Finding job opportunities in the field of geography can be a challenge due to the limited number of positions and the large number of people vying for those roles (BLS, 2020a). To increase your chances of success, it is important to remember that job postings may not always include the term “geographer.” To locate potential opportunities, it is helpful to look beyond just the term “geographer.”
If you’re a student with a major in geography and are curious about the career opportunities available to you, then continue to read. We have also included information about geography itself and some of the famous figures who have obtained degrees in this field.
Geographers possess analytical and research skills that can be applied to a wide range of industries, including law, business, and finance. They enter the workplace to undertake many different types of jobs. There are some sectors of the economy that require very specific geographical skills or knowledge; such as, the use of geo-spatial data and Geographical Information Systems (GIS) (Brace, 2012).
Aside from specific geographic skills, professional geographers in the United States workforce also reported performing general skills. For example, 85.5% of geography graduates working in the government “always or very often” need to exercise teamwork, 80.6% need to use their writing skills, 74.2% need to use their public speaking skills, and 72.1% need to use their creative thinking skills (Solem et al., 2008).
Most entry-level geography jobs only require a bachelor’s degree. Completing an internship can also provide you with the real-world experience that can help make your resume stand out among other job applicants. A master’s or doctorate degree is usually required for top geography jobs.
When it comes to working schedules, most geographers work full time during regular business hours. Depending on their job responsibilities, they might also need to travel to do fieldwork, study a location or region, and gather data. As a result, working in foreign countries and remote places can also be a possibility.
Source: Solem et al., 2008
Geography is the study of places and how people interact with their environment. It studies the impact of locations on human culture and seeks to understand how things came to be, why they are there, how they developed, and how they might change in the future.
Geography is both a physical and social science as it explores the Earth’s surface and the societies that dwell across it. This is why geography majors often attend classes taught with a multidisciplinary approach. They need to understand topics or problems by studying the cultural, economic, and political aspects of different locations around the world.
Most geography programs will allow you to focus on either physical or human geography. In physical geography, you will study the Earth’s atmosphere and climate, its seasons, land formations and bodies of water, and environmental change. Human geography focuses on the distribution of human populations and culture on the Earth’s surface and covers topics such as geopolitics, demographics, transportation, globalization, and cultural and economic geography.
Since geography is a broad field, other specialized courses are also becoming increasingly important for geography majors to study. These include courses on business, real estate, economics, and technology (BLS, 2020a).
The number of jobs held by geographers in the U.S. in 2018 was 1,500. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 3% employment growth for geographers from 2018 to 2028, which can increase the total number of jobs to 1,600. The Federal government employed the most number of geographers in the U.S. (60%), followed by state governments (6%), and architectural, engineering, and related services (5%) (BLS, 2020a).
Among the states, Maryland has the highest employment level for geographers with 280 jobs. It is followed by Texas, Califonia, Virginia, and Colorado with 160, 110, 80, and 70, respectively (BLS, 2020a).
Colleges and universities in the U.S. play host to roughly 60 geography Ph.D. programs, 90 masters programs, and over 200 undergraduate programs (National Geographic, n.d.).
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
When applying for a geography program, you will often need to complete a list of application requirements. These usually include a personal statement or essay, high school transcripts, test scores for standardized tests like the ACT or SAT, and letters of recommendation.
When it comes to the coursework, lower-division (freshmen and sophomores) and higher-division (juniors and seniors) are often standard throughout universities. If you are a freshman, you can expect to attend classes on physical, human, or cultural geography and do lab work, such as creating maps and working with compasses. Once in your junior year, you will attend classes on geographic techniques and methods (Ex. using computers and software for cartography), quantitative geography, and history of geographic thought.
As you progress in your program, you can further fine-tune your studies by choosing specific subjects. You can choose to take a course in cultural or human geography and one regional geography course where you focus on studying a specific region of the world. You can also be required to complete a senior or capstone project, an advanced seminar, and an internship or fieldwork.
