Hello, I'm a Geonaut?

June 21, 2023

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Teacher. Architect. My siblings’ degrees were directly tied to jobs. Nice, single word nouns of employment. Publicly understood professions with known prospects. I mean, there are schools and buildings all around. The closest I got to picking a known career path was my brief childhood stint stating that I wanted to be a marine biologist. I was in central Missouri, hadn’t been to the ocean, and was squeamish taking a fish off the hook, but it sounded cool and different and that was enough. (I also adopted a whale named Half Moon via a mail-in packet – clearly, I was committed to the cause.) Well, marine biology didn’t stick. I eventually found my way to (and found my way in) geography and geographic information science.

I refer to myself as a geographer and cartographer. They are solid terms. Even if the only association people have is with National Geographic and explorers charting and photographing unknown lands, that’s all right. I don’t hate it if someone walks away thinking (entirely of their own accord) that I’m more interesting and well-traveled than I actually am. The term, geographer, is convenient for me because my training is the product of a geography department. I’m also self-employed and don’t have to align myself with the market’s moving target of job titles and subject matter buzzwords — a task I am relieved to avoid. (I’m empathetic to those who tackle it).

While geography is the foundation of our geospatial field, roles named “geographer” haven’t grown in step with the numerous positions this community fills and roles it performs. Not long ago I had a chatty Uber driver who asked what I do (a classic conversation starter in DC). I said I was a geographer and she responded, “I’ve never met a geographer.” I thought, of course you have; you just didn’t know it. They didn’t identify themselves as geographers because few are employed, acknowledged, or referred to as geographers. And maybe geographer isn’t a go-to identity for many in the geospatial field, having arrived from various educations, experience, and training. Or maybe people intentionally move away from it given its misperceptions or dated associations?


Job Titles vs. Career Identities

You can still find some jobs with the title of geographer. Granted, they are almost entirely within federal agencies, the armed forces, or contractors serving government customers. (In this instance it’s nice that the government is slow to change its ways, right?) Some additional geographer positions can be found in academia, but broader job searching reveals that geography/geographer has become more of a keyword than a job title. It is associated with positions otherwise named.

It is interesting to think about a job title versus your career identity. For some fields, it’s redundant, like for my brother (“I’m an architect; I work as an architect) or my sister (“I’m a teacher; I work as a teacher”). (She’s a vice principal now, but for the purposes of this article I’m referencing her previous role – I apologize for momentarily demoting you, Nikki!) In our field, redundancy is rare. I see many geographers (based on their education, previous experience, and their own descriptions) whose named roles range from sustainability specialist to business project manager, geomatics engineer to location capability director. Perhaps this isn’t just a geography issue. Perhaps it’s one that many fields encounter with the current job landscape, new organizational structures, and push for modernized, tech-sector titles. But it hides the connection between the discipline’s roots and the performed job.

A Geographer by any Other Name

One of the skills we specifically teach geography students is how to spot employment opportunities, since their identity as geography majors/geographers may not align with job listings. We highlight key words and varying titles to find jobs in geography that are often not advertised as geography jobs. We create resources to connect the discipline to the positions available under their host of names (scroll to the AAG’s "Relationships between fields and careers" section for an example). For a positive spin, you could say geography is the best kept secret in the job market, since it is mentioned so little but the skills are crucial in so many roles. I might be trying too hard for a bright side there. I think this secret is more of a challenge than a charm. As if job searches weren’t difficult enough, geography students must search for these hidden fits.

This identity crisis is a learned behavior for students even before they graduate, as their department and degree program names continue to change around them. Institutions seek to ride the wave, find the trend, and grab on to the term to remain relevant. Geography often doesn’t seem to be that term. One of my degrees is in “geospatial and environmental analysis.” It feels like a Pokémon “gotta catch ‘em all” approach to encompass all possible study and research angles with geospatial technology.

Do We Need a Noun?

Versatility and widespread applicability are core strengths of, and benefits to, being in our field – you aren’t stuck in one realm of work. But that same advantage presents a big challenge in terms of our collective identity. Because of the breadth of what we do, our field is beyond easy, consistent definition or encapsulation. Despite the volume and expanse of our work, the field isn’t very visible to those outside the know. Working under so many names, organizations, topics, fields, and missions, many people don’t recognize all of us as being colleagues under the same career umbrella.

If we were to name our shared profession under one term, one noun – what would it be? Is there such a word? Do we need one?

I did what most of us do when we have a question. I asked the internet. More specifically, I asked my LinkedIn network. What do you call yourselves? Not your job, certification, or degree program title, but your overarching profession? What is your career identity in a noun nutshell?

There were many interesting, often humorous responses (we’re quite the light-hearted bunch!) including “geographer,” but also “geonerd,” “locationist,” “geomate,” “GPSer/GISer,” and a new favorite, “geonaut.” The Institution of Geospatial and Remote Sensing Malaysia introduced the title of “geospatialist” in 2016 as a designation for certain member cohorts.  Do any of these resonate with you? What do you use? Is it a fool’s errand to even suggest we could agree upon and unite under one word? It’s probably an unnecessary (and impossible?) endeavor, but sometimes, I feel like it would be nice to have one term we could share to appear more cohesive, to advertise our commonalties of craft, and to help others tie us all together in their understanding of our field.

Maybe We’re an Adjective.

As generalists — as adaptable, widely-skilled people that can work with any “where” — maybe nouns aren’t for us. Maybe we are a quality. Maybe we are an adjective. Maybe we are simply geospatial.

Or maybe I’m thinking too hard on this and just want a faster way to find my spatially-minded colleagues in a crowd. Maybe others don’t find this career title issue to be a conundrum because they are too busy being their awesome geospatial selves. I’m cool with that.

Learn about many facets of the geospatial profession in our GIS Jobs or Geoinspirations series of articles.

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