Become a Geographer: Education and Career Information

Mar 03, 2020

Research the requirements to become a geographer. Learn about the job description and duties, and read the step-by-step process to start a career as a geographer.

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Should I Become a Geographer?

Geographers are scientists who specialize in studying the earth, including its physical features, organisms, and natural phenomena. The chief types of geographers include physical geographers, who examine the processes that contribute to the rise of the planet's landforms, meteorological changes, and dispersal of plants and wildlife; and human geographers, who focus on geography's effects on cultural and social interactions.

Nearly half of all geographers work for the federal government. Others work for schools or engineering services, or are self-employed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). These professionals often do a lot of work outside and in the field, and they may be required to travel to remote locations. The BLS predicts this career to experience a 3% increase in jobs over the 2018 to 2028 decade.

Career Requirements

Degree Level At least a bachelor's degree is needed for jobs with the federal government; for other positions, a master's degree or PhD may be necessary
Degree Field Geography
Certification Available but not mandatory
Experience Requirements vary based on the type of position held by a geographer
Key Skills Strong analytical, critical-thinking, presentation, and communication skills; proficiency with Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Word, Excel, map creation software, groundwater modeling software, geographic information systems (GIS), remote sensing and global positioning system (GPS) programs; dexterity with anemometers, laboratory box furnaces, microscopes, and soil and water sampling tools
Salary (2018)* $80,300 per year (median salary for geographers)

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, O*Net OnLine

Steps to Become a Geographer

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Universities and colleges offer bachelor's degree programs in geography covering subjects such as population growth, social patterns, vegetation, environmental issues, geomorphology, and climatology. This discipline leads students to develop skills in regional analysis, cartography, research, and remote sensing. Students also become familiar with geographic information systems (GIS), one of the most important technologies for geographers.

Some programs offer the opportunity to join other students and faculty on field trips. These may be part of required coursework or simply for enjoyment and enrichment. Field trips are a good way for students to see the environment that they're studying and prepare them for a career that may require fieldwork.

Students who wish to interact with geography peers in a fun and meaningful way may opt to become involved in clubs. These clubs offer educational benefits, such as educational lectures and career seminars, as well as social activities like movie nights and potlucks.

Geographers must know how to use a number of different computer programs, including graphic imaging and modeling software. Students in geography programs should take advantage of computer learning facilities available at their schools to hone these skills.

Step 2: Consider a Graduate Degree

Though some jobs may only require a bachelor's degree, aspiring geographers will find that some positions, particularly those outside of the federal government, require a graduate degree. Students in graduate programs complete advanced coursework in quantitative analysis, cartography, climate models, and spatial analysis. They may have the opportunity to focus on a specific area of interest, such as geomorphology or urban geography. Graduate students in master's degree programs often complete a thesis based on an area of research, while doctoral candidates attend seminars and write dissertations on their fields of interest.

Geographers need sharp mathematical skills because math is used for quantitative research in geography. They also need to be adept in synthesizing and interpreting information and be able to make and use spatial databases, maps, and charts.

Step 3: Gain Experience

Entry-level jobs for geography graduates include positions as environmental researchers, geospatial analysts, urban and regional planners, resource specialists, and watershed managers. They find work in government agencies, engineering firms, nonprofit organizations, and other related industries. Those who have a master's degree or a Ph.D. have more job options, such as teaching in colleges and universities.

Graduates just starting their careers may find it beneficial to join a professional association, such as the Association of American Geographers (AAG). Perks of membership include networking and professional development opportunities. Members also keep current with the newest advances and methods in the field.

Step 4: Look into Voluntary Certification

The GIS Certification Institute offers optional certification to professionals who want to enhance their qualifications. Geographers with sufficient experience, education, and professional involvement can seek this credential. Certified individuals must earn 40 continuing education and professional development credits every five years to keep their certification current.

Aspiring geographers who want to work for the federal government need at least a bachelor's degree in geography, while positions outside of the government typically require a master's or a doctoral degree.

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