- Geographers can expect 26 percent employment growth.
- Candidates who hold a master's or Ph.D. degree in a social science will have the best employment prospects and advancement opportunities; some entry-level positions are available to those with a bachelor's degree.
- Despite much faster than average job growth overall, applicants are likely to face competition because the number of qualified candidates is expected to exceed the number of positions available.
Social scientists study all aspects of society—from past events and achievements to human behavior and relationships among groups. Their research provides insights into the different ways individuals, groups, and institutions make decisions, exercise power, and respond to change. They look at data in detail, such as studying the data they've collected, reanalyzing already existing data, analyzing historical records and documents, and interpreting the effect of location on culture and other aspects of society. Through their studies and analyses, social scientists offer insight into the physical, social, and cultural development of humans, as well as the links between human activity and the environment.
Geographers are social scientists who study the earth and its land, features, inhabitants, and phenomena. Most geographers work in one of two main branches of geography: physical and cultural. Physical geographers examine the physical aspects of a region, including its land forms, climates, soils, vegetation, water, plants, and animals. Cultural geographers analyze the spatial implications of human activities within a given area, including its economic activities, social characteristics, and political organization, and are further classified on the basis of their specific focus. For example, economic geographers study the distribution of resources and economic activities. Political geographers are concerned with the relationship of geography to political phenomena. Urban and transportation geographers study cities and metropolitan areas. Regional geographers study the physical, economic, political, and cultural characteristics of regions ranging in size from a congressional district to entire continents. Medical geographers investigate healthcare delivery systems, epidemiology (the study of the causes and control of epidemics), and the effect of the environment on health.
Geographers incorporate many different technologies into their work, such as geographic information systems (GISs), global positioning systems (GPSs), and remote sensing. For example, a geographer may use GIS and GPS to track information on population growth, traffic patterns, environmental hazards, natural resources, and weather patterns, all in digital format. By overlaying remotely sensed aerial or satellite images with GIS data, such as population density, they create computerized maps that can advise governments, businesses, and the general public on a variety of issues, including the impact of natural disasters and the development of houses, roads, and landfills. As more of these systems are created and refined, a good number of mapping specialists are being called geographic information specialists. In addition, many of the people who study geography and work with GIS technology are classified into other occupations, such as surveyors, cartographers, photogrammetrists, and survey and mapping technicians (who develop maps and other location-based information), urban and regional planners (who help to decide on and evaluate the locations of building and roads and other aspects of physical society), and geoscientists (who study earthquakes and other physical aspects of the Earth).
Work environment. Most social scientists have regular hours. Although they work most often as an integral part of a research team, they sometimes work alone, writing reports of their findings. Travel may be necessary to collect information or attend meetings, and those on foreign assignment must adjust to unfamiliar cultures, climates, and languages.
Some social scientists do fieldwork. Geographers may travel to remote areas, live among the people they study, learn their languages, and stay for long periods at the site of their investigations. They may work under rugged conditions, and their work may involve strenuous physical exertion.
Social scientists employed by colleges and universities usually have flexible work schedules, often dividing their time among teaching, research, writing, consulting, and administrative responsibilities. Those who teach in these settings are classified as postsecondary teachers.
Training, Qualifications, and Advancement
The educational attainment of social scientists is among the highest of all occupations, with most positions requiring a master's or Ph.D. degree. Some entry-level positions are available to those with a bachelor's degree. All social scientists need good analytical skills.
Education and training. Graduates with master's degrees in applied specialties usually are qualified for positions outside of colleges and universities, although requirements vary by field. A Ph.D. degree may be required for higher level teaching positions. Bachelor's degree holders have limited opportunities; however, a bachelor's degree does provide a suitable background for many different kinds of entry-level jobs in related occupations, such as research assistant, writer, management trainee, and market analyst.
Training in statistics and mathematics is essential for many social scientists, most of whom increasingly are using mathematical and quantitative research methods. The ability to use computers for research purposes is mandatory in most disciplines. Social scientists also must keep up to date on the latest technological advances that affect their discipline and research. For example, most geographers use GIS technology extensively.
Many social science students also benefit from internships or field experience. Numerous local museums, historical societies, government agencies, and nonprofit and other organizations offer internships or volunteer research opportunities.
Other qualifications. Social scientists need excellent written and oral communication skills to report research findings and to collaborate on research. The ability to think logically and methodically also is essential in analyzing complicated issues. Objectivity, an open mind, and systematic work habits are important in all kinds of social science research.
Certification and advancement. The GIS Certification Institute (GISCI) has voluntary certification programs for geography professionals in GIS. To qualify for professional distinction, individuals must meet education and experience requirements and pass a written examination. The professional recognition these certifications bestow can often help geographers find employment—especially those who do not have a master’s or Ph.D. degree. Workers in these jobs, however, may not be called "geographers," but instead may be referred to by a different title, such as "GIS analyst" or "GIS specialist."
Some social scientists advance to top-level research and administrative positions. Advancement often depends on the number and quality of reports that social scientists publish or their ability to design studies.
Geographers held about 1,300 jobs in 2008. Professional, scientific, and technical services employed 37 percent of all workers. A small amount—about 2 percent—was self-employed.
Overall employment is projected to grow much faster than average for geographers and opportunities will be best for those who have GIS experience or knowledge.
Employment change. Employment of geographers is expected to increase by 26 percent because the Federal Government—the largest employer—is projected to grow faster than in the past. Outside of the Federal Government, geographers will be needed to advise businesses, local municipalities, real estate developers, utilities, and telecommunications firms regarding where to build new roads, buildings, powerplants, and cable lines. Geographers also will be needed to advise about environmental matters, such as where to build a landfill and where to preserve wetland habitats.
Job prospects. In addition to opportunities arising from employment growth, some job openings for social scientists will come from the need to replace those who retire or who leave the occupation for other reasons. Some social scientists leave the occupation to become professors, but competition for tenured teaching positions will be keen.
Overall, people seeking social science positions are likely to face competition for jobs. Candidates who have a master's or Ph.D. degree in a social science, who are skilled in quantitative research methods, and who also have good written and communications skills are likely to have the best job opportunities. In addition, many jobs in policy, research, or marketing, for which social scientists qualify, are not advertised exclusively as social scientist positions.
Geographers with a background in GIS will find numerous job opportunities applying GIS technology in nontraditional areas, such as emergency assistance, where GISs can track the locations of ambulances, police, and fire rescue units and their proximity to the emergency. Workers in these jobs may not be called "geographers," but instead may be referred to by a different title, such as "GIS analyst" or "GIS specialist."
Median annual wages of geographers were $66,600 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $51,390 and $82,590. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $38,780, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $97,540.
In March 2009, the Federal Government’s average annual salary for geographers was $79,223. Beginning salaries were higher in selected areas of the country where the prevailing local pay level was higher.
For More Information
For information about careers in geography, contact:
- Association of American Geographers, 1710 16th St. NW., Washington, DC 20009. Internet: http://www.aag.org
- See also "Geography jobs," online at http://www.bls.gov/opub/ooq/2005/spring/art01.pdf and in the spring 2005 issue of the Occupational Outlook Quarterly.