What is a Geographer?

Geographers study the earth, its land and systems, and its animal and human inhabitants. While this may sound quite broad, geography itself is a very broad field, encompassing both the natural and social sciences. Geography is generally divided into two subfields - physical and human. Physical geographers study the physical aspects of the surface of the planet, such as landforms, glaciers, atmospheric and hydrological phenomena, and natural hazards, and how they influence populations. Human geographers study human cultures and their political and economic characteristics. Physical and human geographers may work together to study humanity's interactions with the environment.

What Do Geographers Do?

Physical geographers examine physical features of the natural environment or landscape. For example, they may map the locations of glaciers, and study how their meltwaters affect the human communities downstream.

Human geographers analyze human activity and its relationships with the physical environment. Human geographers are further broken down into sub-fields.

  • Cultural geographers examine how various aspects of a particular culture relates to, and has been influenced by, its location.
  • Economic geographers study economic activities. They may research the geography or distribution of resources, supply chains, and how location influences industry.
  • Environmental geographers research how humans impact the environment. They often study climate change, habitat loss, biogeography (the distribution of wild animal populations), or desertification.
  • Medical geographers investigate the distribution of health issues and disease. For example, a medical geographer may map reported incidences of a disease.
  • Political geographers study the relationship between geography and political systems.
  • Regional geographers may study some or all of the above aspects of a particular region, ranging from a neighborhood to a continent.
  • Urban geographers study how geography relates to cities. For example, they may examine how transportation systems or city layouts affect population and health within a city.

Geographers typically gather data from field observations, maps, satellite and air photos, laser scans, and censuses. They then use technologies like geographic information systems (GIS), implementing quantitative and statistical methods, to map, analyze, and understand the data.

GIS is a powerful mapping technology used by geographers to overlay maps and data relating to a particular location, query and analyze their spatial relationships, run statistical analyses, and create new maps illustrating the resulting discoveries. The results are used for planning and policy making. For example, a geographer might overlay data on slope, precipitation, average wind speed, locations of energy grids and other buildings, etc. to find an optimal location for a new wind farm.

Due to the interdisciplinary nature of geography, geographers often work with or advise people in related fields. For example, they may work with legislators, engineers, energy companies and others to site a new energy facility.

Geographers may work under various job titles. For example, geographers and GIS specialists may work as GIS technicians, surveyors, cartographers and photogrammetrists, urban and regional planners, and geoscientists.

Where Does a Geographer Work?

As of 2012, 49 percent of about 1,700 geographers worked within the federal government. GIS specialists often work for state or local government. Many other geographers work for architectural and engineering firms. Geographers may also work as teachers or professors, at any level from kindergarten through to Ph.D. granting institutions. Most teach at colleges, universities, and professional schools.

Most geographers work full time and keep typical business hours. Many geographers do fieldwork to gather data on the environment, or the location of a site slated for development. Some geographers travel to foreign countries and remote destinations.

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What Is a Typical Geographer's Salary?

The median pay for geographers in 2020 was $85,430. At $92,080, the highest paid geographers worked for the federal government. Those in professional, scientific, and technical services earned a median salary of $86,740, while those in educational services earned a median of $63,310.*

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Geographers use their knowledge of the planets physical, biological and urban features to review and assess all kinds of information. Geographers create data sets, which are fundamental in their use through other scientific disciplines throughout the world. While jobs do vary, most geographers will engage in the following tasks:

  • Proficient in a number of peripheral technologies and sub-disciplines, i.e. GIS, cartography, geology, remote sensing, photogrammetry, imagery analysis, urban planning
  • Assess all sources of geographic information in all its varied forms (paper, digital, internet, etc)
  • Create data sets and maps that inform many other scientific disciplines and intelligence agencies
  • Conduct research relating to the various aspects of physical, climatological, and human geography
  • Generate reports
  • Review scientific literature and data in order to stay updated in the field
  • Consult with policy makers and government liaisons to debrief about current geographical issues
  • Be comfortable with temporary, short-notice travel
  • Fluency in another language is always an asset

Second-tier geographers often assume the role of team leader or senior advisor to their workgroup. As such, they may have more managerial responsibilities, such as:

  • Reporting to senior administrators and stakeholders
  • Consulting with all levels of government to designate and inform land use
  • Have a deep grasp of geographic technology spanning back through history
  • Be a thought leader and innovator in today's technology from traditional cartography to GPS
  • Have an astute understanding in foreign affairs
  • Manage and retain contracts from third parties
  • Secure funding
  • Ensure projects are completed on time and within budgetary constraints
  • Mentor junior members of the workgroup
  • Foster a positive and challenging work environment
  • Participate in conferences and networking opportunities

What Is the Job Demand for Geographers?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there will be little to no change in the number of jobs for geographers between 2020 and 2030. Despite the limited growth, the profession should see about 100 job openings each year.*

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What Are Geographer Education Requirements?

While a bachelor's degree may be sufficient for some entry-level jobs in government and nonprofits, these jobs often require GIS training. While one-year educational certificates in GIS are available, these are generally designed to supplement, rather than replace, study in other specialties such as geography, geology, environmental science, and archaeology. Geographers need at least a master's degree for most positions outside of government. Research positions usually require a master's degree or doctorate and several years of related work experience.

Most geography programs offer courses in physical and human geography, statistics, remote sensing, and GIS. A solid background in applied technologies such as GIS, GPS and remote sensing is essential. Specializing in a particular aspect of geography, such as water resources, economic geography, GIS, or urban geography, is also advantageous to workers in this very broad field.

While the profession is expanding, it's still relatively small in size and competition is strong. Gaining experience through internships, part-time jobs, or volunteering is important. Certification for GIS professionals, offered through the GIS Certification Institute, is highly advantageous for prospective GIS specialists, particularly for those without advanced degrees.

Related Degree Options for Geographers

What Kind of Societies and Professional Organizations Do Geographers Have?

  • At over 100 years old, the Association of American Geographers (AAG) (http://www.aag.org/) is the foremost professional association for geographers of all stripes. The organization advocates for geography education and the inclusion of geographers in policymaking, hosts an annual conference, publishes a scholarly journal, and disseminates news through its newsletter. Check the job board, or network through its specialty groups and regional divisions.
  • The American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS) (http://www.asprs.org/) focuses on the applied technologies used by geographers, geologists and others, including remote sensing, GIS, LiDAR scanning, and other tools. The society advances the evolution of these technologies, offers training and professional development, and facilitates peer networking.
  • The Society for Conservation GIS (SCGIS) (https://www.scgis.org/) is an organization for geographers and others who use GIS for their work in environmental conservation. The group offers free webinars, a job board, annual conference, and local involvement through chapters.

*2020 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary figures and job growth projections for geographers reflect national data not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed September 2021.