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Winter 2008/2009
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"Crossing Borders"
A column by Doug Richardson,
Executive Director, Association of American Geographers


Geography Education and GIS Professional Development

photo of Doug RichardsonIn economically turbulent times, many students and college graduates will likely be wondering what options they have at their disposal. Is it time to jump into the job market, or is graduate school a better option? Indeed, many geography departments are hearing from students who are curious about advancing their career options and the value of an advanced degree in geographic information science (GIScience) for future employment. Fortunately, even in difficult times, GIS and GIScience students still enjoy growing opportunities to pursue geospatial work in business, government, and nonprofit organizations where spatial, environmental, and interdisciplinary skills are needed. Having strong academic preparation in geography and GIScience will only expand the career opportunities available to students, allowing graduates to enter the job market at a higher level and advance more rapidly through the ranks after being hired.

Within the past few years, a number of studies in the United States and the United Kingdom have addressed the issue of employability, a term describing the readiness of an individual to obtain and then maintain employment (Mistry, White, and Berardi 2006; Donert 2007; Solem, Cheung, and Schlemper 2008—see www.aag.org for full citations). All of these studies point to some important findings. First, hundreds of employer organizations across a broad swath of the business, government, and nonprofit (BGN) sectors seek individuals who are able to think spatially and use geographic technologies to collect, integrate, and analyze data on social and natural systems. And the good news for job seekers is that these same employers forecast an increasing demand for these abilities in the coming years.

A second important finding is that employers view geography education as an essential component of professional development in GIScience. This is because geography offers the conceptual frameworks, spatial science foundations, interdisciplinary perspectives, and spatial thinking skills underpinning effective use of GIS and related mapping technologies. In the experience of the employers surveyed and interviewed in this research, geographic learning through field studies, internships, and academic coursework enhances the work of geospatial professionals and helps ensure that the analytical power of geographic technologies is tapped productively.

Employers are also reporting broad and growing professional opportunities for GIScience graduates in areas as diverse as environmental management, transportation, public health, and international trade. Here, too, there are opportunities for GIS professionals to enhance their employability by taking advantage of new models of graduate education, such as professional master's degree programs, which integrate management training and internships with GIScience education. Among the many such programs are the new Professional Master's Program in geography at Temple University and similar master's degree and certificate programs in geographic information science offered by universities ranging from Arizona State University to Pennsylvania State University and dozens of others. The Guide to Geography Programs in the Americas provides a detailed overview of these educational opportunities (available at www.aag.org).

Many employers still report difficulties finding qualified graduates possessing strong preparation in geography and spatial analysis. In recent years, the AAG has undertaken research projects aimed at improving geography education for careers in BGN organizations (as well as in K–12 and higher education). One of the larger challenges identified in this work is the need to better align curricula with students' career aspirations and the needs of employer organizations. This is especially true in doctoral programs where Ph.D. students who once aspired primarily to careers in academia are now often attracted to equally rewarding and socially engaged careers in government, nonprofit organizations, and businesses. Departments in which the M.A./M.S. is the highest degree offered demonstrate clearer understanding of student goals and curricula that address BGN opportunities, but these programs still face challenges of implementation and helping students make transitions from traditional academic preparation.

The greater attention now given to BGN career preparation in geography graduate programs also holds promise for recruiting and retaining more women and minority students in the GIScience fields. This is because many of the students surveyed, including women and minority students, are especially interested in BGN careers, yet often feel that many purely technical graduate programs do not adequately provide them with the career advising and broader educational foundation they see as important to success in the GIS fields. But throughout the educational and career pipeline, students, parents, and teachers all need more information about the wide variety of GIScience career options available and the preparation required for success in these careers.

Given that context, the AAG has identified broad areas of critical data needs and actions for future work so that future graduates have a clearer sense of the opportunities available to them:

  • Better data on the geographic and general skills that graduates employed in BGN positions use in their daily work
  • Local, regional, and national estimates of employers' demand for geographic and geospatial skills in different types of BGN organizations
  • Comparisons and assessments of undergraduate and graduate curricula in geography for preparation in BGN careers
  • Continued development of disciplinary infrastructure to enhance graduate advising, career preparation, and transition support for early career geography and GIS professionals in BGN organizations, modeled after the success of recent National Science Foundation-funded programs, such as the Geography Faculty Development Alliance, and the AAG's Enhancing Departments and Graduate Education (EDGE) in Geography program

Geography graduate and undergraduate programs have undertaken a leading role nationally in providing the broad-based GIScience and GIS educational and research programs needed by students and employers across BGN sectors. Thanks to the hard work and goodwill of countless individuals in the geography, GIS, and GIScience communities, including notably those of our friends and colleagues within the Esri education community, we are collectively developing the capacity for meeting the educational needs of our next generation of students and employers. For more information on educational programs available in geography, GIS, and GIScience, visit www.aag.org/education.

Doug Richardson
drichardson@aag.org

Michael Solem
msolem@aag.org

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