Note: This post is a 2013 update to my earlier post on Learning GIS and Getting a GIS Job – Some Tips and Tricks which was originally posted in 2009.
In 2009 I wrote a post on how to obtain a GIS job that focused on pathways to learn GIS, critical skills every GIS analyst should know and ways to augment traditional learning pathways to set you apart from other job candidates. Even though this post is well over 3 years old, it’s still read by people interested in the topic and I still receive comments.
I recently re-read the post and decided that an update was in order. Software has changed and old skills need to be replaced with new skills to keep up with the evolving GIS software industry. For brevity, I’ve focused this new post on changes and revisions to the recommendations I made in my earlier post. I’ve also added links to resources and elaborated on some topics I introduced last time. So, please be sure to read that post before this one so you have the complete picture for what’s changed.
For simplicity, I’ve focused on skills needed for a GIS Analyst/Specialist position. GIS developers and GIS database manager positions have a different set of skills that may overlap with some of these, but also include specific skills that are not part of the everyday toolkit of GIS Analysts and are not included here.
There are a variety of reasons why you want to learn GIS. You may be employed in a non-GIS field and are learning GIS as part of your job. Maybe you are switching careers or retraining yourself to find a new job in the growing geospatial industry. Perhaps you are a student who wants to learn GIS to support your field of study, or you are a student majoring in GIS or geography with aspirations of landing a job doing GIS.
Depending upon your goal, there are different pathways to get started learning GIS:
Formal GIS/Geography Degree
If you want to obtain a bachelor’s or master’s degree majoring in GIS or geography, you should start at a community college or university where you can take accredited GIS courses that will apply to your major’s requirements.
Professional, Continuing Education
If you’re seeking GIS skills for your current job or want to re-tool yourself for immediate employment, you may be better served by finding a professional certificate program in GIS at a local community college or university extension. These programs are usually non-accredited, which means that they will not likely count towards satisfying the requirements for a formal degree in GIS, but they are a great way to learn GIS quickly and gain readily employable skills to help you enter the marketplace. In addition, many professional certificate programs are taught by professionals working in the field, so you will get first-hand information about how GIS is used by the people who use it daily. These programs are also fantastic places to network with potential future employers.
If the professional certificate track is what you need, check with local community colleges and universities in your area to see if they have a professional, extended, or continuing education certificate program in GIS or geospatial sciences. If there is no school in your area offering certificates or degrees in GIS, there are a number of excellent online programs available today, including:
- American Sentinel University
- Durham College
- Elmhurst College
- Florida State University
- Johns Hopkins University
- Louisiana Tech
- Northwest Missouri State University
- Penn State
- UNIGIS UK
- University of Illinois School of Public Health
- University of North Dakota
This list is by no means complete, so if you know of other programs not listed, please add them as a comment to this post.
Both URISA and ESRI maintain a list of universities as well, so you may also want to check their websites as well:
There are also a number of specific free short-courses and technical workshops available on the ESRI Virtual Campus website.
Learn What Employers Want
Do not necessarily trust that your GIS certificate or degree program will teach you all the skills you need to know to land a GIS job. I’ve interviewed too many candidates who graduated from a GIS certificate program but only knew how to operate ArcGIS. While proficiency with ArcGIS is a critical skillset to have as a GIS analyst, there are a number of other hard and soft skills/techniques you should know to be a worthy job candidate.
At a minimum you should be proficient with the use of ESRI ArcGIS software (and extensions such as Spatial and 3D Analyst) and you should be able to produce cartographically pleasing outputs. However, GIS Analysts and Technicians are also expected to know the following:
- Cartographic production
- Data creation
- Geodatabase design and creation
- Data editing
- GIS analysis
- GPS data capture
- Aerial photography interpretation
- Data conversion
- Metadata implementation
Employers also expect GIS Analysts to have experience with:
- At least one non-spatial, database management system (Microsoft Access, Oracle, MySQL, etc.)
- Microsoft Office (Excel, Word, Outlook, PowerPoint and Access).
Finally, most job advertisements also require GIS Analysts to have a Bachelor’s degree in Geography, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Cartography, Computer Science or a related discipline. (Related disciplines can be landscape architecture, urban planning, geology, etc.). In many cases employers will accept a degree in an unrelated field with evidence of completion of a GIS certification program or demonstrable experience with GIS. While GIS technician positions often require very minimal years of experience, it’s typical to see employers require at least 3 years of GIS experience for GIS Analysts. However, don’t let these numbers dissuade you from applying for any position. In most cases these are “desired” qualifications for a “perfect” candidate. “Perfect” candidates are rare, so employers frequently accept lesser qualified candidates, and it’s here that you can shine with your experience and skills.
