Choosing a GIS Master’s Program

by Michele Mattix

Online, on campus, or a hybrid?  One year or two? Day classes or night? To continue with my series of articles about getting a master’s in GIS, today I’d like to share with you a few things to consider when selecting a program.

Identify Your Parameters

First, you will need to assess what you are able and willing to do. With so many programs to choose from, identifying your parameters will help you make the first cut.

  • Can you relocate? If you are unable or unwilling to move, then you will have to look for regional programs and/or online programs.
  • Do you want to be a full-time day student? There are programs that require you to be a full-time day student for one or two years. Other programs cater to working professionals and hold classes in the evening. Some online programs allow you to choose when you attend a class.
  • How much are you able to spend and/or borrow? The cost of a master’s in GIS varies tremendously – from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands. Recall the rule of thumb I shared in my last blog article about trying to limit the amount you borrow to half of the annual starting salary you reasonably expect to earn.

Consider the Program

Getting a master’s degree is just as much about the experience as it is the specific skills and knowledge you will learn. Much of getting a good job is about who you know. Keep that in mind when searching for a program. Try to balance the academics with networking and professional exposure. I would look for the following (in no particular order).

  • Networking opportunities. What does the program do to promote networking with faculty, fellow students, and working professionals? Seminars, for example, offer a way to interact with academics and GIS professionals. Working in teams, being assigned a faculty advisor, and other events that put you next to peers and professionals help you expand your professional network.
  • Job recruiting. Some programs bring recruiters from top GIS employers to meet and talk with interested students. Meeting and talking with recruiters will help you assess various companies and job opportunities AND it will give you an inside contact when you’re ready to job hunt.
  • Job Placement Statistics. You are probably getting a master’s in GIS because you want to find a good job in the field (or better the one you may already have). Before you invest a good chunk of money and time in a degree program, ask for information about the current status of past graduates. How many of them found work commensurate with their degree? You want a program that cares about whether or not its graduates procure good jobs and they can show you that they care by producing job placement statistics. Don’t settle for general industry statistics from the Department of Labor – ask about their specific job placement stats. Also, ask for a reference – a graduate you can contact and find out how the program enhanced his or her career.
  • Internships and More. A good GIS master’s program should offer current information about internships, conferences, and volunteer opportunities. They should be prepared to help you apply for internships, get yourself on volunteer lists for conferences, and so on.
  • Up-to-Date Technology. Working with industry software, hardware, and peripheral devices expands your skill set. Is there a dedicated GIS lab? What equipment is in there? What software packages will you work with? How will you be accessing the software? How fast is the connection? Is there a dedicated IT person keeping everything running smoothly? What about field equipment such as mobile GPS units? Some programs have big budgets to purchase up-to-date equipment which means you will get hands-on experience with the technology. That adds a few more skills in your toolbox.
  • Quality of the Students. Are most of the students at least familiar with basic GIS and willing to work hard and get good grades, or are they all newbies who are just sampling the GIS waters? You want to surround yourself with smart, focused, and go-get-‘em type of students. They will become part of your career peer group and network base – their successes will benefit you.
  • Quality of the Instructors. A good teacher will guide you to a solid understanding of the subject at hand. Are the instructors actual professors? Are they renowned in the field? Where do you – as a student of the program — fall on their priority list? Many full-time professors have little time to devote to the duties of teaching. How will professors – who often lack experience beyond academia – assist you in obtaining practical job skills? The programs for which I have taught have a mixture of working professionals and professors teaching the courses. The professors offer the theory while the working professionals bring the hands-on experience dimension. I think having both offers a balanced approach. The students learn both theory and practical application and they get to meet and network with professionals in the field.
  • Diversity of Courses. You should learn a bit of everything GIS. Databases, programming, foundational mapping concepts like coordinate systems, and spatial analysis. The program definitely needs to offer more than ‘desktop GIS’. You should be exposed to enterprise/multi-user GIS, server and/or cloud GIS, and mobile GIS. Esri’s is by far the most popular GIS software in the workplace. You definitely want to get as much experience with it as possible. But don’t limit yourself. You may not ever use a particular application but the process of learning it and how it differs from other programs broadens your understanding of GIS.
  • Supportive Alumni. Do graduates of the program stay in touch and play a part it? Happy graduates do.
  • The Right Fit.  Do you like the program and the people you’ve met in it?  How about the location? Geography matters, don’t you know!?  You will be investing a great deal of your energy in obtaining this degree.  Make sure it’s a scene you want to be a part of.

Special Consideration for Online Programs

  • Is the program accredited? Make sure it is by both the Council for Higher Education and the Department of Education.
  • Does it provide adequate resources and teaching technology? This includes virtual libraries, a provided email account, online lectures, web conferencing, etc.
  • Can you transfer credits? If circumstances change and you want to switch to another program, will you be able to transfer the credits?

So there you have it – my two cents!  What do you think?  Do you have anything you’d like to add to my list?

Update, July, 2015.  Having been on faculty to teach an online master’s in GIS program, I would strongly recommend that you ask to view samples of the online presentations – at least 3 samples from different instructors/classes.  Make sure that the quality of the presentations is up to snuff.  That goes for the actual GIS content (do the instructors know what they’re talking about?) as well as the technical delivery of the actual presentation.  Some universities seem to have no problem charging top dollar for work that should be considered “beta” at best.


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