There is no one fixed rate for a geography degree. How much you spend will depend on several factors. For example, choosing to study at an in-state, four-year public university will require an annual budget of $26, 590, while an out-of-state, four-year public institution will require $42, 970 (College Board, 2020).
One possible way to lower the cost of getting a geography degree is to search for online programs. Keep in mind though that the cost of an online bachelor’s degree can still vary widely depending on the institution, location, and how fees are structured. Private schools have the most expensive online programs followed by out-of-state tuition at public institutions. In-state tuition at public schools is the most affordable. “The average price for in-state, in-district tuition at a public institution for an online bachelor’s degree is $316 per credit. Tuition prices go up significantly at private online colleges, an average of $495 per credit” (Kerr, 2020).
You can also inquire about scholarships, grants, and financial aid available for geography majors in your prospective school. The College Affordability and Transparency Center is an online fee and financial calculator that provides information on the highest and lowest tuition fees and net costs of universities in the U.S.
You do not need any accreditation to become a geographer. What can help in your career is the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Professional certification. GIS is a framework for collecting, organizing, and managing data. It is rooted in the science of geography and can be used in virtually any sector where the organization needs to analyze spatial location and create data visualization using 3D scenes and maps. GIS is important because it can provide deeper insights into data and reveal patterns, situations, and relationships that could help organizations make informed decisions.
Employers often require GIS proficiency for most positions related to geography degree jobs, so getting a GIS certificate is one way to prove your expertise. Two institutions that offer GIS certification in the U.S. are the GIS Certification Institute and the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing.
The university where you decide to pursue your geography degree can have a huge impact on your studies and future career. There can be different criteria to measure the quality of a geography program. For this list, we introduce top institutions on Shanghai Ranking’s Global Ranking of Academic Subjects 2020 – Geography (ARWU-Field, n.d). The universities included in the ranking have a minimum number of research publications during the period 2014 to 2018.
The University of British Columbia in Canada was established in 1915. It has a student population of approximately 60,000 and a global reputation for excellence in advanced research and learning. Aside from geography, the university also excels in mineral and mining engineering and sports-related subjects.
The University of California, Berkeley (UCB) was founded in 1868 and is the flagship institution of the 10 research universities affiliated with the UCB system. The university consistently ranks among the top five institutions in the U.S. and its faculty, alumni, and researchers include 99 Nobel laureates. 23 Turing Award recipients, and 14 Pulitzer Prize winners.
The Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile was established on June 21, 1888, and is one of the most renowned universities in Latin America. Aside from geography, the university also excels in education and law.
The Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) was founded in 1551. It is the largest university in Latin America and in the world with over 269,000 students. Moreover, it has three Nobel Laureates among its former students, making it the only university in Mexico to have achieved the feat.
The University of Oxford was established around the 11th century and is the oldest university in the English-speaking world. The impact of its research extends from the study of the beginnings of the Universe to the development of early civilizations, climate change, prevention and treatment of major diseases, migration, and aging populations, just to name a few.
The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) was founded in 1895 and is a place of cutting-edge research mostly undertaken from a social science perspective. Apart from geography, LSE also excels in the fields of law, economics, anthropology, psychology, literature, history, philosophy, media, business, and politics.
The University of Cape Town was founded in 1829 and is the oldest institution of higher learning in South Africa. It is also the highest-ranked university in the region. UCT does not only excel in geography. Its programs in commerce, law, and medicine are also consistently ranked among the hundred best globally.
The University of the Witwatersrand was established in 1922 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Wits regularly publishes world-leading research in the fields of humanities, social science, natural science, medical and health science, and engineering.
The National University of Singapore (NUS) was founded in 1905 with the original name of King Edward VII College of Medicine. It is a leading global university that takes a multidisciplinary approach to research, often partnering not only with academia but also industries and government to study and look for solutions to complex issues relevant to Asia and the world.
