Geographic Information Systems Specialists


Education and Training Requirements

High School

To prepare for this career while in high school, a college preparatory program is recommended. You will need a strong background in science (chemistry, physics, biology), mathematics (algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus), social studies, and especially computer science (including programming and applications), so take as many of these classes as your school offers. In addition, take history classes, which will teach you about different cultures. English courses will help you develop your research and writing skills. Also, consider taking a foreign language. This may help you fulfill some later college requirements as well as give you exposure to new words and names of places and a sense of other cultures. 

Postsecondary Training

You will need at least a bachelor’s degree in geography, GIS, planning, engineering, or computer science to work as a GIS specialist. More than 800 colleges and universities offer courses, certificates, and degrees in geographic information science. Visit the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science’s Web site, http://ucgis.org/members, for a list of member schools.

GIS specialists must be proficient with GIS software. One of the most popular software programs for GIS specialists is ArcGIS. Some companies also create proprietary software for their specific needs. In this instance, GIS specialists would learn how to use this software after they are hired.


Some colleges—such as Arizona State University, Portland State University, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the University of North Carolina—offer undergraduate and graduate certificate programs in GIS.

Other Education or Training

Many professional associations provide continuing education opportunities for GIS specialists. For example, the Association of American Geographers offers CE classes and workshops at its annual conference. Past workshops included Career Planning for Students and Recent Graduates, Entering the Geography Workforce, Becoming a Certified GIS Professional, GIS: Challenges for Analysis, GIS: Urban Applications, and Professional Networking Strategies. URISA offers a variety of CE opportunities, as well as conferences for GIS specialists in public health, transit, and other areas. The American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing, Association of American Geographers, and ESRI also provide CE opportunities. Contact these organizations for more information.

Certification, Licensing, and Special Requirements

Certification or Licensing

GIS specialists can receive voluntary certification from the GIS Certification Institute. Applicants must have a baccalaureate degree in any field, course work and other documented education in GIS and geospatial data technologies, work experience in a GIS-related position, and participate in conferences or GIS-related events. Applicants who meet all certification requirements may use the designation GIS professional. Certification must be renewed every three years. Certification is also offered by the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing.

Experience, Skills, and Personality Traits

To obtain experience, aspiring GIS specialists should participate in internships, co-ops, volunteer opportunities, and part-time jobs with employers that use GIS technology.

GIS specialists, naturally, must enjoy using computers and keeping up with technology developments that will affect their work, such as new software and new hardware. They should be organized and detail-oriented. Frequently, the projects GIS specialists work on are part of a team effort. These specialists, therefore, should be able to work well with others, meet deadlines, and clearly explain their findings. To keep up with their industry and advance in their jobs, GIS specialists must be committed to lifelong learning. GIS specialists who work in the field must be willing to travel to various sites and be away from home for extended periods of time.