Last night, I had the pleasure of visiting a group of GIS students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. After talking about some of the projects I have worked on at AE2S, I realized that everyone was really leaning in when I shared my tips for success working in GIS. It became immediately clear to me: it’s one thing to be able to work on projects in school and do well, but it’s another to conceptualize the leap to a real world job.
If I was a student studying GIS right now, here’s what I would make sure to know.
1. A little cartography goes a long way.
Even the coolest data can be obscured by a hard-to-read map. My job is often to make complex results easy to understand, and good cartography is the foundation on which great maps stand. Definitely don’t overlook cartography. Well thought out design pulls people into your maps, so you might as well use your time in school to practice and cut your teeth.
2. Constructively critique maps.
Just through the act of observation, you’ll learn so many things about things that work in maps, and things that don’t. I often look to the masters for inspiration, and modify elements I like and apply them to my own map making. Critiques are pretty fun to do in a group setting too.
3. Learn to code.
4. Get good at learning new things.
Congratulations! You picked a field that is constantly changing. Believe me, that’s a good thing (because it’s hard to get bored). However, this means that you’ll need to stay up to date with the advances to be relevant. Fortunately, you can learn about (and problem solve issues with) new things through Google searches, reading forums, reading documentation, asking your peers, and calling ESRI Support. If you have a problem that you can’t figure out right away, chances are someone else has gone through it. Use the resources around you to learn what you need. It’s never a bad thing to ask for help: it’s actually more efficient than wasting your time spinning your wheels. You’ll know you’ve arrived when you can say, “I’m not sure of the answer, but I know I can figure it out.” The network to find the answers you need is just as valuable (if not more) than the knowledge itself.
5. It’s all about the people.
When working with a variety of coworkers, colleagues, clients, and stakeholders, things like politics and relationships can make all the difference in the world. Which is why it’s important to start networking as soon as you can (if you’re not good at it yet, just do a Google search for tips, as recommended above). I know it can be awkward in the beginning to talk to total strangers, but you’ll get better at it, and you never know where your relationships may lead. Start connecting with professional organizations, mapping groups (like Maptime or more casual social groups), former classmates, professors, and colleagues.
6. Focus on small wins.
I’m pretty lucky to be on the GIS team at AE2S, because we’re a GIS centric company. We have so many top notch tools are our disposal, and the trust of those we work with. But I know sometimes the challenge can be to convince clients/coworkers/officials of the benefits of GIS at the workplace or for a project. The easiest way to do this is to start with something small that is a total slam dunk. This could be something incredibly simple for you as a GIS person, even as simple as making a useful point map, but what it will do is start to build trust in you, and in GIS. Gradually, you’ll get more buy in so you can do even more advanced projects.
7. Become a GISP.
Take a good look at what the GIS Certification Institute outlines for becoming a GIS Professional, or GISP. I went through the process last year, and I think even if you aren’t interested in going after the certification, it serves as an excellent outline for how to be a successful professional. Also, if you choose to apply for the certification, which I recommend, start compiling the needed documentation as you go (it will be much easier than digging everything up). Becoming a GISP opens a lot of doors.
Are you a GIS professional that has more tips to share? Are you a student with more questions? Please comment below to add your thoughts to the conversation!