Geographers marvel at our world, and they make a career out of it by studying our planet, the people who inhabit it, and Earth's physical characteristics. Some geographers may tell us how geography influences political outcomes, while others study why diabetes is particularly prevalent in the South, and yet others focus on one of today's biggest environmental issues: climate change.
Most geographers work for the federal government, where they are faced with a number of challenges big and small. For instance, some might be tasked with studying whether a proposed site for a shopping mall is topographically acceptable. They use geographic information system technology (GIS) to collect and analyze data and report their findings, in addition to using qualitative research to conduct surveys. As scientists, they question, analyze, and may also challenge conventional wisdom. There are a wide variety of specialty areas available for geographers, as these professionals may choose to become economic geographers, political geographers or urban geographers, among many others.
What geographers do
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a geographer's job may entail the following specific duties and responsibilities:
- Conduct original research using quantitative methods
- Analyze data, write reports, report on findings
- Gather data through field observations, satellite imagery, etc.
- Advise governments, the public, and private entities on myriad issues, including construction or disaster responses
- Create and modify maps, charts, diagrams and other models
The BLS notes that important qualities for geographers typically include critical-thinking skills, writing and presentation skills, and the ability to solve problems and communicate effectively. In addition, as many geographers work within large government organizations, it's essential to be able to work well in a team and effectively present findings to a potentially large number of different stakeholders with opposing views.
How to become a geographer
Geographers have several different career paths available to them, but all of them require post-secondary education, while some of them require a master's degree or even a Ph.D. For instance, those with a bachelor's degree in geography may be able to obtain entry-level work in both the private and public sector, but according to the BLS, most geographers outside the federal government require a master's degree in geography. Those who want to teach at the post-secondary level and want to become professors must hold a Ph.D. in geography. Many high-level research positions usually require either a master's degree in geography with sufficient experience or a doctorate in the field.
Geographer salary trends
Geography is a wide field, and earnings may vary according to a professional's chosen field of expertise and specialty. However, in general, according to the BLS Occupational Employment Statistics as of May 2012 (bls.gov, 2013), the mean annual wage for geographers nationwide was $74,020. Those in the 75th percentile earned $89,440, while those in the 10th percentile earned $57,150. The federal executive branch had the most jobs for geographers, followed by architectural and engineering services, consulting services, and colleges and universities. In terms of location, geographers earned the highest mean annual wage in:
- Oklahoma ($100,210)
- New York ($93,010)
- Maryland ($85,360)
- Virginia ($82,440)
- Oregon ($79,560)
Career outlook for geographers
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job opportunities for geographers are expected to grow by 35 percent between 2010 and 2020. The agency expects the fastest growth to be in the areas of technical, scientific and professional services. A renewed focus on the environment and factors that influence it, including the hot topic of climate change, may also positively impact job opportunities for geographers.