What Is GIS Certification?
Unlike university certificate or degree programs, which aim to teach you about geospatial information science and enhance your technical proficiencies through coursework, GIS certifications are more like a badge, guaranteeing your existing knowledge and skills have been tested and meet a certain standard.
The process of obtaining a GIS certification is comparable to that of getting your driver’s license: you must study and practice on your own and then pass an exam. GIS certifications aren’t required in order to work—or even excel—in the geospatial industry, but they can be a gateway to more advanced roles.
Hiring managers tend to recognize a few main GIS certifications, so it is important to choose wisely. With the right GIS certification on your résumé, you could potentially be even more valuable to a potential employer than a competitor with a GIS degree.
And because certification institutions tend to charge for only the cost of the exam (anywhere from $250 to $500), they are vastly more affordable than the tuition rates of a degree program at a university.
GIS Certification vs GIS Certificate: What’s the Difference?
It is critical to understand the difference between a GIS certificate and a GIS certification.
A GIS certificate is a program offered by a university or academic institution, similar to a bachelor’s or master’s degree. This includes applying for, enrolling in, and completing several GIS courses where you’ll learn about geospatial science and technology.
A GIS certification is a professional accreditation, which verifies that you have obtained a certain level of professional knowledge, experience, and test results.
The terms are often used interchangeably, but the key difference is that one encompasses all the necessary training and coursework to educate you in the subject, and the other validates that you have already obtained and applied that knowledge.
For the purposes of this guide, a GIS certificate refers to the university educational program, and a GIS certification is a professional exam-based recognition.
Types of GIS Certifications
GIS certifications are offered by two different types of organizations: 1) nonprofit educational institutions or professional societies, and 2) corporations with a high level of recognizability in the industry.
Getting certified by one of these premier organizations ensures future employers of the standard to which your skills have been assessed.
GISP Certification from The GIS Certification Institute (GISCI)
The GIS Certification Institute (GISCI) falls into the first category of certification organizations. The nonprofit Institute’s main mission is to provide all the necessary outlines, reviews, and examinations for professionals looking to achieve their GISP (Certified GIS Professional) recognition.
The GISP is undoubtedly the most well-known GIS certification. Employers will often request it in their job postings, and it is almost always positively received as a component of an applicant’s résumé. Attaining a GISP also connects you with other members of the GIS community, and the GISCI is an excellent mechanism for expanding your network.
In order to qualify for the GISP, applicants must provide a combination of components. After registering on the GISCI website, you can submit information regarding your work experience, education, and contributions to the GIS industry (such as publications, conference presentations, workshop attendance, volunteer efforts, and awards) in exchange for points that contribute to your application package.
After submitting the various components of your GIS history, you’ll be required to take an exam. The categories you’ll be tested on range from geospatial data fundamentals to cartography and visualization, application development, and analytical methods. The required passing score is 73%. Approximately 60% of applicants pass the exam; if you don’t pass, GISCI will provide you with a performance report informing you of which categories you should work on for next time.
The GISCI also has practice exams available on the website, and there are lots of other resources online to prepare you for the test. A more detailed breakdown on approximately what percentage of each category makes up the total exam is available in the Technical Knowledge Exam Candidate Manual.
Total costs for GISP certification range from $450–$500:
- Application fee: $100
- Portfolio review fee: $100
- Exam fee: $250 for US applicants; $300 for international applicants
The annual certification renewal fee is $95.
Another well-known GIS certification can be obtained from the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS). This specialty certification involves a similar set of application components, including valid and relevant experience in the field, plus a written examination. Like the GISCI, ASPRS is a nonprofit professional society, but the ASPRS certification is more focused on remote sensing. Visit the ASPRS certification website to learn more.
Esri is the leading software provider in the GIS industry, and obtaining a certification from them can show employers you are an expert user of their technology.
Depending on length, Esri’s technical certifications range from $150–$250 USD. Results include a score report, which is similar to the GISP performance report and “illustrates a section level analysis of the candidate’s exam performance.”
A distinguishing factor of Esri’s technical certifications is that they are much more specific than the GISP. Whereas the GISCI exam tests the applicant on nearly every possible component of geospatial data, software, and usership, the Esri technical certification exams are broken down into individual technologies. In a matter of two hours, you can apply for and take the exam of your choosing, without submitting any prior experience or qualifications.
Pros and Cons of GIS Certification: Is It Worth It?
Obtaining a GIS certification isn’t free, and unlike with a degree or a university certificate, you aren’t usually gaining a lot more knowledge in the process. If you already have a highly advanced or specialized graduate degree in GIS, you may not feel like you need that education to be further validated by an institution like GISCI or Esri.
There are also a lot of free and inexpensive training courses available from other organizations if you’re looking for technical learning opportunities. Completing an educational course from Udemy, LinkedIn Learning, Coursera, or Code Academy can be just as valuable on a résumé, and you will come away with new knowledge in a technical subject.
Ultimately, potential employers usually look favorably on those with GIS certifications on their résumé. If you are looking to show your dedication to the craft of GIS or verify that you are prepared to apply the skills you’ve learned throughout your career, consider applying for one of these certifications!