In addition to the minimum skill sets, the following skills are commonly listed in advertisements for GIS Analyst positions:
- Programming/scripting with Python
- ArcGIS Server / SDE
- Model builder
- Trimble Pathfinder
- ArcGIS Mobile
- AutoCAD and integration of GIS and CAD
- Adobe Photoshop
- Adobe Acrobat Pro
- Adobe Illustrator
Finally, it’s not just about technical abilities; employers also look for GIS people who:
- Can to learn new technologies, skills and software platforms/extensions quickly with minimal oversight
- Are good at problem solving and troubleshooting
- Are self-motivated and pro-active
- Can multitask and balance priorities with work load
- Can be flexible in working on unplanned projects/events
- Can work both independently and function well in a team environment
- Are able to communicate complex GIS concepts to entry level users.
- Show attention to detail and process
- Show initiative in working efficiently and seeking out work
- Have a customer focused/value added approach
- Have strong verbal and written communication skills
Domain expertise, don’t just be a GIS jockey, know how to apply it to some government or industry such as environmental analysis, utilities, planning and urban development, marketing, etc. Whatever your interest, learn how to use GIS in your area. It will make you a more valuable and interesting person than just someone who knows how to use ArcGIS.
Read GIS Magazines and Websites
GIS website portals and magazines are a great way to get a sense of what direction the industry is moving, which topics are hot and how people and organizations are implementing GIS. They’re also useful for keeping up with the latest GIS-related news. So, explore some of the magazines and websites that are available. Some of the more well-known sources include:
Attend User Group Meetings
I said this in my earlier post, but I’ll say it again because it’s important: Virtually everyone I know working in GIS got their first or subsequent job as a result of networking at a local or regional user group. Find one and attend them often. Ask questions, talk to people – these are (or will be) your colleagues and peers.
To get started, check the following websites to see if there is a user group in your area:
- ESRI ArcGIS User Groups
- GIS Certification Institute List of State and Local User Groups
- GIS Lounge List of User Groups
If there isn’t a local or regional User Group in your area, start one. There are probably lots of GIS people working in your area that would love to attend a user group. This is a great way to make contacts in the GIS industry very quickly. Many agencies can get the use of their meeting rooms for free. Most local vendors will jump at the chance to market their product to a room full of potential customers, so vendors can be helpful in filling presentation slots and getting the word out. With a little bit of tact you can usually get a vendor to sponsor snacks if they are presenting.
Get Real-World Experience and Build a Portfolio
In my earlier post I mentioned the need to get real-world experience to set you apart from other job candidates who only have GIS classwork experience. Today, more schools are integrating GIS into their curricula, and more schools offer GIS courses and certificates than they did a few years ago. This means there are potentially more people competing for a GIS job with you, so what will set you apart from the others is your experience.
So get real-world experience, read what I wrote in my earlier post as it’s important to develop real-world skills that will set you apart from your competition.
In addition, build a portfolio of your work that you can take to interviews. My first portfolio consisted of printed 8.5 x 11 copies of maps that I had made, scripts I had written, and reports or documents I had developed. I placed these items in clear plastic sleeves made for a 3-hole binder and brought the binder with me to interviews. Later I made PDFs of my maps, reports and scripts and burned them to CDs that I would give to potential employers when interviewing – but I still brought my binder so I could show these items during the interview.
So create a portfolio and bring it with you to interviews. It provides a great way to show off your discuss your experience and show off your cartographic skills. These will set you apart from most of the competition that will just show up to an interview with a copy of their resume.
These days everyone applying for a GIS job can use ArcGIS Desktop. Sorry but that skill alone doesn’t make you special anymore (it doesn’t make me special anymore either). So potential employers are going to be asking what else you can do.
Any GIS person worth their salt knows how to set up and manage a database. Whether it’s Microsoft Access, SQL Server, Oracle, MySQL, or PostGreSQL, if you don’t know how to use a database, learn to.
If you are not familiar with databases, then learn Microsoft Access. It’s a good database system that’s easy to learn and use. Plus many organizations commonly use it and many people already have it on their computers – as it comes with many versions of Microsoft Office.
