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Geographers hold the world in their hands. More than just mapmakers, geographers study how terrain, environment and national borders mold patterns of civilization. To do the job, you need several qualities, including spatial reasoning, curiosity, computer skills, communications abilities and thinking skills. An advanced degree helps, too. If you have the right qualities and education, expect solid earnings: Geographers had a median annual income of $74,760 as of May 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
If you aced geometry and have a knack for solving puzzles that involve shapes, then you have one of the most important qualities a geographer needs: spatial reasoning. Geographers make and manipulate maps on the computer to understand land and population patterns, as well as development trends and processes. You have to be able to translate mapped features into a three-dimensional picture in your mind, and understand how those features blend with surrounding landscapes.
Geographers find endless fascination in the world and its population trends. How do droughts affect migration? How did Latin America’s mountain ranges influence where the continent’s cities grew? Geographers constantly dream up questions about connections between people and environment, and how each shapes the other. Most geographers are also curious about distant lands, and love the idea of research-related travel to new places. Some focus on specific regions, such as Africa, Asia or Europe. They enjoy working outside to collect data from field investigations in areas ranging from countrysides to cities. If you often find yourself asking “where” or “why,” you have the natural curiosity of a geographer.
Forget that old, creased highway map in your glove box. Today’s geographers work with high-tech geographical information systems that let them gather, store and study maps and spatial information. Plus, they use software programs for photo imaging, map creation, spreadsheets and word processing, and they maintain hardware, printers, video cameras and other technical equipment. To collect facts and figures, they need to know how to get into computerized databases, such as census reports and satellite-imagery sets. What’s more, those computers, databases and programs change constantly, so geographers have to embrace rapid technological advances.
Geography isn’t just about technical gadgetry and reams of statistics. Geographers report their findings in written studies or in oral presentations at industry events. That means they have to speak and write clearly and articulately. Collaboration is an important part of the job, too, because geographers work on teams with co-workers and community members.
Geographers form theories on how people adapt to their environment, and develop research methods to test those ideas. Once they have their data, geographers have to be able to draw conclusions. Other critical-thinking skills include logic, judgment and reasoning. It also helps if you can see connections; how the natural environment affects human behavior and social institutions, for example.
Even if you have the right stuff to be a geographer, you need formal training. A bachelor’s degree is good enough for entry-level work with businesses or nonprofits, but most jobs outside of the federal government require at least a master’s degree in geography. Nearly 50 percent of geographers had a master’s degree as of 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. An additional 16 percent had a doctoral or professional degree. And many employers prefer geographers who are certified through the GIS Certification Institute. You can qualify for certification through a mix of education, experience and professional activities such as publishing or attending conferences. Certification can help make up for a lack of advanced education.