Graduate Certificate Programs in Geographical Information Systems (GIS) - Campus and Online
Updated: February 25, 2022
Graduate certificate programs provide college graduate and mid-career professionals who hold a minimum of a bachelor’s degree with a means of adding new skills and proficiencies while earning graduate credits from an accredited college or university. Geographical Information Systems (GIS) graduate certificate programs, and graduate certificate programs in geographical information science and technology (GIST) offer master’s-level training in the real-world applications of GIS technologies in fields like cartography, urban and regional planning, environmental resource management, public health, homeland security, and emergency management. Students in GIS/GIST graduate certificate programs prepare for careers in GIS fields and/or to use GIS technologies in their current work by taking a small cluster of graduate courses – four, five, or six courses is common – that can typically be completed in less than a year of part-time enrollment.
Geographical information systems represent a technological breakthrough in how we capture and analyze spatial and geographic data. Such data is instrumental in identifying and addressing various types of problems and creating clearer, more informative maps of our world. Advances in computer processing, data analytics, and communication technologies have been primary factors in the evolution of geographical information science and its application, not just in traditional cartography, but also in fields in which correlations between spatial-temporal data and other types of information are used to isolate patterns and trends, calculate probabilities, and determine correlations and causations. Climatology, ecology, geology, meteorology, oceanography, and volcanology are some of the physical and environmental sciences in which GIS technologies and their application have become integral. Civil and environmental engineering, criminal justice, economic development, homeland security, military intelligence, public health, real estate, telecommunications, and urban planning are among the other fields that continue to integrate GIS assets and which have benefitted from the use of GIS technologies.
Working in geographical information science and using geographical information technologies require technical knowledge of geospatial analysis methods and cartography, database and analytics software, and the global positioning systems and sensors that are used to collect, store, and transmit geospatial data. GIS technicians use this knowledge to create maps, data sets, and data visualizations that can then help to identify problems, formulate solutions, and implement data-driven plans and policies that address issues in which location over time is an important factor, such as the spread of illness and disease, the melting of the polar ice caps, and the optimal placement of new housing and infrastructure.
Identifying and Classifying GIS and GIST Graduate Certificate Programs
Graduate certificate programs that provide training and instruction in the application of GIS technologies are generally designated either as GIS, GIST, or geographical information science (GIScience) graduate certificate programs. These programs are offered by accredited colleges and universities, typically through departments and/or divisions of geography, geology, and natural sciences, computer and information technology, and/or continuing and professional education. Many schools that offer GIS graduate certificate programs also have graduate degree programs in GIS and related fields. Indeed, many GIS graduate certificates are comprised of four, five, or six graduate courses that overlap with master’s program curricula, and some schools allow students to apply graduate credits earned from a certificate program toward a master’s degree in GIS if and when a student opts to pursue further graduate training in the field. Finally, graduate certificate programs are, by definition, post-baccalaureate programs that require students to hold a minimum of a bachelor’s degree.
Note: Post-baccalaureate graduate certificate programs in GIS and GIST are typically designed to accommodate a broad range of students, including recent college graduates, graduate students who are pursuing a master’s or doctoral degree, and mid-career professionals who hold a bachelor’s, master’s, and/or doctoral degree. There are also post-master’s or post-graduate certificate programs in GIS that require students to hold a minimum of a master’s degree.
GIS Graduate Certificate Coursework
A typical graduate certificate program in GIS, GIST, or GIScience consists of a small number of graduate-level courses that introduce students to current geospatial information technologies, the principles and practices of cartographic design, and the tools and methods used to analyze and interpret GIS data. Students may then have the opportunity to take one or more electives in specific applications of GIS, such as city planning, counterterrorism, cultural geography, emergency management, environmental science, health analytics, intelligence analysis, topographic mapping, and transportation management.
