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How To Become A Certified GIS Professional

October 08, 2021 6 min read

GIS professional - how and to become a GISP


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    Our guest today is Tony Spicci, the current Executive Director of the GIS Certification Institute. He began his journey in GIS by studying Geography at the State University of New York, then obtaining his masters at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Tony has done work for the Missouri Department of Conservation, helping establish infrastructure for a modern GIS program, and served as president for the National States Geographic Information Council. In addition to serving as an EMT and firefighter, his current mission is to help bring professional geospatial certification to the industry through the development and promotion of the GISP.   


    About the GISP


    The GISP is the certification program to become a Geographic Information Systems Professional. The program itself began to form in the early 2000s and is administered by the GIS Certification Institute (GISCI). The GISP can be considered as a demonstration of commitment to behaviors that enrich the geospatial profession, and an indicator that an individual aims for improvement and insertion into the greater GIS community. 


    The goal of the creation of the GISP was to provide a formal certification that would communicate professionalism, and both an internal and external industry validation of skills.


    This validation takes the form of three components: an exam, a portfolio, and a commitment to a code of ethics.  


    As of now, about 10,500 people have obtained their GISP, with about 6,500 of them keeping it active (some have been lost to other industries, or retirement). Those victorious reside on every continent, except Antarctica (technically), and in 59 countries. Motivation to earn the GISP is a bit different depending on the sector. For private industry, the drive tends to come more from employers, some of which now require a GISP to be considered a qualified candidate. In academia and the public sector, the push comes from a desire to prove one’s abilities in a measurable way.

    The most recent survey on the topic reports that about 60% of GISPs receive a raise associated with their certification,

    and frequently employers will help fund the certification and the associated continuing education requirements. 


    The Requirements for a GISP


    The GISP is designed to be appropriate for someone with about 4 years of experience in the geospatial industry. There are no explicit education requirements to become eligible to begin the GISP application process, but you will need to demonstrate significant educational experience otherwise in the industry. Experience gained independent of formal education is also acceptable. 


    The formal requirements for a successful GISP application are:


    • The Portfolio: This is a review of the applicant’s educational achievements and contributions to the profession and industry. These can take the form of volunteer work, participation in professional societies and committees, especially if one participates in a leadership position, participation in conferences and symposiums, contribution to open source software projects, or a number of other activities.

    • The Exam: The test itself consists of 100 questions spread across 10 key areas: Conceptual Foundations (10%), Geospatial Data Fundamentals (15%), Cartography & Visualization (10%), Data Acquisition (11%), Data Manipulation ( 11%), Analytical Methods (11%), Database Design & Management (10%), Application Development (7%), Systems Design & Management (7%), and Professional Practice (8%). The exam is designed to test fundamental geospatial knowledge, rather than competency in a key list of softwares.

    • The Ethics: An applicant is required to sign an agreement to uphold four key ethical obligations: To Society; To Employers/Funders; To Colleagues and the Profession; To Individuals. This is a commitment to integrity, honesty, and quality contributions to the field to the best of your ability. Failure to adhere to these points after receiving your GISP results in an investigation by the ethics review panel, and potential revocation of the GISP title. 


    The cost includes a one-time application fee of $100 USD, $100 for portfolio review, and $250, or $300 outside North America, for the exam itself. Recertification is $95 per year. Every 3 years, you must resubmit your portfolio, and resign the ethics statement, but this does not incur a separate cost.

    The GISP Process


    After reviewing the requirements for the GISP, it can be a bit intimidating as to how to get started if you would like to pursue certification. A great first step is to look into GISCI’s website, where you can find detailed information and history about the program, as well as a practice test, and the blueprint for the most recent version of the exam. Some other helpful tools include the GIS registry, where you can look up GISPs within a certain geography, and the results of a salary and job responsibilities survey administered to GISPs in 2017. 


    The praises of building a GIS portfolio have been sung here for sometime, so if you have gotten on this already, you have a head start on your application. It is worth noting that

    the GISP portfolio is looking for more than just cartographic products you have completed.

    It encompasses education, and professional development activities, such as workshops or conferences, as well that you will need to document. It is good practice in general to keep a running list of these kinds of achievements, so even if you do not see a GISP in your future, their portfolio model is still a worthwhile project.


    A nifty feature of the GISP portfolio element is that it is hosted online, and can be continually updated, even once you have begun the application process


    Some other useful information is that it is rare to have your application rejected based on your portfolio. If it is lacking, the GISCI team will work with you to get it on track. The grading system is points based, so by investigating the scoring available on their website, you can get an idea of how you stack up. 


    The best strategy for the exam is like that of many others: find out what will be on the test, study, take some practice tests, evaluate where your weaknesses are, rinse and repeat until you are confident in your knowledge. 

    Reviewing the blueprint is especially essential as it breaks down the subtopics you need to know for each of the 10 areas discussed before.

    Again, you are not being tested on specific software knowledge, so focus on being solid in your fundamentals in order to do well. This is one of the many reasons the GISP should be considered a geospatial evaluation over a GIS one. The test is graded as pass/failso you will not get back specifics on your scores. If you fail, however, you will receive a breakdown on how you did in different areas to help you focus your studies. 


    What is the Future of the GISP?


    The GISP has come a long way since its beginnings, and has worked its way up to a household name (granted, in a very specific set of houses). The GISCI team is continuing the mission by branching out into collaborations with GIS-adjacent industries. This has the effect of spreading the word about what GISPs can do, and learning more about what skills will be needed in the future to maintain these cross-disciplinary relationships. 


    Another potential development for the program would be the requirement of retaking the exam component at the 3 year recertification interval. This would allow further validation of current skills, but could prove an obstacle for many. Ultimately, GISCI wants people to succeed, and aims to continue to provide the resources to achieve this. 


    If you are still not turned on to what comes with the GISP, this does not mean you cannot be considered a GIS professional without it. The GISP is just one avenue to prove your skills in the field. If you have the experience and skills to prove it, absolutely call yourself a GIS professional. If you want the validation of the title of the GISP, apply and start the process. Put out the signal that you want to be received by the others, there is likely someone listening on both frequencies. 

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