GIS skills, taking a GIS workshop, giving a talk or teaching lesson, or working as a contractor on a small project. Experience counts! Small work is meaningful, and when you’re are starting out, having some projects and experiences that you’ve worked on and completed show you are serious about your career.
  5. Be sure to get a stellar recommendation letter!

What do I do if I’m thinking about graduate school?

Graduate school can be an exciting exploration deeper into your chosen field, or it can be a great way to acquire a lot of debt… or both. If you’re thinking about graduate school, consider the following….

  1. If you’re thinking about graduate school, start by asking “why?” Do you want to be a professor? Do you want to work in government or at an NGO? The worst reason to go to graduate school is that you don’t know what you want to do, and you’re willing to put off reality for a few more years. Go to graduate school because you have a goal in mind.
  2. The skills that make you a good undergraduate student are not often the same skills that make you a good graduate student. Graduate school is about working with a team to do research and teach and be focused on a long-term project. While being an undergraduate often rewards staying up all night to write a paper, graduate school will punish this! Start developing the habits that will make you successful in graduate school.
  3. Talk to people! Look at a lot of different schools, but more importantly, look at different advisors (research professors.) In graduate school, your relationship with your advisor is more important than the name of the school or the program, so talk to students currently at the institution and get a sense of what it’s like there.
  4. Your chances of getting admitted to graduate school go up as you present research and publish, so find a mentor at your institution and do this! Be willing to do a little grunt work, and be willing to learn.
  5. Also, having technical skills will make you very useful in graduate school. Learn to program, learn databases, learn statistics!
  6. Finally, join your discipline’s academic organizations, and go to the local and national conferences. For GIS, this is the American Association of Geographers and in Colorado, the Great Plains-Rocky Mountain AAG meeting. Go to a conference, meet your peers, and get to know the academic landscape of your discipline.
  7. Be sure to get at least three stellar recommendation letters!

But which is best? A BS, a minor, or a certificate?

Did you look at jobs? Or think about grad school? REALLY? Okay. Now I’ll tell you.

There are no “hard and fast” rules.

Generally, it doesn’t matter, but if you look at some jobs, they may require a degree, or will substitute some types of degrees for years of experience. It depends on what type of industry and/or government industry you’re looking at whether they will require one or the other. There doesn’t seem to be much consensus – yet – over certificates.

If you’re looking for a job with “GIS” in the title like GIS Technician or GIS Analyst, they are more likely to require some kind of GIS degree.

A minor and a certificate seem to be pretty interchangeable. At MSU Denver, the minor and the certificate are nearly the same amount of work, and you can “double-dip” with a certificate – that is, count it for the minor and the certificate, so why not do both?

Having tangible experience – internships, research projects, volunteer work, etc – is more valuable than saying that you’ve taken specific classes. Don’t tell, show – create a portfolio website of your maps and projects, and have a link on your resume that shows your work! This can be classwork, volunteer work, or maps you make for fun. Show it off!

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