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GIS, or geographic information systems, is the study of locations on Earth and how they are connected to one another. Location connects many things including weather, the environment, infrastructure, and society. A GIS PhD student may study one of these topics in depth to discover and present original research within the field.
What makes a GIS PhD unique is its focus on advanced research. A GIS PhD candidate may incorporate new technologies, like artificial intelligence and machine learning, to support their research and advance the field.
Is a PhD in GIS right for you? Read on to learn more about what to expect from a doctorate in GIS program and the career opportunities available to graduates. Or skip ahead to the end of this guide to quickly browse every GIS PhD program in the country.
Can You Get a PhD in GIS?
Yes, you can earn a doctorate in GIS, but unfortunately there are not many GIS PhD programs currently offered, and competition may be fierce. Geography PhD programs are much more common, many allowing students to pursue GIS-related research.
The PhD in GIS is a research-based degree program focusing on spatial data, data analysis, and the development of solutions using geospatial tools. Despite its research-based format, many practical applications have been developed from the GIS research completed within these programs.
PhD students can tailor their learning and research to a wide variety of GIS topics, including
- Human geography
- Environmental science
- Remote sensing
- Earth science
- Atmospheric science
- Spatial analysis
While not all programs are strictly designated “PhD in GIS,” an understanding of any of the above topics will give you the knowledge needed to perform GIS work in both the private and public sectors. And while graduates will be qualified for careers in academia, they will also find opportunities within government agencies/offices, the private sector, research organizations, and more.
Admission to a GIS PhD Program
Earning admission to a PhD program is no walk in the park. The admission process requires a lot of work and competing with other qualified applicants for limited spots, but getting into a prominent GIS PhD program is worth the effort.
It’s wise to review as many programs as possible and focus on those that align with your professional interests and career goals. For example, North Carolina State University’s PhD program focuses on geospatial analytics and trains data scientists to apply GIS concepts to other fields. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a more traditional GIS PhD, other programs might be a better match (e.g., Arizona State University’s PhD in Geographic Information Science).
So what does it take to get into a GIS PhD program? Common application requirements include
- College transcripts from bachelor’s and master’s programs in a related field. The usual suspects apply, like geography or environmental science, but some schools accept computer programming students without a background in GIS.
- A solid GPA at the undergraduate and graduate levels, typically 3.0 or higher.
- Prerequisite coursework in mathematics and programming, such as statistics and Python.
In addition, many programs ask PhD candidates to submit a letter of intent clarifying their research interests. For example, ASU wants to know your preferred GIS research specialization and how it aligns with the program’s focus. Understanding what the department’s faculty are researching will give you a leg up in staying competitive and making sure you get the most out of the program.
Due to the competitive nature of PhD programs and the enthusiasm for GIS, students will want to consider applying to multiple programs. Once enrolled, PhD candidates may receive a stipend, fully-covered tuition, and health care.
What to Expect from a GIS PhD Program
Some PhD programs are strictly theoretical and research-focused; others emphasize empirical approaches to GIS. Understanding this before applying to the program you are interested in will allow you to get the most out of the GIS PhD program. The goal is to align your research interests with a reputable faculty member, laying the foundation for your PhD journey.
What types of GIS programs exist? Keep an eye out for program names like
- Geographic Information Systems/Science
- Spatial Analysis
- UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) or drones
- Geography with GIS concentration
- Geospatial and Environmental Analysis
Program names touch every corner of the GIS field. For an example, consider the unique PhD in Geospatial Computer Science offered by Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi. This program blends GIS concepts with advanced computer science knowledge. Students complete coursework in everything from computer vision and mobile software development to advanced geospatial computing.
In general, the first year or two of a student’s PhD studies will focus on coursework as they explore possible fields of interest. This is the time to take a variety of courses and identify possible research topics. Some PhD programs may conduct year-end reviews with the student committee, which serve to track the progress and understanding of the topic or field the student is interested in researching in years three and four.
During year three, students may be required to take a doctoral exam, where they are expected to demonstrate an in-depth understanding of a particular topic related to their studies. During this year, students will also begin work on their dissertation and present a formal proposal.
During years three and four, PhD candidates may serve as teaching assistants or even teach courses in the department, while working diligently on their dissertation. At the conclusion of year four, the PhD candidates are required to defend their dissertation in front of a committee comprising professors, including their faculty advisor. The successful defense of a dissertation is the final step of a PhD program; students are then presented with their doctorates.
Of course, not all PhD programs are completed in four years. Students may take up to six years to finish it. They will be required to present their progress to their advisor to ensure they are on the right track in their research and making the appropriate progress.
What Can You Do with a Doctorate in GIS?
Upon the successful defense of your dissertation, you will be awarded your doctorate, opening doors to many professional opportunities, primarily in academia. But because GIS PhDs are in demand, opportunities in research, government, and business are on the rise.
For a future in academia, be on the lookout for assistant or associate professor opportunities. The job market for professors is growing faster than average (12% vs. the 5% job market average). The median wage of nearly $80,000 is above the average median wage of all jobs, which is about $46,000.
As a researcher, you’ll likely work for an institution or university. Opportunities that fit your skills and background in research can be found in remote sensing, earth science, the environment, or social sciences. These roles are expected to have steady growth while providing wages well above the average median wage.
What if you prefer fieldwork? A doctorate in GIS will help you land a position as a geographer, surveyor, or photogrammetrist. In any of these roles, you can work in the private or public sector, using GIS software to map data and perform analysis. These jobs have median salaries between $60,000–$80,000, but the number of jobs in these fields is not expected to grow as fast as the national average.
If your doctorate program focuses on computer vision and machine learning, you may be more qualified as a computer and information research scientist. This field has an incredible growth rate of over 20% and a median pay of $131,000, nearly three times the median pay of all jobs.
By planning well during the admissions stage, you can set yourself up to learn skills for a rewarding career beyond your doctorate’s program.