A bit of an open debate - I am curious for your opinions. I am considering commencing a PhD in GIS which may concern the application of surveys within the natural environments. Eventually, I wish to continue my career in professional consultancy and not to pursue academia beyond these studies.

I wonder whether anybody has any experience or can just share their thoughts about how useful is to have a GIS PhD in a professional industry. My concern is that people have told me that for some professions (e.g. Law), having a PhD qualification can in fact reduce your employability.

How is it seen by industry employers to have a PhD in GIS? Also, are there any specific sites or tips anyone can suggest?

closed as primarily opinion-based by PolyGeo Aug 17 '15 at 2:17

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    I think this question falls outside the scope of GIS Stack Exchange as defined in its FAQ. Somewhere like the chat area or one of the LinkedIn groups may be more appropriate. – PolyGeo Jan 17 '13 at 9:25
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    Although it doesn't fall in GIS stack exchange scope, is has many votes. :) – Gago-Silva Jan 17 '13 at 10:18
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    PhD is always useful as you'll become an expert in certain area. Employers that do not appreciate your PhD, probably do not need an expert. So basically the question is, whether you want to work as an expert in your discipline or you just want to work. – Tomek Jan 17 '13 at 11:51
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    @PolyGeo I think it's not too different from the other career questions. If this ends up being closed, we'd have to close those, too. – R.K. Jan 17 '13 at 13:46
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    Good question and something that life long learners will always deal with. Is there a more practicle, but still intensive approach to acheiving similar credentials in the GIS field. My wife juggled between getting an M.Sc. and an MPH in public health. She went with the more practicle approach and chose an MPH (similar course work but she had to do a practicume instead of a thesis). Best decision she ever made. She's thinking of taking it a step further and getting her DPH (Doctor of Public Health), again, similar to a PhD, but more practicle and marketable. – dchaboya Jan 17 '13 at 16:46

You need to consider what your PhD will give you beyond a few letters after your name.

My story is that I spent my early career as a Research Assistant but could see that a continued career in Academia would require a PhD. On the other hand, a move into industry would require a more marketable skill than theoretical Ecology and the ability to Find Stuff Out. So, I designed my own PhD program that could not be completed without training in and heavy use of GIS (partly to provide a logical career progression from Ecology and partly because I saw it was a growing field as well as satisfying my techie talents). The University accepted my hypothesis and packed me off at their expense to an ESRI boot camp to learn ArcInfo 6.x (happy days!). The combination of my PhD and the GIS skills got me my next job as a Consultant in the commercial arm of a government-funded academic research institute. Since then I have moved out of academia altogether and my PhD has either been irrelevant of itself or has been a minor positive asset usually only for the kudos such a qualification provides in consultancy.

So, in my experience, a PhD is a minor benefit as a Consultant, ticking the credibility box. It has never really been a hindrance, but the most important thing I got out of the PhD was not the letters after my name but the training and demonstrable experience, which has allowed me to make a career in a growing and multi-faceted industry.

However you need to think carefully before undertaking one as opposed to, say, a taught Masters or other course of study which can be completed in a much shorter space of time and arguably gives a greater breadth of training. A PhD is highly specialised and it is a long and lonely furrow to plough, especially part-time. I did do mine part-time in only three-and-a-half years, but then I had been a professional researcher for many years before that, meaning that I wasn't learning how to do research as part of the PhD - which would be the case for most people.

If your aim in further study is to enhance/gain skills in GIS, I believe that you will get a quicker return on your investment of time and money in a taught Masters (say), plus some small additional academic kudos. If you think your career may ultimately take you into Academia as a Research Fellow, Reader or Lecturer, then I would recommend the PhD.


I work for a GIS consultancy and come in contact with a lot of GIS professionals. I must say, that in over 15 years in the industry, I have never come in contact with anyone who has a PhD in GIS. In fact, it is rare that I meet anyone who has a PhD at all. Those who do have PhD's usually specialise in ecology or some environmental field.

Here in Australia, it is more common for people to have a Masters Degree or a Graduate Diploma in GIS. I have a Graduate Diploma in GIS which is essentially one research topic shy of a Masters degree. I have considered doing that research topic to get the Masters, but honestly, I have a pretty good job and apart from the title and the knowledge I might gain by doing the research, it wouldn't really give me much in terms of employment.

The only people I know who have PhD's in GIS work for either universities or government. And the ones in government have pretty specialised jobs.

In my opinion, you'd be pretty overqualified for a consultancy job if you got a PhD. I'd look into getting a Masters instead.


If you like GIS and want to go through the effort of getting an advanced degree - get a degree in something halfway definable like biology, hydrology, geology, env. engineering, epidemiology, public health, forestry, env. chemistry, transportation, economics, agriculture. Take these fields to new areas by using GIS. That said, if you just want a PhD, it's an easy way to go according to a former colleague.

Hope I don't offend anyone here, but in many ways GIS and geography is just a catch all for things having a spatial component. If you must study GIS, at least include a lot of stats and imagery and remote sensing where you can do some real science.

What's really lacking in a lot of consultancy involving GIS is the "IS" part of GIS. Help us out and get a computer science degree. Understand databases, programming, security, networks, scalability, project management, helping integrate GIS into an organization is incredibly tech centric with a large helping of people skills.

  • First of all, thank you all for your answers. It is good to know that having a PhD in the GIS field would't be detrimental. It sounds from the answers that it has a potential. My educational background is in GIS - I have a MSc degree in GIS and have undergone a variety of related training courses. At the moment I work for an engineering consultancy in GIS, however having formerly been a long term student, I have always enjoyed study and therefore am 'hungry' for more education. – Mandy Jan 27 '13 at 11:13
  • Currently at my job it seems that I can tick the boxes in terms of my qualifications, however it's the learning aspect which motivates me towards the PhD. Discovering 'shortcomings' of GIS in current professional consultancy could be an interesting subject to pursue. Please keep your answers and ideas coming!! Thanks, Mandy – Mandy Jan 27 '13 at 11:28

I think GIS or IT is a tool. It will support other field for eg: Transportation, environment study, Climate change, earth science, oceanography..etc. Eventually you will become support team staff in other domain specific industry. If it is GIS company (eg: ESRI) then still the company it self is supporting company for other domain specific company or organization.

Getting a PHD for any field is vital.We shouldn't discourage anyone who has the capacity to do that. If you are PHD qualified then you will be working in very specific project. However it will be very limited job market.

Decision can be difficult and personal. If I were you, I would study a domain subject such as environment science, Earth science,forestry, Hydrology and soil science, oceanography ..etc. Depends on your favorite area.

Domain knowledge+ GIS knowledge + IT Knowledge == very impressive candidate


I have a Phd in raster based modelling, and even though my current work as a consultant is quite far from the topics in which I did my thesis, the Phd is a useful asset for me all the time.

"you'd be pretty overqualified for a consultancy job if you got a PhD." - that might be true, but I am currently in a company where they understand how to use it as an asset both for me and the company in relation to projects, customers etc. So in general, it might be over-qualifying, but trust me, in the right company it can become a strong factor as well...


A PHd tells me you are a good student, but not necessarily good at the job we will hire you for. 3 years of relevant work experience would be a better indicator of a solid work ethic, the ability to listen and understand clients needs and the ability to design and implement those solutions which will meet those needs.

If your goal is to be a career GIS professional I would suggest working in a government agency before moving into the private sector.

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