If you don’t have a copy of Microsoft Access and can’t justify buying one, Open Office Base offers many of the same features as Microsoft Access and can serve as a suitable replacement for learning about databases. You can download Open Office at: http://www.openoffice.org/
From there you can graduate to the workgroup and enterprise systems such as Microsoft SQL Server, Oracle, MySQL, PostGreSQL, etc. All of these database management systems offer free versions for development or personal use that you can download to get experience using them. See the links below for each software application:
- Microsoft SQL Server Express (free)
- Oracle Database Express Edition (free)
- MySQL Community Server (Open Source, free)
- PostGreSQL (Open Source, free)
There are many actions we routinely perform in GIS which can be manually repetitive. Consider the example where you are given a disk with 100 shapefiles that are in the WGS84 projection and you need to import them into your GIS data library (a geodatabase). To do this you’ll need to re-project them to the coordinate system you use (NAD 83, UTM Zone 11). You could do this manually in ArcCatalog or ArcMap but it would be better to construct a workflow that could automate the process and do it 100 times.
Model Builder is perfect for this kind of task. ModelBuilder is an application you use to create, edit, and manage workflows that string together sequences of geoprocessing tools, in which the tools feed the output of one tool into another tool as input. ModelBuilder is a visual programming language for building these workflows.
Why learn it? Model Builder is a key GIS Analysis skill because:
- Performing actions like manually importing 100 shapefiles is tedious and not a good use of your time.
- Complicated analyses often require a lot of geoprocessing actions and you’ll often find that you may need to repeat an analysis. If you need to run a complex analysis again and you didn’t build a model, you’ll have to re-do all your geoprocessing tasks manually and hope you took really good notes of your processing steps.
- If you’re working with large datasets, geoprocessing tasks can take a long time. In this case, it’s best to construct a model to perform these tasks after hours instead of doing each task step by step (by hand) and waiting long periods for the output.
- Models can be incorporated into ArcGIS Toolboxes and easily distributed to other users so they can quickly repeat an analysis.
- Models can be uploaded to ArGIS Servers to enable processing of files on a server or in the cloud.
- Finally, savvy employers know about Model Builder and it shows up as either a required or desired skill in job advertisements.
To get started learning Model Builder, visit the following links:
- What is Model Builder?
- Model Builder Quick Tour
- ESRI Presentation on an Introduction to Model Builder
- ESRI Presentation on Fundamentals of Model Builder
- ESRI Video on Getting Started with Model Builder
If you are going after a GIS job in a large organization with an existing GIS program, there’s a chance that you’ll be asked about your experience with ESRI’s ArcGIS Server product. ArcGIS Server is a web server application that allows you to share GIS resources (maps, globes, tools, geoprocessing workflows, etc.) over the web. These resources are hosted on the ArcGIS Serve to facilitate sharing data that is centrally managed, supports multiple users, and contains the most up-to-date information.
ArcGIS Server skills are in demand these days and it’s a key skill to learn if you can. However, learning ArcGIS Server isn’t easy. Installing, managing and operating ArcGIS Server requires knowing a little about how to manage a file server and web server and active directory permissions. Realistically the best way to learn about ArcGIS Server is to take a class. Many in-person and online programs offer a course in ArcGIS Server; ESRI’s Virtual Campus has courses in ArcGIS Server as well.
If you’re not familiar with ArcGIS Server, visit the links below to get a general introduction to ArcGIS Server and its capabilities.
- ArcGIS Server Resources Page
- Older 9.x ESRI Introduction to ArcGIS Server Booklet
- Introduction to ArcGIS Server Video
If you can’t get experience working with ArcGIS Server, one thing you can do (in addition to reviewing the links above) is to register for a free personal account on www.arcgis.com. ArcGIS.com is a subscription based online platform for sharing geographic information and maps. ESRI offers a free personal account that provides limited access to features and 2 GB of storage space. With this account and a copy of ArcGIS you can upload data and maps to ArcGIS.com and experience a little bit of what it’s like to work with an ArcGIS Server from a user perspective.
Yeah, it’s not and ESRI product, but Microsoft Excel can be a critical component of your data scrubbing workflow. I use it often to view, manipulate and clean data before I import it into ArcGIS because it’s powerful, fast and can be used to make many data changes quickly and easily.
When learning GIS, we work with prepared datasets that have been cleaned and optimized to work in our exercises with minimal issues. In the real-world, data is messy; it contains a mixture of values in a variety of formats. Knowing how to quickly clean up a dataset is an essential GIS skill. So I use excel to change data from UPPERCASE to lowercase to replace portions of data with other values, to trim data, and to combine and split data. However, I rarely make these changes manually. Instead I use powerful functions in Excel that automate these corrections across rows and columns.
