Preparing for a Spatial Career: Tips for Students

Preparing for a Spatial Career: Tips for Students

This past spring, my colleagues and I reviewed over 170 applications for our fellowship program, Summer of Maps. The applications were truly fantastic and we are overjoyed to now be working with our selected fellows on six very exciting projects.

I often get asked what makes a strong fellowship application? This is an important question, but instead of focusing so narrowly on our program, I thought I’d expand this to tackle the question: how can students prepare themselves for a career in spatial analysis?

I entered the job market not very long ago and, even in a short period of time, positions and desired skill sets have changed drastically. In many ways, the minimum bar for applicants has been raised. But there are a handful of things students can do to distinguish themselves and increase their opportunities in their careers ahead.

Take the Initiative to Expand Your Skills

One of the questions we ask our fellowship applicants is how do you go about acquiring new skills or learning new technologies?  More so than the actual techniques students use (MOOCs, web forums, workshops, educational books, etc), we want to find out if the students have a desire to build their skills beyond the standard curriculum at their university.

Not very long ago, the landscape of tools available was more limited. For reference, in 2008, QGIS had yet to release version 1.0 and web mapping tools ArcGIS Online, CartoDB and Mapbox Tilemill had all yet to be developed. Now, we are privileged to have a plethora of amazing new tools at our disposal, many of them free and open source. Often these come with fantastic guides and resources to help us get started.

So, students, I implore you, even if your academic program did not offer any technical training beyond Esri ArcGIS, take some of your free time to build new skills.  I’d recommend starting with QGIS, CartoDB, GeoDa, Leaflet, Mapbox Studio, and PostGIS. You don’t have to learn them all at once or become an expert. But during your summer break, pick one tool a week and get familiar with something new. This shows employers that you’re comfortable learning new skills independently.

Similarly, explore some data sets beyond what’s included in your homework tutorials or American FactFinder.  Check out a few open data portals and dig into new and interesting data. You never know what you’ll find and you might even come to some uncharted conclusions! I recommend checking out OpenDataPhilly, DataSF, London Datastore,, City of Chicago Data Portal and NYC Open Data. Many of these portals offer data in spatial formats (shp, kmz, geoJSON, etc).

Showcase your Work

Creating an online portfolio of work is my number one recommendation to students.  It is relatively easy to state on a resume what skills you have or courses you’ve taken. But highlighting those skills in a few well designed maps communicates with much more clarity.  These portfolios do not need to be flashy or high-tech, but merely a showcase of your best work.  I’d recommend you include maps (either static or interactive) that highlight the best analysis, visualization and communication skills you can muster.  One tip is to solicit feedback on this content from both technical and nontechnical individuals before publishing to make sure it is easy to understand and visually appealing.  To get started, check out tools, weebly and WordPress to make a basic portfolio website.

Make your work stand out!

Often times, I find that students rely heavily on the step by step instructions of a homework assignment, and the resulting maps are full of default color schemes and layouts.  After a while, even if the content changes, these maps all seem to look the same.  John Nelson detailed numerous cartography tips in his 2014 NACIS talk and subsequent blog posts, but I’d encourage you to pay special attention to tip #3, Defaults are Evil.  Just for fun, peruse some map disasters (and common mistakes to avoid) at Cartastrophe.

Explore unique and appealing layouts (browse the NACIS Atlas of Design for inspiration), pick new color palettes using ColorBrewer or find some inspiration from archival maps. And lastly, make sure the message of your map is clear and concise.

Here are some student map portfolios that are especially impressive: Chris Henrick, Aaron Dennis, and Carolyn Fish.  To the right, you’ll see an interactive map featured in the portfolio of Chris Henrick.

Build a Network

My last suggestion involves engagement with the broader geo community. They are an incredibly collaborative and supportive group, especially with regard to individuals working with open source or open data. The community is comprised of (but not limited to) a robust network of geo meetups, over 70 worldwide maptime chapters, a great GIS stack exchange network (over 30,000 members), energetic OpenStreetMap contributors, numerous high quality conferences and a strong and thoughtful Twitter presence.

I’ve found that nearly everyone I’ve met in this community is supportive, thoughtful and kindhearted.  These are the type of folks that will offer to help solve a problem, contribute to OpenStreetMap for fun or volunteer their GIS skills for disaster relief. Understandably, not everyone has substantial amounts of free time to commit, but a few ways to get started are: join your local geo meetup (like GeoPhilly in Philadelphia), attend (or better yet, teach) a local maptime session, join the twitter conversation, start your own spatial blog or attend the next geo conference (Foss4GNA, NACIS, JS.Geo, LocationTech are all good options). Long story short: be active in the community and  when you ask for help be sure to offer help next time you can.

Final Thoughts

The market for spatial jobs is competitive, especially for those at the entry level.  Take the initiative to build your skills, showcase your work and contribute to the community. These efforts will result in lasting benefits beyond finding a solid career.