Why Earn a Master’s in Geographic Information Systems?
Few graduate degrees offer as diverse a career path as a master’s in geographic information systems (GIS). Used in business and daily life, geospatial technology continues to expand rapidly. Geospatial information sciences and GIS deal with the mapping, management, analysis, and storage of data to assess and resolve real-world issues. Because geographical information systems (GIS) focuses on geographic and geospatial data, its uses are extensive. While most people are familiar with using online GPS for driving directions (an amazing use of geographical information systems (GIS) and geospaital technologies), GIS is also used by emergency response teams, environmental scientists, marketing personnel, homeland security, and in a host of other fields. Along with its usefulness, GIS is also an intellectually stimulating area of work. Since geospatial information sciences and geographical information systems (GIS) are a relatively young and dynamic field, careers in it are still evolving. It is, and is expected to remain, a fast-growing job sector in both private industry and government. This means that opportunities to learn about this subject through traditional and online learning are likely to continue to increase.
A student with professional experience in this field may choose between online or traditional graduate programs or a graduate certificate depending on what career they are looking to enter. They may earn an in-person or online Master of Geographic Information Systems, Master's in Geographic Information Science, or a similar GIS degree. Online education options are available in many forms, and a geogaphic information systems graduate degree will prepare you for the highest roles in the field. The title of your degree is less important than the core classes you take. An on-campus or online master degree program will likely use the core courses of the program to cover subjects such as the following and teach GIS graduates technical skills.
- Geospatial Data, Spatial Information, and Spatial Analysis
- Data Mining, Data Collection, and Web Mapping Fundamentals
- Understanding Geospatial Technologies
- Geospatial Technology, the Latest GIS Software, and Geospatial Technology Project Management
- Remote Sensing and Image Processing
- Urban and Regional Planning
- Creating a Geospaital Technology Competency Model
- Environmental Resource Management
- Geographic Information Systems Programming and Automation (Geospatial Programming)
- And More
Career opportunities abound with an online or in-person Master’s in Geographic Information Science or a GI Systems program. For some, GIS is the focus of their work, while for others it is simply a critical component. A GIS master’s program not only leads to a higher salary but also more career flexibility as you learn a variety of useful technical skills that can be applied to environmental resource management and planning, GIS programming and automation, or geospatial technologies and global positioning systems. A person with only a bachelor’s in geographic information systems program can have career success, but earning an online GIS master’s makes them a much more attractive candidate while allowing them to continue to earn and gain experience. Since many master’s in GIS degrees are geared toward the working professional, which is part of why online components in these programs continue to increase, it's also possible that companies may pay some or all of the tuition for their employees.
For someone with a true passion for a career in GIS, there aren’t a lot of cons in obtaining a master’s degree; although, if there is no company tuition reimbursement, any student loans are a serious consideration. Because the technology is evolving so quickly, GIS professionals need regular certifications, and for some employees, obtaining multiple online certifications may make more sense than getting a master’s degree.
Overview of a Master's in Geographic Information Systems
What Geographic Information Systems Master’s Degrees are Available?
GIS Master’s degrees are available online and for traditional students under a variety of names and specializations. The most common GIS graduate degree is a Master of Science (MS) in Geographic Information Science.
Other GIS master’s degrees include:
- MS in GIS Management – This GIS master's is geared specifically for those looking to move into a technical management degree in their industry. GIS managers work in various fields, including public planning, natural resource management, economic development, law enforcement, and public health. Some of these degrees are offered completely online, though you'll need hands on experience in various technical skills to prepare students for higher-level careers in the job market.
- MS in Geographic Information Science and Technology – This degree is similar to an MS in Geographic Systems Management and should be accessible through online learning.
- MS in Cartography/GIS – Maps are essential, and an MS in Cartography/GIS focuses on creating the maps used by consumers, government agencies, and private industry for everything from location apps, radar accessible through online programs, to national defense and retail development.
- MS in Human Security and Geospatial Intelligence – This degree focuses on those working in GIS in the military, defense industry, disaster relief, national security, and climate change fields.
- Master of Professional Studies in Homeland Security Geospatial-Intelligence Option – This degree concentrates specifically on the homeland security aspects of GIS.
While admission requirements vary by school, in general candidates for a master’s degree in GIS should have earned an online or in-person bachelor’s degree in cartography, geography, environmental science, or a similar field. Schools often require a minimum B or 3.0 average for consideration.
This is a field in which work experience in GIS weighs heavily. If the candidate does not have the quantitative background academically for admission to a master’s program, profession accomplishments may still permit provisional admission. Candidates with a strong professional GIS background may find themselves credited with certain core courses for the degree.
Along with standard admission requirements, such as college transcripts, resume or Curriculum Vitae, academic references, and possibly professional references are necessary. Online students should expect to meet the same rquirements as students attending courses in person.
How long does it take to earn a Geographic Information Systems Master’s?
Most people can earn a master’s degree in geographic information systems with two to three years of part-time study, whether that is online or off. If studying full-time, it may take just a year to earn this degree. Many master’s degrees in GIS are designed specifically for completion in either one or two years.
Potential Careers in Geographic Information Systems with a Master’s
- Cartographer -
With GIS, cartographers do more than create maps. With GIS technology, cartographers create the best routes for personal and business transport, develop terrain information, and build and maintain geographical databases.
The average salary of a cartographer is $49,800 annually.
- GIS Analyst -
This position combines cartography, programming, and data analysis. Duties include database maintenance, map creation, research, and report preparation.
The average salary for a GIS analyst is $53,300. The average salary for a senior GIS analyst is $69,655 annually.
- GIS Manager -
This role entails managing GIS employees and projects and focusing on business development, database management, and spatial analysis.
