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Digital maps and spatial analysis are making waves in nearly every industry, so it’s highly probable you’ve already been exposed to GIS technology and software. Whether you work in civil engineering, environmental resource management, local government, or any number of adjacent fields, a certificate in geographic information systems can be a highlight on your résumé, alerting employers to your specialized proficiency with this emerging technology.
This guide will help you explore exactly what these certificates entail, from program structure and coursework to admission requirements and tuition costs, assisting you with figuring out if one of these certificates is the right next step for your career. Ready to compare options? Skip ahead to our directory of GIS certificate programs.
What Are University GIS Certificate Programs?
Certificates are unique in the academic world. Like bachelor’s and master’s degree programs, they usually involve rigorous coursework and provide the student with credentials that reflect their specialized knowledge and expertise in a subject. However, certificates can be much more attainable for the working professional because they comprise far fewer requirements and therefore take significantly less time to complete.
University GIS Certificates vs. GIS Professional Certifications
University GIS certificate programs specifically tend to include four to six academic courses that focus on the basics of geospatial information science and systems, with the goal of preparing you for additional education or work in the industry. Your classes may include an introduction to GIS software, spatial analysis, remote sensing, satellite imagery, and even some data science. University certificate programs can generally be completed in a year or less, sometimes even while you’re pursuing another degree from the same institution.
Aside from these academic certifications, the most widely recognized credential in the geospatial industry is the one offered by the GIS Certification Institute. In order to achieve the GISP (Certified Geographic Information Systems Professional) recognition, applicants must exhibit a combination of experience and contribution to the GIS community, as well as pass a written exam. Although there is considerable material available online to help individuals study for the GISP exam, it is less of a structured training program and more of a badge to put on your résumé once you’ve mastered the technology.
In addition to the GIS certificate programs offered at universities and online, there are a few other professional GIS certifications you can obtain. For example, ESRI, the leading GIS software provider, hosts a slew of training courses as well as a Technical Certificate Program that can certify you as an expert user of their software.
For the purposes of this guide, the term “GIS certificates” will refer to university certificate programs from here on.
The Role and Purpose of University Certificates in GIS
For professionals, GIS certificates can bridge the gap between a one-off GIS training and a full-blown GIS degree. Certificate programs exist to rapidly enhance an individual’s knowledge and technical skills and to a level that usually cannot be achieved through work alone; however, if pursued as a stand-alone program, they are not as time consuming or expensive as a bachelor’s or master’s degree.
Like with other certifications, a GIS certificate on your résumé signals to employers that you are dedicated to learning and applying this technology to advanced analytics. These programs are meant to empower you with enough skills to enhance your current role or project, or even transition you to a more technical role if you choose to do so. Certification sets you apart from competition who may have GIS experience but no accredited education to back it up.
How GIS Certificate Programs Work
Most universities that offer GIS bachelor’s and master’s degrees also offer certificates. Since many of the courses overlap with the degree requirements, there will likely be both certificate students and degree-seeking students in these classes.
Types of GIS Certificate Programs
Undergraduate GIS certificates are almost always supplemental to other degrees. In most cases, students must be enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program in order to add a GIS certificate (similar to a concentration or a minor). This can be particularly helpful for students pursuing education in an adjacent field (e.g., Environmental Science) because it will signal to future employers that the student understands how to apply this technology on top of the foundational knowledge necessary for their chosen field. There are also even more specific undergraduate certificates; for example, a GEOINT certificate coupled with a Geography major would prepare the student for a job in defense and intelligence.
Graduate GIS certificates can usually be pursued as either a stand-alone offering or in conjunction with another graduate degree. Regardless, these programs are particularly popular with individuals who already have an undergraduate degree but need a boost in order to pursue advanced roles in GIS. Each university will have specifications for how much of your coursework can overlap with your major requirements, so if you are pursuing another degree simultaneously, be sure to check with an advisor from your school to make sure you are hitting all the necessary criteria.
