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GIS Degree Programs: 2021 Guide

Technology is rapidly advancing, and so are geographical information systems (GIS). Modern geographers use technology to better understand the world around us. In this guide to GIS degree programs, you can learn what GIS is as well as how to learn it. If you want a career in geographic information systems, read below to learn more.

What Is GIS?

Geographic information systems are computer programs that allow the storage, analysis, processing, and creation of data linked to a specific geographic area. This data can be used to help analyze and solve cultural, social, economic, political, and environmental issues.

The advantage of GIS is its ability to help companies make decisions more efficiently. This is because it offers clear scenarios on the geographical situation of certain populations, which are potential markets for many organizations in various sectors like urban planning and geospatial programming.

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Beyond the economic and corporate aspects, the technical approach of GIS allows the creation and representation of large groups of data. Undoubtedly, cartography has a competitive advantage for the professional, technological, and scientific development of societies. 

Where Do GIS Professionals Work?

Geographic information systems professionals work in local governments, educational centers, and hospitals. They also work in departments of architecture, engineering, and related services. A GIS technician is useful in many different sectors, which means you can choose your ideal workplace if you take this job.

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 34 percent of GIS professionals work in local governments, which is a fairly large percentage. Although these workers have opportunities in private sectors, the best salaries and vacancies belong to federal positions, military operations, and government offices.

GIS Job Outlook and Salary

According to the BLS, the job outlook for GIS professionals is about four percent from 2019 to 2029. This means that there will be four percent more opportunities in the next decade. The BLS also shows that these professionals can earn a salary ranging from $68,380 to $108,890, depending on the sector they work in and their professional experience.

Career Options for GIS Degree Graduates

Geographic information systems professionals can find careers in a wide variety of fields. The roles include GIS developer, conservationist, law enforcement, cartographer, health geographer, remote sensing analyst, climate scientist, and urban planner. 

Entry-Level Jobs

GIS Consultant

In this role, you will provide support to a range of clients that require solutions in the field of data and geospatial visualization. Your responsibilities will consist of processing geographic data and adapting it to the needs of the client or service. A report from ZipRecruiter shows the average pay for GIS consultants is $88,562 per year.

Geospatial Technician

Geographic information science professionals in this position must understand the basics of extraction in DOT, aviation, and county-level work. The geospatial technician is the main resource for monitoring geographic airspaces on an international scale. The average salary for geospatial technicians is $55,947 per year, according to ZipRecruiter.

Environmental Scientist

For this role, you will work under the supervision of mid-level and senior environmental scientists to assist different scientific research and processes. You will use analytical skills from geographic information systems to do your job. As an environmental scientist, you can earn a median salary of $53,671, following numbers from ZipRecruiter.

Mid and Senior Level Jobs

Geographic Information Systems Specialist

The main responsibilities of this role are geospatial analysis, geospatial information management, geospatial program management, and geospatial policy. These professionals focus on the management of technical geospatial information. Statistics from ZipRecruiter report that GIS specialists earn an average salary of $65,780.

GIS Engineer

These professionals supply information to a GIS base map, generate complex GIS products and analysis, customize data, and handle other real-world problems. You will process quantitative data applied to the solution of computational and physical infrastructure problems. According to ZipRecruiter, GIS engineers earn an average salary of $86,684.

GIS Analyst

A GIS analyst provides technical and analytical data management solutions through the use of software and databases. This digital management is ideal for technology and engineering companies as well as the governmental work mentioned above. According to ZipRecruiter, a GIS analyst makes $72,710 per year.

Why Should You Study GIS?

You should study GIS because you can develop the ability to explore and process the wealth of data in each geographic area. This is useful strategic information for companies, societies, and countries, which means it is an in-demand skill. You can find great jobs with high salaries if you study GIS.

The main skill that you will be able to acquire through online academic programs and online courses in geographic information systems is different types of programming languages. You will also learn GIS software, cartographic design, project management, and human services.

What You Will Learn in GIS Classes and Courses

The main focus of social sciences and geospatial technologies applied to GIS enables students to collect and verify data. This data is used in the creation of maps and processing of quantitative and qualitative information. This is used to create meteorological models, update maps, create statistical graphics of geographic areas, and more.

There are five specific analytical skills that GIS students can learn from their in-person and online classes. Every GIS program should include these topics. They include data collection, modeling, analysis, geospatial intelligence, and visualization.

Data Collection

This aspect consists of data processing to constantly build and feed databases with information from various sources such as investigations, remote sensing, and digitized maps. This analytical skill is essential for technological, scientific, and aeronautical companies, which require GIS professionals.


The modeling and design of maps is the main skill that a cartographer or GIS worker must have. They use GIS technology to build precise models of the earth’s surface over a given geographical area. This skill consists of developing map databases to facilitate their creation, which can also be done by database developers.


This skill is essential in developing a stable career as a GIS technician. During your career, you need to make effective connections between geographic patterns in geospatial data. This will help you create new strategies aimed at conducting ground surveys, statistics, aerial photographs, and satellite images.

Geospatial Intelligence

Knowledge in geographic information science to analyze spatial data is a real asset for law enforcement and other industries. These agencies set high standards for GIS analysts and other workers. Geospatial intelligence is also essential for anti-disaster responses and other global issues.


The ability to see beyond raw maps and data is centered on visual geographic models. Visualization is used in transforming geospatial data from certain areas into graphical representations for use in cartographic, scientific, topographic, and geodetic engineering discoveries, among a variety of other professional fields. 

Common GIS Degree Classes

Introduction to Map Science

This class covers basic principles and analysis tools used to understand map design and other cartographic practices. It is a widely used topic in geospatial technology and is most common in undergraduate degrees. In addition, it facilitates the management of data flows for the elaboration of maps. 

