Studying GIS: Certificates and Associate Degrees at a Glance
GIS professionals use hardware, software and geographical data to support analysis of any kind of phenomena associated with a particular geographic area. Data can also be combined with satellite imagery and the global positioning systems (GPS) information you access in your car and on your smartphone. Opportunities for training in database management, mapping techniques and industry software are often available through geography or urban planning departments.
GIS technicians may find employment with architectural and engineering consulting, computer software and mapping, marketing, transportation or utility companies or government agencies. You might support urban or natural resource planning, interpretation of climate conditions or demographic projections used by public or private entities to make decisions. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projected a 16% increase in job opportunities for surveying and mapping technicians. You could earn technical certification as an ArcGIS Desktop Associate after getting two years of experience and passing an examination.
|Who are these programs for?|| - Individuals who want to enter the GIS field |
- Working professionals interested in expanding knowledge of a specialty field
|- Individuals interested in an entry-level position|
|Common Career Paths (with approximate salary)|| - Mapping technician ($42,000)* |
- LiDAR technician ($46,000)**
- Database assistant (salary unavailable)
| - GIS technician ($47,000)** |
- GIS specialist ($56,000)**
|Time to Completion||1 year or less, full-time|| 1-2 years, full-time |
|Common Graduation Requirements|| - May involve 12-30 credits |
- Laboratory work or internship
| - Approximately 60-80 credits |
- Laboratory work
|Prerequisites|| High school graduate or GED ||High school diploma or GED|
|Online Availability||Online programs are available.||Virtual programs are limited but available.|
Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2011 median wage), **GeoSearch, Inc. 2011 Salary Survey (mean figures).
Certificate in GIS
A certificate program may get you into the job market quickly, or expand your capabilities if you're already working. You could take an introductory program or you could train to become a database, programming, geodetic, photogrammetry, cartography, utilities or land records specialist for targeted employers in the GIS field. You might prepare for a career as a database or mapping specialist. An internship or capstone experience may be required.
Pros and Cons
- Programs could provide a basic introduction to the field.
- A certificate would be less expensive than a degree.
- A curriculum requiring only 4-6 courses could get you into the marketplace quickly.
- Expertise in a narrow field could help you with specific jobs or types of employers.
- Short-term certificates may not offer the breadth or depth of training required by some employers.
- A degree might support more career options.
- You may be competing with people who have graduated from associate or bachelor's programs for some positions.
- This career will require ongoing updating of skills based on changes in technology.
Courses and Requirements
You'll likely have courses and hands-on laboratory work based on GIS technologies. Students learn to run software, manipulate databases and operate technology. Programs may include one or more core courses, followed by a choice of electives. You might choose these based on opportunities in your local market and your career objective.
You may find courses like these in a GIS generalist certificate curriculum:
- Georeferencing and mapping skills
- Computer-assisted design (CAD) for GIS
- Spatial databases
- Introduction to GPS
- Introduction to programming and logic
- Cartographic production
Fully online certificates are available, but you may prefer to study GIS on campus to have access to software as well as laboratory and other equipment that you may not have at home. Your choice may depend on your objectives or current employment status. Courses could be available online through a school offering on-campus or hybrid programs. You could train online with for-profit companies serving the GIS industry or professional organizations like URISA.
Standing Out with this Certificate
Internships or part-time work could help you get experience that might be valued by prospective employers. Your other options may be as varied as the length and type of the certificate program. You could have more time to participate in various activities in a longer certificate program. Student memberships that could help with career information, job search and networking opportunities may be available through professional organizations like URISA. You might participate in a GIS Certification Institute mentoring program pairing students with URISA-certified professionals.
Associate in GIS
This degree may help you qualify for GIS technician positions in for-profit, not-for-profit and government organizations that need to analyze the spatial distribution of data. You will learn to plan and execute projects involving data collection, database manipulation and presentation of information through graphs and maps. Curricula are often designed for transfer to 4-year degrees.
Schools will typically offer laboratory facilities and workstations equipped with industry standard programs like ArcGIS. These software products provide geographic intelligence analytics systems supporting business, aeronautical, maritime, defense, transportation, marketing and city planning decisions. Curricula may emphasize development of hands-on skills through internships or special class projects involving real world situations. These could involve a wide range neighborhood development, hazard risk, route mapping or natural resources applications.
Pros and Cons
- This degree could help you get an entry-level position.
- Programs may be designed for easy transfer to 4-year programs later.
- In-demand skills are useful to a wide range of employers.
- This career may appeal to detail-oriented students who like to investigate problems, work with computers and display information creatively.
- Some skills can be self-taught if you have access to programs and equipment.
- You may be competing with self-taught professionals, certificate or bachelor's degree holders for some positions.
- Candidates should expect to be lifelong learners based on continuous evolution of technologies.
Courses and Requirements
Basic math and English skills will be required to pursue this degree successfully. Developmental courses may be available if you need to do some extra work to prepare for this curriculum. Students usually complete general core courses in English, humanities and science that are also required of bachelor's degree candidates. In your major, you will learn about spatial databases, georeferencing and CAD for GIS. Your electives will be determined by your career objectives.
You might take electives like these to learn about GIS topics:
- Computer graphics and mapping
- Introduction to spatial analysis
- GIS programming
- Principles of property mapping
- Physical geography for GIS
- Remote Sensing
Online Training Options
Completely online GIS associate degrees are available, though less commonly. You may be able to take some courses virtually, or transfer credits earned elsewhere. You will need access to computer programs used in the classes and a computer capable of handling intensive graphic work. Requirements will be met using remote technologies.
Getting Ahead with This Degree
Networking through a professional association or volunteering with a non-profit on a GIS project that relates to its mission could attract favorable attention. Schools might offer access to the complete line of ESRI or other software programs. You could enter competitions, join map challenges or participate in special projects that advance the field by use of media.
You may have opportunities to complete real-world capstone projects for local communities demonstrating your capabilities in your area of interest. With an eventual bachelor's degree and experience, you could be recognized as a Certified Geographic Information Systems Professional (GISP) by the GIS Certification Institute.