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GIS Specialist Career Guide

What is a GIS specialist?

If you are analytical, interested in geography, and have great technical skills, you should consider becoming a GIS specialist or geographic information systems specialist. In this role, you can combine your data analysis, programming, and cartography skills.

Expertise in front-end design languages, including HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, is required. Knowledge of mapping tools, like QGIS and Carto, is also necessary. GIS specialists should have exceptional problem-solving skills and impressive attention to detail. If you want to put your technical skills and geographical knowledge to work, a career as a GIS specialist would be an excellent option for you.

Duties and responsibilities

GIS specialists analyze geospatial data using mapping software to design digital geographic maps. They look for patterns and trends while using mapping applications and tools. GIS specialists should be technically sound individuals proficient in database programming languages, such as SQL or Python. They need great written communication skills to write reports and excellent communication skills to present their findings to clients. They are also responsible for explaining technical information to non-technical people. 

The GIS specialist must manage and parse data with mapping software and similar instruments. As a GIS specialist, you will design, develop, and implement these systems. You will also be required to convert and standardize geographic and geospatial data, research and conduct tests on new tools and technology, and complete other required tasks for the GIS specialist position. 

Work environment

A GIS specialist will spend most of their workdays in an office setting. They may spend time in the field as they gather and verify data in the area. They are responsible for developing and implementing systems to store and manage geographic and geospatial data. The majority of time will be spent in front of a computer at a desk.

Typical work hours

The typical hours for this position are standard office hours like 9 AM to 5 PM, Monday through Friday. There may be a random situation where you’ll need to work longer hours to meet a deadline, but it’s pretty rare.

How to become a GIS specialist

In order to become a GIS specialist, you will need a combination of education, training, and experience. In this career guide section, we cover the steps you’ll need to take to achieve your goal:

Step 1: Obtain a bachelor’s degree

Aspiring GIS specialists should have at least a bachelor’s degree. Some employers require a master’s degree, but having at least a bachelor’s degree will allow you to get started and find an entry-level job. Choose a relevant area of study. Some good options include computer science, geography, geoscience, surveying, engineering, or something similar. 

Step 2: Take industry-specific courses

In addition to the coursework you completed in college, some online GIS courses can give you more information about this specific industry. 

  • Take the Introduction to Web Programming for GIS Applications course from Udemy. This gives a great intro to geospatial applications like Leaflet, Turf.js, and PostGIS. It’s suitable for anyone who doesn’t have formal computer science training but wants to understand how web technologies work together.
  • The Web GIS Development Course is another course from Udemy that gives some basic information to help non-programmers understand. Learn to merge different technologies and boost your career options. The course covers everything you need to know, from basic HTML to creating full-blown applications. 
  • Fundamentals of GIS from Coursera is another great introduction option to explore the world of spatial analysis and cartography. It covers the industry-leading software ArcGIS. You’ll be able to practice with subset data and create map books using advanced techniques throughout the different modules of the course. 
  • Continue on your GIS specialization courses with the GIS Data Formats, Design, and Quality courses. It’s the perfect follow-up to the Fundamentals course listed above. There is more in-depth information and instruction on standard data types and structures. Learn to write query strings to subset data and design data tables. 

Step 3: Get certified with industry-relevant certifications

As a GIS specialist, having certifications in relevant software use and geographic data parsing can be beneficial. These certifications will remain largely the same due to the specialized nature of this field. Some of the ideal certificates for a GIS specialist may include the following:

  • Geographic Information Systems Professional (GISP) – A GISP will gain real experience and education on geographic information systems. Although this certification requires two or more years of work experience, it is extremely beneficial to any GIS specialist looking to prove their ability through relevant certificates and training.
  • Geographic Information Services (GIS) Professional – Offered by the GIS Certification Institute, the GIS Professional certification provides proof of expertise and establishes confidence in a GIS specialist. This certification is one of the most recognized GIS specialists.

Step 4: Search for a job

Once you’ve got knowledge in the field and are ready for hands-on experience, you can start applying for jobs. Check the online job boards to find a good fit for you. Recruiters can also be great resources for finding the best job. Once you have a few years of experience, you can work towards promotions.

How much do GIS specialists make?

There are many variables that go into determining how much a GIS specialist makes, from company size to experience to education just to name a few.

The top-paying states for GIS specialists to work in are (shown in annual mean salary):

  • District of Columbia – $104,560
  • California – $91,680
  • Alaska – $89,380
  • New Jersey – $87,200
  • Maryland – $86,190

Browse GIS specialist salary data by market

Types of GIS specialists

GIS specialists are needed in any industry where a study needs to be done, and information needs to be gathered on the location. Developing nations will have a considerable need as large civil engineering projects occur. Each GIS specialist may have a specialty with a specific software program or a specific geography sector, but most have at least some trainings in everything.

Government GIS specialist

Government is one of the largest employers of GIS specialists. There is a need in the security and defense departments for intelligence and analysis. They may also assist with understanding wildlife patterns and habitats.

Cartographers and photogrammetrists

GIS specialists can also work as cartographers and photogrammetrists. Many companies and industries are looking for informative maps. Specialty maps can assist with weather patterns, geological changes, and forest fires. Other companies are looking for maps that can assist with marketing or campaigning. 

