For students who want to land a GIS-related job, what is the right mix of skills and software training? Which classes, training, and coursework should they focus on while completing a GIS certificate or degree program?
While advice is not hard to come by, some suggestions can be right on, while others can be wrong. Looking for opinions, I really wanted to hear from recent graduates. I have always valued the perspective of “newly minted” graduates who are working in the field.
Many graduates find that the wealth of software, skills, tools, and resources that they were exposed to in school have been incredibly valuable in their professional careers. However, they also find that some software, skills, and technologies aren’t encountered until they are on the job.
I reached out to three recent graduates—Jack Nessen, Daniela Ferrante, and Catherine Cronlund—for a question and answer session. These individuals completed their degrees in the last year or two.
Nessen is a GIS manager at Mass Audubon, which is a nationally recognized environmental education leader. Nessen earned a master’s degree in geography and sustainability from Salem State University.
Ferrante is a GIS analyst for Hancock Natural Resource Group, which specializes in global farmland and timberland portfolio development and management. She earned a master’s degree in parks, recreation, and tourism management from North Carolina State University and a graduate certificate in geospatial information science from the North Carolina State University Center for Geospatial Analytics.
Cronlund is a GIS coordinator for Baldwin County, Georgia. She received a bachelor’s degree in geography and a GIS certificate from Georgia College.
What do you do on an average day at work?
Nessen: [My day consists of] upper-level managing of applications, systems, data, the enterprise environment, ArcGIS Online, and public GIS.
Ferrante: It changes day to day, but here are some of the tasks I commonly work on:
- Manage and conduct spatial and descriptive resource information system updates with forestry management activities, inventory data, and other forestry information
- Provide technical support, such as mapping and analysis, to foresters for the compilation of annual harvests and forest establishment
- Conduct quality control with respect to stand information
- Train foresters on how to use our GIS web apps
- Create and maintain a comprehensive user guide to help foresters navigate and use our GIS web apps
Cronlund: I digitize data for various county government departments such as E-9-1-1, public works, planning and development, and the tax assessor’s office. I build web applications with this data as well as join data. I am responsible for any data and map requests. I am also in charge of the address authority for my county, which includes maintaining the address database and all new road names for the county.
What skills or technology did your degree program introduce you to that have been valuable?
Nessen: I was introduced to web mapping, soft skills, ArcGIS Online, statistical analysis, and ArcGIS Pro.
Ferrante: Some of the classes I took during my time as an undergrad and [when I was pursuing a] master’s degree provided me with a basic knowledge of GIS—specifically ArcMap, ArcGIS Pro, and ArcGIS Online. During my time as a graduate student, I learned how to think critically and seek out information to fill existing knowledge gaps. Additionally, I gained scientific writing and communication skills from doing research, which I leverage daily in my current position.
Cronlund: I was introduced to the suite of ArcGIS products in general. I learned about the foundational understanding and building blocks of GIS such as projections, coordinate systems, datums, and file types. I have found that it is just as important to understand why something works as it is to be able to perform the task. The building blocks of GIS have been vital for me to solve problems and issues with the data I work with. My program also introduced a slew of tools and [showed me] why and how there is not just one way to get the same end product. It just depends on what you do with the data—that’s what matters the most. Also, my program made it a point to introduce as many products as possible, even if it was just an overview, so we would know that the products existed.
Is there anything that you wish you had been introduced to during your degree program?
Nessen: I would have liked more work with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and remote sensing. Also, I would have liked more of a focus on ArcGIS Pro instead of ArcMap. With ArcGIS Pro, you can visualize data, do advanced analysis, create 2D maps and 3D scenes, and share your work to ArcGIS Online or ArcGIS Enterprise portal.
Ferrante: I really would have liked to learn Python, SQL, and R. Unfortunately, there weren’t any opportunities to learn that in my program.
Cronlund: I wish we were required to take a scripting class/course. I do not think it would really matter in the long run which scripting language as long as it is compatible with GIS. I would have been able to solve some of my issues more quickly if I knew what I was looking at when it came to scripting.
What advice would you have for students currently enrolled in a GIS program?
Nessen: Learn ArcGIS Pro as soon as possible, and don’t be afraid of ArcGIS Online and creating web applications for the public.
Ferrante: My advice is to seek out opportunities to diversify your skill set and apply your knowledge. Specifically, I would encourage students to look for GIS-related research/internship opportunities. In my junior year, I worked a part-time remote job as a junior geospatial analyst for VSolvit [a technology services provider], and in my senior year, I worked as a GIS research assistant for the international studies department at my university. I also incorporated geospatial analysis into my research design for my master’s thesis. Any real-world experience that students can gain through internships/research is very valuable, especially when they start looking for jobs.
Cronlund: Ask every question you have in your mind. Once you’re out in the professional world, it is sometimes harder to find answers for free. The GIS community at large is generally really helpful, and I can find the majority of the answers I seek in online forums. However, it is completely different than having someone whose brain I can pick in person, directly. Take as many different GIS courses as you can to find your niche. Apply for a GIS internship, and treat it like a semester-long interview. It will help you in the long run because it will give you connections and experience once you graduate—and who knows, you could get a job offer out of it.