Geography? So are you going to teach? – Part 2

I hope that in Part 1 of this post I successfully communicated a general understanding of geography to you. But you may still be wondering, “Well, what can you do with a degree in geography?” The common first assumption is absolutely correct. You can become a teacher, and the discipline definitely needs more teachers in primary and secondary education. You can also become a college professor to conduct research and teach at a higher level. However, these are only two of many available options. The goal of this post is to explore just a few of them. Geography can take you down exciting paths in business, government, and the nonprofit sector.

One example in private business is found in a place you may least expect: the corporate office of a retail company. Many bigtime companies need GIS analysts to determine the best locations for new stores. “GIS” stands for Geographic Information Systems and includes a number of software programs used to analyze, interpret, and display data via digital maps. Examples of GIS data include average household income of a state, ethnic makeup of a census block, and predominant soil types of a region. Essentially it is any map-able data tied to specific locations on Earth. A variety of statistics can be calculated from datasets that already exist and are usually free and open to the public. A quick internet search reveals that Harley Davidson and the Panda Restaurant Group (you know, Panda Express) are two of many companies looking to hire GIS analysts.

There are also private industry jobs in GIS consulting and data collection. LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) is currently a popular method for collecting data about the earth and requires many skilled workers to produce datasets. LiDAR uses the same principles as radar and sonar. A sensor shoots out millions of lasers and collects information from the return beams, much like a camera recording light or a sonar recording sound. This system is flown in a plane or helicopter over the earth to collect data similar to extremely high resolution aerial photographs. There is a rapidly growing job market for people who can analyze and interpret this kind of data.

All geographers share a focus on problem solving, especially with applications to the real world. This makes geographers particularly adept at many careers within government. Urban planning, utility management, the military, the National Park Service, the Forestry Service, and the Bureau of Land Management all rely on spatial skills. No, not special. Spatial. (Although, they are special, too.) By “spatial skills,” I mean the ability to evaluate problems and solutions from the perspective of how variables relate over space.

For example, a city needs to build a new landfill. That landfill must be positioned a certain distance from water resources, residences, and other factors. A geographer in water resource management may conduct a study to determine the minimal safe distance between a landfill and a water source to avoid contamination. A geographer in the city’s urban planning department may then use a GIS and the study results to map all possible locations for the landfill and choose the best location. Utility companies need GIS technicians to manage databases of locations of water mains, gas pipes, and powerlines throughout the city or county. Geographers also play an important role in land management for public lands like national parks and forests.

Lastly I want to highlight the opportunities for geographers in nonprofit organizations. Geographers develop many skills beyond technical GIS knowledge. The ability to work well both in groups and individually is heavily stressed in geography programs and is key for nonprofit work. Geography is an extremely diverse field, which gives an adaptive edge to geographers. They become quick learners who can perform a variety of roles such as director, manager, analyst, researcher, PR guy/gal, and more. Effective communication skills developed from presenting research and writing grant proposals are expressly desirous for nonprofits that rely on grants and donations. Physical geographers may be especially suited for environmental nonprofits focused on conservation, restoration, and sustainability while human geographers use their global perspective and diversity perspective to thrive in human rights organizations.

All geographers develop qualitative and quantitative analysis skills, which mean they are capable of contributing to a broad range of disciplines in social sciences and hard sciences. Biogeography, geomorphology, climatology, meteorology, political geography, economic geography, and cultural geography are just a few fields under the geography umbrella. To learn more about these disciplines and opportunities, please check out the American Association of Geographers webpage on geography jobs and careers. And guess what, I didn’t even mention the other well-known aspect of geography: Cartography. My next geography post will focus on how cartography combines technology and function with art and design. For now, I hope I have equipped you with a general idea of geography so that you can spare the next geography student you meet that dreaded question: “So are you going to teach?” If you have any questions or comments about geography, please reply to this post!


