Preparing For GIS Careers at the University of Illinois
After completing the introductory GIS course at U of I, you have a wide variety of options for your next steps.
GIS Courses at U of I
The following are typical courses that you can take after completing GEOG 379 Introduction to GIS.
GEOG 477 Intro to Remote Sensing: This course covers the use of raster data captured from satellites and aerial vehicles. This course will be of particular value to people pursuing careers in the natural and environmental sciences.
GEOG 380 GIS II Spatial Problem Solving: This course covers the use of tools from the ArcGIS Pro geoprocessing toolbox to extract useful information from geospatial data. This class and / or remote sensing are the typical second classes after completing GEOG 379 Intro to GIS. This course includes a basic introduction to Python programming.
GEOG 371 Spatial Analysis: This course gives an overview of statistical analysis techniques specific to spatial data. This course will be of particular interest to people pursuing careers in the social or natural sciences.
GEOG 407 Foundations of CyberGIS & Geospatial Data Science: This course is a general introduction to data science using geospatial data. This course will be primarily of interest to geographers wanting an introduction to data science or data scientists wanting an introduction to geospatial data science.
GEOG 473 Digital Cartography (Fall only): This is an introduction to map design that covers types of maps, color choices, projections, and map layout in greater detail than the intro to GIS course. However, it has no prerequisite, so there is quite a bit of overlap with the intro to GIS course.
GEOG 460 Aerial Photo Analysis (Fall only): This course covers methods for extracting quantitative and qualitative information from aerial photographs using computer-based techniques and visual interpretation. This course will be meaningful to people interested in geology and/or physical geography.
GEOG 476 Applied GIS to Environmental Science (Fall only): This course covers the use of GIS analysis techniques with environmental data. This is a challenging course and both a strong statistics background and some experience with scripting languages will be very helpful for succeeding in this course.
GEOG 412 Geospatial Technology and Society: This is a seminar on the implications of geospatial technology for social, economic, and environmental change. This course will primarily be of interest for people in the social sciences, urban planning, and/or public policy.
GIS Programs at U of I
If you want to provide more structure to your GIS coursework and would like a credential for that effort, U of I offers the following programs.
Bachelor of Science in Geography with a GIS Concentration
This is a traditional 120 hour bachelor's degree that includes 10 - 16 core credits of geography courses and 26 - 30 credits of GIS-specific courses.
This program is useful for people who are planning on on careers where GIS skills can be useful. This includes not only careers as GIS technicians, analysts, or developers, but also careers in busines, urban planning, public health, the natural sciences, and the social sciences.
The department also offers a joint Computer Science + Geography and GIS Bachelor of Science degree that incorporates 44 hours of computer science and mathematics. This program is useful for people interested in careers as GIS developers or geospatial data scientists.
The certificate in GIS offers you the opportunity to gain specific skills transferable to many different kinds of employment, and understand the geographic principles behind the analyses you're conducting.
This certificate requires four courses for a total of 13 credit hours. Those courses include GEOG 105 The Digital Earth, GEOG 379 Intro to GIS, and two additional geospatial technology courses that you can choose in coordination with an advisor.
This certificate is useful for people who are taking GIS courses and want a credential for their resume or for application to a graduate program.
Professional Science Master's Degree
The Professional Science Master's (PSM) degree with the Geographic Information Science (GIS) concentration combines advanced coursework in geospatial technology with business management coursework offered by the U of I Gies School of Business. This flexible degree is customized to each student to cover not only the GIS skills needed to get a technically-oriented job, but also the finance and management skills that will be needed for career advancement.
This program has traditionally focused on preparing students for long-term GIS careers in private industry or in government starting as GIS technicians, analysts, or developers. However, an increasing focus of the program is in the emerging field of geospatial data science.
This program requires 42 credits of coursework: 10 credits in business and 32 credits in GIS or related disciplines (typically computer science or information science). The program typically requires three semesters to complete plus a required summer internship. While students can perform research in independent study coursework conducted with GGIS faculty members, there is no research or thesis requirement.
Research Master of Science Degree
The traditional research-based master's degree program offers a concentration in geographic information science.
This program is highly selective and admission to the program with a GIS focus is generally reserved for students who are planning on continuing into the PhD program. Students wishing to get a master's degree in GIS at U of I are generally advised to apply to the Professional Science Master's program (described above).
Students admitted with a non-GIS focus in human or physical geography are sometimes funded through work as research assistants or teaching assistants in the department.
The master of science degree requires 32 credits of coursework and includes a research project that culminates in production of a report called a thesis. MS students typically take two full years to complete the program.
The GGIS PhD program is primarily of value for people who are pursuing careers as college professors, or who wish to do advanced research in the public or private sector. Admission to this program is highly-selective and typically involves funding through work as a research assistant or teaching assistant in the department. PhD students also typically need to seek grant funding to support their field work.
A PhD requires a major commitment of time and resources that is only appropriate for people who value intellectual activity over financial reward. Do not plan on getting a PhD unless there is nothing else you can do that would give you fulfillment.
While PhD students take some coursework, the degree is primarily focused on a major research project that results in a lengthy report called a dissertation. While most students entering the program with a master's degree complete the PhD within four to six years, there are numerous instances of PhDs requiring as long as ten years to complete. Historically, only 50% of students who begin a PhD program actually complete the degree (Cassuto 2013).
Typical GIS Job Titles
Once you have completed your degree, the following are types of jobs in GIS that you can pursue.
GIS Technician / Field Technician: Technicians capture geospatial data in the field and/or perform data entry and cleaning. A bachelors degree is usually required. The job often involves outdoor work with lots of travel and modest pay.
GIS Analyst / Specialist: This is the most common entry-level and early-career GIS job. Analysts perform entry, maintenance, visualization, and publication of geospatial data and databases. This job is usually performed in a cubicle.
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.
GIS Developer: These are programming jobs in developing software with a geospatial component, usually involving web sites and/or mobile devices. These jobs requires strong programming skills and experience.
Geospatial 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 are 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 Director / Coordinator / Manager: People who start as GIS analysts commonly move into these management jobs as their careers progress in a private company or government agency. Different positions have different combinations of technical consulting, outreach, sales, and management of subordinates.
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 master's of 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 master's degree and an extensive life commitment to performing research and seeking grant funding. Do not plan on getting 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 ArcGIS Pro, the older ArcMap desktop software, and/or 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:
- PostGIS - a database program and extension to the SQL language
- QGIS - a desktop GIS program analagous to ArcMap
- Carto - a GIS web app analogous to ArcGIS Online
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 ArcGIS Pro to automate tedious data processing tasks and build geospatial models. The visual programming language Model Builder in ArcGIS Pro is also commonly used.
Mobile App developers need to have experience using:
- Swift (Apple)
- Java (Android)
Research programmers need familiarity with at least one statistical programming language, such as:
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:
- GJC.org: GIS Jobs Clearinghouse
- SoCalGIS: Southern California GIS blog with job listings
- Monster.com: Large general employment site
- Dice.com: Information technology job site
- MyGISJobs: GIS job site
- 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