PhD in GIS: Listeners Respond

By Directions Staff

Our December 9th podcast exploring PhDs in geography and GIS included a request to listeners to share their experiences and thoughts on these advanced degrees. Many shared their personal stories and experiences, while others involved in education offered their insights. This roundup may prove valuable to those considering these advanced degrees.

Mirjam Maughan, of EPA Townsville, Australia, is exploring how a PhD might be viewed in state government in that country. The goal of such a degree? "My goal is to move away from being seen as a GIS technician who pushes buttons, to a spatial analyst who can suggest new ideas or methods in someone's project, or lead my own projects: doing something that is 100% my interest."

Adam Spark at Kansas State is mixing and matching his degrees. "I'm a PhD candidate, but not in GIS. Rather I have a graduate certificate of GIS that I've completed along with my PhD; that's a nice complement to my PhD work in Plant Pathology."

David DiBiase, from Penn State University, thinks it will be some time before PhDs really take off. "I think that the emphasis on the vertical differentiation among credentials (e.g. PhD, MS, BS, AS) is less important at this time than the horizontal distinction between academic and professional degrees.

"The fact is that although more than 80% of graduate degrees are professional (practice-oriented) master's degrees, very few professional graduate programs focused on geographic information science and technology are offered. I believe that PhD degrees in GIS&T will remain rare until professional master's degrees in GIS&T take root and prosper within colleges and universities."

Lucia Barbato, from Texas Tech University, shares the story of gaining respect without a PhD. "With a master's degree I'm considered 'non-tenured staff'. ... A lot of people think I have a doctorate, but I quickly correct them. But if I did have a PhD, I believe I would have a lot more respect from other faculty. It has taken a while for my colleagues to recognize that they need to bring us in to help them write the GIS component 'before' they submit a proposal. In the early years some of our colleagues thought of our work as an add-on to their grants and treated us more as add-on 'contractors' and not as 'co-principal investigators' (an important distinction in recognition at a university)."

Independent consultant Grady B. Meehan, Ph.D. has done some work to integrate GIS and business education and thinks a PhD in GIS is a good idea. "I developed a proposal to integrate master's level GIS education with management education. The goal was to produce 'geo-aware' managers who could formulate clear business questions that included a geographic component. ... Furthermore, I also ran this idea by an academic dean (who is a friend) who said if his school tried to teach something called GIS in management, the business school dean would tell him that business management is in his domain. From this, I realized that many integrative, cross-disciplinary programs, (including a business-GIS program), no matter how valuable, would run into university political resistance, requiring much deliberation before being implemented.

"...So, is a PhD in GIS a good idea? Yes, but its time is yet to come in the business world. Some issues must be resolved as GIS develops in the direction that the business world will understand. The business world must see geography/GIS as it does applied statistics, a discipline that offers value to business organizations. Advanced GIS solutions require knowledge of business processes, (spatial) statistics, geographic principles and theory, and how the technology can be applied to provide valued business solutions."

Diana Sinton, director, Spatial Curriculum and Research, University of Redlands, shares her take on current geography PhDs and spatial analysis. "I think you'll find that there are MANY people graduating every year with a geography PhD focusing on 'GIS and GIScience.' The types of institutions that are members of UCGIS - - would have GIS concentrations within their geography programs for sure.

"Also, the growth recognition of 'spatial analysis' as associated with other domains/disciplines has also spawned things like this new program - a PhD in Spatially Integrated Social Sciences at the Univ. of Toledo."

Published Friday, January 9th, 2009

Written by Directions Staff

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