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Career Advice For GIS Students

GIS is an incredibly broad field, and the opportunities seem to only be increasing as more and more industries recognize the value. It’s more than just maps, of course.

GIS is known to be commonly used for governments for problem solving in areas of natural resource management, environmental science and town planning. Today, GIS is utilized in far more areas of work, from farming to healthcare and even developing business strategy in the corporate office. It is often used as an additional tool to a role but can be a stand-alone job as well.

Whether you’re still studying, or you’ve recently graduated you will find this helpful when considering how to develop and get into a career in GIS.

Make that winning job application

Make sure you’re got the right foundation for the job you want, gaining skills in cartography, spatial analysis, database management, web technologies, data science or programming will be beneficial. There are so many different angles you can come at your GIS career from.

Some people have an interest primarily in a geography or natural resources-based profession, in which case many geography degrees will have a GIS element included. If your career interest is specifically in cartography and design you might be better off studying web design and adding a GIS certificate onto that.

The same goes for using GIS in a business career, you would be best placed completing your business management or project management degree and adding the additional GIS course or certificate onto that. 

Know ESRI. ESRI is the leading GIS software company and almost all employers will want you to be competent working with ESRI products. However, it’s also valuable to make yourself familiar with other opensource GIS software out there. For example, QGIS is free to use, as a result more people have the ability to access it and train with it and it’s more often used by non-for-profit companies.

Getting the job means getting the interview first. Many people have the right skill set and background experience but because they don’t sell it well on paper, they don’t get an invitation to an interview. Don’t get an interview, don’t get the job.

When you apply for a job make sure your application really stands out and tailor it according to the specific job you’re applying for. Yes, it takes more work, but that is the recipe for success. Naturally, if at first you don’t succeed, keep on trying. Try not to be discouraged and keep applying for jobs and stay motivated. You just need to get one foot in the door to begin with.

Build a portfolio

As an entry-level candidate, it means you need to display what you can do for a potential employer. While you may not have much experience yet you can develop a portfolio displaying volunteer project work and some of your own personal projects. Make a website portfolio, this will not only display your GIS skills but also your proficiency in using the internet in general but also web development.

There’s nothing stopping you from identifying a problem you are passionate about or that you see frequently in everyday life. Start flexing your GIS muscles on that and see what you can display with open-source data or your own data. Use only the projects you feel most proud of or the ones that display a skill set you want to highlight.

Tip – A portfolio is also a critical part of the certification process should you decide to become a certified GIS professional

How To Become A Certified GIS Professional

Look for opportunity in everything

Apply for everything! After some time of applying for jobs and trying to gain experience, you may become disheartened. The key is to apply for everything and identify the skills and experience you can gain from the role even if it’s not your dream job.

Perhaps the company is large and there’s a growth opportunity either to move up or sideways through the company, to gain a variety of experiences. Maybe there is some potential for soft skills development, whatever the role there are often countless hidden opportunities, so apply for everything. Everything that shows even the tiniest bit of opportunity, can evolve into something much better. 

Remember, you don’t have to stay in that entry job forever you just need to start building experience. If and when you feel you’ve outgrown the job you can always move on. 

Volunteering and Internships are valuable

Don’t undervalue volunteering, many employers still highly regard seeing volunteer work on a resume, and it can be another way to broaden your experience with different types of GIS work.

For example, if you aren’t getting enough of a certain type of experience in your current job you can volunteer your time on another project where you will gain that experience as well as build your professional GIS network. If you’re still studying get involved in as many research projects or volunteer projects as possible, employers want to see some level of real world experience and this is a really useful way to get that.

There are many humanitarian-focused groups that utilize GIS volunteers. Check out well-known organizations like GIScorps and OpenStreetMap . If you speak either French or Spanish and can commit to a project, MapAction bring onboard new volunteers from January to February each year.  

Internships are commonly seen as an essential stepping stone for almost any career path. Internships are short term and there can be paid work available at the end, or at the very least some good professional contacts made during the experience.

However, be realistic about an unpaid internship. In contrast to volunteering where you do not get paid but have schedule flexibility, an unpaid internship would have you working full time hours – for free. It is often recommended to opt for or negotiate a stipend that at least covers expenses and doesn’t leave you destitute and homeless.

Join online GIS communities

Networking is extremely crucial in many fields of work, but none more so than GIS. GIS is a reasonably niche area so making yourself known to other GIS professionals will help you get your foot in the door for an interesting volunteering opportunity or that dream job. Joining online communities has networking benefits but it will help with keeping your skills sharp. You can stay on top of new trends and tools in software as well as keeping your eyes peeled for opportunities that may not be advertised widely.

Move around – consider remote work

If you’re really serious about a career in GIS, you might have to move. In some cases, there just aren’t enough job opportunities in your area, so you need to be prepared to relocate to where there are better opportunities. You will likely limit yourself if you try to stay in the one location.

In saying this, since the global Covid-19 pandemic remote work has become more and more accepted. It is possible to get remote GIS work, especially in the US. However, you would need to have a trusted portfolio of work, to begin with if you want to think about gaining remote GIS work. 

Further your skills and always keep learning

You will never stop learning in the GIS field and the moment you sit back and relax you will fall out of the game. The industry is rapidly advancing and GIS roles frequently require or desire a candidate to have some form of programming skills whether that’s Python or JavaScript, database management, or graphic design. Combining your GIS degree with a data science background will give you a real powerhouse of skill sets.

Turn your attention away from the software for a moment and consider the remote sensing hardware and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). This equipment is often used in the data collection element of a GIS role and you need to maintain your skills across the board. In some places gaining a drone license or pilot’s license is a big advantage due to drone use laws in various countries. 

Don’t relax for too long, even if you’re not considering changing employers just yet, keep an eye on the job market. See what skills and qualifications employers are asking for and ensure you stay on top of the skill set required of a GIS specialist today. 

In summary

  • Opportunities are everywhere
  • Build the right skills base
  • Always keep learning
  • Networking!

This podcast episode offers a step-by-step guide to getting your dream job that you can follow

Don’t be put off by the Earth Observation in the title! the process is the same for GIS!

Keep an open mind to job opportunities, especially at the very early stage of your career. Apply for everything, and gain experience wherever you can. Keep your skills sharp, the industry is developing are a rip-roaring pace, if you sit back and get comfortable for too long, you’ll quickly find your skills outdated and you’ll be left behind by the competition.

Volunteering can be a great way to get some variety in work experience, especially if your entry-level job has you stuck on simple repetitive tasks. Online GIS communities are a verifiable gold mine for assistance and support, use them as much as needed. 

If you’re on the job hunt and beginning to get worn down, relax. You don’t need to know everything, GIS is about problem-solving after all. Good luck. 

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