A Career in Geography

“What are you going to do with a degree in geography?”

Careers, employability and transferable skills

Students often do not have firm career plans – and often little knowledge about Geography. However, in understanding and making sense of the world around them, students of both human and physical geography develop a range of key skills, including personal organization and communication, problem identification and evaluation, data collection, analysis and presentation, report production and presentation (written and oral), team-work, and computer literacy. Geography departments at four year institutions are well equipped with facilities to study Geographic Information Systems which has proven to be an excellent avenue toward career opportunities over the last 20 years.

A geography degree provides a springboard into diverse areas in many fields, including: GIS and Geodesign, environmental science and management, sustainability, business, marketing, research and education, administration, planning, finance and banking, accountancy, legal professions, teaching, the armed forces, management, the police, conservation, banking, marketing and sales, or into higher degrees and postgraduate research.

Geographic inquiry allows the individual an opportunity to secure a more intimate knowledge of the local environment and, in so doing, a view of the wider world is enhanced.

Employers will continue to seek out those who have gained a firm foundation in the appreciation of both the domestic and the global environment. America plays a major role on the world stage and the dangers inherent in a limited range of public and corporate awareness are all too evident.

Geography is all too relevant in a modern world within which humankind’s activities and creative spirit continue to challenge a fragile planet. Because of the wide scope of the subject, careers as varied as environmental management, international business, geographic information systems, meteorology, urban planning, teaching, and research are all encompassed in the realm of Geography. Analytical skills secured are highly sought after by many professions in both government-operated agencies and private organizations. Perhaps the very terms of reference of geographic inquiry indicate the wide range of opportunities that exist for the Geographer who typically is not only searching for a view or what is, but, at the same time is seeking a vision of what might be.

  1. Business – to support marketing, optimizing business openings and closings, segmenting consumer data, and managing fleets Marketing – marketing involves a high degree of spatial awareness that will be secured with a special focus in Geography
  2. GIS careers – this is a huge marketplace for geography graduates – see the article below – city governments, county agencies, and other government agencies and many private groups include – GIS software developer; geospatial analyst; cartography/visualization specialist; geographic information scientist; geospatial database administrator; and spatial statistician
  3. Geodesign – an emerging field of inquiry that is an interdisciplinary approach between geography/GIS and design
  4. Sustainability – all careers related toward the need to monitor our ‘ecological footprint’ – ‘there are many opportunities in managing garbage!’
  5. Urban Planner/Community Development – Geography is closely associated with urban or city planning. City planners work on zoning, land use, and new developments’
  6. Utilities – power management; electricity; gas; telecommunications; water and wastewater
  7. Cartographer – cartographers are employed in the news media, book publishers, atlas publishers, government agencies
  8. Transportation management – in local government; regional transit authorities; shipping; logistics; and transportation companies.
  9. Environmental management – anything connected with ‘garbage’ – sustainability in both the public and private sectors is a huge avenue for employment.
  10. Teaching/Faculty – becoming a school, college or university geography instructor requires additional education beyond an undergraduate degree but it would certainly be rewarding to instill your love of geography with future geographers.
  11. Emergency Management – is an under-explored field for geographers who make great emergency managers with a keen understanding of the interactions between humans and the environment, knowledge about hazards and earth processes and an understanding about everything related to maps.
  12. Demographer – for the population geographer who loves demographic data – work for state or federal agencies to help develop population estimates and present data

GIS – The New Cartographers:

A report from the National Research Council Future identified that shortages in cartography (including GIS) and photogrammetry seem likely because the number of graduates is too small (tens to hundreds) to give NGA choices or means of meeting sudden demand.

Twenty years ago, a driver lost at night would pull his car over, take out a paper map bought at a gas station, and pore over its folds under a dim light. With luck and some critical thinking, he would eventually get where he was going. Today, he’d be more likely to swipe his finger across a smart phone screen and follow directions using Google Maps.

As maps have changed, so have mapmakers. No longer merely static images maps have become active interfaces for information exchange, continuously determining where we are in relation to distant satellites and suggesting where we ought to go. Today, the global geo-services industry collects, shares, and analyzes data on an unprecedented scale. It’s valued at as much as $270 billion per year and employs 500,000 people in the United States, according to a recent report from Google. The rapid transformation in the field has overturned traditional ideas of what a geographer does.

Modern Mapmaking:

Geographers have traditionally studied how the natural environment contributes to human society and vice versa, whereas cartographers have focused more explicitly on the art and science of mapmaking. Over the past couple of decades, a new field has emerged: geographical information systems (GIS), blending the study and expression of geographic information. Cartography and geography have overlapped and spawned innumerable subspecialties and applications. Modern geographers and cartographers are involved in diverse project, such as tracking fleets of vehicles or products, helping customers locate a Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks, modeling environmental scenarios such as oil spills, studying the spread of disease, identifying areas of criminal activity for police services, and ecosystem mapping.

GIS is considered to represent the leading edge of computer mapping and visualization technology. GIS arranges data in multiple layers and enables us to assess reality in a spatial setting.  GIS links data according to its relevance to a particular question to all other data of relevance to that particular place. It allows the user to map information to become the primary way to organize, access and distribute knowledge in the future. It is an interdisciplinary approach to understanding place and geographers are well suited to this approach.

In this sense it is a form of the ‘spatializing of knowledge’ (Thomas Fisher’s term, University of Minnesota) in that spatial understanding recognized place, rather than time, as the ultimate continuity in our lives. It allows us to imagine the future of places, products and the environment – it is a form of geodesign – which allows us to connect what we know about the world with what we might want the world to be. Fisher considers that just as GIS can serve as a means of organizing knowledge spatially, geodesign might serve as a means of projecting that knowledge into the future and assessing its merits based on what we know about a place.

