Typical Job Titles
GIS Analyst / Specialist: This is the most common GIS job. Entry, maintenance and visualization of geospatial data and databases. Usually in a cubicle.
Data Analyst / Specialist: This is a more general position than GIS Analyst, involving the analysis of both geospatial and non-geospatial data. Strong quantitative skills essential, including programming.
Transit Data Analyst: Transit agencies hire analysts to maintain operational data and communicate analysis of that data. In addition to GIS skills, the ability to use and maintain specialized transit data software will also be needed.
GIS Developer: Developing software with a geospatial component, usually involving web sites and/or mobile devices. Requires strong programming skills and experience.
Field Technician: Captures geospatial data in the field or performs tedious data entry. Bachelors degree helpful but not essential. Often involves outdoor work with lots of travel and low pay.
GIS Director / Coordinator / Manager: Mid-career management job. Different positions have different combinations of technical consulting, outreach, sales, and management of subordinates. Usually mid-career positions.
Support Analyst / Engineer: GIS consulting firms and software companies like ESRI hire people to provide technical support to existing customers and help both existing and prospective customers more effectively use (and buy) the company's software offerings. Requires good people skills (sales) as well as a strong, practical, high-level understanding of the company's products.
Urban Planner: Urban planners commonly use GIS to provide analysis and visualization during the planning process. Although geography and urban planning often have a significant overlap in what they cover, urban planning careers usually require a professional urban planning degree from an urban planning department.
Instructor / Professor: Full-time college and university jobs are difficult to get, although opportunities are a bit better for people with quantitative GIS skills. Part-time and adjunct positions are often available for people active in the private or public sectors who can bring a real-world perspective to the classroom. Most full-time positions require a PhD, which requires an additional 4-6 years of education beyond the Masters and an extensive life commitment to performing research and seeking grant funding. Do not get a PhD unless there is nothing else you can do that would give you fulfillment.
Technologies and Tasks
ArcGIS is the name of a suite of software produced by ESRI. ESRI largely pioneered the world of desktop GIS and they now effectively have a monopoly on enterprise GIS (the GIS performed in large companies and government agencies). Their software is the industry standard used in the public sector, private sector and in academia.
Most GIS professionals use ESRI's ArcGIS suite of software, especially the ArcMap and/or ArcGIS Pro desktop mapping programs, and the ArcGIS Online web app.
GIS Servers and Databases
GIS jobs also often require working with and administering GIS data stored in databases on servers. Notable server software includes:
- ArcGIS Enterprise (GIS database software)
- ArcSDE (for storing GIS data using general-purpose database systems)
- Microsoft SQL Server (General-purpose database system)
- Oracle (General-purpose database system)
Open Source GIS
Open-source software is becoming increasingly important as an alternative to the expensive proprietary software services provided by ESRI. Some notable open-source GIS software includes:
- QGIS - a desktop GIS program analagous to ArcMap
- Carto - a GIS web app analogous to ArcGIS Online
- PostGIS - a database program and extension to the SQL language
All professional workers need to be familiar with Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Excel. Excel skills (notably functions) are especially useful for processing and analyzing geospatial data in spreadsheets.
All GIS jobs involve working with and communicating with groups of people. Accordingly, "soft" skills are essential for productively functioning in a professional work environment:
- Problem solving
- Verbal Communications
- Ability to work constructively in teams of dissimilar people
Programming skills are becoming increasingly important for GIS workers. These skills take significant time and experience to develop, and if you are considering a GIS career, you should make the development of programming skills a priority.
Python is a very common programming language used with ArcMap to automate tedious data processing tasks and build geospatial models. The visual programming language Model Builder in ArcMap is also commonly used.
Mobile App developers need to have experience using:
- Swift and/or Objective-C (Apple)
- Java (Android)
Research programmers need familiarity with at least one statistical programming language, such as:
- R (primarily used in the academic world and occasionally in finance)
Making GIS data available on the web (usually via maps) requires web development skills. Web developers need to have experience with the common web languages and frameworks:
- HTML (Hypertext Markup Language - used to create web pages)
- CSS (Cascading Style Sheets - used to add styling to web pages)
- ASP.net (in MicroSoft servers)
- PHP (on Linux servers)
A wide variety of frameworks and APIs are available for online map creation:
- Google Maps API
Engineering firms use computer-assisted design (CAD) software rather than GIS to specify where objects are located at sites that the firms are building or maintaining. However, such firms also find it useful to move data from CAD to GIS (or vice-versa) for cartography or network analysis. Because CAD designs are often oriented around creating diagrams that will be used by technicians, additional labor is often needed to tweak those designs to be geographically and topologically accurate when moving between GIS and CAD.
Common CAD software packages you will see in job listings include:
Finding GIS Jobs
Internships are essential preparation for entry-level jobs taken upon graduation. Aside from providing professional experience and offering insight into whether you really want to pursue GIS as a career, interns are commonly hired upon graduation by the companies they interned with. Even if the company you interned with is not your dream job, three to five years in an entry-level job will allow you to build your skill-set and professional connections (networking) so your next job can be closer to your aspirations.
That being said, internet Job Websites are still a useful source of possible leads, as well as information (albeit unreliable) on what kinds of jobs are available. Some suggested job sites:
- Monster.com: Large general employment site
- Dice.com: Information technology job site
- MyGISJobs: GIS job site
- GJC.org: GIS Jobs Clearinghouse
- SoCalGIS: Southern California GIS blog with job listings
- Idealist.org: Jobs, internships and volunteer opportunities with (primarily) non-profits
- ESRI: The Borg of GIS
- Careers @ Google: The Borg
- EcoJobs.com: Environmental career opportunities
- Indeed.com: Job listing search engine