Online PhD in Geography: Program Overview

Get info about online degree programs in geography. Read about program requirements, course topics and degree levels, and check out career and continuing education options.

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Essential Information

Online degree programs in geography are not available at the doctoral level, but they are available at the master's level. These programs often have a technical focus, such as geographic information systems (GIS), and they can be completed in fully online formats.

Before enrolling in one of these programs, students must have a bachelor's degree, and experience and GIS knowledge is also sometimes required. Students should also be sure that their computer is equipped with ERDAS IMAGINE and ArcGIS software.

Some entry-level positions for geographers are available with a minimum educational requirement of a bachelor's degree, but many geographer positions, including those that involve working for the federal government, require at least a master's degree. In some cases, a master's degree plus voluntary professional certification can take the place of a doctoral degree.

Master's Degree in Geography

A number of schools present online geography-related programs leading to master's degrees, commonly with specializations in GIS. Students learn to apply the relatively new methodologies and techniques used in geographic information systems, global positioning systems and remote sensing to the disciplines of physical, cultural and human geography.

Prerequisites for admission to the program typically include a bachelor's degree with a specified minimum GPA, a satisfactory score on the GRE and letters of recommendation. Primarily intended for professional specialization, some programs require that applicants have at least two years of appropriate work experience. Experience with basic GIS principles is recommended.

Information and Requirements

Most students are working while taking this online program. In light of this fact, individuals should be able to complete all degree requirements in 3-4 years, but many schools allowed 7-8 years to do so. Programs are delivered entirely online by way of course management systems, such as Blackboard or eCollege. No in-person work is required. Courses usually consist of readings, written assignments, projects, asynchronous posted discussions and examinations. In addition to discussion rooms, communication takes place through e-mail and telephone.

Technical requirements include a computer with Internet access, a compatible Web browser and an up-to-date operating system. Microsoft Office is recommended in order to operate Word and PowerPoint. ERDAS IMAGINE is generally required. Students must also ensure that their computer is equipped with ArcGIS software with Spatial Analyst, 3D Analyst, Network Analyst and Geostatistical Analyst applications.

Common Coursework

Most programs give students the option of completing and defending a thesis, based on original research, or taking comprehensive examinations. Those opting for the thesis take fewer courses than those who choose the examination-based track. Thesis students defend their papers through online conference sessions.


The basic principles of geographic information science are explored in this course. Subjects include vector and raster data models, spatial data and various basic GIS analysis procedures.

Project Management

Students are introduced to project management at different levels. Beginning with planning and organizational procedures of large-scale operations, the course gets more detailed as aspects of individual GIS projects are examined.

Raster Modeling

Using raster graphics and data, students look into advanced GIS topics. This course teaches spatial modeling techniques through the use of raster-based information.

Cartography Design

This course presents the student with a compendium of methods in cartographic techniques, from traditional mapmaking methods to technology and computer design. Through the use of these methods, students produce samples that enable them to render a visualization of spatial data.

Career Information

Graduates holding a geography master's degree with a specialization in GIS find employment with governmental agencies or in private industries. Various GIS methods are used to deal with issues such as real estate planning, road construction, transportation, environmental impact and disaster recovery. Geographers may also find work as cartographers, in surveying or in urban planning. Others go into education on the secondary or postsecondary level.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projected that job opportunities for geographers would decline by 2% from 2014 to 2024 ( As of May 2015, the BLS reported a median annual salary of $74,260 for geographers.

Continuing Education Information

Full professorships in geography at teaching and research universities require candidates to hold Ph.D. degrees, which are only available through on-campus programs. Membership in professional organizations offers opportunities for geographers to participate in educational programs, seminars, workshops and conferences as well as providing access to research sources, networks and industry publications. Two of these organizations include the Association of American Geographers and the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association.

Another organization, the GIS Certification Institute, offers voluntary certification based on educational achievement, professional experience and contributions to the profession. This gives qualified individuals the right to use the designation GISP (geographic information systems professional) after their names.

While it is not possible to earn an online PhD in Geography, online master's degree programs in GIS are available for prospective graduate students in the field. These programs include advanced courses in subjects such as cartography and data modeling, and students may also have the opportunity to conduct independent research and write a thesis on a topic of interest.

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