While specific courses and their names and descriptions vary by schools and by program, students can expect to take the following types of courses in a GIS graduate certificate program:
- Cartography and Visualization
- Digital Image Processing and Analysis
- Problem Solving with GIS
- GIS Database Development
- Concepts for Spatial Thinking
- Geospatial Data Acquisition
Among the types of courses that programs commonly offer as electives are the following:
- Spatial Econometrics
- Cyber-Geography in Geospatial Intelligence
- Topographic Mapping with GIS
- Environmental Applications of GIS
- Location Intelligence for Business
- Geospatial Intelligence Analysis and Homeland Security
- GIS for Public Health
- Spatial Data Analytics for Transportation
- Spatial Data Science for Emergency Management
Online Graduate Certificate in GIS
Online graduate certificate programs in GIS provide students a more convenient and flexible alternative to traditional, campus-based programs by offering all or most of their coursework via distance learning technologies. This gives students who do not live near a school that offers a GIS graduate certificate program access to the training these programs offer, and it provides those who would prefer not to commute to a nearby campus for classes a means of gaining GIS proficiences without have to attend in-person classes.
Programs that are offered online use internet-based learning management systems (LMSs) to provide students with access to various types of instructional activities, resources, and assets, including live and/or pre-recorded lectures and virtual class sessions. This coursework can be delivered using one of two instructional modes: synchronous instruction or asynchronous instruction. Synchronous instruction is real-time instruction and can include live-streamed lectures and class meetings that require students to be logged on to a program’s LMS at scheduled times. In contrast, asynchronous instruction encompasses learning that does not involve scheduled meeting times, which may include pre-recorded lectures and presentations, interactive learning modules, and other instructional activities that can be accessed and completed by students at their convenience.
Synchronous instruction creates a more structured learning environment than asynchronous instruction and provides an online learning experience that most closely resembles attending in-person classes. Students who prefer face-to-face interactions with professors and classmates and those who thrive by participating in live discussions should look for programs that utilize synchronous instruction. Asynchronous instruction affords more scheduling flexibility and can be a more convenient mode of learning; therefore, it may be beneficial for students who cannot attend live weekly classes due to other obligations. However, programs that use asynchronous instruction still have assignments and other activities that students must complete by set due dates. As a result, these programs are more ideal for students who have excellent time management skills and who can excel in an independent and less structured learning environment.
There are GIS graduate certificate programs that are offered in a 100% online format and which do not require students to visit a school’s campus in order to complete the program. There are also online GIS graduate certificate programs that hold campus-based sessions that students are required to attend. These campus-based requirements are generally short in duration and limited in number. Programs that require students to attend more than three campus visits per year are classified by GraduateCertificates.com as blended or hybrid programs and not as online programs. A blended/hybrid program provides some instruction online but require students to attend a significant number of campus-based classes as well. While blended/hybrid programs represent a more convenient alternative to fully campus-based programs, they are typically not practical for students who do not live near the school’s campus.
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Examples of Online Graduate Certificate Programs in Geographical Information Systems
Each of the schools below offers an online graduate certificate program in GIS, GIST, or GIScience. These programs are meant to provide a representative overview of the types of programs that are available in an online format from accredited, non-profit colleges and universities.
The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) has an online Postbaccalaureate Certificate in Geographical Information Systems (GIS) program that it offers in a fully online format through Penn State World Campus, the university’s division of online education. The program has a traditional track for aspiring GIS professionals, consisting of three required courses and one elective, and a professional track for certified and/or licensed professionals who want to add GIS knowledge and skills. The professional track allows qualifying students to waive up to two of the core courses and select electives in their place. Both tracks require students to complete 12 credits of graduate coursework that may then be applied toward a Master of Geographical Information Systems program offered by Penn State World Campus. For more information on the certificate program, visit Penn State World Campus at www.worldcampus.psu.edu.
The University of Southern California (USC) offers an online Graduate Certificate in Geographical Information Science and Technology (GIST) program through its Dornsife Spatial Science Institute. The program consists of eight units of core coursework and two electives for a total of 16 graduate credits that can be applied to a Master of Science in GIST program offered by USC. Students in the graduate certificate program take all of their courses online but are required to attend one weeklong fieldwork excursion at USC’s Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies on Catalina Island. The USC program is designed for and accepts applicants who hold a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, or doctoral degree in any field. For more information on the program, visit USC’s Dornsife Spatial Science Institute at gis.usc.edu.
The University of North Dakota (UND) offers a Geographical Information Sciences Graduate Certificate program that is 100% online and that does not require any campus visits. The 12-credit program consists of four courses that can be completed in two semesters. Those credits may then be applied toward a Master of Arts/Master of Science (MA/MS) in Geography that is offered by UND. The UND program is a post-baccalaureate program that accepts students who hold a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree in any field or discipline. For more information on the program, visit UND at und.edu.