How to Get Your First GIS Job, Step-By-Step

May 6, 2021
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Congratulations, you’ve graduated! Up next: finding your first real GIS job. The competition is fierce, the pandemic didn’t help, and you have limited experience – maybe none. So how can you give yourself an edge and snag that first job?

The secret lies in proving to the hiring manager that you have what it takes to succeed – technically, professionally, and personally – and in this article, we’ll walk you step-by-step through the process.

First, bookmark the main GIS job boards:

Perform a search for entry-level positions. The most common entry-level titles are GIS Technician and GIS Analyst, but consider any job that asks for three or fewer years of experience. Now quickly scan the ads, bookmarking the ones for which you have 70% of the requirements – these are the ones for which you will apply. Yes, you read that right: 70%.

It is highly unusual for any job candidate to have every skill listed, and often, what is listed is not actually necessary to do the job! This is particularly true for programming languages, so don’t let a long list of coding skills intimidate you into skipping the application. As Katie Scheurer of Project Spatial explained, most of these job listings are written by HR, NOT the department manager, and the “requirements” may be carried over from other, and older, listings.

And yes, you should apply to ALL of them. Even jobs that aren’t your dream job will have valuable skills for you to learn, give you experience and introduce you to a network of professionals who can vouch for your work, so stay flexible.

Make a list of the requirements for the jobs you chose and go through your resume. Make sure it includes all of the skills required that you actually have. Use a “Related Coursework” section on your resume to demonstrate how you gained those skills if you don’t have any relevant experience.

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Now the important part: Don’t stop there!

Most job seekers will go this far, write a quick cover letter and submit their application, but you haven’t gone nearly far enough to stand out! To do that, you have to take two more steps:

1.     Tailor your resume and cover letter to the things the hiring manager didn’t ask for but definitely wants  - proof that you are a lifelong learner, that you are committed to the profession and the larger geospatial community, and that you have the soft skills for success, like solid communications skills and the ability to work well on a team and independently.

2.     DEMONSTRATE all of these skills, which will require going above and beyond your resume! These are moments when those group projects, sport teams, band and Greek organization experiences show your collaboration skills.

Luckily, these two things can be accomplished through the same set of tasks. Here are the ones you can get on your resume quickly:

  •  For skills you don’t have, sign up for free or low cost online courses. Add those to your resume under “Relevant Coursework.” Make it clear that you are currently enrolled in those classes on your own time. Doing this shows that you will have the skill by the time you get the job or soon after, but more importantly, that you are eager and willing to continue to learn, and that you are self-motivated to do so. (If you don’t have much experience with programming languages, especially Python, make this a priority. This one skill is high in-demand and can help you get a GIS job much faster.)
  • Join professional organizations and get involved. Attend their conferences and meetings, and list those on your resume! Great organizations to join: AAGGITA, and URISA. Consider the Vanguard Cabinet, which also offers a Mentoring Network. Belonging to professional organizations demonstrates your commitment to the profession and will connect you with people who will help with your career, if not now, in the future.
  • Gain experience through volunteering. Look for local groups that may need mapping or GIS assistance and offer your services, or—my favorite option—become a GeoMentor! Other great volunteer opportunities can be found with GIS Corps. Put these volunteer positions on your resume as soon as you get them! You not only gain experience through these opportunities, but you also show your dedication to the larger geospatial community, and prove you love doing the work!
  • Now go the extra mile! The most important and persuasive way to demonstrate your skills is to show a portfolio of your work on a personal website. This website should include a StoryMap resumeAmanda Huber’s is a great example, but there are many others for inspiration!

According to Workfolio, 56% of hiring managers are more impressed by a candidate’s personal website than any other personal branding tool, but only 7% of job seekers actually have a personal website. Having this one tool will help you stand out, so get to work on it!

Make sure your portfolio includes all of the class projects you did that demonstrate your proficiency with the software and skills on your resume and in the job listings. It should also include your volunteer projects, and if there still isn’t enough on the site, create your own projects to add!

At the very least, have a gallery of maps, and “highlight the best-looking maps and projects for interviews. Be prepared to talk about them. Not only does this show your mapping capability, but it also shows that you’re organized and can work independently,” according to the folks over at GIS Geography.

Another great tip, this one from blogger Umar Yusuf, is to upload your portfolio to YouTube, LinkedIn, and your personal social media accounts so you are easily discoverable by recruiters.

Now go back to your traditional resume and add the link to your portfolio/StoryMap resume, and direct links to the projects or experience you listed.

At this point, you’re ready to put together a solid cover letter and apply! But don’t think the effort stops there. A job search usually takes time, and during that time, you should continue to improve your chances of being hired. Consider using this time to:

  • Get certified. The GISP isn’t the only certification out there; Esri’s technical certifications will prove that you have the software skills that nearly all GIS jobs require. These certifications cost money and demonstrate your professional commitment.
  •  Get professional references. Consider a locally respected leader (like a city-level GIS Manager) or a person within the hiring committee’s professional network. How do you get to know these people? Through the organizations you’ve joined, your volunteer projects, and by networking with GIS and geospatial professionals in your local area. Find them on LinkedIn, meet them at local business chamber networking events, or find them through local Esri user groups or Maptime chapters. Take some time to cultivate these relationships and then ask for the reference.
  •  Finally, prepare to showcase your communication skills by acing your interview! Here are some great resources:

The Top 32 GIS Interview Questions to Prepare for Your Next Interview” by the Indeed Editorial Team

Preparing for a GIS Job Interview” by Caitlin Dempsey on GIS Lounge

Now get out there and knock their socks off!

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