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This guide is made for individuals looking to pursue a graduate degree in Geospatial Information Sciences, a growing field that combines cartography, data science, and web programming. We’ll discuss how these master’s programs differ from bachelor’s degrees, what you need to know before applying and enrolling, and the differences between many of the unique universities that offer this degree. Jump right in to discover why a master’s in GIS will set you apart from the competition, or skip ahead to browse all GIS master’s degrees.
What Is a Master’s in GIS?
A master’s in GIS is one of the highest levels of academic education you can receive in the geospatial discipline. These degrees are designed for professionals who need a more robust understanding of GIS technology and its applications, and although you are usually not required to hold a bachelor’s in the same field in order to apply (and even thrive) in one of these programs, an MS in GIS will build on geographic knowledge and technical proficiencies that you likely already have.
These programs are rigorous, but the result is a breadth of knowledge and expertise that can take your career to the next level. If you’re looking to advance to a more technical position or even a leadership role, a master’s in GIS could be your ticket there.
Master’s in GIS Overview
This section will take you through the ins and outs of the typical GIS master’s program: time required to complete the degree, course titles, curriculum structure, admission requirements, and tuition costs.
How Long Are Master’s in GIS Programs?
The length of time required to complete a GIS master’s degree can vary depending on the program itself and the course load you take as a student. Like many other master’s degrees, these MS programs usually require about 36 credits, which generally translates to 12 courses. However, unlike bachelor’s programs, which usually follow a structure of two semesters per year, these master’s programs often fall into a four-quarter structure, with each course taking about three to four months to complete. Depending on how many courses you enroll in per quarter, you can graduate in approximately three years, or even as little as 16 months.
For example, the MS in GIS program at University of Maryland can be completed in 5 quarter-length terms (~16 months total while taking two courses per term) or stretched out over 10 terms (~33 months, with a single course taken per term). Penn State encourages their applicants to enroll in only one course per quarter, and therefore their program generally takes students the full three years to complete.
Types of Master’s in GIS Programs
Because graduate students are often looking for more specialized education than undergraduates, the names of these master’s programs tend to be more precise than simply “Geography” or “Geographic Information Systems.” You’re likely already familiar with terms like Geospatial Information Science and even GEOINT (Geospatial Intelligence), but new master’s degree titles are emerging, such as UW-Madison’s online GIS Development (which focuses on web programming and mobile app development) and Unity College’s Environmental GIS (with a focus on the technology’s conservation and sustainability applications).
GIS is even making an appearance outside the Master of Science box; some universities are starting to offer MBA degrees in GIS, which bridges the gap between business and technology, preparing students for leadership roles at tech companies. Keep an eye out for Master of Professional Studies programs too; MPS programs can be appealing for working professionals, since they tend to schedule courses in the evenings, outside of business hours. The coursework in these programs is also geared toward specific industries so that students are prepared to apply their knowledge directly to the work they do.
It is also important to note that many of these universities offer online coursework. Attending classes on campus during the day isn’t always feasible for those with strict working schedules or remote locations. If the university offers both options, applicants can usually designate whether they’d like to attend classes online or in a hybrid/in-person format.
Curriculum and Coursework: What Will You Learn?
When deciding which university to apply to and which courses to enroll in, think about what type of specialization you’d like to receive from a GIS graduate program. Are you hoping to become an expert in imagery analysis and remote sensing? Would you prefer to get some programming, scripting, and automation experience? Or do you envision yourself making detailed data visualizations, maps, and web presentations? These degrees are highly customizable, so your coursework selections should be determined by your career aspirations.
Coursework tends to include a handful of GIS core requirements, such as fundamentals in cartography, spatial analysis, and spatial statistics. These are baseline courses that will refresh your memory on geographic education you may have already received, and help you develop essential knowledge to carry with you into upper-level courses. You may already know how to make digital maps using software like ArcGIS and its open-source counterparts, but these courses will teach you how to execute suitability models and network analyses, as well as calculate complex statistical problems for spatial applications.