Cartographic Design and Production

This course provides an in-depth understanding of cartographic science as a key auxiliary discipline of geography. It teaches elementary principles of design, spatial perception, statistics, and communication. Cartographic design and production are essential disciplines for environmental science.

Introduction to Remote Sensing

In this class, you will learn the fundamentals of remote sensing systems and software. Its main topics are the electromagnetic spectrum and energy spectra for observing the earth. You will also learn about multispectral image processing and the use of Lidar. This class is most common in graduate degrees.

Geographic Information Systems

This course introduces students to the application of GIS and other geospatial technologies for scientific, technological, security, cartographic, and ecological uses. In addition, you will learn to design GIS databases and acquire analytical skills for your career path. If you want to learn geographic information systems, this class is where you will start.

Introduction to Spatial Analysis and Modeling

This is one of the most important classes to start a career in GIS. In this undergraduate course, you will learn the basic concepts and techniques of the analysis and modeling of geographic spaces. Among the most important techniques are point pattern analysis, spatial autocorrelation, and association tests. 

Recommended GIS Bachelor’s Degree Programs

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A Bachelor’s Degree in Geographic Information Systems is the best place to start your GIS career.

Earning a degree in GIS will make you a highly competent and qualified professional. Most of the admission requirements for bachelor’s degrees are flexible, especially if you are just starting. Before selecting a school, evaluate career services, program requirements, campus programs, and additional resources to help you achieve your career goals.

North Carolina A&T State University | Bachelor of Science in Geomatics

North Carolina A&T State University offers many online programs, including a Bachelor of Science in Geomatics. It prioritizes the specialization of its students in the automation of cartographic design and data processing software. With your education from this program, you can become a GIS surveyor or consultant.

Oregon State University | Bachelor of Science in Geography and Geospatial Science

This university offers a Bachelor of Science in Geography and Geospatial Science, which is a great way to learn GIS. This program provides solid training in data processing to solve real-world problems based on GIS. It includes courses in many different subjects, including climate justice, cartography, and spatial data science.

The University of Arizona | Bachelor of Science in Geographic Information Systems Technology

This university offers a Bachelor of Science in Geographic Information Systems Technology, which is the most comprehensive way to learn GIS. It’s offered completely online, which makes it a great option no matter where you are, and requires an online application. This program includes map science, spatial analysis, and remote systems.

Recommended Master’s Degrees in GIS

Getting a Master’s Degree in Geographic Information Systems will make you a professional with greater technical-scientific specialization. You can work as a surveyor, conservation scientist, forester, geographer, cartographer, or photogrammetrist. A master’s degree allows you to access higher salaries and more senior jobs.

California State University Long Beach | Master of Science in Geographic Information Science

California State University Long Beach offers a Master of Science in Geographic Information Science. It also has a certificate program if you’d rather choose a shorter option. In addition, the school teaches advanced programming courses for GIS professionals, where you can learn Python and other programming languages.

Michigan Technological University | Master of Geographic Information Science

If you want to get a Master’s Degree in Geographic Information Science, Michigan Tech is a great choice. The Master of Geographic Information Science will teach you geospatial technology, communications, and environmental policy. It is a well-rounded program and a good option for any prospective GIS worker.

The University of Colorado Denver | Master of Science in Geographic Information Systems

The University of Colorado Denver has a Master of Science in Geographic Information Systems, which takes a minimum of 18 months to complete. This degree program is a good choice because you can choose from a few different certificate specializations: GIS in the Environment, GIS Tools and Technology, GIS in Public Safety, and more.

Recommended PhDs in GIS

Earning a PhD in Geographic Information Systems will help you become a leader in the industry and pursue academic career options. You can work in environmental conservation organizations, centers against climate change, and geographical information science research centers.

Colorado State University | PhD in Atmospheric Science

Colorado State University offers a doctoral degree option in atmospheric science, which also includes GIS. It focuses on the application of cutting-edge technology for the sub-discipline of geospatial science. If you want to specialize in the field, you should pursue this PhD program.

South Dakota State University | PhD in Geospatial Science and Engineering

This PhD is for Geospatial Science and Engineering with a Remote Sensing Specialization. This is another great specialization option, and it can help you get high-level jobs in the field. South Dakota State University’s program includes fire science, climate change, geographic information systems, and more.

The Alternative: GIS Certificate Program

GIS certificates provide top-notch academic support to experts in urban planning and other GIS areas. Many different universities offer certificates, including some mentioned above. They are shorter programs, and although they do not offer degrees, they are still a great way to learn and gain credentials for geographic information systems.

Certificate programs can teach you additional skills like advanced spatial analysis, boundary surveying, and analytical tools. Depending on the school type, you can get an undergraduate certificate or graduate certificate. This is a good option for transfer students or people who need an affordable rate of tuition.

Should You Pursue a GIS Degree Online?

Yes, you should pursue a GIS degree online. It offers greater flexibility and lower costs than an in-person degree. However, GIS is not an easy career to learn in this way. Although it is focused on data, cartographic operations software requires more orientation than other systems. If you can motivate yourself, an online degree is a great option.

For most online programs, all you need is a high school diploma to apply. You should also have an interest in natural resource management, the geospatial industry, and other GIS topics. If you already have an associate degree, you may be able to transfer credits over. Western Illinois University and Delta State University both offer this transfer option.

The Bottom Line

Geographic information systems degrees train highly qualified professionals for scientific, technical, computer, and technological management jobs. They offer a multidisciplinary approach, which makes GIS a comprehensive and high-paying profession. Your new critical thinking skills will allow you to solve real-world problems.

You can live up to your career aspirations with a GIS degree. Most degrees offer more career mobility, which means you can access career possibilities like project managers and land surveying experts. If you want to get a job that combines concepts in geography and tech, you should get a GIS degree.

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