The average salary of a GIS manager is $70,400 per year.
- Geospatial Analyst -
In this role, employees often work in both an office analyzing data and go out into the field to collect data. The work may involve examining the historical and environmental shifts in a particular landscape, and geospatial analysis is an important component in archaeology. Data examined include old maps, soils, satellite data, historical scientific literature, and environmental samples.
The average salary for a geospatial analyst is $58,600 annually.
- Urban/Regional Planner -
Using GIS is an integral part of an urban or regional planner’s job. Planners develop land use plans for cities and communities, focusing on population and infrastructure changes, including the revitalization of underused or dilapidated facilities or areas. The job outlook is expected to grow by 13% in the decade between 2016 and 2016, much faster than the average job.
The average salary of an urban/regional planner is $56,100.
Keep in mind that many potential careers in GIS do not focus solely on GIS technology.
Salary by Occupation
|GIS Project Manager||$54,500||$70,300||$87,100|
Options to Advance
While there are a few PhD programs in GIS available, they are relatively rare. For most GIS professionals, the highest GIS-centric degree they will earn is a master’s. However, those seeking advancement in their fields may want to pursue another master’s degree or doctorate in a field related to their primary GIS work, such as environmental science or geomatics with a GIS concentration. Another master's is more likely to be fully accessible online, as well.
Since GIS technology changes so rapidly, it is critical that employees keep up with these changes and receive regular certifications in particular GIS areas. Those who want to advance in fields that include GIS but are not GIS per se may find receiving online certification as a Geographic Information Systems Professional (GISP) could boost their careers, along with the newer Esri technical certificate. Esri has two certificate levels: associate and professional. Both the GISP and Esri are regarded highly by employers.
Best Master of Science in Geographic Information Systems Programs
This degree program is based on a collaboration between the university’s Graduate School of Geography, the International Development, Community and Environment Department and Clark Labs, based at the university, a leading GIS software developer. Students learn from international leaders in GIS.
- MS In Geographic Information Science
Florida State University
Students must complete at least 30 graduate credit hours for program completion while maintaining at least a B average in required classes and a B- in electives. Required courses include Introductory GIS Lab, Remote Sensing Lab, Advanced GI Science, and GI Science Capstone.
- MS in Geographic Information Science
Students considering this degree should have a bachelor’s degree in geography or a closely related discipline, with a minimum GPA of 3.0. The curriculum requires a minimum of 30 credit hours, with core, advanced and research requirements as well as electives.
- MS in Geographic Information Science
University of Minnesota
A degree program of the University’s College of Liberal Arts, this program has earned an international reputation for its high quality. One of the first schools to offer a master’s degree in this field, its program has set national standards for similar GIS programs.
- MS in Geographic Information Science
University of Redlands
This program is designed for the professional and recent graduate desiring to enhance their GIS analysis and management knowledge. Available as either a one- or two-year program, students must complete a major individual project to graduate. Core courses include Fundamentals of Geographic Information, Project Concept, and Scope and Project Management.
- MS in Geographic Information Systems
Traditional Schools Offering an MS in Geographic Information Systems
Johns Hopkins University
This online degree program, geared to part-time professionals, focuses on the types of employment available in the field of next-generation geospatial technology. The degree requires the successful completion of 10 courses and is designed for 12 to 24 months of study.
- MS in Geographic Information Systems
Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pennsylvania
Along with a standard master’s degree in GIS, Penn State also offers a master’s degree focusing on mapping and geographic data analysis to identify and assess potential threats and consequences geospatially. In addition, PSU offers various graduate GIS certifications.
- MS in Geographic Information Systems
- Master of Professional Studies in Homeland Security – Geospatial-Intelligence Option
Designed for working professionals, this program is the only fully online program in the nation which focuses on GIS administration. The program also features a collaboration between the university’s undergraduate GIS program and its graduate school of business. Graduates receive the necessary credits for GIS professional certification upon program completion.
- MS in Geographic Information Systems Management
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, California
Taught by world-renowned faculty in environmental sciences, geography, business analytics, and military operations; graduates of this program go beyond GIS data analysis and onto solving world-class problems. Students use the latest technologies and GPS and GIS remote sensing software to deal with spatial data in the real world.
- MS in Geographic Information Science and Technology
- MS in Human Security and Geospatial Intelligence
University of Wisconsin
Online students may choose to complete this program in one year of full-time participation or two years studying part-time. The program consists of eight courses, each of which is worth four credits for a total of 32 credits. The curriculum is revised continually to keep it relevant in the rapidly evolving field of applied GIS and map design.
- MS in Cartography/GIS
Frequently Asked Questions
Is GIS a good career option?
The short answer to this is yes. Not only are there plenty of job options right now that require GIS knowledge, but GIS-focused technologies are continuing to be advanced. Getting into the advanced levels of this field now is an excellent idea for those who wish to ensure that they will have job security for years to come. GIS careers are still changing fast and earning a master’s degree in the field will keep you at the cutting edge of what is possible.
Where can GIS be applied?
There are many fields in which you can find reasonable and useful applications of GIS technology. These include industries such as accident and traffic analysis, agricultural uses, disaster management, environmental impact analysis, transportation planning, and urban planning, among many other options that only just beginning to be explored.
What skills will you need to succeed in GIS?
There are a number of skills that you will need to succeed in this field, and there are some skills which are pertinent only to one specialty. However, for those looking to have the general skills that will help them thrive in a GIS role, you must have strong IT skills, including the ability to work with and manipulate databases. You’ll also need to be able to be detail-oriented and be able to problem solve on the fly, both on your own and as part of a group. And, finally, you’ll need to be an excellent communicator.