What does GIS do?

  • Measuring geographic distributions
  • Identifying patterns
  • Identifying clusters
  • Analyzing geographic relationships

GIS software developers – like ESRI – have in the last 50 years created a set of tools to support geographic reasoning and in so doing GIS now embodies geographic reasoning to the extent that GIS is a great way to view ‘things geographic’! The role of geography – according to Jack Dangermond (the creator of ESRI) – is as a platform for understanding the world. GIS is making geography come alive as it allows for the condensation of data, information and science into a language that can be easily understood – the language of maps.

Geography and GIS.

The U.S. Bureau of labor statistics classify GIS and remote sensing as ‘new and emerging fields’. More and more companies and industries are using location based data and spatial analysis to support business operations as wide ranging as health care delivery, retail sales, environmental management, transportation planning, economic development, public utilities and services and more.

Volunteering and internships are a good way to break into the field as many companies employ from this angle.


  • Association of American geographer’s – www.aag.org/careers
  • ESRI – esri.com/careers
  • www.directionsmag.com/careers
  • GISLounge.com
  • GISjobs.com
  • GIS Jobs Clearinghouse – gjc.com
  • Federal gov. jobs – USAJobs.gov
  • Volunteer and nonprofit jobs – Idealist.org

A career in demand?

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration made the first systematic estimates of the size and growth of the modern mapping workforce and divided it into 10 distinct occupations, including GIS scientist and technician and various kinds of surveyors and cartographers. All together, the agency found that nearly 425,000 geospatial professionals were employed in the United States in 2010 and predicted that roughly 150,000 additional positions would be created by 2020.

That’s a lot of new jobs—a 35% increase over 10 years—but for job seekers, landing top jobs may require additional skills in geodesy, a branch of applied mathematics that measures the Earth’s gravitational field, and cartography, as well as a familiarity with fields such as human geography and social media. In January, a National Research Council report commissioned by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) searched for specific skill deficits that could emerge over the next decade. Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, NGA—one of 16 federal agencies responsible for national intelligence within the Department of Defense—has concentrated its efforts on gathering and interpreting intelligence with a geographical bent. For example, the agency used remote sensing and imagery to map the Osama bin Laden compound in Abbottabad for 2011’s raid.

According to the NGA report, the agency employs about 5000 people with geospatial expertise and hires roughly 300 new recruits each year in five focus areas: geophysics and geodesy; photogrammetry, the science of using photographs to measure objects from afar; remote sensing; cartographic science; and GIS. More recently, the agency has begun to address emerging aspects of geographic intelligence, like social media, that are rapidly turning individuals into on-the-ground sensors.

In its recent analysis, the agency determined that there are more than 2.4 million U.S. citizens capable of working at NGA if they were given substantial on-the-job training. They also found a healthy supply of professionals in GIS, remote sensing, and forecasting. Far fewer people specialize in geodesy, cartography, or photogrammetry, according to the report, making these areas of opportunity for job seekers.

One limitation for aspiring geographers seeking to acquire these skills is the availability of specialized training programs. Although there are now 189 GIS degree programs in the United States and more than 400 community colleges and technical schools that offer training in geospatial technologies, only a few focus on the advanced analysis and creative, thoughtful presentation of geospatial data involved in cartography. No degree programs exist for photogrammetry.

According to the Google report, the mapping business is expected to grow by 30% annually—an encouraging trend for aspiring geographers. However, the new NGA report suggests that competition for top-tier positions—particularly for GIS scientists and technicians, of whom there is a large and growing supply—is likely to remain fierce. Success in the field hinges on a person’s ability and willingness to pick up new skills. The key is “not just to be able to acquire a new computer program, but to be able to learn it in 3 weeks.”


Photogrammetry is the science of observing and measuring physical objects and phenomena from film, radar, sonar, or lidar and using multiple overlapping images to create mathematical 3D models of the terrain. Today’s GIS are based on data from photogrammetry.

Education and training. No programs in the United States offer a bachelor’s degree in photogrammetry, and only 15 universities offer photogrammetry classes to undergraduates, according to the NGA report. However, some 2-year professional programs that teach surveying or construction technology may provide hands-on training in using photogrammetric instruments. As with geodesy, a master’s or doctoral degree in photogrammetry provides much deeper knowledge of the mathematics behind photogrammetry, preparing students adapt to technological advances in sensing and combine information from new and multiple sources. Ohio State and Purdue University offer M.S. and Ph.D. programs in photogrammetry; the University of Florida offers a B.S, an M.S., and a Ph.D.

Additional resources. The American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing provides short courses at its meetings on relevant topics. Other organizations that promote skills related to geospatial careers include. Also ESRI provide thorough of the growing field of GIS. The King County GIS Center offers a tailored selection of learning opportunities, with Esri®-Authorized Courses, a growing catalog of custom GIS Training Express classes, and frequent free brown bag workshops. Learn hands-on from experienced and highly effective instructors in our convenient state-of-the-art Seattle training facility. http://www.kingcounty.gov/operations/GIS/TraininOthers:

  • American Geophysical Union
  • Association of American Geographer
  • Cartography and Geographic Information Society
  • IEEE Geoscience and Remote Sensing Society
  • International Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing
  • SPIE
  • University Consortium for Geographic Information Science
  • Urban and Regional Information Systems Association

Last Updated June 8, 2022