P.S. This will be my last post for at least a month as I wind down several research projects and prepare to graduate from college. I will also be focusing my “Anyone’s Adventure” scheduled time to edit film from the road trip. Look for new posts and the film this summer! Thank you for your time and interest.

Geography? So are you going to teach? – Part 1

A little over two years ago I fatefully fell into my second geography class. The first geography class was a general education course I took as a freshman because my adviser claimed it was popular among journalism students. That first class opened my eyes to the wide variety of fields that fall under the geography umbrella, but I was firmly entrenched in my romantic dreams of a journalism career. Eventually my desire to enter the mess of modern media eroded. Having no idea what to do, I threw caution to the wind and became an English major because I enjoyed writing and reading. Who needs to actually make money, right? (Just kidding. English majors are often as misperceived Geography majors.)

It turns out English majors are required to take a sequence of science classes, so I picked up the second geography course where I previously left off and immediately knew I was where I truly belonged. Only, I didn’t know geography would require repeatedly explaining that my major is more than memorization of countries and capitals and that it offers many career options besides teaching. For the last two years countless family members, friends, and new acquaintances have asked the same question with the same bewildered and concerned looks on their faces as if picturing me at the front of a class full of brace-faced seventh grade brats or cornered in a classroom by ravenous parents.

And now we’re here. I love all of these people very much, and I greatly appreciate their concern and interest. But it is also frustrating to constantly have to defend my career choice. I didn’t know what geography actually is either before that first class in college, so I want to pass on the torch and explain just how viable and promising the field of geography is. Let the crash course begin!

In order to promote a better understanding of geography on a basic level, I want to ask and answer two simple questions in a two part series: First, what is geography? Later, what can you do with a degree in geography?

What is it?

In the broadest sense, geography is the study of the earth and people, often regarding the interactions between the two. A textbook might tell you that geography looks at these subjects through four lenses: place, space, scale, and time. Again, what does that mean? The easiest way to explain this will likely be through an example of a geographic study.

For place, let’s look at an example relating to physical geography: sinkholes. A geographer studying sinkholes may ask something like, “What are the physical conditions conducive to sinkholes,” or, “What conditions make a place more likely to experience sinkholes?” Some of the characteristics of at-risk places include highly acidic water and soluble geologic layers made of limestone. These physical conditions have to do with place, although abstract concepts like economic power can also apply to place.

Space is a more difficult concept to grasp. It ultimately deals with how places are related (or not related) to each other. Continuing our sinkhole topic, one may ask how sinkholes in Place A have affected its relation to Place B. Have an increased number of sinkholes caused displacement—a migration of people from Place A to a Place B? If so, how has the arrival of these migrants impacted Place B, and how has their absence affected Place A? How have the sinkholes changed the economic relationship of the two places? These questions of space combine aspects of both physical geography and human geography.

Scale is simply the size of the study area and how it relates to larger and smaller study areas. Common scaler terms are “local,” “regional, “national,” and “global.” I will use a new example to explain this: Brexit. A geographer may ask how Brexit will affect the economy of one specific town in the UK, or ask how it will affect the UK’s economy as a whole. They may further look at the affects to the UK’s relationship with France, Germany, and the US. These are all questions of economic and political geographers who fall under a larger category as human geographers.

The last of the four concepts is time. This is important because many geographic studies look at relationships over time. How have things changed, or not changed and why? A geographer looking at Brexit may ask when the path towards Brexit started and how it progressed. They would research public political opinion and policy over the last 5, 10, 20, 30 years to discover patterns leading to the current nationalism rise in the UK. Another example of time is mapping the change in landscape over time with aerial photography and satellite imagery. This kind of geography falls into Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Geographic Information Science (GISc).

I hope that I have successfully summed up what geography is. It is simply the study of the earth, people, and how they interact over place, space, scale, and time. I also introduced three other important ideas that I will cover in Part 2. These relate to what kind of geography that is being done: Physical Geography, Human Geography, and GIS. I hope to explore these in more detail by looking at what careers are out there for a geographer. Please feel free to reply below with any comments and questions!