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.

The following courses may be of interest to students with an interest in geospatial data science. A strong foundation in basic statistics and some programming experience are helpful for succeeding in these courses. Undergraduate students can petition to take the 500-level (graduate) courses. These are also core courses in the graduate geospatial data science certificate.

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.

Bachelor of Science in Geography with a GIS Concentration

Undergraduate Certificate

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 is useful for people who are taking GIS courses and want a credential for their resume or for application to a graduate program.

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.

Undergraduate Certificate in GIS

Professional Science Master's Degree

The GIS master's degree at U of I is the Professional Science Master's (PSM) degree with the Geographic Information Science (GIS) concentration. This degree combines advanced coursework in geospatial data science 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 will primarily be of interest to students planning on careers as geospatial data scientists or GIS developers.

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.

Professional Science Master's in GIS

PhD 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).

Doctor of Philosophy

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 you are absolutely certain there is nothing else you can do with your life that would give you fulfillment.

Technologies and Tasks

Desktop GIS

If you work professionally in GIS, you will almost certainly be using sofware developed by ESRI, a company that largely pioneered the world of desktop GIS and 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.

ArcGIS is the name of their flagship software suite, which includes:

GIS Servers and Databases

GIS jobs also often require working with and administering GIS data stored in databases on servers. Notable server software includes:

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:

Microsoft Office

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.

Soft Skills

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:

Programming Languages

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:

Research programmers need familiarity with at least one statistical programming language, such as:

Web Development

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:

A wide variety of frameworks and APIs are available for online map creation:

Computer-Assisted Design

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: