Careers in Geography
A question students often ask themselves and their teachers is “What can I do with geography?” This question is not unexpected, because while it is easy to understand getting excited about maps, different cultures and environments, and even being better citizens through geography, it is harder to see how geographic knowledge can lead to good jobs or meaningful careers. However, in recent years people have discovered that large numbers of societal problems have geographic dimensions and that education and training in geography provide essential skills for real-world problem solving. As a result, geography has become a necessary ingredient in hundreds of different jobs.
There will be stories about world hunger, environmental quality, hazardous-waste disposal, crime, urban housing, agricultural productivity, water management, transportation, and the value of land and real estate. All of these key issues have geographic aspects, and who is better equipped to give them attention than geographers, who are broadly trained in relevant subject matter and skills? For example, very little in the modern world can progress without good maps, and knowing how to use maps is one of the geographer’s specialties.
The Variety of Geographic Fields
When you go to college, expect to find a broad range of programs in geography. In fact, geography is now often a part of the core curriculum and can help you fulfill requirements in social science, natural science, international studies, and cultural heritage. At some colleges, geography is a required course.
Most major universities have geography departments with a diverse selection of courses that will provide an excellent background for a wide variety of careers.
Below, you will be introduced to the areas of study within geography that are taught at the college level and to a number of careers or employment categories for which these areas of geographic education and training are good preparation. Some of the jobs listed rely more on a knowledge of geography than others, although for many, you might have to take some nongeography courses that are essential to the field. Geography provides a wide latitude of career opportunities.
If you have a particular career in mind, your college adviser should be able to help you plan an appropriate course of study. The point is that a grounding in geography, especially when coupled with courses in related fields – from the natural or social sciences to the humanities – can be useful in a broad range of careers.
Students in this field study major regions of the world, such as Latin America, Europe, and Asia. They become area experts and come to understand the way of life in particular countries. They often complement their major with courses in a foreign language, anthropology, history, economics, or comparative political systems. Having done so, they bring real expertise and understanding to issues of U.S. foreign policy and to international business.
Area specialists study specific countries or areas of the world. This type of job generally requires a good knowledge of the appropriate language and a thorough understanding of the culture and daily life in the area’s inhabitants. Typically, an area specialist might be employed by a U.S. government agency, such as the State Department or the Central Intelligence Agency, and might be based in Washington, D.C., or in another country.
Area specialists collect information from newspapers, radio broadcasts, television news shows, magazines, government documents, aerial photos, and the reports of intelligence agents.They brief diplomats and State Department officials and provide data used in speeches by the President, Cabinet officers, and other key government officials. Often, information supplied by area specialists is used to help the government set policy or take positions on key issues.
International Business Representative
As our lives become more interdependent globally and the U.S. economy becomes more international, the need for business people with an international perspective increases. Practically every large American corporation does business with at least one foreign nation. In order to generate business, companies need individuals who know about the agriculture and industry of other nations. The success of a labor contract, for instance, may very well be based on a knowledge of another country’s culture. A geographical perspective, combined with language training, often qualifies new graduates to work for American corporations in foreign countries. These kinds of jobs will increase dramatically in the next decade.
Travel agents make travel arrangements for other people. Sometimes that is as simple as preparing an airline ticket. Often, however, travelers want information about foreign places, and that’s where geography becomes important. Travel agents are able to tell travelers what kind of clothes to wear in Europe in April, what sights to see in Tokyo, when the rainy season occurs in Mexico, or what local tours are available in Jamaica. Travel agents also need to be knowledgeable about the unique sights of various destinations and such features as mountains, valleys, and glaciers, as well as potential dangers to travelers.
Environmental problems have become the concern of government officials and citizens alike. Because of catastrophes involving toxic waste, air pollution, and water pollution, great care is now being taken to monitor the delicate balance between nature and the human use of the earth.Much more needs to be done. As a result, hundreds of new jobs have been created in environmental fields.
Environmental studies involves students in course work and research in such fields as biology; geology; chemistry; hazard perception; emergency and disaster planning; and environmental, energy-resource, and waste management. An environmental studies program might include anything from the preparation of an environmental impact statement to the geographic aspects of environmental law to the general principles of forest and wildlife management.
