HOW TO GET YOUR
FIRST GIS JOB
Yipee!! You did it. You got your GIS degree. Now what? How do you transition from being a student to having a “real” job?
Hey! I’m Rachel, Creator of Geopivot. This is one of our featured Advice Bytes. Read on if you want to make moolah from your mapping skills.
If you were like me, you emerged from school bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I thought I would waltz into the working world by applying to a few GIS jobs online. Then I’d pick between all of my fabulous job offers. We’ll, that didn’t happen. Not even close. It took me 9 months to finally get my first GIS job.
Meanwhile, my student loan grace period ended and I had to start paying back the $80,000 I had borrowed. This sucked because I was broke…so broke that I had to move back home with my parents! I remember the exact amount in my bank account on my first day of work, $52.
I had also looked at entry-level GIS salaries. From what I could tell, I should have started out at ~$45,000. Well, that didn’t happen either. My first salary was only $32,000. Even so, I was overjoyed to finally have a job offer. My confidence had slowly eroded over the many months I had searched. I started to wonder if I’d be doomed to work at Subway. So I said yes, even though it was way less than I expected.
Even though my salary wasn’t huge, it was still something. If I had gotten hired right out of school, I could have earned an additional $24,000 (face-palm). I missed out on tons of money because I didn’t know how to get a job. How much have you lost during your job search? (For a ballpark estimate, multiple the # of weeks by $700).
WHY IS IT SO HARD TO GET A GIS JOB?
MOST SCHOOLS DON’T FOCUS ON GIS CAREERS
My sister got her degree in mechanical engineering. It was super easy for her to find a job. Are you sitting down for this? Recruiters actually came to campus and fought over who would get to hire the latest batch of graduates.
They had job fairs on weekends, apprenticeships, access to cool internships, career coaches, events where graduates spoke about how they got hired and all kinds of stuff I could only dream of.
The reality is most geography departments don’t have much to offer as far as career support. No one really talks about it, like a giant elephant sitting in the room sucking away your savings with it’s trunk. After graduating, you are sent off into the real world with a pat on the back and a “well, good luck, see yah” kind of attitude.
So unless you were a super genius, you probably skipped all the critical stuff you were supposed to be doing as a student to get hired later. You didn’t do an internship. You don’t have a GIS portfolio. You don’t have any references. Your resume probably sucks. Not only do you NOT have a professional network, you probably have no idea how to create one. And the big doozie, you probably don’t even know what kinds of entry-level jobs or career paths are possible. That’s why I made Geopivot. Now you have access to all the support materials you need to succeed in your GIS career. Check out all the ways we can help you here.
LACK OF ENTRY-LEVEL GIS JOBS
I know you’ve seen it if you already started looking for a GIS job. The dreaded “required 2-3 years of experience.” How the heck are you supposed to magically have work experience if no one will hire you? It’s an impossible puzzle to solve.
Want to know a secret I only learned after switching jobs several times? Most job descriptions are totally unrealistic. Yeah, I said it. There’s no way they are going to find someone who will accept an entry-level salary if they have tons of hands-on GIS experience, excellent programming skills, are a master of all things IT and possess the unique ability to work in a team and independently (I hate this one. Come on, who can’t do both of these?)
Here are some things listed on job descriptions that I definitely DID NOT have, but they hired me anyway: the specified years of experience, the degree they wanted (one was a Master’s in Communication), the ability to “create security firewalls and server backups” (I still don’t know how to do this), expertise in writing grant applications and securing millions of dollars in funding; You get the point, right? You need to apply, even if you don’t meet all of the requirements. A good rule of thumb is if you meet > 75% of what they are asking for, go for it!
IT’S NOT WHAT YOU KNOW, BUT WHO YOU KNOW
I’m going to dive in to another taboo topic – WHO you know matters more than you think. Here’s the thing. If a company is going to hire you fresh out of school, they need to spend a ton of money and time to train you. They don’t want to do that unless they think you are a good candidate to invest in.
If they hire you and you turn out to be a lemon, it’s hard for them to get rid of you. They may have to pay for unemployment benefits and risk potential lawsuits. The HR people are paying attention to details you probably didn’t consider. So what do they care about? Minimizing risk.
So how does a company trust someone with essentially zero professional credibility. They rely on three main clues. The first one is based on your past performance. If you were able to make it to school everyday and graduate, they assume you will show up for work too. The second one is proof of future potential. I’ll cover this topic in more detail in another post. The third one is what most newbies overlook. Will someone with credibility vouch for you? This is why you need professional references.
Here are the holy grails of professional references in no particular order: someone who works for a “big-dog” in the industry (a lucky duck that works @ Google, Esri or National Geographic), a locally respected leader (like a city-level GIS Manager) and a person within the hiring committee’s professional network.
So I bet you’re wondering, “How the heck am I supposed to meet people like that? I’ve been sitting in class for 4 years. I don’t know anyone in the industry.” Exactly. This is a problem you need to solve ASAP.
Actually, it’s not as hard as it seems. You just need to show up in places where these types of people hang out and help them with something. (I cover this in an online class if you are interested in more details). So where do they hang out? Industry events like conferences, public meetings and at their desks.
I don’t recommend barging in to people’s offices, so you’re going to have actually attend these events too. If you snoop around a bit online, you’ll find lots of opportunities designed specifically for GIS students and young professionals. I benefited a lot from being a member of URISA’s Vanguard Cabinet. Esri has a bunch of local events you could show up at too.
HOW TO GET HIRED FASTER
Alight, now you know that you aren’t alone in your struggle to get hired and you should be showing up at GIS events. What else can you do to increase your chances of getting a GIS job?
You don’t want to be goofing around applying to jobs you have no chance at getting. You’ll get depressed, waste time and lose money. There’s a better way. Learn more in our class – How to Get a GIS Job.
Most people’s resumes are kinda lame. You want to stand out and knock the socks off the hiring committee. Like they should be talking about it at dinner that night. Learn more in this article – How to Make a Cool GIS Resume.
“OMG! What the crap am I supposed to put in my portfolio? I don’t have any work experience.” I know. Neither did I. I made one anyway. You can too. Learn more in our class How to Make a GIS Portfolio.
So why are the last two so important? One of my mentors nailed it when he said, “How you do one thing is how you do everything. Most people know this instinctually. That’s why you get overlooked for positions if you didn’t do your absolute best to stand out. There are endless resources online about how to do this (including this site). If you can’t be bothered to check them out, you probably will leave lots to be desired as an employee too.