GIS degrees also offer opportunities to learn about cloud computing, drone technology, and database management, which are all emerging technologies that you will have a chance to become an expert in. The key is to select a mix of courses that align with your ongoing career needs and push you outside your comfort zone to learn something new.
An MS is different from a BS mostly in the sense that the coursework is much more advanced. Also, because course terms are shorter, the curriculum moves very quickly; therefore, it is vital that you take good notes and ask questions when you feel lost because the knowledge tends to compound. Take advantage of the resources you have access to like teaching assistants and advisors. This learning style is itself a skill to take away from the program, and once you graduate, you will feel equipped to excel in a fast-moving career environment.
Admissions and Prerequisites
Graduate admission requirements are very specific to each university, and websites for the programs you’re exploring will outline exactly how to qualify. Sometimes the institution will even list the requirements for individual courses; be sure you have valid prerequisite credits ahead of time.
Generally speaking, the university will require you to hold a bachelor’s degree, although it isn’t usually mandatory to be in a related field. It isn’t uncommon for admission requirements to include a GPA of 3.0 or above, as well as a few recommendation letters from previous professors or supervisors.
It will also help if you have some existing experience with geospatial technology, and some programs will even mandate a few prerequisite courses to make sure you’re up to speed. If you took a few relevant courses during your undergraduate degree or have a certificate in GIS or GEOINT, this will usually qualify. If not, you should be prepared to take a basic cartography or spatial analysis course so you aren’t lost when it comes to using the relevant software, as well as a statistics course to brush up on your math skills.
How Much Do Master’s in GIS Programs Cost?
Master’s programs in GIS tend to cost the standard graduate rate for a given university. Like with bachelor’s degrees, tuition cost tends to be less expensive at public, in-state universities. One major exception is if you are taking some of these courses online, in which case there may be a special online tuition price that applies to all students, regardless of state residence.
Northwest Missouri State University, a smaller school which offers both an MS and an MBA in GIS, charges a total of $10,500 for their online program. Penn State breaks down the cost of their program to $1,007 per credit hour, which translates to $3,021 per course, or $36,252 total. Johns Hopkins University, a private school in Maryland that offers an MS in Geospatial Intelligence, charges approximately $4,520 per course ($54,240 total).
Is a Master’s in GIS Worth It?
You have likely sought out this guide in an attempt to determine if a GIS graduate program is right for you. Is the required tuition cost, time, and dedication something you can manage at this phase of your career? Are you secure enough in this industry that pursuing additional education makes for a worthwhile investment? Here are a few closing thoughts to help you decide.
When a master’s in GIS isn’t worth it
It is not advised to make the leap into higher education if you find yourself stagnating in your career. Being bored with your current role or not yet landing a job post-college is not a good enough reason to jump headfirst into a rigorous degree program.
You must be absolutely sure that you’ll use the knowledge from this coursework to enhance your career—or else the tuition cost and time associated with it won’t be worth it. Such specified coursework will likely lead you down a path that will require the use of those skills, so it isn’t wise to get a programming-centric GIS degree if you don’t intend to become a GIS programmer. If you aren’t committed to embarking on the path that this degree will lead you down, it’s very likely not worth the time and money it will demand.
When a master’s in GIS is worth it
Applying for and enrolling in a GIS master’s program is a big decision. If you are already a member of the GIS community, whether that means you work in an adjacent industry or you have your sights set on a particular job that would require this education, it could be the right decision for you. The emergence of more academic programs, corporate departments, and job openings in this field is an indication that the industry is looking to hire more people with this skillset, and a master’s would set you apart from the competition.
In fact, graduate degrees in GIS tend to correlate to higher salaries. GIS jobs can range from $40,000 (for technician and junior surveyor jobs) to $90,000 or more, and more education can boost you higher on that scale. Plus, if you have leadership aspirations or goals to conduct more advanced scientific research, a degree could be the only thing standing in your way.
Make sure to explore resources you may already have access to. If you work in a relevant field, it may be possible your employer would support you with tuition assistance, a guaranteed salary bump, or promotion—financial help that can really ease the burden of taking on this new commitment.