Environmental managers protect and conserve our natural resources. Their jobs involve the management of water; air quality; soil; energy; land reclamation; coastlands; river basins; and solid-, hazardous-, and toxic-waste disposal. Environmental managers work for governments or private industry. Many work for the federal Environmental Protection Agency or state departments of environmental protection, where they ensure adherence to the laws that keep the soil, water, and air clean. Some environmental managers work for land development companies or subdivision planners, where they prepare environmental impact statements describing how various projects would affect the natural environment. To work in this field, it helps to have had courses in biology and chemistry.
Forestry technicians plan for the distribution and care of our forests. Some work for government agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Forest Service, and are responsible for the care and maintenance of thousands of acres of federally owned forestland. Large corporations, such as Weyerhaeuser and Boise-Cascade, also employ forestry technicians to conserve and manage the forests, which provide trees for the lumber and paper industries.
Some colleges offer specific forestry programs, but prospective forestry technicians can also benefit from studying geography, generally with support work in biology. Most forestry technicians learn their skills on the job.
While the main responsibility of a ranger is to enforce the laws designed to protect the environment and make the nation'’ natural beauty and recreational resources available to all citizens, it is also necessary to understand forest and wildlife conservation. The National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and state parks departments employ a great many rangers. Geography majors interested in become park rangers usually complement their geography background with some biology, zoology, wildlife management, and forestry.
The nation’s chemical and nuclear-energy industries have created a need to find safe long-range solutions to the problems of storing hazardous and toxic waste materials. Individuals with training in geography, as well as in such fields as chemical engineering and geology, work to provide regional plans to satisfy this need. Such jobs are available with chemical companies and with large waste-management industries.
Cartography and Geographic Information Systems
Maps are essential. They are used by planners,engineers, utility companies, construction companies, state agencies, surveyors, architects, and ordinary citizens.One of the greatest growth areas is the use of computers to generate maps and store map-related information.
College geography programs provide a good background in the use of maps. Students usually will learn how to make traditional hand-drawn maps, as well as how to use a variety of sophisticated computer graphics systems to create maps. In addition, students will learn how to read and interpret maps so that they can be used effectively.
Cartography is the science (or art) of making maps. Though hand-drawn cartography is still prevalent, traditional drafting is being replaced rapidly by computers and graphics software, which allow maps to be created quickly and accurately. Complex maps are made with sophisticated scanning equipment, while simpler maps can be drawn on a personal computer. Generally, computer mappers begin with a grid, such as the familiar one based on latitude and longitude, to which they add such information as streets, population density, and physical features.
Many cartographers are employed by the U.S. government to make maps for various purposes.The National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) has large cartography operations in St. Louis and Washington, D.C. The Bureau of the Census collects data on the country’s population, maps it, and analyzes it. The U.S. Geological Survey employs people to produce topographical maps, which show terrain and key features.
The private sector also employs cartographers. There are companies whose business it is to make and sell all kinds of maps, from road maps to trail maps. Other industries may have cartographers on staff to produce the maps needed in their line of work. Subdivision maps are required by builders and municipalities. Telephone companies and other utilities also employ mappers.
Geographic Information System Specialist
A geographic information system (GIS) is a computer hardware and software system that is used to store, display, analyze, and map information. Geographers, planners, land developers, real estate agents, utility companies, and municipal officials all use these systems. In fact, modern planning cannot move forward without these systems and those trained to run them. For example, a local government might use a GIS to evaluate alternative locations for roads, landfills, or other facilities. Using the GIS, such topics as population distribution, traffic movement, land availability, real estate prices, environmental hazards, soil types, and flood zones could be analyzed together to help the government make an informed choice.
Jobs are available for those who like to work with computers and understand the importance of information retrieval.
Another important area of mapping is remote sensing. This involves the interpretation of aerial photos and the analysis of satellite images. Virtually all modern maps of large areas are based in part on remote sensing, among them the land-use maps used by the U.S. Geological Survey and the soil maps used by the Department of Agriculture. The Department of Defense, the State Department, and the Central Intelligence Agency employ thousands of people to interpret photos that have been taken by high-flying aircraft or satellites to determine what is going on in other countries. For example, during the Cold War, we learned a lot about crop production, military troop movements, missile launches, and nuclear testing in the former Soviet Union through the work of remote-sensing analysts.
