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What skills are essential? What is the value of an advanced degree in GIS versus a certificate? What options are available to the less programming-inclined (ie, no software development)

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1.Real-world experience. 2. Sound academic background Degree/Msc 3. Certification. –  Mapperz Nov 22 '11 at 4:46
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You have two ways to go or a combination of the two:

  1. Open source route: Not as common in industry, but growing. It's mainly characterized by using opensource tools such as QGIS, PostGIS, GRASS, and associated libraries and extensions. There are workshops that you can get from various FOSS GIS websites on the matter. These workshops are usually done in the various yearly or biannual conferences. The authors usually provide their slide deck, with all the data and tools needed, with a detailed procedural list.

  2. Closed source and Non free solutions: Predominant in industry. It's mainly charactirized by software such as ArcGIS (ArcInfo, ArcMap, ArcCatalog, etc..), or other packages such as Autodesk's Map 3D. ESRI (ArcGIS's manufacturer) has a set of online workshops that you can take that really guide you from the start and beginner topics to advanced topics specific to your area of knowledge and interest.

  3. Additional Tools: Whether you're using open or closed source tools, you'll need data manipulation tools, such as db managers, image processing software, statistical packages such as R. Most of the basic GIS stuff can be done without programming with both open and closed source applications; however, there will come a time where your modelling and data visualization needs will exceed what the GUI in the software can offer you. Fortunately for you, most applications tend to be pluggable or extendable by Python. You can easily write python plugins for QGIS especially if you read any of these Writing QGIS Python Plugins, Underark's blog, FOSS GIS Academy, PyQgis Documentation, Python QGIS Cookbook, and finally qgis.org's mailing lists (Dev and user). When it comes to ArcGIS, you can start by looking at ArcPy and take it from there.

  4. It's all about the data: Whether you use opensource or closed source software, you still need to get precise and accurate data for your needs. Some of the free data sources could be quiet sufficient, others could be provided as a web linked service. However, in a lot of cases the data you get from the internet isn't as desegregate as you want it, or isn't as current as you require. Data could be expensive especially when you get into high precision disaggregate data, whether raster or vector formats. The key point is if you're thinking of consulting, well the best thing to do is to get the data from your client or beg for it from stat agencies.
  5. Basic GIS/Surveying Understanding: Projections and datums, read 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. You need to understand this as data comes from different sources using different projections and datums that suit the data collector's needs, it is very common to receive data in different projections that you manually must convert.
  6. GPS Data: If you're collecting GPS data, QGIS can certainly download and import that data, but I would recommend the free GPSBabel tool.
  7. GDAL: One you get into programming and believe me you will, check out perhaps the best GIS programming library period GDAL.
  8. Certification: I would suggest you look at the GIS Certification Institute. However, from first hand experience, most of those certificates are trumped if you have an actual degree in a field with a specific focus on GIS. For example, my degree is in civil engineering with a masters in transportation and GIS. A lot of others on this site have some form of A GIS and a Environmental focus while some others have a focus on computer programming and GIS. Pick your interests and niche and follow up on them.
  9. Books: The two good intro books that I recommend are GIS for Web Developers and the out of print Desktop GIS

This is my initial ramble, also feel free to check the various questions about your topic in the main gis site :)

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Dassouki's answer if very comprehensive - from the popular and technological perspective. I think its valuable to add that you can approach GIS from a non-programming perspective and still be very employable. This is the route that most geography departments at universities offer.

If you take GIS as an undergrad in Geography, the school is likely teaching GIS where the "S" stands for Science, not Systems. In GIScience, the challenge is not technical and instead questions and investigates the methodologies behind GISystems. The advantage of taking GIS through geography is it gives you a bigger picture of human and physical systems (at the cost of not as much focus on programming). Many people that take this route end up following up their undergrad with a 1 year certificate in GISystems (often a one year course that is very programming oriented). If you want to get really technically good at GIS, then I would suggest an undergrad in computer science followed by a GIS certificate. Many employers, however, do value a broad geography background combined with enough knowledge about GISystems to get things done.

GIScience research at an M.Sc. or Ph.D. level usually does not focus on programming skills. Your research will likely lead to learning how to write about new ideas that involve GISystems. You will also need to know/learn how to use GISystems to the extent that your research requires. Indeed, some research streams might therefore require you to become quite technically knowledgeable in GISystems, for example if your research is to do with remote sensing. But if you are dealing with human geography issues, for example health or tourism, you have a chance to get into much more into qualitative literature and ultimately influence things such as policy, or theorize about ontological arguments and power structures in society.

A GIScience undergrad/grad education is likely less employable for a GIS jobs where you are using GISystems all day. But many employers might like a broader geography education that involved applying GIS. A GISystems education may be valuable for many jobs without "GIS" in the title; jobs where you still end up applying the technology, or eventually managing others that apply the technology while you write reports, proposals, or grants. A GIScience background could take you towards more interdisciplinary and perhaps unexpected career paths.

As always, the right path depends on what you like!

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Whatever route you take (college/university/post-degree certificate), if there is a practicum or co-op offered, take it. Career-wise, getting your face in front of prospective employers is just as important as what you learned.

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