Should You Get a Master’s in GIS Now?

by Michele Mattix

In my last article I added some food for thought in the discussion of whether a master’s degree in GIS is worthwhile. Today, I will add to that discussion by considering two recent New York Times articles regarding the value of a master’s degree.

First, The Master’s as the New Bachelor’s, written by Laura Pappano, looks at the reasons behind the proliferation of master’s degree holders. It is now the fastest growing degree with about 2 in 25 people age 25 and over having a master’s degree. That is, according to Pappano, about the same proportion of the population that had a bachelor’s or higher in 1960.

In a job market saturated with college educated applicants, the master’s is certainly a way to differentiate yourself and prove your commitment to your field. But is it worth it financially? In another New Times article called R.O.I., Cecilia Capuzzi Simon investigates the return on investment of getting a master’s degree. She says:

Students will invest, typically, two or more years in advanced study and thousands of dollars in tuition and expenses. A little more than half of students working toward a master’s will borrow an average $31,000, on top of any undergraduate debt they may already have.

Many experts believe that a master’s degree should be looked upon as a long-term investment. If you are under 35 years of age, then you will most likely be able to enjoy the long-term benefits that come with holding the degree: higher salary (on average), promotion to management positions, and greater opportunity in general. As far as borrowing money to pay for the degree, the article says:

The rule of thumb for borrowing, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of finaid.org, is that debt should never exceed starting salary. Ideally, he adds, it should be half that.

Some say that education is the next bubble to burst – that university endowments are down, debts are growing, and the benefits of holding a college degree are not paying off for students. Mark Taylor, professor at Columbia University, says in an opinion piece in the New York Times:

One of the dirty secrets of many research universities is that they treat master’s students as cash cows that fund other activities. To make matters worse, with many faculty members uninterested in teaching, students cannot assume they will get what they are paying for.

There has been a huge increase in the number of GIS master’s programs in the past six years. I remember when I began work at Esri in 2005, there were two master’s programs in the United States – one at the University of Redlands, the other at Penn State. Now a search on GradSchools.com reveals 161 such programs! And that doesn’t include a few programs I happen to know about that have started up in the past year.

Is the increase in the number of master’s programs because there has been an equal increase in the number of GIS jobs? Here’s a trend graph from Indeed.com that shows how the number of job announcements with ‘GIS’ in the title have fallen the past few years after a few years of slow growth:

It appears that the number of GIS master’s programs has grown much faster that the GIS job market over the past five years.

The recession took a major toll on jobs across the board and GIS was no exception. Pursuing higher education has always been viewed as a worthy endeavor during such times. The challenge lies in guessing what the future holds – continued decline in the number of GIS jobs or a return to growth. One option could find you deeply in debt with no job prospects and the possibility of having to change fields. The other would have you hitting the newly expanding job market with master’s degree in hand ready to sort through the offers.

Getting a master’s degree should be a decision you consider carefully. In my next blog article, I will offer some suggestions on what to look for from a GIS master’s program to make sure you get the most bang for your buck.

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Leave A Reply (29 comments So Far)


  1. Micah
    3 years ago

    Love these articles, very timely for me in my career. How long has the Masters in GIS been going at Northwest Missouri State? I know it’s been online for at least five years.


  2. Michele
    3 years ago

    Hi Micah -

    Thank you for the nice words! I looked on Northwest Missouri State’s website and found that: “The first M.S. degree in GIScience and graduate GIScience certificates were awarded spring 2005.” The program was graduating its first group of master’s students in 2005. I suspect there were other such programs in their infancy during that time that have since burst onto the scene.


  3. Phil Davis
    3 years ago

    If one wants to absolutely increase one’s employability, a simple certifcate in programming from a good two year college will provide far better value. Check out indeed.com for veracity.


  4. Andrew
    3 years ago

    The interesting thing about masters degrees (in Australia at least), is that they are considered as a retraining into a similar area of expertise. Unless it is by research, then it is considered as a specialisation or focus of current skills to acquire better understanding a a topic.

    I’ve seen from experience, a person obtaining a higher starting salary in a company than their bachelor holding peers, yet not have the basic skills to perform some intrinsic and obvious functions in a GIS. Experience still counts people. Unless your masters is obtained through research, a masters really only indicates your interest in an area with commitment. Most Masters by course work degrees give you the basic knowledge and skills to be competent in the workforce.

    This may not apply in other fields, but in IT/GIS, I think it is.


