If “Spreadsheeting” Isn’t a University Major, Then Why Is GIS a Major?

by Brian Timoney

The Excel spreadsheet is the world’s most popular way to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage, and visualize data.  Yet I’m unaware of an accredited institution offering a four-year Bachelor’s degree in Spreadsheeting.  Yet replace “data” with “geographic data” in the previous sentence, and suddenly everything is different?  Why is that?


Variation on a Theme

In a previous post, I described how the GIS industry’s insistent self-definition imposes significant hidden costs on organizations where anything spatial is silo-ed of from mainstream IT. More importantly, it limits the career horizons of its practitioners (except advanced programmers) with a disparate set of skills not readily acknowledged nor as financially rewarded in other sectors of the information economy. While the theme of self-definition resonated with some, others were more dismissive of this latest round of bloggy navel-gazing.  But semantics do matter: from job descriptions to salary requirements, language frames our place in the professional world.

But just as incumbent vendors have a vested interest in the “GIS” acronym, so too do the colleges and universities marketing their GIS curricula too often strewn with glorified software training and ossified best-practices packaged as education.

And their customers are the least equipped to judge the quality of goods on offer…


A GIS Major Will Get You an OK First Job

…but a GIS Minor Will Get You a Better Second Job

In the post-9/11 geospatial boom, entry-level GIS jobs were especially plentiful and being a GIS Major was an easy ticket to such a job.  And thankfully we still live in a world where being young, carefree, and pulling low 30s money can be a happy life indeed.  But when looking to take the next step in tackling bigger analytic challenges with a concomitant boost in salary, there are precious few non-programming opportunities to climb out of the GIS Analyst salt mines.  No, you want to have a body of specialized, domain-specific knowledge that is supplemented and enhanced by GIS know-how: let’s not confuse the yeast for the bread.

(Domain Experience + GIS)   >   (GIS + domain experience)

Domain knowledge–detailed knowledge plus experience–is the best insurance of employ-ability over a career that will be rife with technological change.  Leavening domain expertise with geospatial know-how with GIS skills–manipulating spatial data, performing analysis, and creating sound cartographic representations–is a huge value-add.

But don’t confuse the means with the end:  your domain knowledge is the end, your GIS skills just a valuable means to that end.

“So…What Should I Major In?”

The wonderful thing about the geographic sensibility is that it’s never been more needed than right now to address any number of “real world” problems.  A couple of months ago a colleague asked me about going back to school for a GIS Certificate.  I told her she’d be much better served by a studying Urban Storm-water Runoff and supplementing that know-how with a mix of in-person and online geospatial courses.

That joke was funnier before Hurricane Sandy.

But think about it: from urban impervious surfaces to coastal dune restoration, our world doesn’t lack for challenges.  Pick a challenge that gets you excited and deep-dive on the technical detail.  With the ubiquity of the web, there is no worry of being too niche:  Google, LinkedIn, etc. guarantee that even with the most eclectic subspecialty, the three-dozen people equally as interested can find you with a few keystrokes.



“Simultaneously Trivializing and Complicating GIS”

That is how long-time educator Joseph Berry recently summed up the state of GIS education.  Berry’s primary concern is that the analytic power of GIS has been eclipsed by the tools of GIS: spinning globes, ever-smaller GPS units, and, of course, The Cloud.  Berry proposes what he calls “Spatial STEM” (see–language matters), where geographic reason and spatial quantitative methods inform and broaden problem-solving approaches in engineering, mathematics, and statistics. Again, another implicit acknowledgement that the parochial self-definition of GIS hampers its own widespread adoption.


Your Transcript is Not Your Destiny

One of the wonderful aspects of the mapping industry is that it attracts a broad range of eclectic minds. Some of the brightest lights have university backgrounds in art, music, history, mathematics, etc.  With a broad curiosity and an ability to focus, you’d be amazed how rapidly one can adopt and master tools.  Does this render GIS coursework less useful?  Of course not.  But while GIS as an end-in-itself may help you land that first job, your career trajectory is best powered by a large passion to solve a difficult problem.  And as recent events on the East Coast have reminded us, some of society’s most daunting challenges will demand a geographical rigor and an analytical insight that goes well beyond mere tool proficiency.


—Brian Timoney



* colored keys photo courtesy of  Theen …’s Flickr stream
* stairwell photo courtesy of the seir+seir Flickr stream
* post-Sanday Rockaways photo courtesy of the  SpecialKRB Flickr stream