Know Your Value as Web GIS Developers and GIS Professionals

Knowing your professional value is about measuring your worth against objective measures. This can be challenging, but is definitely an attainable goal because the steps to awareness are quantifiable.

The three basic factors for comparison in this equation are

  • level of education and level of experience
  • application of your skills in your field
  • your geographic area

Obviously, the assumption is that the more education and experience you have, the higher your pay grade will be. In GIS and Geography however, with too much education (moving past MA to PhD) you can actually “price yourself out of your market” because the cost and time of getting a PhD is greater than the earning potential on the other side. Alternately, stopping with your MA and pursuing work as a GIS Analyst has very high earning potential, because the application of these skills can be used for a wide variety of studies that can result in generating big money. Not to mention that thee are numerous applications of GIS and projects that have a direct impact on improving the environment and bettering the world for all citizens. To the point of cost recovery and return on investment of your education, there are many examples of GIS Analyses that are profitable, and we’ll take site assessment for oil and gas companies who use GIS to find the ideal sites for acquiring these profitable resources. If a GIS Analyst were to invest the time and money into acquiring their PhD, they would have no greater earning potential than being an analyst with their Master’s degree, and might even be occasionally passed over for being “over-qualified.” To complicate matters further, the number of Geography Departments at Universities is small (and sadly, dwindling), and there is much higher competition for Geography Professor positions than there are for GIS Analyst positions. Places like National Renewable Energy Lab, SanFrancisco Estuary institute, Citizens for Community Progress are the next best bet for getting work with a GIS/Geog PhD, but these positions are also rare. Of course high level research and professor positions are amazingly rewarding, at the end of the day there are a lot of people who feel this way. However, growing numbers of PhDs and moderately growing rates of availability for these positions adds up to fewer positions than applicants – driving the base wages and benefits down, down, down.

Meanwhile, academic programs drastically lag in training GIS/Geog students in the coding skills they need to become web developers, and the ratio of positions to applicants goes up, up up – so too do the base salaries and benefit packages

Which brings us to our second point. As an alternative to the above scenario, if you were to further your education with classes in coding to enhance your GIS Analyst skills with web development capacities you would increase your value to an almost unlimited potential. Web maps are rapidly becoming an effective way to communicate and further enhance analyses and data sharing (and therefore design processes and policy making). I think it is important to note that all three of the research facilities mentioned in the preceding point have recently posted web map developer positions, so even without a PhD, pushing yourself to hone your Web Mapping skills makes you eligible to work for the dream labs without the expensive highest-level-educational investment. So with the right combination of skill building, you can have the altruistic goal of working to improve the environment and the lives of those who share it with you AND have a salary range and benefit package that will allow you to attain this goal without sacrificing your personal quality of life.

It might be important to note that I have personally worked in academia – I spent four years on contract working in a GIS research lab. It is not my goal to undermine the value of graduate programs for creating GIS Analysts who have a real and thorough understanding of the statistics required to operate GIS software in a manner that will produce results that are reliable and useful. Our society needs good teachers to ensure that the future Web Map Developers know the theory that will propagate well designed and useful maps. Instead this post is to encourage the awareness of the value of Web Map Development skills, and that the PhD is not the end-all solution to this career path.

The final point of consideration is to know what your experience and job title bring in terms of salary in specific regions. It is easiest to find yourself appreciated for your value when you are willing to locate yourself in a region where the job market is strong for your field. Pour over jobs boards, and inventory the locations that have the highest number of jobs in your field. You could spend months trying to find work in your field if you are tied to a geographic area that doesn’t have an abundance of jobs available, and likely will only land a job that the time is divvied between the tasks that utilize your skill set and tasks that will require you to learn new skills. Sure, it is always great to diversify your experiences, but don’t expect that you will be paid what your are worth for the skills you have honed if you’re performing tasks that are auxiliary.

Alternately – and this is the ultimate question and challenge in knowing your professional value – is to research what people with your skills are making in an area that is flush with job opportunities in your field. This can be done by searching websites that rank specific job titles with associated salaries.

Interesting to note that Web Map Developer and GIS Analyst are such new titles that BLS doesn’t have specific data on them – but do your own survey of these positions in Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington DC and you’ll find the pay ranges and benefits for these positions blow traditional research titles like “Cartographer” and “Geography Professor” out of the water. If you want to be competitive in the upcoming market, save the money and time of a PhD and hone your Analyst and Web Map Developer skills.

The final consideration of knowing your value as a geographer is, ironically, understanding the geography of the variances between cost of living and job availability in different cities and locations. There are numerous “cost of living” calculators  out there that allow you to punch in the zip code of different areas and associate them with a job title to see the salary mean, medium and mode are for varying locations.

A very basic search can answer these questions, and you are well advised to research this information and keep up on it periodically. Knowing your worth will help you to be far more effective in the workplace, and will also give you an awareness of when its time to update your contract or begin looking to other companies who will appreciate you.

Margaret Spyker

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