  5. 1sys
    3 years ago

    Well, M.S would be important only if one is considering the acedemia. Personally i hold two master’s degrees, but knowing what I know, I would have just went staight into working in the real world and not a graduate school. GIS is a technical field, so experince is key, I believe.


  6. Timothy Smith
    3 years ago

    For me it makes no sense, I have thirty-three years in GIS, experience that no masters can match.


  7. Kathleen
    3 years ago

    It would be interesting to understand how GIS jobs and education have evolved in the past 30 years. For a while I’ve been loosely monitoring job postings and those that require GIS skills are not GIS jobs, but Planner (with GIS skill), or Designer (with GIS skill), for example. Is it becoming such a common skill similar to word processing that in the future there will be no GIS specialists?


    • Michele Mattix
      3 years ago

      Good point Kathleen. I’ve noticed the same thing — there are very few ‘straight’ GIS jobs advertised and those that are typically have a very demanding set of skills and experience expectations. I think the future will see GIS software that is intended for a non-GIS crowd aimed at people who want to add a little mapping or analysis into their computing. I think the ‘hard core’ GIS users will always be there, but the growth in the industry will come from introducing GIS to other professionals who only want to do the occasional mapping task.


  8. Ted
    2 years ago

    Education is really important but we are starting to see more and more young people with large amounts of education and very little actual work experience, in Geomatics you need to make sure you are well balanced in Education & Experience.


    • Michele Mattix
      2 years ago

      Ted -

      Good point. Today we have many academic programs pumping out graduates with a GIS certificate or degree – book smart but maybe not field-ready. It would be great to see more programs that emphasize internships or even just hands-on project experience in lieu of some classroom time.

      Michele


  9. Darin
    2 years ago

    LOVE this discussion! I am the lead instructor of a nine month GIS post-diploma program in Newfoundland, Canada. Our program is designed to be hands-on project intensive.
    Because we are post-diploma, most of our applicants have selected a career path already and are looking to become better at what they do by incorporating GIS into their work flow. They want the ability to conduct high-end spatial analysis on their own data.
    Everything the students do requires meetings, project plans, schema/design, metadata … they collect their own data … they organize and plan their own projects … they conduct their own analysis … and prepare their own results (cartographic or report based). We focus on project driven assignments and labs – with a major GIS project deliverable at course end. We also encourage and arrange industry links and collaborative applied research projects for the students.
    We supply disorganized unprojected data with databases filled with redundancies and anomalies. The students are expected to inventory, clean, and prepare their data for analysis. With clean data, they are empowered to learn the more sophisticated GIS analytical skills (using geodatabases and spatial analysis techniques to their full potential through a thoughtful design of feature datasets, feature classes, subtypes, domains, topology, and relationship classes).
    Employers state that our students are not only more prepared for the GIS duties waiting for them in industry, but they consistently have better project planning skills, problem solving skills, and higher-end GIS knowledge than a majority of the applicants.
    There has to be a healthy balance between theory and practical … but also a healthy appreciation for data collection and delivery. How can they be expected to conduct analysis if they don’t where the data came from and where its going?


    • Michele Mattix
      2 years ago

      Darin -

      Wow! It sounds like a great hands-on program for students with very realistic work-related experience. If your students are all GIS savvy to start, you must not have to spend a lot of time covering basic topics and can instead dive right into projects. I wonder if you set up new ‘dirty’ datasets — each year or if you re-use them from one year to the next. As a fellow instructor, I wonder about the ‘set up’ side of things.

      Thank you for sharing about your program — sounds like a great start for GIS professionals.

      Michele


  10. Gillian Woolmer
    2 years ago

    I have an Advanced Diploma in GIS from COGS in Nova Scotia Canada. It provided me with highly technical GIS training in 9 months. The result was a a small time and thus financial investments and the acquisition of highly technical skills. I had a job within 3 months and my graduating year were all employed in the field within 9 months.

    I highly recommend making smart investments in training and education. I have seen a trend in jobs being towards the more technical and programming end of the GIS spectrum. So if you want a technical GIS career then take a course that provides that technical training from a reputable institution.

    Using GIS as a tool has become so much a part of so many jobs – like being able to use Microsoft Office proficiently – it is now the more highly trained technical GIS experts that are being sought out for the explicit GIS jobs.


    • Michele Mattix
      2 years ago

      Gillian -

      Thank you for sharing your experience with your GIS program and resulting job opportunity. It sounds like it was the right decision for you. Best of luck in your career!

      Michele


  11. Darin
    2 years ago

    Thanks, Michele.