Urban planners

Professional urban and regional planners are often GIS specialists. They work on strategies to accommodate people and use data from censuses, environmental studies, and their own information to help communities succeed. Surveyors are another occupation that utilizes GIS software and methods to perform their duties. They create detailed maps and reports that help plan construction projects and landscape updates. 

Top skills for GIS specialists

To become a GIS specialist, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree in computer science, information technology, or another related field. Take courses on programming and become familiar with multiple programming languages. It’s essential to have proficiency with GIS desktop software and data management. 

Detail-oriented and analytical thinkers would make great GIS specialists. You should also be interested in maps and the subject matter you’ll work with daily. The role comes in handy with construction and civil engineering projects, so any additional knowledge you have in these industries will also be beneficial.

Career path

GIS specialists have a few different paths they can take to advance their careers. Knowledge of geographic information systems can help boost career opportunities for other positions in public services, like urban planners or city managers. 

Large companies often have teams of GIS specialists and may require GIS supervisors or coordinators that can manage those teams. That would be another fantastic career path to work towards. 

The field of information technology is continually growing as businesses become more innovative. Organizations across all sectors are becoming more reliant on information technology, meaning GIS specialists will continue to be vital to their success.

According to the industry website, Computer Science Online, mobile technology, data security, and big data will be core components for most organizations’ infrastructure, products, and services. The growth of these factors will increase the number of mobile and web-based applications. GIS specialists will be needed to make this information more accessible and usable for people who are not experts. Also, managing resources, among other causes, will drive the need for GIS specialists in many organizations.

Employment projections for GIS specialists

Due to the increasing use of geospatial data and technology, it’s predicted that employment for GIS specialists will grow 8% between 2020 and 2030. The growing use of geospatial data in industries such as transportation, natural resource management, and emergency management drives the demand for these specialists.

GIS specialist career tips

Soft skills and traits for GIS specialists

Consider doing an internship or volunteer to gain experience and network within the industry and sharpen your skills. Learn as much as possible about the companies you will be applying for. See if you can determine what software they use and what work they do. Build up a portfolio of your work that you can showcase. Try to include at least three examples of projects you’ve worked on.

Commonly required skills and qualifications

Study maps of all types. Choose historical maps and learn about cartographers’ processes before computers would assist. Study current maps and how they’ve changed. Understand the methods and purpose behind each one to broaden your knowledge set. Practice your communication skills. GIS specialists help with many projects and may need to present information to large groups. Consider taking a public speaking course to help build up those skills. 

Develop a professional network

Consider joining a professional network to meet others in the same industry, share best practices, and learn about new technologies and opportunities. Here are a few to explore:

  • GIS Professional Network
  • American Association of Geographers
  • Geospatial Information and Technology Association
  • Urban and Regional Information Systems Association
  • GeoCommunity
  • LinkedIn Groups and Communities

Where the jobs are


  • ESRI
  • Trimble
  • Google
  • Orbital Insight
  • Hexagon


  • North Dakota
  • New York
  • Virginia
  • Pennsylvania
  • District of Columbia

job sites

  • Indeed
  • LinkedIn
  • ZipRecruiter
  • Careerbuilder
  • Monster


What skills are required to become a GIS specialist?

To become a GIS specialist, you’ll need to be detail-oriented, analytical, and passionate about maps and plotting things out on a map. Feeling comfortable and confident with your GIS software experience and some basic programming skills is also essential.

How does a GIS specialist help the government?

The government hires GIS specialists to help with a variety of projects. They are needed to measure weather patterns, how the earth is shifting, how projects could impact different parts of the city, and much more. GIS specialists can help plot the census data and feed the information to officials to help make decisions.

What is the best career path for a GIS specialist?

A GIS specialist can enter many different industries. The government employs more GIS specialists than any other industry, so more advancement opportunities exist. You can help with urban and regional planning and large civil engineering projects. 

Does a GIS specialist make good money?

A GIS specialist has the opportunity to make a good salary. It depends on where you live and what industry you work in. The more education and experience you have, your salary will be higher.

What is the role of a GIS specialist?

GIS specialists are responsible for designing digital maps using the data and information from geographic information systems. The specialist will analyze spatial and non-spatial information and implement proper data management systems.

Is it stressful to be a GIS specialist?

The job of a GIS specialist is low-stress. You may be faced with a few presentations that can be stressful if you aren’t comfortable presenting in front of people, but it will not be a major part of the role.

What schooling do GIS specialists need?

GIS specialists should have a bachelor’s degree in relevant topics like informational technology, geography, engineering, or computer science. There are a few employers that require a master’s degree as well, but the experience can often take the place of an advanced degree. 

Do you need to be good at math to be a GIS specialist?

GIS specialists should have a good knowledge of math and statistics. Math is used in many different aspects of the job, so it’s good to feel comfortable with numbers and continue practicing your math skills.

What are the best skills to learn to be a GIS specialist?

A strong GIS specialist should have basic programming knowledge and strong knowledge of GIS software programs. Good attention to detail and strong analytical skills are essential as well. The desire to continue to learn will also benefit you because technology is constantly changing and evolving, and you’ll want the drive to keep up. 

What is GIS?

GIS stands for geographic information systems. It’s a computer system that captures, stores, and shows different data points on the Earth’s surface. You can see everything from streets to geological patterns. It can help create maps and plot out plans. It’s used in science, government planning, and construction projects.