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If you’re looking to pursue a GIS degree, you likely already know how powerful spatial technology can be for navigation, resource management, urban planning, and emergency response. This guide is the next step in building a skillset that can make you a valuable member of this growing industry. Explore bachelor’s in GIS programs and their diverse coursework, from remote sensing to computer programming. Learn about the types of jobs available to GIS professionals, and visualize yourself solving complex problems using mapping technology.
What Is a GIS Degree?
Geographic Information Systems, or Geospatial Information Science, is a term that encapsulates all the technology and software involved in the analysis, visualization, and statistical evaluation of spatial data. In recent years, GIS has also evolved to include web programming and automation of spatial processes. You see evidence of geospatial technology in:
- Personal navigation tools like Google Maps
- Satellite imagery of natural disasters or current events on the news
- Interactive, color-coded online maps like the ones depicting election results or spread of disease
A bachelor’s degree in GIS builds upon the foundation of a traditional geography education and equips the student with tools and technical proficiencies to make digital maps, conduct analysis in specialized software, review and evaluate satellite imagery, and address all kinds of real-world challenges that require precise and accurate spatial information. GIS analysts and technologists work in urban planning, climate change, local and federal government, military intelligence, and more.
How GIS Bachelor’s Degrees Work
Like many undergraduate degrees, most GIS bachelor’s programs span four years and require approximately 120 credit hours of coursework, which combine geographic and scientific education with technical proficiency training. This section will outline some of the different program structures, timelines, and admission requirements for this type of degree, as well as detail some of the different coursework.
Types of GIS Degrees
Because the field of geospatial technology is still emerging and has applications in all kinds of industries, it is most common for institutions to offer a geography degree with a concentration or emphasis on GIS coursework. However, of the universities that do offer an undergraduate GIS major, there are many different specializations, which are reflected in the titles and course offerings of the programs.
For example, a Geographic Information Systems program may differ slightly from a Geospatial Information Science program: the term “systems” implies that the coursework may emphasize technology and software proficiency more than the science, math, and analysis components of the “science” program. Other titles include Geographic Information Technology, Geosciences, or Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT).
Regardless, most GIS programs allow the student to select from a range of electives, which really contributes to the customizability of this degree. If, for instance, you’d prefer more coursework on computer programming rather than remote sensing and imagery analysis, many programs offer you the ability to make those selections.
If you’re pursuing a GIS degree because you are looking for a specific type of job, just be sure that the coursework in your chosen program reflects the types of skills necessary for that line of work. For example, if you’re looking to use GIS for military or government applications, a GEOINT program might be the best fit, because the coursework tends to prepare students to use GIS for intelligence applications. If you’re more interested in GIS for environmental purposes, maybe pursue a program that also has earth science coursework (like a Geography or Geographic Information Science degree).
GIS Degree Structure and Length
GIS bachelor’s degrees tend to take four years to complete. Coursework gets progressively more challenging and builds on previous knowledge. You’ll learn to use specialty GIS software early on, and in later courses use that technical know-how to conduct complex analyses.
Many programs accept job experience as course credit, depending on its relevance. Regardless of which institution you chose, it’s highly recommended you work with an advisor from the school who can suggest whether an internship or previous coursework can be substituted for a degree component.
It’s also common for these degree programs to culminate in a capstone or thesis project. After you’ve taken a variety of GIS courses, learned how to use the software, and become comfortable in all the quantitative methods, you’ll be in a position to practice applying your technical proficiency on a real-world problem-set. Consider this when applying for programs—it’s never too early to start brainstorming how your newfound knowledge can make an impact in your community!
GIS Degree Curriculum and Coursework
GIS undergraduate degrees are usually designated as Bachelor of Science (BS) programs, although it is possible to get a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Geography. Both options necessitate general education requirements, usually with an emphasis on math (particularly statistics) and earth sciences (environmental science, geography, etc.).
The curriculum and coursework can vary vastly based on the type of program. Geography degrees, like the ones offered at University of South Carolina or Clark University, tend to have students focus on geographic education (physical geography, weather and climate, etc.) in the first couple of years before moving on to cartography, remote sensing, spatial statistics, and web programming. In programs like these, students have considerable flexibility in crafting their coursework to develop their desired skillset. These programs also tend to offer concentrations in GIS, wherein students can take software-specific courses to learn cartographic and database management best practices. Other institutions that offer a major in geography (with or without GIS concentration) include University of Maryland and Salisbury University.
Other institutions that offer a BS in GIS
- University of Northern Iowa: Geographic Information Sciences
- South Dakota State University: Geographic Information Sciences
- University of Arizona: Geographic Information Systems Technology
- Elmhurst University: Geographic Information Systems
- University of Wisconsin: Cartography and Geographic Information Systems
- Kennesaw State University: Geospatial Sciences
Even more specialized are programs like the Human Security and Geospatial Intelligence bachelor’s offered at the University of Southern California or the BS in Environmental GIS The University of Maine. These programs are geared toward individuals with a very particular focus in mind, and a plan for pursuing a job in a singular industry.