    We start the year with a four day GIS bootcamp. It’s a great way for us to assess where the class strengths and weaknesses are … but it’s also a good way for students to see first hand what they will be exposed to for the next nine months. This gives them the option to step back if necessary.

    I try my best not to reuse data or assignments. Our students have diverse backgrounds, so we try our best to make custom datasets that are relevant and familiar to each student (sometimes creating more than one scenario for a single assignment). The “dirty datasets” usually have projection issues, non-normalized tables, missing or redundant data, topological nightmares (gaps, slivers, overlaps, dangles – all the things they will struggle with for the rest of their lives) :) This forces them to inventory data and make a plan BEFORE they touch ArcGIS. By the end of the nine months, project planning and data inventory are instinctual to them. It becomes habit. A good habit.


  12. Dr. Bob Ryerson
    2 years ago

    There have been some useful and important comments in this thread. One differentiates a research masters (requiring a thesis) from a course or training masters (most common in GIS) from a post-graduate diploma such as at the excellent programs at COGS in Nova Scotia, Collge of the North Atlantic in Newfoundland or Sir Sanford Fleming in Ontario. What do you want to do? That should determine your choice. Not surprisingly, one’s location also helps determine what route to take. One friend owns a company in Montreal and they are having trouble finding qualified people – so there one would do something quick to get the experience and training. The other interesting point made in the discussion is that most of the jobs in GIS are not really in GIS – they are in environmental engineering, or market research or some other field that uses the technology – not the traditional geospatial or GIS companies. My son, for example, uses GIS and learned how in his BSc in Forest Science. GIS is a tool. Purists might argue (and they do) that one should not be able to get a Masters in simply using a “tool.” While I am obviously biased, I would suggest taking a look at our book “Why ‘Where’ Matters” to get a more complete view of what the field really entails – and what the possibilities are. Between Stan and I we have rolled some seventy years of experience into it. Not many people can say that they wrote their first paper on GIS in 1970!


  13. Nolan
    1 year ago

    Hey there.. so here is a concise background of my educational and work experience ;
    1) Bachelors in Geomatic Engineering ( University in the Caribbean)
    2) Advanced Postgraduate Diploma in GIS (University in Canada)
    3) Masters in GIS (University in UK)
    4) At least 3 years doing surveying and GIS work

    With all that I have, it is still very difficult to hold a good job in the GIS field. I am well rounded in all aspects of GIS; from data capture to data analysis (programming) to data management. Sometimes I feel GIS is dead and I shouldn’t have entered the field.


  14. Erik Potter
    1 year ago

    Thanks for the interesting blog. I ran across it when searching for online GIS Masters programs. I have looked at almost all the programs in the US and they range in cost from $500 to $1600 USD per credit hour x 35 hours. So $17k to $65k.

    At 21-years of GIS experience and 3 start-up GIS companies I am trying to decide if need the Masters.


  15. Ashlee
    1 year ago

    First, this was a great post to come across as I sit here at my desk where I work as a receptionist whilst I finish up my BA in Geography w/ an Advanced GIS cert. I was perusing the web for online GIS Masters programs while debating whether it not it would be worth my while in the first place. I can say this, the job prospects are discouraging right now. I check out jobs related to GIS every single day after work, no exaggeration, every day. I will graduate with some education but none of the experience I will need to even get my foot in the door. Especially here in South Florida there is nothing, so I have prepared myself for the possibility of having to move. The program that Darin runs sounds like such a great idea for people in my position and would be amazing if we had more programs centered around this form of what I consider essential training. Many of my peers are in the same boat as myself, we are ultimately about to leave University completely unarmed for the battle of the real professional working world.


    • Michele Mattix
      1 year ago

      Hi Ashlee -

      Thank you for sharing your story here. The job market is a fickle beast – what looks gloomy now may very well turn around soon. Let’s hope it does! If you have any connections to GIS businesses in the area, I would encourage you to take the initiative and see if you can arrange an internship for yourself. Getting hands-on experience is the key.

      Best of luck to you!

      Michele


  16. Ashlee
    1 year ago

    Michele, thanks! A professor of mine was able to connect me with an internship but unfortunately I’m only gaining experience time wise. I have shown the person I’m interning for more than they could possibly ever show me :-/ I’m going to keep on truckin’ though so I at least get the time under my belt. I love all the input on here!


