Home / Career Guides / GIS Specialist

GIS Specialist Career Guide

What is a GIS specialist?

A geographic information systems (GIS) specialist is an expert in managing, analyzing, and applying geographical data to solve real-world problems. The role serves as a critical intersection between geography, data science, and domain-specific applications ranging from urban planning and environmental conservation to emergency response and market research. Their work aids in decision-making processes and strategic planning, offering spatial insights that are otherwise not apparent through traditional data analysis methods.

Essentially, they turn raw geographic data into actionable intelligence. Their work adds value by enabling more informed decisions, optimizing resource allocation, and improving the understanding of geographic and environmental factors that influence various phenomena.

Duties and responsibilities

GIS specialists are responsible for gathering, managing, and interpreting geographical information to support a range of projects or initiatives. They use specialized software to input and manipulate data sets, run analyses, and create visual outputs like maps or charts. Depending on the project, they might also engage in fieldwork to collect primary data or work closely with other providers to source secondary data.

The analysis can involve everything from basic mapping to complex spatial and statistical analysis. Their work informs policy, guides research, supports planning, and can even serve as an important tool for public engagement. These specialists often work closely with decision-makers, planners, researchers, and other professionals who require spatially relevant insights.

Work environment

The work environment for GIS specialists can be quite varied depending on the sector and specific job function. They usually spend a good portion of their time in an office setting, working on computers equipped with GIS software. However, some roles may require fieldwork to gather data, meaning they might spend time outdoors or in specific locations relevant to their projects. This could include anything from urban sites to remote wilderness areas. They often collaborate with other professionals like urban planners, environmental scientists, civil engineers, and public policy experts, making effective communication and teamwork important aspects of the job.

Typical work hours

Typically, GIS specialists work standard office hours, usually around 40 hours per week. However, the time commitment can fluctuate based on project deadlines, the need for fieldwork, or other specific job requirements. For example, urgent projects like natural disaster response could require extended hours and rapid turn-around times. In roles where fieldwork is necessary, the work schedule may include travel and periods of more intense on-site work, potentially during evenings or weekends, to collect data within a certain timeframe. Overall, while the job usually adheres to a conventional work schedule, flexibility is often required to meet the dynamic needs of different projects.

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 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

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 professional 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. This certification is one of the most recognized for 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 toward 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.

Highest paying states

  • California – $91,680
  • Alaska – $89,380
  • New Jersey – $87,200
  • Maryland – $86,190
  • District of Columbia – $82,119

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 specialist may have a specialty with a specific software program or a specific geography sector, but most have at least some training in everything.

Government GIS specialist

The 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

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

This section outlines the primary skills and traits needed for career success as a GIS specialist. The following descriptions provide insights into the abilities anyone aspiring to this role should focus on developing.

Technical aptitude

A solid grasp of GIS software like ArcGIS, QGIS, or similar platforms is essential for data collection, mapping, and spatial analysis. Technical aptitude extends beyond software familiarity; it also includes understanding the hardware components like GPS devices and integrating various data formats into a coherent system. This skill allows specialists to efficiently manage and manipulate large data sets, turning raw data into useful geographical representations.

Spatial reasoning

The ability to interpret and analyze spatial data is a critical skill for these professionals. Spatial reasoning involves understanding the relationships between different geographical elements, whether natural features like rivers and mountains or human-made structures like roads and buildings. This skill helps in effectively solving problems related to land use, routing, or resource allocation, among other applications.

Analytical capabilities

They must often analyze complex geographical data to identify patterns, trends, or anomalies. This requires strong analytical skills, as they must discern the most relevant information from vast data sets. Whether assessing environmental impact or evaluating demographic shifts, the insights derived from this analysis are critical for informed decision-making in various sectors.

Effective communication

Translating complex GIS data into easily understandable formats is crucial, especially when collaborating with professionals from other disciplines. Effective communication skills are required to present findings clearly through reports, presentations, or visual formats like maps and graphs. This ensures that the data and subsequent analysis are accessible and actionable for decision-makers who may not have a GIS background.

Project management

GIS projects often involve coordinating with multiple departments or organizations, adhering to deadlines, and staying within budget. Effective project management skills, therefore, are essential for overseeing the successful completion of GIS tasks. From initial planning and data collection to final analysis and presentation, being able to manage a project from start to finish is invaluable.

GIS specialist career path

Choosing a career as a GIS specialist sets you on a path to becoming an expert in spatial analysis and mapping technology. Typically, the journey begins with an entry-level position, such as a GIS technician or GIS analyst. In these roles, you’ll likely be responsible for data collection, basic mapping tasks, and some level of spatial analysis. Acquiring certifications in GIS software like ArcGIS or QGIS can provide a significant edge at this stage.

After gaining practical experience, a move to a GIS specialist or senior GIS analyst position often follows. These roles generally come with more complex responsibilities, including advanced spatial analysis, database management, and even some level of scripting or programming for customized GIS solutions. Collaboration with urban planners, environmental scientists, and other specialists becomes more frequent.

As you gain expertise, you may find opportunities to manage projects or teams, evolving into a GIS manager or project lead. These roles typically involve strategic planning, overseeing multiple projects, and managing junior staff. Strong managerial skills and a deeper understanding of how GIS integrates with broader organizational or governmental objectives will be crucial here.

Further career progression could lead to higher executive roles, such as director of GIS or geospatial services, where you’d be overseeing all GIS-related activities, strategies, and personnel for an organization. Some also transition into specialized consulting roles, focusing on particular industries like environmental conservation, utilities, or even national security.

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. These professionals 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 specialists in many organizations.

Employment projections for GIS specialists

Due to the increasing use of geospatial data and technology, employment for GIS specialists is predicted to grow by 3% through 2032. The growing use of geospatial data in industries such as transportation, natural resource management, and emergency management drives the demand for these professionals.

GIS specialist career tips

Soft skills and traits

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 GIS specialist jobs are

Top companies

  • ESRI
  • Trimble
  • Google
  • Orbital Insight
  • Hexagon

Top states

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

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • LinkedIn
  • ZipRecruiter
  • CareerBuilder


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. They 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 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, the higher your salary will be.

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. They 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 extensive 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.