Remote-sensing analysts should have training in geography and earth science and good visual skills.
Everyone has seen survey crews along the highways. Surveyors provide accurate maps and ensure that buildings, roads, sewer and water systems, bridges, and other construction features are located precisely where they should be. They determine the boundaries of building sites, roadways, and the surrounding land. They work outdoors in terrain that is often rough and dangerous.
Many surveyors have college degrees, particularly the crew chief. They usually have to pass a professional exam.
Urban and Regional Planning
Geographers often work as planners to ensure that communities develop in an orderly way, along with the services necessary to support them. Planners must be able to develop building plans for subdivisions and housing projects. They need to understand all the factors that affect the value of land and real estate. Planning is a rapidly expanding field, and geographers are filling a great many jobs.
Planning courses teach students how to prepare master plans that will benefit neighborhoods, communities, cities, and regions. Support courses include material on the geography of population, transportation, social services, utilities, and solid-waste-disposal systems. Other topics include resource planning, land-use planning, and the delivery of municipal services (which involves the planning of police patrol routes, the location of firehouses and emergency medical services, and ways of making school bus routes shorter and more efficient).
Urban and Community Planner
Urban and community planners work to make cities pleasant and attractive places in which to live and work, taking into account zoning, traffic patterns, building density, recreational facilities, and the management of waste materials and water. They try to organize streets and the flow of traffic to avoid congestion. They try to plan for recreation so that everyone will have access to parks and open spaces. Planners work closely with builders to make sure that cities develop within the limits of the master plan. They need lots of geographical information to do all this.
Most planners have bachelor’s or higher degrees, and some have to pass a national exam. Urban and regional planning programs are available at some universities. Often, students take courses in public administration or public finance, as well as geography.
Transportation has become a major problem in every large urban area in the world. Typically, commuters head into the middle of the city in the morning and back to the outskirts at the end of the day. This puts an enormous strain on transportation systems and creates the need for careful planning. Transportation planners try to balance the use of private vehicles with the use of public transportation by developing multimodal systems that utilize cars, buses, commuter trains, subways, and even streetcars and helicopters.
Health Services Planner
Health services planners perform a wide variety of tasks relating to the delivery of health services. For example, they help determine the best location for new hospitals, community health centers, and clinics. Some health services planners work to determine the best garage sites for ambulances or emergency medical service vehicles. Still others help decide in which hospitals vital services should be offered to make service availability as efficient as possible. These planners work closely with doctors and hospital administrators.
Economic geography is concerned with the location and distribution of economic activity. It focuses on the location of industries and retail and wholesale businesses, on transportation and trade, and on the changing value of real estate.
Courses in economic geography may cover such topics as transportation, agriculture, industrial location, world trade, and the spatial organization and function of business activity. Students who have a strong interest in economic geography will be likely to see global interdependence as a focus of their academic programs. In America in Transition: The International Frontier, a recent report of the National Governor’s Association, the following statement was made:
Times have changed. Revolutionary advances in science, technology, communications, and transportation have brought nations and peoples together. World trade, and financial, economic, and political developments have transformed disparate economic systems into a highly interdependent global market place. Today the nations that inhabit the planet are often more closely linked than neighboring states or villages were at the turn of the century.ntury.
One of the most important ways a business or industry can enhance its chances of success is to find a good location. Convenience stores, automobile assembly plants, ice cream parlors, taverns, movie theaters, shopping malls, office complexes, banks – all have a common need to be in the best location. It is the job of the location expert to determine locations in which all types of businesses can be successful. Economic geography provides a good background for this, since geographers know about demographics (the statistical characteristics of populations, such as age and income), transportation, availability of labor, shopping habits, and how cities expand. Location experts are employed by firms that assess location needs for clients. Some large companies employ their own location experts.
Businesses need to know which products will sell, where they will sell best, to whom they will sell, and why. Market researchers provide this information by studying buying habits, regional sales characteristics for certain products, and customer preferences. Their activities include such things as collecting information on where customers live and why they shop at a particular store or on what products and features appeal to which types of customers.If you’ve ever been part of a “consumer survey,” you’ve taken part in market research.
There is a large industry of market research firms employing many people. Marketing departments within companies also conduct market research. Along with courses in economics and geography, a knowledge of statistics and various business disciplines, such as marketing and advertising, is very helpful.
