How to Become a Geographic Information Systems Professional

Stewart Bruce is the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) program coordinator at Washington College. There, he contributes to the Maryland Crime Mapping and Analysis Program. He also manages the Geospatial Education Technology Initiative, and several environmental GIS projects. He also has all his online curriculum available for free to anyone who wants to learn about GIS. Stewart has a Bachelor of Arts in geography from California State University Long Beach, and a Master of Science in geography from Penn State University.

What is Geographic Information Systems?

Geographic Information Systems, (GIS) is geographic or spatial locational data about specific features that is coupled with information about those features and displayed on a computer using special software that is controlled by a person who knows what the heck they are doing.

What do you find most interesting about Geographic Information Systems?

When I do GIS, I make things just like an artisan or craftsman might have done in medieval times. The things I make will be used by other people and therefore I take pride in what I make. This is why with my GIS operations at Washington College I am beginning to act like we are a guild. I have apprentices and journeymen working for me learning my trade craft.

What is your least favorite aspect of Geographic Information Systems?

Not having enough hours in the day to do more, but sooner or later I have to get some sleep.

Are there subfields of Geographic Information Systems that students might not be aware of?

I think there is a growing subfield of GIS that some people might not call GIS. This would be virtual world development using programs like Unity. To me this is the future of GIS and I am investing heavily into this. And I need all kinds of students to make this happen. It takes a very talented team of people to do this kind of stuff from all aspects of knowledge.

What careers do students commonly pursue with a degree in Geographic Information Systems?

There are so many it is hard to list here. GeoInt, or geospatial intelligence, is a big one for which I have great interest, and I serve on the academic advisory board of the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation for this reason. But many people may use GIS in their career but their career is not GIS. GIS, in many aspects, is a tool that is becoming persuasive throughout many careers. But in many respects, all of GIS is geospatial intelligence.

Is a graduate degree preferable for a career in Geographic Information Systems, or can someone enter the field with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree?

You can enter the field with a high school diploma provided you have the right schooling in high school and do some internships. Then you could get a job and work your way through college. In the professional sense I believe you really need a master’s degree to advance to the highest-paid positions though.

At Washington College we are developing programs to train third graders in GIS. Imagine if you started learning GIS in the third grade and kept up with it through the twelfth grade. My goal is to have twelfth graders more knowledgeable about GIS then students who have four-year degrees. If you do this, you have to come work for me at the college!

What personality traits do you think a student should have in order to be successful in a Geographic Information Systems program?

You have to love working with computers, but at the same time you have to be friendly and be able to communicate to people, too.

What electives would you recommend that a student in a Geographic Information Systems program take?

Computer classes such as databases and programming. Sounds rough but these skills will make you awesome, and you will be able to rise to the highest levels of salary.

What study tips would you give to a student to help him or her succeed in a Geographic Information Systems program?

You really will not learn too much in classes; you need a job or an internship so you have experiential learning opportunities. You cannot simply replace having hundreds of hours of practical experience on real-world GIS assignments. So classes are a good idea but by themselves you will not retain the information you learn in class.

Do you think Geographic Information Systems is a subject that can be studied online, or is a traditional class environment ideal?

It doesn’t matter really as long as you do real work and actual real world projects. This is where you really learn. If you do not get this experience, you will forget everything you learn in class very quickly. If you do online courses, you had better have somebody you can connect to when you need help.

What subjects should a prospective student of Geographic Information Systems study before entering a formal college program?

Go to my website and start taking GIS courses for free. I will send you the software for free, too. Then find something to map in your neighborhood and get busy learning. Then when you get to college, look for a job.

What pieces of advice, or caution, would you offer to a prospective student of Geographic Information Systems?

Do not underestimate your ability to learn. And remember, nothing is going to replace the fact that to get good at GIS, you are going to have to work your butt off.