The University of Tokyo was established in 1877 and is one of Japan’s most prestigious institutions of higher education. The university has produced 17 of the country’s prime ministers, 16 Nobel laureates, three Pritzker Prize laureates, and five astronauts. The university is also one of the few institutions to offer undergraduate programs taught entirely in English.
The Australian National University was established in 1946 in the country’s capital, Canberra. ANU is regarded as one of the world’s leading research and educational institutions and is also known as one of the most selective. It has produced six Nobel laureates and continues to have an excellent record for student graduate employability.
The University of Melbourne was founded in 1853 with just 16 students and four professors. Today, it has around 65,000 students and around 8,000 professional and academic staff. The university has modeled its degree programs after those of top universities abroad. Students are given a year to learn about a wide range of subjects before choosing a major.
Here are the possible geography careers and professional roadmaps that you can take. All salary information is taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics unless otherwise indicated.
Median Salary: $68,900 per year
If you want a job where you can combine your geography skills with design and technology, working as a cartographer and photogrammetrist can be an excellent choice. This field has expanded further and evolved with the subfield of photogrammetry, which uses photography in surveying and mapping for more accurate modeling of the Earth’s surface and its features (BLS, 2018 as cited in Peterson, 2018).
Cartographers and photogrammetrists are responsible for the scientific, artistic, and technological aspects of creating maps. Aside from producing conventional maps, your work will also challenge you to present complex information as visual charts, diagrams, or spreadsheets.
Due to the increasing use of maps in government planning, the job outlook for this occupation is projected to grow by 15% from 2018 to 2028. This figure is much faster than the average for all occupations (BLS, 2020d).
Median Salary: $61,600 per year
As a surveyor, you will advise individual clients or organizations about commercial and residential property. You can work both in the private and public sectors, helping in activities, such as valuing and surveying, managing, purchasing, leasing, or selling of a property.
Your job as a surveyor combines office work and fieldwork. During site visits, you may need to walk long distances and stand long hours in various weather conditions. You also have the option to pursue a real estate career since you can act as the agent or broker during a property sale. You can also act as a contract negotiator between tenants and landlords.
The job outlook for surveyors will grow by 6% from 2018 to 2028. Demand for surveyors will be driven by the need for experts who can certify boundary lines, review sites for construction, and work on resource extraction projects (BLS, 2020g).
Median Salary: $88,150 per year
Conducting actual classroom lessons is not the only responsibility of high school teachers. You will also need to spend time on lesson planning, collaborating with other teachers, and keeping in touch with the parents of your students.
There can be many challenges when you work as a geography high school teacher. Geography faculty members will need to confront contemporary yet in many ways historically persistent issues, including the discipline’s small size relative to cognate fields, the continuing challenges of reforming K–12 teaching and learning, debates over the impact of geographic information technologies, underrepresentation of ethnic minorities in the academic workforce, and sometimes contentious relations between scholars divided by research specialty or epistemology (Solem & Foote, 2004).
You must also keep up with the developments in your field, new resources that can help enhance your lessons, and different teaching methods that could make your teaching more effective.
The job outlook for high school teachers, in general, is projected to grow by 4% from 2018 to 2028. As student enrollment increases, along with the demand for high school teachers (BLS, 2020f).
Median Salary: $60,600 (Salary.com, 2023)
For a quarter of a century, geographical information systems (GIS) have been used to carry out geographical decision-making and problem-solving in business environments. Companies worldwide use GIS to analyze geospatial datasets; whether it be insurance companies analyzing risk or manufacturers trying to better understand interconnected global supply chains (Walshe, 2018).
As a GIS office, your work involves capturing, analyzing, manipulating, and presenting a range of geographical and spatial data. Your data can come from a variety of sources, from cartographic and photographic sources to satellites and tables and spreadsheets. On the GIS platform, you can compare and contrast a range of information, such as positions of streets and buildings, locations of rivers and roads, population distribution, even data on people like their education and income.