Large companies employ key people to arrange for the shipping of their products. Traffic managers or shippers must select the mode of transportation (usually rail, truck, or air) and arrange for all aspects of the delivery of goods. Sometimes shippers must arrange to export goods to other nations.
Route delivery managers are similar to traffic managers. They must plan very efficient routes for the delivery of goods and services. Imagine how much a large mail-order company like Sears would benefit if it could make its delivery system to customers more efficient by as little as one percent! In an era when fuel and labor costs are high, route delivery management is a crucial skill.
For both these jobs, some business background in addition to economic geography can be helpful.
Real Estate Agent/Broker/Appraiser
Geographers are particularly well equipped to evaluate the price of land or real estate. They are aware of the impact on value of zoning, available municipal services, transportation, environmental features, and potential return on the investment. Geography students planning to work in real estate should supplement their major courses with others in economics, marketing, and finance.
Most real estate professionals need a special license to practice and may have to take special courses in the field to obtain it. Jobs are available in local and national real estate agencies, relocation companies, companies that relocate many of their own employees, appraisal firms, developers, and banks.
Now that more and more geography courses are being offered in high schools and colleges, the need for teachers of geography at all levels has risen dramatically. Most college geography departments offer comprehensive teacher certification programs either in geography or earth science or through a multidisciplinary program often called social studies composite. Courses are geared to state curriculum requirements in geography and earth science and normally include regional geography and a selection of physical science courses, such as climatology, oceanography, geomorphology (landforms), and environmental geography. In addition, those planning to be teachers might take courses in economic geography, natural resources, urban geography, and teaching methods. For those who wish to teach geography in a junior college, college, or university, graduate-level study is a necessity.
While teaching is not the highest-paid profession, there are numerous benefits, including time off for travel or professional development and the understanding that you are making a real difference in the lives of young people.
Elementary/Secondary School Teacher
A great many new teachers will be needed in the next ten to fifteen years to teach geography, at both the elementary and high school levels. For elementary school teachers, geography is just one component of what is taught; for secondary school teachers, geography may be taught by itself or as part of a larger social studies curriculum. Teaching geography at these early levels is very important, because it is here that students gain a basic understanding of the world and their place in it.
As the number of geography courses in high schools expands, more and more students pursue geography in college, perhaps majoring or minoring in it. This keeps college geography departments busy, and these departments employ a number of geography professors. Professors have as many specialties as there are disciplines within geography. They teach courses – from introductory courses for freshmen to advanced seminars on a specialized subject for upperclass and graduate students – and conduct research.
To be a college professor, you definitely need a graduate degree, usually a Ph.D.
There are lots of teaching jobs in foreign countries. In places where large numbers of American military personnel or businesspeople are based, there are also American children needing teachers at all grade levels. The Department of Defense maintains English-language schools in such places as Germany, Greece, the United Kingdom, Guam, South Korea, and Japan. As U.S. business becomes more international, large corporations are finding that they must offer educational opportunities to the dependents of employees working in foreign nations. There are also independent American schools in many large cities the world over.
Overseas teaching jobs may pay a little bit more than a comparable job in the United States, but what you need to take into account is the relationship of salary to cost of living in a particular country. The benefit you will always receive from teaching overseas, of course, is the opportunity for travel and cultural exploration.
Geography has a strong link to the natural sciences through physical geography and earth science. Courses that may be offered in these fields include climatology, meteorology, oceanography, geomorphology (landforms), soils, biogeography (distribution and ecology of plants), zoogeography (distribution and ecology of animals), and natural resources. Courses in physical geography are important because they deal with earth processes that concern the human use of the earth. For instance, agriculture is dependent upon such physical processes as climate, weather, and the formation and erosion of soils.
Those with a good background in physical geography are well prepared to deal with problems of air pollution, water pollution, and the management and disposal of solid, toxic, and hazardous wastes. Physical geographers also study the impact of such natural hazards as hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes.
Weather forecasting begins with a good understanding of climate, wind systems, and ocean currents. Forecasters must be familiar with local conditions and with weather events throughout the country. They study, predict, and report on everything from daily weather conditions to such dangerous phenomena as tornadoes and wind shear (updrafts and downdrafts of special importance to pilots). In addition to working for television and radio stations, weather forecasters work for the government and for large agribusiness corporations. In addition to their background in geography, they should have studied earth science, physics, and some chemistry.