While Excel has many functions, I typically use only several for my data cleansing. So learn how to use functions in Excel; how to write them, copy and paste them. In particular, start with the following functions, as they are most commonly used to manipulate data:
To learn more about Excel functions, simply search Google or Bing for “learning excel functions”. A good tutorial for getting started is also here: http://blogs.mccombs.utexas.edu/the-most/2009/05/07/learn-excel-functions/
In my earlier post I recommended learning a scripting language because knowing how to write a script comes in handy when you need to scrub huge databases or perform actions like correcting addresses for better geocoding accuracy, reformatting data, exporting and importing large datasets, and other manually repetitive activities GIS people are routinely tasked with.
Back in 2009, I suggested that Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) was a good way to get started. Since that post ESRI has deprecated support for VBA in ArcGIS 10.x and VBA is not the preferred way to script in their latest product lines.
Today, scripting in ESRI is all about Python. Python is a free, cross-platform, open-source programming language that is widely used and supported in the open source and esri GIS environments. It is become the scripting language of choice for geoprocessing users and ESRI has fully embraced Python for ArcGIS. So I would advise anyone in GIS who doesn’t know Python to learn Python. Here are some links to get started learning about Python in ArcGIS:
- ArcGIS Resource Center
- Python Training Options with ESRI
- A Guide to Python for ESRI Users
- ESRI User Conference Presentation on Python
- Penn State Open Access Course on Python
Finally, while ESRI may not support VBA anymore, VBA is still widely used in Microsoft’s Office product line though it’s being slowly replaced by Microsoft’s Visual Studio Tools for Applications: http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/cc175562(v=vs.90).aspx
Reports for ArcGIS
In my previous post, I wrote about the virtues of learning Crystal Reports. Crystal Reports is a powerful reporting tool that can read databases and spreadsheets, perform queries, sort and summarize data and generate professional looking PDF or live reports. Crystal Reports used to be included with ArcGIS Desktop, however at ArcGIS 9.3, ESRI stopped including the full Crystal Reports product; and the Crystal Reports Wizard is no longer included in ArcGIS 10.x.
As a replacement, ESRI now offers a reporting application built into ArcGIS Desktop that provides much of the same functionality that Crystal Reports offered. However the reporting application cannot be accessed or used outside of ArcGIS Desktop and must be used from the ArcGIS Desktop user interface.
You may be wondering whether it is still important to learn Reports for ArcGIS. Yes, because it’s not always about the map; in fact, it often isn’t about a map at all. I know us GIS people got into GIS because we like to make great looking maps, but the mistake we make is thinking that everyone else likes maps too. When I started working in government GIS, I was amazed at how often I was asked to create a report showing the results of my analyses (for example, a report containing a table summarizing the number of acres of different vegetation types that will be impacted by a proposed development). No map; no polygons on a nice aerial photo – just a table of numbers representing the results of a geographic analysis. There was still a lot of cool GIS analysis that went into generating the report, but the end product wasn’t a map.
While the software may have changed, the need hasn’t so I’ll continue to recommend learning how to design and create reports of your GIS analyses. Today, we would accomplish this with Reports for ArcGIS. So to learn how to use the integrated reporting tools, see the following links:
- Reports for ArcGIS
- Working With Reports in ArcMap I
- Working With Reports in ArcMap II
- Working With Reports in ArcMap III
While I’ve written this post within the context of obtaining skills you need to land a GIS job, these are equally appropriate skills for those already employed in GIS. The industry continues to change rapidly, and you can get rusty pretty fast if you’re not keeping up. Each new software version brings new features that offer new opportunities for learning a new skill or adding to our existing knowledge base. For example, I recently learned how to write and deploy ArcObjects applications in ESRI’s new ad-in framework and plan to learn how to use the new Python ad-in framework in ArcGIS 10.1.
Learning these employable GIS skills is also a very good investment. GIS jobs are still ranked very high in job growth outlook – the Bureau of Labor Statistics lists an expected 35% growth in jobs for “Geographers” (http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/geographers.htm). Whether you’re looking for your first GIS job or looking to move to a new organization, these skills will make you much more marketable than your typical competition.
Finally, I’ve tried to identify those skills that I view as important for obtaining and maintaining a GIS position. I’ve also focused on skills a GIS Analyst or Specialist should know. If you’ve read this and can think of other important skills I didn’t mention, please leave a comment to benefit the larger community.
Thanks for reading.