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Geography Degree Programs and College Majors

Students can choose among bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in geography. Most geography programs are divided into several areas, including physical geography, human geography, geographic techniques and global geography.

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Essential Information

Geography students study the Earth, its features and inhabitants to better understand why things happen in particular places. Many issues facing the world, including food production and consumption, social justice, housing and global trade, are directly related to geographic dimensions. Geography degrees can be earned at the bachelor's, master's, and doctoral levels.


Bachelor's Degree in Geography

Students enrolled in a bachelor's degree program in geography examine the relationship between nature and the environment in different areas of the Earth, learn to read maps, conduct field studies and understand statistical applications. Potential students must have a high school diploma or equivalent and submit an application with ACT or SAT scores and their high school grade point averages. Schools recommend that students take high school or college prep classes in science and mathematics before beginning a baccalaureate program.

Students interested in becoming surveyors should note these positions require certification or licensing. The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (www.ncees.org) provides a licensing test in two parts: the fundamentals of surveying and principles and practice of surveying. Most will take the first part, work for 4 years, then take the second part. States may also require surveyors to pass a written examination prepared by the state's licensing board.

Geography baccalaureate programs cover a wide range of topics, including geographic information science (GIS) and meteorology. Students receive classroom instruction and hands-on learning through experiences in storm chasing, research and broadcasting. Typical coursework includes:

  • Climatology
  • Environmental geography
  • Global geography
  • Remote sensing
  • World political geography

Master's Degree in Geography

With a more flexible curriculum than a baccalaureate program, a master's degree program in geography is tailored to meet each student's specific educational and professional goals. Applicants are expected to submit undergraduate transcripts, letters of recommendation, a letter stating career objectives and Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores. Some programs require students to have a faculty sponsor before admission into the program.

Graduate courses in geography focus on in-depth environmental research studies, including surveying and topography. During the first year of the program, students dig deeper into areas covering Earth science and GIS. The second year allows students to hone in on a specific area of focus, on which they write their thesis or research paper. Students present their thesis to faculty members at least one month prior to graduation, while non-thesis students submit a research paper. Examples of classes include:

  • Landscape ecology
  • Environment and development
  • Microclimatology
  • Geoprocessing
  • Environmental hazards
  • Environmental planning and management

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Ph.D. in Geography

A Ph.D. program in geography focuses on research and advanced training, culminating with a dissertation. Students commonly specialize in a specific area of geographical knowledge, such as biogeography, urban geography, environmental studies or cartography.

Doctoral program applicants must typically have a master's degree - though it can be in any subject including hydrology, geology, environmental science, or others - and submit transcripts, GRE scores and a personal statement. Ph.D. program courses in geography focus on advanced research studies. Students conduct independent research studies under the advisement of a faculty member and must submit an oral and written presentation before graduation. Typical courses include:

  • Climatic variations
  • Plant and animal geography
  • Multimedia cartography
  • Human geography
  • Theory and methods in geography

Popular Career Options

Graduates of a bachelor's degree program can find employment in public, private or non-governmental organizations with titles such as:

  • Environmental planner
  • Surveyor
  • Cartographer

Graduates of a geography Ph.D. program can find employment in public and private sectors. Examples of types of jobs available include:

  • Geography professor
  • Space scientist
  • Environmental scientist
  • Research scientist

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov), the median annual salary for geographers in May 2015 was $74,260. Geography is a small profession; however, with 1,400 jobs in 2014. The projected growth rate is expected to decline 2% for 2014-2024, due to the fact that about half of geographers are employees of the federal government and this is one way to cut spending.

Surveyors had a smaller median wage of $58,020 during the same month, but with 44,300 employed in 2014 and projected job growth is projected to decline 2% from 2014 to 2024, this field may provide more opportunity. In addition, cartographers held about 12,300 jobs in 2014, with job growth expected at 29% through 2024; their median annual pay was $61,880 for 2015.

Bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in geography can be earned by students interested in learning more about the Earth. These programs include both classroom coursework and hands-on training like storm chasing, surveying, and more.

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