Job growth for GIS officers is projected to increase to 15% from 2018 to 2028. With the growing availability of geospatial data, increasing use of apps such as Google Maps, and the increasing number of devices connected to the Internet of Things (IoT) also comes the growing demand for GIS experts (BLS, 2020b).
Median Salary: $83,680 per year
As a geoscientist, your work focuses on studying the physical aspects of the Earth. These include searching for natural resources like petroleum and groundwater or helping environmental scientists protect and preserve the environment.
Geoscientists can also be employed as scientific and technical consultants. Consequently, the largest employers of geoscientists are oil and gas extraction companies, followed by engineering firms.
The employment growth for geoscientists is projected to be about 6% from 2018 to 2028. The growth is brought about by the need for energy, responsible land and resource management, and environmental conservation (BLS, 2020b).
Median Salary: $78,500 per year
If you want a job that has a huge impact on communities, consider working as an urban or regional planner. You will develop programs and land use plans that take into account factors like population growth, and optimal use of spaces not only for cities but also towns and the countryside.
Working as an urban planner can be challenging since you have to balance often conflicting demands of industrial development versus the environment, agriculture, housing, and recreation. You will have to ensure sustainability in your designs and programs and work towards addressing climate change issues. Furthermore, you may need to consider additional training and education, such as project management, in order to meet the demands of the job.
The job outlook for urban and regional planners is projected to grow by 11% from 2018 to 2028. Several factors are contributing to this growth, including demographics, environmental changes, and transportation (BLS, 2020c).
Median Salary:$76,530 per year
Your role as an environmental scientist is to provide advice and assessments on environmental issues and make sure that your client is complying with environmental regulations. You can be employed at a consultancy firm or work as an individual consultant on various private or government projects. This often leads to further advancements in sustainability careers and related fields.
Your work as an environmental consultant may require you to conduct research or specialize on certain issues, depending on the needs of your client. For example, you might need to conduct field surveys and collect information on air or water pollution or contamination levels on a site. You might also need to write reports and present your findings to other scientists, colleagues, sub-contractors, or regulators.
The job outlook for environmental scientists is projected to grow by 8% from 2018 to 2028. With the increasing awareness about environmental issues and how they affect humans, more demand will also be created for environmental scientists (BLS, 2020e).
In 2022, the reported median annual salary of geographers was $85,220. The median salary is computed by arranging the salaries for a certain occupation in descending order then locating the midpoint of that distribution. Half of the salaries are greater than the median and the other half are less than the median. For geographers, the bottom 10% earned less than $52,280, while the top 10% earned over $113,140 (BLS, 2020a).
When it comes to famous people who studied geography, you will probably be surprised that one of them is NBA legend Michael Jordan. He obtained his degree from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill in 1986.
Former United Kingdom prime minister, Theresa May, and Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, also studied geography. Prince William was able to utilize his geography skills when he served as a helicopter pilot in the Royal Air Force.
Other well-known figures who hold a degree in geography include philosopher Immanuel Kant, naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, prolific author and geographer Harm de Blij, the “father of American geography,” William Morris Davis, and The Body Shop founder, environmental campaigner, and human rights activist, Anita Roddick.
Geography jobs that are suitable for you will depend on whether you specialized in human or physical geography, what your interests are, how you imagine your workplace would be, and if you are willing to invest more time, money, and effort in further studies. With big issues like climate change, pollution, renewable energy sources and sustainability, and global demographic shifts, your geography degree will always intersect with current events and can lead you to jobs where you can make a real difference in people’s daily lives.
No matter which type of job you have, the important thing is to secure work experience and establish your professional network. Also, do not just rely on job boards alone. A 2016 study conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Yale University found out that 70% of jobs are found through networking (Burnison, 2020). So, do not forget to keep in touch with your contacts. They might just be able to help you land your dream job in geography even without a cover letter!