Admissions: GIS Degree Entry Requirements
GIS and geography programs are usually housed within the arts and sciences college at a university (or sometimes in a specialty social sciences school), so the application process is the same as it would be for most other majors. Good math and science grades will work in your favor here!
If the institution you select has an application essay requirement, consider expounding on how geography has worked in your life thus far: travel experience, a love of history, or an interest in AI/ML can all be relevant to a degree in geospatial sciences.
The good news is that these programs don’t expect you to have too much geospatial knowledge before courses start. You’ll learn all you need to know about landforms, political geography, spatial software, computer programming, and imagery analysis during your coursework. Just keep in mind that this knowledge is cumulative, and it’ll be important to retain and apply your education in more complex ways if you want to pursue an advanced degree.
How Much Do GIS Degrees Cost?
Tuition rates are highly dependent on the university, but the cost of a GIS degree will generally be the same as the standard undergraduate tuition rate at a given school.
For this reason, in-state public universities are likely to be the most affordable option. For example, both University of South Carolina and Ohio State University charge approximately $12,000 a year for in-state undergraduate students (not including housing, books, or meal plan). That cost goes up by more than $20,000 if you’re from out of state.
Private universities tend to be even more expensive. Elmhurst University, a private school in Illinois with a GIS undergraduate program, charges approximately $40,000 a year (regardless of students’ residency), before room and board.
Of course, many schools offer financial aid and scholarships for academic excellence, and these resources can even increase over time. Remember to reapply for scholarships even after you’ve enrolled; if you get good grades in your GIS courses, you may qualify for department-specific financial aid.
Career Outlook for GIS Bachelor’s Degree Earners
The job options for GIS degree-holders are increasing every day. From advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) to natural disaster and emergency response, geospatial technology is making appearances in countless industries, and professionals with these skills are becoming highly desirable.
What Can You Do with a GIS Degree?
A bachelor’s degree in GIS is a tremendous asset regardless of which industry you’re looking to be employed in.
Federal, state, and local governments are a great place to start when exploring GIS job prospects. Agencies like the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Transportation need maps and statistics to calculate crop production and construction impacts. Analysts at the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community (including the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency) utilize GIS to support the military and national security missions. Even small municipalities rely on geospatial expertise to efficiently dispatch emergency response or plan for city events and projects.
The satellite imagery industry is also booming, and the companies leading the way need more than just satellite engineers. With the education you receive from a GIS degree program, you would be equipped to analyze imagery and create derivative products for calculating land cover types at scale and assessing change over time.
You could also pursue a job in utilities, which need to be mapped for safety and efficiency. There are new jobs popping up in the energy industry every day, as well as in sustainability. Climate change, renewable power, resource management, and conservation all require accurate and precise spatial calculation, and a GIS degree would prepare you well for any of these positions.
In fact, despite how widespread GIS is becoming, individuals with bachelor’s degrees in geospatial technology are still rare. Having a BS in GIS gives you an advantage over other employees, who may have GIS certificates or experience but aren’t equipped with the full breadth of knowledge that a bachelor’s could provide. Not to mention, many jobs require an undergraduate degree rather than an associate’s, and a specialization like GIS is unique and advantageous.
Will a GIS Degree Advance Your Career?
Maybe you’re already working in or adjacent to the GIS industry, and you’re considering a degree to further enhance your skillset. Maybe some of your coworkers have GIS certificates or have participated in training sessions to learn how to use the software. If you only use GIS once or twice a year to address a very specific challenge, maybe an associate’s degree is sufficient.
But what if you find yourself eager to dive into the part of your job that allows you to utilize geospatial technology? Are you looking for a promotion or a job change that would require you to use this software more often and in a more immersive way? If so, a bachelor’s degree in geospatial science or technology could catapult your career to the next level.
Job Prospects and Career Outlook
Like many tech degrees, a GIS bachelor’s degree can be correlated to higher entry level salaries, but it is very dependent on which industry you choose to explore. City governments will likely pay less than private industries, but the former may afford you more upward mobility, if you’re looking to work in the public sector.
Because of how much GIS work there is in the federal government, Washington, D.C., has become a hub for geospatial professionals in the United States. The capital city also has a higher cost of living, so salaries for tech degree holders and government contractors can be upwards of $80,000.
If paired with additional specialties, GIS degrees can be even more valuable. For example, if you are an arborist and choose to boost your skillset with GIS education, your desirability with an agency like the National Park Service will increase, and with it, your job prospects and salary range.
Exploring higher education in geospatial technology will open the door to all kinds of industries you may have considered yourself unqualified for or even uninterested in. Consider a GIS degree to map a course to an exciting future!