Geographic Information System Insights with Kelly Wright

Master’s Degree in Geographic Information Systems Unlocks Door to Rewarding Career

If you’ve never heard of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) — or you have but can’t understand how GIS pertains to you — learning more about the field could be just what you need to shake off the career cobwebs and uncover a new and exciting opportunity. Because while GIS may seem unfamiliar, its master’s programs have been the key to unlocking many successful futures.

Often pursued by those with an interest in computer science and geography, a Master of Science in Geographic Information Systems prepares you to make informed decisions surrounding geographical areas — and much more. To better understand the intricacies of the field, we spoke with Kelly Wright, MS, GISP, about her past underemployment, her path to becoming a master GIS Analyst, and her present passion for encouraging others to follow in her footsteps.

Can you please share a bit about yourself? What is your official title and where do you currently work?

“I’m a GIS Analyst in the Public Works Department at the City of Monroe, providing geospatial consulting services to different city departments. I started out with transportation, then moved into public works GIS.”

Can you tell us about your day-to-day responsibilities?

“Every day is different. My main role is creating web and mobile applications that allow city staff to see relevant data from wherever they are. Basically, I use GIS to develop accurate visual representations of assets such as curb ramps, guard rails, road networks, and water and stormwater networks — everything that brings services to your home. Shortly after, I figure out the common needs between departments and get them on board to improve and change a process, even if they aren’t in agreement to start with.

“I also do work with the police department — analyzing crash data and developing next-gen 911 datasets — and the fire department — setting up programs to check every hydrant in the city — and even fly drones to get aerial imagery.”

Did you know flying drones would be a part of your role?

“I knew it was important because you can get precise imagery on demand by flying a drone. We currently have three water towers in the city, and having the ability to do visual inspections without putting people up in unsafe situations is hugely beneficial.”

Let’s talk more about GIS analysts. What does a GIS analyst do, and what is their purpose?

“A GIS analyst generally uses technology to analyze and interpret spatial data to inform decisions. In their day-to-day work, they’ll likely create maps and other geographic visuals. But not all GIS Analyst roles are the same.

“They vary depending on what part of the country you’re in and the organization or company for which you work. While my title is GIS Analyst, I do a lot more than those with that title in some cities, and a lot less than some in other cities. The common thread amongst us all is spatial thinking, data, and solving problems.”

What else might GIS work involve?

“In my particular role, I like to say that I’m the happy little Switzerland that floats between all of the departments. It’s not my job to judge or pick sides if there’s a conflict — I’m just here to help. So a big part of it includes communication across multiple disciplines.”

What skills do you need to be successful?

“If a picture’s worth a thousand words, a map is worth a million — but you have to be able to describe it. You have to communicate that information well, both written and verbally. I’ve found that public speaking is important, tech skills are useful, and problem-solving comes into play a lot.”

What is your background, how does it tie into this career, and what made you select GIS?

“I have a bachelor of arts in geography but, prior to finding out about GIS, wasn’t using my degree. I’d been working various jobs for twelve years and wasn’t getting anywhere. I didn’t have a real career—just a bunch of jobs.

“Then I saw an ad on LinkedIn about earning a GIS certificate online in six months and a master’s in two years. I had some technology experience and my geography degree, plus an unexpected opportunity to enroll right then, so I started the certificate program. Afterwards, I was welcomed with open arms into the master’s program and officially started my career.”

Where do you see this field in 5-10 years?

“I think we’re going to start seeing a lot more augmented reality. Because there’s already technology where I can look and see the water underneath my feet; technology that helps cars recognize stop signs. I think there’s going to be a lot more of that coming. For a while, people in this field had to know how to program and use difficult software, but now there are these wonderful web application builders — it’s a technology that enables people with very little programming training to build very effective applications.”

Do you think there will be new opportunities for education and employment as a result of these changes?

“Absolutely. Right now we’ve reached what I would call a data avalanche: we have too much data and not enough people to make sense of it. We have to get to a point where we can validate it, keep it up to date, and make use of it.

“As for the field in general, I think there will be a greater need for GIS in the future, and I’m excited to see that happen. I mean, our little city of 14,000 people decided it was time to get a GIS Analyst, so it’s highly in demand already.”

What are the opportunities for professional growth?

“A lot of people in the field get to a point where they’ve gone as high as they can. In that case, growth opportunities come from specializing in other ways, like using your experience to transition to a role as head of an IT department or becoming a development director for a city. They may not technically be doing GIS anymore, but their experience and master’s degree paved the way.”

How was your job search after you graduated from the GIS program?

“My master’s gave me a distinct advantage. A lot of people in Ohio have been doing GIS for years and they’re better at it than I am, but I had the MS and GISP behind my name, which got — and still gets — a lot of attention. So I really recommend it. Not only the master’s program but the GISP certification as well. I’ve been heavily recruited since earning them.”

What backgrounds make good foundations for a master’s degree in GIS?

“People in my program came from wildly different backgrounds, so it’s a long list. Finance, marketing, economics, environmental science, engineering, defense, computer science, public health, and even those with law degrees.”

You mentioned GIS roles vary depending on where you live and in what area you want to specialize. For those interested in enrolling, how would you recommend researching the possibilities in their area?

“I think that becoming involved in professional organizations and joining groups on LinkedIn really helps answer those questions. For example, if I wanted to move to Florida, I would join a bunch of groups in that area. You could then ask people for specifics once you start networking. We have the Southwestern Ohio GIS user group here, and also the Cincinnati area GIS group. Some have a fee to join, others do not.”

What advice would you give someone considering becoming a GIS Analyst?

“I wouldn’t be where I am financially or professionally without having completed an online GIS program! If you decide to join it, make sure to talk to your professors — they make great mentors. And complete an internship or two — they’ll help you network and get a deeper understanding of the work.

“One last thing — get involved! By being active in the GIS community locally and at the state level, people begin to know your name. And, in the end, that can make all the difference.”

Thank you to Kelly Wright for taking the time to discuss the exciting work and opportunities in the GIS field. For more information about GIS, check out our Master of Science in Geographic Information Systems.

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