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GIS in the Real World: A Primer for Newcomers
Article from US Census Bureau

This column addresses questions from newcomers to GIS. Students who spend hours sitting in class, working on allocation problems or digitizing datasets often graduate with no idea which industries use GIS, computer-aided design, desktop mapping and Global Positioning System technology, nor how these technologies are used. Questions arise about GIS in the "real world."

I've taken GIS courses and want to work with GIS. What kinds of opportunities are available for me?

Many occupations today use GIS as a tool for anything from resource allocation to market analysis. Geographers' opportunities continue to grow as different industries find GIS applications an integral part of the job. For example, the Middle Atlantic Division of the Association of American Geographers recently sponsored a Career Day that featured speakers from local, state and federal government agencies and private firms. Students who attend events such as these can gain some perspective on career opportunities and meet practitioners and potential employers.

Susan Jampoler of GeoKnowledge Inc., Leesburg, Va., identified many growing fields that offer roles for geographers who can apply their solid knowledge of spatial systems and geographic theory to areas such as banking, marketing, advertising, insurance, emergency management, health care, forestry, agribusiness, real estate, economic development, telecommunications, hazardous waste management and sales. You also might benefit from additional coursework related to the field; for example, business courses might help if you wish to work in advertising or marketing.

Will I have to digitize all day?

Building a spatial database can be the most expensive and time-consuming part of any project. For this reason, GIS professionals can spend much of their time digitizing, manipulating and correcting a database, but this isn't always the case. Some companies are information gatherers that build datasets for use by others. As an information analyst with such a company, your job might consist of data collection, verification and documentation. You'd also spend time providing customers the geographic knowledge they need to best use the datasets. Private companies and government agencies at all levels play a major role in creating datasets.

How would you spend your time if you worked for a company that uses datasets collected by others? Suppose you're a computer-aided design manager with an environmental engineering firm. Some of your time would include customizing datasets obtained from county agencies. You'd then use the datasets to produce maps for various engineering projects at the firm and for business development and marketing presentations. In this type of position, you'd also devote time to researching current hardware and software and recommending purchases.

Perhaps you want to work on the other side of the fence and develop software. As a member of the technical staff at a large GIS services firm, you might work closely with clients to design custom interfaces, provide software training and write data translators. You also might perform systems administration, GIS network and database design and application design. Such jobs require extensive computer skills, including programming in various languages, relational database knowledge, software engineering, and object-oriented and procedural design theory-in addition to applied geographic training.

How can I find out more about career options?

Excellent resources abound for discovering what people do with GIS. First, read some of the magazines devoted to tracking GIS trends. These are packed with articles written by people in different fields that describe projects, partnerships and technology. See the GIS FAQ ( for a list of publications.

Online bulletin boards and newsgroups such as comp.infosystems.gis also provide insight to GIS in the real world. Every day people discuss online resource and data needs, software and hardware, research topics, education programs and myriad other tasks. Of course you'll also find many position announcements that can give you an idea of skills sought by employers.

Finally, get out and talk to people. Yes, network. Attend conventions, workshops, career days, professional association meetings, federal open houses or any other such gathering. Networking is like investing-it's never too early to start!

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