Follow-up Q&A from "Going the Distance" webinar, part II

November 8, 2011

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This webinar presented three representative online GIS programs, Penn State, University of Denver and Northwest Missouri State University.

General questions about graduate degree programs

1. Does an online MS degree place the student at a disadvantage if applying to PhD programs?

  • Penn State—Lead Faculty, Anthony Robinson: For the majority of MGIS students, a PhD is not the desired end-goal, however interest in joining PhD programs following completion of an online MGIS degree seems to be increasing over time, and academic departments will need to decide how to handle applicants with that background. I can only speak for Penn State, and here at PSU if the department were to receive an application from a highly-qualified MGIS graduate, they would be considered and weighed against the rest of the applicants like any other student.
  • NWMSU—Program Director, Patricia Drews: I think that this is no longer a significant problem. Although most of the graduates from our program prefer to not go on for a Ph.D., we have had graduates admitted to the Ph.D. programs at the University of Colorado and George Mason University. There may be some individuals in academia who feel that an online degree doesn’t measure up, but as more and more universities implement online programs in many disciplines, the feeling that an online degree is second rate is diminishing. 

2. At Penn State, is it possible to change from an online MGIS student to an in class MGIS student?

  • Penn State—Robinson: There is no procedure in place to transfer from one program to another. Our application processes are separate and the curricula are sufficiently different that it would be non-trivial to sort out how this might work. Additionally, we have had nobody ask us for this option to date.

3. How best to keep up to date after obtaining a certificate or masters?

  • Penn State—Lecturer, Wes Stroh: Penn State’s courses are all available for students to take as one-off courses for continuing education and professional development.  New courses are being developed all of the time. Our LiDAR course has been quite popular, enrolling students who aren’t pursuing a certificate or degree.  Most of our electives are available for students to take in non-degree seeking status. Another example of this would be our new Location Intelligence for Business course, which has been designed without any prerequisites.

4. For all panelists: If I already have a B.S. in GIS, is it worth it to get a Master's or certificate when I already know the basics?

  • Penn State—Robinson: The benefits are clear for students who seek to advance their careers over time, transition into new areas of GIS application and development, and who seek leadership roles in the future. If you’re happy with what you do and don’t anticipate that changing, then it may not be the right path for you. If you need new skills, are seeking new opportunities for advancement, and want to explore new connections to emerging parts of the discipline, then continuing your education will be important.

5. With 10 years experience in the GIS industry, and coming across areas where research would benefit. What options are available for research based Masters Programs?

  • Penn State—Robinson: All students in our MGIS program complete a capstone research project that is advised by a member of our graduate faculty at Penn State. Many of our students have taken this opportunity to develop a research project that led to a publication in a journal or peer-reviewed proceedings. In addition, many of our graduate seminar courses are quite focused on understanding and embracing the state of the art – moving well beyond simple applications and lab-oriented assignments.
  • NWMSU—Drews:  The M.S. program at Northwest requires a thesis.  Students conduct a research project for their thesis. Most of our courses also require a course project, and these projects involve research on a smaller basis.


1. What is the average acceptance percentage for applicants to each school’s Masters program?

  • Penn State—Asst. Program Manager for Advising, Beth King:  30-40% depending on how many applicants we have each year. We are only able to accept a fixed number of new graduate students each year by rule of the Graduate School at Penn State.

2. What are the minimum GRE scores required for successful admission to the three schools?

  • Penn State—King: A GRE score of 1200 or higher would help your application, below 1100 would not.
  • NWMSU—Drews: Under the old GRE scoring scale, we required a minimum combined verbal and quantitative score of 800. In November, ETS will be providing material that translates scores on the old scale into the new scale. An applicant with a lower combined GRE can be admitted if all other admission materials show that the applicant seems capable of graduate level work. Northwest does not required the GRE for admission to the certificate program.

3. For Penn State is there a minimum GRE score that is needed to be admitted to the Geospatial Intel program?

  • Penn State—King: A GRE score of 1200 or higher would help your applicationfor the Master of Homeland Security, Geospatial Intelligence Option, below 1100 would not. A GRE score is not required for the Graduate Certificate in Geospatial Intelligence that we offer.

4. Is there a required minimum GPA from the certificate program at Penn State to get accepted to the MGIS program, as I am new to GIS?

  • Penn State—King: We don’t have a minimum GPA requirement. If you have a proven track record in your profession since graduating, the committee will take that into consideration if you have a less than desirable GPA from some time ago. We take into account several different components for each applicant; your personal statement, your academic record, GRE scores, and references. Four faculty members on our admissions committee rate and discuss each applicant, and the average scores are used to rank across the entire pool.

5. If I wanted to start taking classes towards a MGIS in the Fall of 2012, what should my first steps be and when should I contact the University?

  • Penn State—Stroh: All three programs allow work completed towards their certificate programs to count towards their Masters’ degrees. During the webinar, the panelists all suggested that interested students consider enrolling in courses this coming January. For more information, use the URLs and emails above.
  • NWMSU—Drews:  Review of completed applications for spring 2012 admission will begin after Nov. 10, and applicants will be notified by Thanksgiving. The absolute cut-off date for receipt of application materials for spring 2012 admission is Dec. 2.