  17. Natalie
    1 year ago

    I’m glad I found a forum about this specific topic that I was searching for. I am practically a new and youthful GIS professional, with only being out of college for about 2 years, with a B.S. in GIS and a minor in Geology.. I have been considering going back to school for a masters in GIS but wondered if it was worth doubling (possibly more) my debt. I went to Texas State University in San Marcos, TX and learned a pinch of Vector and Raster data with suitability modeling but working in the real world with multiple clients and with my employer, they want the ability to conduct high-end spatial analysis with their own data gdb.s, SDK’s or producing python scripts for their own use (similar to what Darin was saying). Since I’ve been out of school, GIS has morphed into an entirely new interface it seems. I’m onto my second job now, and I feel like the GIS job opportunities continue to GROW in large metropolitan cities (e.g. Houston, Denver). But instead of taking the long route, I am considering going back to school for a year or 2 in computer programming, and skipping the masters degree. In my opinion,there’s only so much school can teach you, since GIS is a technical skill, on the job training/ internship, ESRI online courses is more valuable in my personal experience. It’ll continue changing, and by the time you begin to pay your loans (not pay them off), the GIS society and industry will have already begun to change and heading towards a different direction.


    • Michele Mattix
      1 year ago

      Hi Natalie -

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts. The industry does change quickly and skills become stale after 2 or 3 years. GIS professionals must always be updating their skills and learning the technology that’s looming over the horizon. Whether one chooses to do that through an academic program or ‘on your own’ through keeping abreast, going to conferences, and making an effort to stay current is a personal/financial choice.

      Best of luck to you!

      Michele


  18. joel jujuu
    1 year ago

    am in Kenya pursuing a bachelor of education degree in maths and geography. i have majored in geography and want to pursue a masters in G.I.S is it highly promising in terms of job satisfaction and general income?


  19. Amy
    10 months ago

    I am considering a Master’s in GIS but after reading this article I am a little worried about my choice. Fortunately, because my husband is faculty at the university I will be attending, my tuition will be waived. My worry is that once I graduate, I won’t be able to find a job because I have to look locally rather than nationally. I have been researching jobs and salaries and so far there seems to still many opportunities, however I won’t graduate until 2016. Any advice?


    • Michele Mattix
      10 months ago

      Amy -

      Since the cost of obtaining a Master’s degree is not an issue for you, your decision is much easier than for someone contemplating going into debt to get a degree. The job market fluctuates with time and location. Not knowing your location, I’m guessing you are not in a big city or a GIS mecca. I would suggest doing a thorough job search for your area – go out as far as you are willing to commute – and see what’s available now. What jobs are out there in your area? What skills do they require? How much do they pay? Are any of them jobs you would want to have?

      If the answers to these questions leave you with few options, then you will have to take that into consideration when deciding on the MA program. If, on the other hand, there are several appealing jobs, then you can safely assume that situation will be similar to when you graduate.

      GIS is a fun industry and has been growing steadily – albeit in different areas. Programming/development jobs have been in high demand for a number of years and many of these jobs are location-independent. Straight GIS work is not really enough these days to get you a good job with career growth. Another bit of advice would be to specialize in something in demand — programming, web mapping, etc.

      I suppose a last bit of advice would be to ask yourself what your other options are? Is there some other career you are considering? Some people who have worked in GIS for a number of years grow tired of sitting in front of the computer so much. Is this okay with you? Think about your long-term goals and choose your career path accordingly.

      Good luck!


  20. Darryl Sanchez
    7 months ago

    Awesome article. I pursued a degree in Industrial Management & Engineering. I am one semester from completing this degree. I was hired by the federal government as a GIS technician. And now, I am a Realty Specialist using my GIS skill and talents in this position at a GS-11 level at a salary around $64,000. Love my job even though I could be making $350,000 working a a petroleum refinery supervising Petroleum Engineers, Chemical Engineers, Civil Engineers, Computer Engineers and Electrical Engineers. But I think I would be over-stressed trying to manage such high-end assets that I wouldn’t be happy. So here is another factor you should consider. Call it whatever you may.

    In kind Spirit,
    DIGGY


  21. Paul
    6 months ago

    Hi Michele,
    Thank you for these very informative articles. I currently have a post Bachelorette GIS Certificate and 5 years of progressive working experiance in GIS consulting(currrently pursuing my masters). I think pursing a Masters in GIS is an excellent way to become more of a specialist in the geospatial sector. You point out that many more people are using GIS, but in my experiance, it is at a very fundamental level. Most of the work I have been involved with is very technical and fast paced, something a light user of GIS would not be able to understand/handle. Like some of your other readers pointed out, experiance is very important, but taking courses keeps you fresh and learning possibly new skills your job currently does not require. I took a course in open source web mapping and I learned more in that semester then I would have if I taught myself.