Many physical geographers work as outdoor guides. Their educational background makes them ideally suited for this work, since they have studied all aspects of the physical environment and have usually taken related courses in biology, zoology, and environmental management. Outdoor guides must know about wildlife, landforms, climates, soils, natural vegetation, and the ways in which creatures are adapted to life in their specific habitats. Some outdoor guides lead canoe trips; others take people hiking, horseback riding in the mountains, fishing, or hunting. Many outdoor guides work on big-game ranches, whose numbers are expanding rapidly, particularly in Texas and California.
Coastal Zone Manager
The zone where land and ocean meet is critical for both humans and wildlife. Such environmentally sensitive areas as marshlands, bays, and river mouths have to adjust to the onslaughts of cities, ports, industries, roads, and thousands of pleasure-seeking tourists. Geographers can make a major contribution by helping to plan and manage the coastal zone. The job of the coastal zone manager often dovetails with the work of the oceanographer in their mutual concern for the continental shelf (the gently sloping submarine plain that borders the continent), particularly when faced with such man-made disasters as oil spills.
Soil Conservationist/Agricultural Extension Agent
Rural communities are very aware of the work of the county extension agent. Farmers rely on the agent to provide information on soil conditions, slope of land, and any problems that might threaten crops or livestock. Soil conservation agents help farmers prepare a plan to preserve their precious soil resources. This may include the use of air photos showing slope and drainage and of contour maps that will guide the farmer’s plow. For these jobs, you will need to have studied agriculture or soil science.
Hydrologists study sources of water and prepare plans for the wise long-term use of this critical resource. In the drier areas of the United States, the availability of water is crucial for agriculture, municipal uses, and recreation. Some of this water comes from surface sources, such as rivers and lakes, but some comes from underground aquifers (water-bearing rock strata). Even where water is not scarce, problems with groundwater contamination and flooding require the expertise of hydrologists. Hydrologists may be employed by governments at any level or in the private sector.
Cultural and Human Geography
This concentration focuses on the aspects of geography that relate to different cultures, with an emphasis on cultural origins and movement and the cultural characteristics of regions (e.g., language, religion, ethnicity, politics, historical development, agricultural methods, settlement patterns, and quality of life). Cultural ecology – the ways in which humans have interacted with their cultural and natural environment at various times – is also included. There is a strong relationship between cultural geography, anthropology, and archaeology.
Cultural geographers often try to reconstruct past environments, and to do so they must be equally skilled in library research, field observation, and the interpretation of cultural artifacts. Historical geographers are interested in recreating the geography of past times. In doing this, they work closely with historians and archivists, contributing must to the understanding of present-day geography.
Courses in this area include historical geography, cultural geography, cultural ecology, human geography, human use of the earth, and humanity and nature. Many cultural and human geographers are area specialists as well, which means that they focus their attention on a specific region, such as Latin America, Europe, or Asia. Because they often carry out field observation in other countries, they will usually need good foreign-language backgrounds.
Peace Corps Volunteer
The United States continues to send volunteers to foreign nations to help them develop their human and natural resources. The pay is low, but the opportunity to provide a valuable service to humankind is unparalleled. Hundreds of geographers have served in the Peace Corps, and geography training is an excellent preparation for volunteers. Language training is necessary, as in knowledge of the host country’s history, economic and opolitical systems, and educational and social background.
Many communities have drawn up plans for the redevelopment of their town centers, often with federal assistance. These areas are being rebuilt with an eye to history: research into the earlier nature of the downtown area is carried out, and that architectural and economic information is then woven into the development plan. Redevelopment programs, among them a very promising one called Main Street, U.S.A., use the expertise of geographers, historians, politicians, economists, and businesspeople.
Maps are, of course, valuable in everyday life, but they also have considerable historical significance and can tell us a lot about the geography of the past. Large numbers of maps are produced by the government, and these are sent to document depositories in major libraries. Map librarians work with maps in the same way that librarians do books.They describe, classify, and catalog maps available for use by scholars and the general public. Most large public libraries and many major universities employ map librarians.
The material presented on this Web page was taken from Careers in Geography by Richard G. Boehn.