Tuition/Financial Aid

1. For Penn there out of state tuition?  or do the costs Anthony stated apply to all?

  • Penn State—Stroh: For Penn State’s Online Geospatial Program courses, there is no “out-of-state” tuition. The costs are the same for Pennsylvania residents and non-residents at $716 per credit hour.

2. Do any of the schools honor tuition rates set forth by the Post 9/11 GI Bill?

3. Research assistant and teaching assistant positions are often available to people attending "traditional" education programs -- are either of these options open to online students?

  • Penn State—Stroh: As stated in the webinar, for all programs assistantships are not available to online students. 

Software, Courses, and Technical Matters

1. My biggest concern is if I will be able to work full time and take the classes on line. Are we able to take one to two classes at a time?

  • Penn State—Stroh: That will depend primarily on your situation. Most of our students take one course per 10-week term, with 4 terms per year. With permission, students may register for two classes, though this is determined case by case. Our programs are designed for busy professionals, and we do not advise taking more than one class at a time if you are currently employed.
  • NWMSU—Drews:  Students may take the number of courses that they wish each term. Most of our students take one or two classes during the fall and spring terms, and some take one class during the shortened summer term. Some students vary the number of courses they take each term based on their other time commitments.

2. One question that was not answered was: do any of your programs require any "on-site/campus" classes?

  • Penn State—Stroh: There are no requirements for on-site/campus courses. All courses in our program are delivered online. All content is designed to be asynchronous in nature – hence, you do not need to log on at specific times, either.
  • NWMSU—Drews: There are no requirements to come to campus.

3. What version of ArcGIS do these schools use?  e.g. ArcGIS 9.3.1 or ArcGIS10? How soon after the release of ArcGIS 10.1 will these schools implement the newer technology into their coursework?

  • Penn State—Stroh:  All programs have Esri Site Licenses providing students with educational licenses of the most current versions of ArcGIS. At Penn State, the first introductory course is immediately available in the newest version. Some other courses can take 3-6 months after a new release to retool the course activities to the new version.  In most courses, instructors maintain a copy of legacy assignments for students who have a prior version of ArcGIS installed on a work computer which the employer has chosen not to update.
  • Univeristy of Denver—Hick: At the University of Denver, students may log in virtually to a computer lab containing both ArcGIS 9.3.1 and 10.
  • NWMSU—Drews:  We are using ArcGIS 10. We upgrade to a new version between terms, because some lead time is required to update courses and send software to students.  One factor in determining how soon we upgrade to a new version is the timing of Esri’s release of the no-cost educational licenses. Availability of the educational DVDs typically lags a month or two after release of the version. For example, although ArcGIS 10 was released during the summer, the education licenses were not available until after our fall term began.

4. I am deaf; will I be able to complete assignments that require audio or movies?

  • Penn State—King: We have had a few deaf students in our programs and we are happy to accommodate students with special needs. We have a dedicated learning design team in the Dutton e-Education Institute who helps us make sure all of our content is fully-accessible.
  • NWMSU—Drews: We minimize the number of assignments that require audio or movies. For other course content that uses an audio or movie, we would try to identify reading material that contained similar concepts.

5. Can you please re-post the link to Penn State's open class website?

Capstone/Thesis projects

1. What sort of help resources do you provide for the capstone project or thesis?

  • Penn State—King: We have a Capstone Development Workshop that helps students get ideas for their projects. We also have a capstone project library for students to see past projects. After students take the capstone workshop, they are paired with a graduate advisor who they work with to first develop a full project proposal, and then to execute the project and present its results at an academic or professional meeting.
  • NWMSU—Drews:  Each M.S. student selects a thesis advisor and two other faculty members to serve on the thesis committee. The student is encouraged to work closely with the thesis advisor and to contact any of the committee members about the thesis research.

2. My current job doesn't lend itself to a thesis project. Will that make a Masters program more difficult?

  • Penn State—King: No, most of our students don’t do projects related to their job. It’s a great opportunity to pivot away from what’s normal and embrace something new with an eye on transitioning or advancing your career in a new direction.
  • NWMSU—Drews:  No, it should not. Three keys to a doable thesis project are (1) a well-defined research question, (2) a well-defined methodology, and (3) readily available data or data that can be collected in a reasonable time period so that the student does not have a lengthy data collection process. A student’s job does not have to be related to GIS for these three keys to be in place. We require a student to write a research proposal, and it is in the proposal stage that the research question and methodology are clarified. Through the proposal, the thesis committee helps the student define a doable thesis project. Some students select a topic related to their job because their employer has a problem pertinent to GIS, and such students have used data from their employer.  However, there are other students whose thesis project was unrelated to their employment. There is much GIS data available on the Internet.

Job placement

1. I'm concerned about the reputation of online degrees vs. classroom. Is there a difference between job placement rates or another measure we could rely on?

  • Penn State—King: We’re happy to put prospective students in touch with our many alumni to find out their opinions on this kind of question. To our knowledge there is no negativity associated with the degree and certificate programs we offer at Penn State. In fact, many GIS employers now advise their employees to take courses with us when it comes time to continue their education. Fortunately, online GIS programs at non-profit schools like Penn State, NW Missouri, and U. Denver currently enjoy very high regard in our profession.

For further information about any of these programs, please contact them directly.

Penn State

University of Denver

Northwest Missouri State University


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