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What Geographers Do[About this section] [To Top]

Geographers study the Earth and its land, features, and inhabitants. They also examine phenomena such as political or cultural structures and study the physical and human geographic characteristics of regions ranging in scale from local to global.

Duties of Geographers

Geographers typically do the following:

  • Gather geographic data through field observations, maps, photographs, satellite imagery, and censuses
  • Conduct research, using methods such as surveys, interviews, and focus groups
  • Create and modify maps, graphs, diagrams, or other visual representations of geographic data
  • Analyze the geographic distribution of physical and cultural characteristics and occurrences
  • Use geographic information systems (GIS) to collect, analyze, and display geographic data
  • Write reports and present research findings
  • Assist, advise, or lead others in using GIS and geographic data
  • Combine geographic data with data pertaining to a particular specialty, such as economics, the environment, health, or politics

Geographers use several technologies in their work, such as GIS, remote sensing, and global positioning systems (GPS). Geographers use GIS to find relationships and trends in geographic data. These systems allow geographers to present data visually as maps, reports, and charts. For example, geographers can overlay aerial or satellite images with GIS data, such as population density in a given region, and create computerized maps. They then use the maps to guide governments, businesses, and the general public on a variety of issues, such as developing marketing strategies; planning homes, roads, and landfills; and responding to disasters.

Many people who study geography and who use GIS in their work are employed as surveyors, cartographers and photogrammetrists, surveying and mapping technicians, urban and regional planners, and geoscientists.

The following are examples of types of geographers:

Physical geographers examine the physical aspects of a region and how those aspects relate to humans. They study features of the natural environment, such as landforms, climates, soils, natural hazards, water, and plants. For example, physical geographers may map where a natural resource occurs in a country or study the implications of proposed economic development on the surrounding natural environment.

Human geographers analyze the organization of human activity and its relationships with the physical environment. Human geographers often combine issues from other disciplines into their research, which may include economic, social, or political topics. In their research, some human geographers rely primarily on statistical techniques and others rely on non-statistical sources, such as field observations and interviews.

Human geographers are often further classified by their area of specialty:

  • Cultural geographers examine the relationship between geography and culture, studying how features such as religion, language, and ethnicity relate to location.
  • Economic geographers study economic activities and the distribution of resources. They may research subjects such as regional employment and the location of industries.
  • Environmental geographers research the impact humans have on the environment and how human activities affect natural processes. They combine aspects of both physical and human geography and commonly study issues such as climate change, desertification, and deforestation.
  • Medical geographers investigate the distribution of health issues, healthcare, and disease. For example, a medical geographer may examine the incidence of disease in a certain region.
  • Political geographers study the relationship between geography and political structures and processes.
  • Regional geographers focus on the geographic factors in a particular region that ranges in size from a neighborhood to an entire continent.
  • Urban geographers study cities and metropolitan areas. They may examine how certain geographic factors, such as climate, affect population density in cities.

Geographers often work on projects with people in related fields. For example, economic geographers may work with urban planners, civil engineers, legislators, and real estate professionals to determine the best location for new public transportation infrastructure.

Some people with a geography degree become postsecondary teachers.

Work Environment for Geographers[About this section] [To Top]

Geographers hold about 1,400 jobs. The industries that employ the most geographers are as follows:

Federal government, excluding postal service 58%
Engineering services 10
State and local government, excluding education and hospitals 8
Junior colleges, colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private 8

Many geographers do fieldwork to gather information and data. For example, geographers often make site visits to observe geographic features, such as the landscape and environment. Some geographers travel to the region they are studying, and sometimes that means working in foreign countries and remote locations.

Geographer Work Schedules

Most geographers work full time during standard business hours.

How to Become a Geographer[About this section] [To Top]

Get the education you need: Find schools for Geographers near you!

Geographers need a bachelor’s degree for most entry-level positions and for positions within the federal government. Work experience and a master’s degree are typically required for more advanced positions.

Geographer Education

Geographers with a bachelor’s degree qualify for most entry-level jobs and for positions with the federal government. Geographers outside of the federal government may need a master’s degree in geography or in geographic information systems (GIS). Some positions allow candidates to substitute work experience or GIS proficiency for an advanced degree. Top research positions usually require a Ph.D. or a master’s degree and several years of relevant work experience.

Most geography programs include courses in both physical and human geography, statistics or math, remote sensing, and GIS. In addition, courses in a specialized area of expertise are becoming increasingly important because the geography field is broad and interdisciplinary. For example, business, economics, or real estate courses are becoming increasingly important for geographers working in private industry.

Positions for geography professors require a Ph.D. For more information, see the profile on postsecondary teachers.

Other Experience

Students and new graduates often gain experience through internships. This type of practical experience allows students to develop new skills, explore their interests, and become familiar with the industry. Internships can be useful for jobseekers, because some employers prefer workers who have practical experience.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Although certification is not required, most positions require geographers to be proficient in GIS, and certification can demonstrate a level of professional expertise. The GIS Certification Institute offers the GIS professional (GISP) certification for geographers. Candidates may qualify for certification through a combination of education, professional experience, and contributions to the profession, such as publications or participation in conferences. The American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing also offers certification in GIS. Candidates may qualify for certification with 3 years of experience in GIS, four references, and the completion of a written exam.

Important Qualities for Geographers

Analytical skills. Geographers commonly analyze information and spatial data from a variety of sources, such as maps, photographs, and censuses. They must then be able to draw conclusions from their analyses of different sets of data.

Communication skills. Geographers must be able to communicate with coworkers; present, explain, and defend their research; and work well on teams.

Computer skills. Geographers must be proficient in GIS programming and database management and should be comfortable creating and manipulating digital images in the software.

Critical-thinking skills. Geographers need critical-thinking skills when doing research because they must choose the appropriate data, methods, and scale of analysis for projects. For example, after reviewing a set of population data, they may determine the implications of a particular development plan.

Writing skills. Geographers often write reports or articles detailing their research findings. They also may need to write proposals so that they can receive funding for their research or projects.

Geographer Salaries[About this section] [More salary/earnings info] [To Top]

The median annual wage for geographers is $74,260. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $45,450, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $102,930.

The median annual wages for geographers in the top industries in which they work are as follows:

Federal government, excluding postal service $83,200
State and local government, excluding education and hospitals 61,920
Engineering services 58,800
Junior colleges, colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private 41,160

Many geographers work full time during regular business hours.

Job Outlook for Geographers[About this section] [To Top]

Employment of geographers is projected to decline 2 percent through 2024.

More than half of all geographers are employed in the federal government. Governments and businesses rely on geographers to research topics such as natural hazards, the use of resources, and climate change. However, efforts to cut spending are expected to result in a decline in federal government employment, adversely impacting employment of geographers.

Geographers Job Prospects

Job seekers can expect strong competition for jobs because of the small size of the occupation. Those with master’s degrees, specialized subject matter expertise, and experience working with geographic technologies, such as geographic information systems (GIS), should have the best job prospects. Workers who have used geographic technologies to complete projects and solve problems within their specialized subfields should have better job opportunities.

Many workers with a background in geography find geography-related jobs, but most of these positions do not have the title of geographer. Some of these occupations are surveyors, cartographers and photogrammetrists, surveying and mapping technicians, urban and regional planners, and geoscientists.

Employment projections data for Geographers, 2014-24
Occupational Title Employment, 2014 Projected Employment, 2024 Change, 2014-24
Percent Numeric
Geographers 1,400 1,400 -2 0

*Some content used by permission of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor.

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