Because GIS certificates are not a full degree on their own and only require a few courses, there isn’t always room to explore further specialization; however, there are a handful of more focused options for students who already have a plan for how to apply their knowledge. For instance, a few select universities now offer an undergraduate GEOINT certificate approved by the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF), which includes focused GIS courses that will help students apply their tech skills to GEOINT jobs after college. Additionally, there are certificates that lean more strongly into environmental GIS, remote sensing (i.e., satellite imagery analysis and raster modeling), and even automation and programming.
Certificate Program Structure and Coursework
The structure of GIS certificate programs is a simplified version of a bachelor’s or master’s degree in the subject. Programs generally require 12–18 credits total, which can be broken down into two or three required courses (6–9 credits) and two to three advanced courses or electives (6-9 credits).
The required coursework usually includes basic spatial analysis and an introduction to geographic information systems. In these classes, you will learn about the types of data you can import and export, how to use GIS software, and how to develop digital maps. More advanced topics include database management or automated modeling, which may be helpful if you’re hoping to land a more technical role. If you’re interested in conducting advanced research or developing analytical models, consider enrolling in remote sensing and satellite imagery analysis electives.
How Long Does It Take to Complete a GIS Certificate?
Most GIS certificate programs can usually be completed in about a year. Because the courses are offered to both certificate students and degree-seeking students, the schedule usually follows the same term structure (10- to 12-week quarters).
Most universities offer students the option to either enroll part time (one course per term) or full time (two courses per term). Of course, this distinction makes a difference in how long the program will take you to complete—but it’s up to you, your preferred learning style, and your schedule.
Requirements for admission to GIS certificate programs can vary depending if you are already enrolled in the institution. For example, at University of North Carolina, current students need only to send an interest statement and a recommendation from their advisor in order to enroll in the certificate program, whereas new students will need to submit a recommendation letter, previous school transcripts, and a personal statement.
In terms of grades and experience, admission into one of these certificate programs doesn’t usually require anything spectacular: students should display good grades and steady progress throughout their career to qualify for admission.
GIS Certificate Tuition and Costs
If you are pursuing a GIS certificate in conjunction with another degree (in other words, you’re already enrolled in a school and are interested in adding this certificate), the courses you need to complete the cert will likely cost the same rate you’re already paying for tuition. But if you’re a new student, you should know that GIS certificate programs usually charge a per-credit rate.
The GIS certificate program offered at the University of Maine, for example, costs $590 per credit, and with a total of 15 required credits (three core courses and two electives), the total tuition comes to just under $9,000. UCLA only charges $450 per credit, but because the program requires 21 credit hours, the total cost goes up to about $9,650. Elmhurst University, which is a private school, charges $825 per credit hour, adding up to nearly $15,000 total.
Because most of the graduate certificate programs can be completed online, institutions often do not bother distinguishing between in-state and out-of-state students.
Is a GIS Certificate Worth It?
GIS certificates can feel much more attainable than a master’s degree, but are they worth it? The answer is, it depends. If your career is growing quickly and you need to fast-track some extra GIS education, it could be just the right stepping stone for you to enter into the GIS industry without requiring the time and money needed for a longer degree.
Something to note about many of these certificate programs is that if you decide you’d like to pursue a GIS master’s degree later on, you can use the credit hours from your certificate to give you a head start. That’s right—if you fall in love with GIS education while pursuing your certificate, the coursework you complete can be credited toward an MS in the future.
For that reason, a certificate is not just an easy credential; the coursework is challenging, and your professors will require you to learn and contribute in meaningful ways. If you aren’t prepared to take on rigorous coursework, complete with studying and homework just like in a degree program, maybe you’re not ready to pursue a university GIS certificate.
Hopefully, you’ve learned enough about these programs, their structure, their cost, and their coursework in order to make your decision! Feel free to explore the hundreds of universities that offer a certificate in GIS using our directory below.