This article shares some guidance and resources for starting a career in the geospatial field. The focus is on learning about jobs & companies, building your profile, finding role models & going to conferences. I also want to share some personal experience to make it clear that no one has it all figured out. Essentially, it’s the article that I, as a once clueless student, would have perhaps wanted to read.
Look outside the university bubble!
Back in university, I remember being somewhat interested in the GIS and earth observation courses of my geography bachelor program. But I had little grasp of the day-to-day of such jobs. Zero clue that some of those jobs were close to the well paying tech industry. No knowledge of the vibrant geospatial community out there. As far as I could gather from anecdotes shared by uni staff, finding decent jobs would be tough. If we were lucky, we’d most likely work in academia or a city department. I didn’t find a lot of motivation in that, my bachelor grades were pretty bad.
The turning point came when out of some mood I went to a free conference my professor had mentioned, organised by the European Space Agency. I especially enjoyed some of the presentations from industry people. They seemed like they had exciting jobs, smart but super down to earth, approachable for random questions from a student. I tried to learn more about their jobs, companies and social media. Seeing them share industry news and being passionate about new tools & technologies got me motivated to learn about those new things. I realized I could identify with these people. It set a baseline what a “successful” geospatial professional could be like.
The gist of this story is to start getting information from beyond university circles. Academia plays an important role, but there is more. And university cannot teach you about the wide range of people, companies, jobs, skills, and topics out there. Having some understanding of that range, of simple to challenging tasks, average to outstanding profiles, will let you better imagine what fulfilling work might look like to you and how to get there.
Learn about Jobs & Companies
Make it a habit to scan LinkedIn jobs & company career pages for a few minutes from time to time. Also see the EO-jobs list for geospatial job portals & resources, I would especially recommend the Geospatial Jobs newsletter.
To find interesting companies you can use the awesome-geospatial-companies list & map with around 600 companies and 800 offices worldwide working in the areas of GIS, Earth Observation, UAV, Digital Farming etc.
Find people that do cool stuff
Discovering what other people are doing gives you a better sense of what is exciting in your field. Having a few role models can give a lot of motivation and guidance. Today’s social media landscape definitely seems more dissected than a few years ago. But whatever medium you prefer you can find relevant people. I’ll just share a few accounts as examples for LinkedIn, Twitter, Mastodon, the spatial Slack community, ResearchGate etc. You can find other interesting folks by looking through peoples followers etc.
If you have unanswered questions or seek advice, don’t be scared to reach out to people via private messages or email. Obviously do your own research first. And if you don’t get a reply, don’t take it personally, everyone is busy. But you’d be surprised how approachable and helpful many people are if you send a short & concise text that makes it easy for them to help. Or they might introduce you to someone else more qualified. You will definitely remember that helping hand forever.
You don’t have to actively post or follow social media to build a career. But if you decide to be active, one tip is to share simple things that you work on anyway. People like simple, genuine insights, e.g. work progress screenshots or hands-on impressions of a new tool etc.
Go to conferences early on!
At industry or scientific conferences people meet to network and present their work & new technologies. Going there early on in your career or studies can seem quite daunting. “Will there be any other students? What clothes do you wear?” were just a few of the questions I had (some tips for first time conference goers further down below).
From the first minute at the conference I was super impressed, fancy conference center, well organised, so many topics and smart people presenting. I had no good grasp of the field yet, so I almost randomly went into sessions, from the big overview presentations about new ESA satellite missions to small-room discussions about volcano ground deformations. It was the first and important step for me to establish an imaginary range of the science, industry and people in the geospatial field. I saw that “professionals” could be young, approachable and easy to talk to. Presenters could sometimes be nervous in their talks, and some were open about it when not having the perfect answer to some audience question. Understanding that “everyone just cooks with water” and that you can do cool stuff while not necessarily being an expert yet gave me quite a bit more confidence.
- ESA Living Planet Symposium (every 3 years, free for students) — Earth observation & science focus
- FOSS4G (annually) — open source & geospatial. There are many local chapter conferences as well!
- GeoPython (annually) — A smaller conference with many workshop sessions
- ESA Polarimetry training course (annually) — Free training course over 4 days at ESA near Rome
- SAR-EdU summer school (annually) — SAR EO course near Uni Jena, in German.
Some cities also have regular geo-related Meetups. People meet after work for a few presentations, pizza and networking. A great way to get started and make some connections! A few examples: Geo DC (Washington), Geoawesomeness (Munich), Let’s Talk Spatial (Bangalore).
Summer schools are like mini-conferences with only 10–20 participants, but usually have university style lectures and hands-on workshops. They often focus on a specific topic (e.g. “Radar Earth Observation”). You can probably learn here as much in 4–5 days than in a full semester. The more intimate setting, where everyone goes together for lunch & dinner makes networking much easier. Some summer schools are free and if you sign up you will usually get a spot, there are often much less applicants than you might think.
Some tips for first time conference goers:
- Don’t put too much pressure on yourself because you don’t know anyone yet. That’s totally normal, it’s good to set realistic expectations. Just get used to the atmosphere and soak up the presentations. If you feel like it, try to have one conversation on the second day, two on the third, …
- The best way to interact with people if you don’t know anyone yet are conference poster sessions (usually in the afternoon). You walk around the hall and look for a interesting poster that is less crowded. Study it for a few minutes, and ask the author standing next to it a simple question. There is a good chance you will end up in a longer conversation about what you study/work on etc., maybe also with bystanders joining in. No poster presenter likes to stand there for 2 hours with no audience. So if you show any kind of interest, the authors usually really appreciate you. Add them to LinkedIn, next year you already know someone to look out for!
- Set up conference dates: Starting a random conversation can be tricky, especially for more introverted people. Before or during the conference, find some attendees on social media etc. (e.g. via the conference hashtag). Send them a short message like: “Hi, I saw you are giving a talk on .. at the conference. First time conference attende here, would love to learn more about this topic! Would you have time to meet for 15min during the coffee break tomorrow?” If you just openly let them know that you are new to this and it’s your intention to meet more people, you’d be surprised how many will make an effort to talk to you and introduce you to others. Some conferences now also have official initiatives for setting up random meetings between people.
- Most conferences heavily discount student tickets, some also provide travel support for participants from specific regions. There are also free conferences and workshops in the realm of ESA & other public organizations. As a student, don’t be suprised by the high costs of the normal tickets, for most participants their companies pay for tickets, accomodation and meals.
- Volunteer! Many conferences are looking for help staff. The deal is usually that you work 1–2 days of the conference, but get free entry (and sometimes even accomodation) for the whole thing. The work is usually lightweight (Preparation, Registration & info desk etc.) and is a great opportunity to meet fellow volunteer students. Highly recommended.
- The often asked question what to wear: Don’t stress. Especially with the recent influence of tech on almost every industry, no one really cares too much. Yes, at industry conferences you will see many sales & buiseness people in suites, but especially from a student visitor no one expects that. Shirt is cool, T-shirt is too. At a developer conference like Foss4G, you will see 90% of people in their day-to-day T-shirt and shorts anyway.
Work in public
If you can code, the minimal version of this is having a Github profile. Alternatives could be to write write a blogpost or instructional article and put it on medium.com. When applying for a junior role, even 1–2 small, but nicely presented public projects can set you apart. You have to realize that most applicants cvs out of university look very similar, there is little differentiation. A nice github profile can help the hiring manager to validate your skillset and enthusiasm, that’s a huge help when moving candidates to the next interview round.
If you have some university coding coursework or weekend project, voila, format it, write a nice description/readme with a “how to use this” section and put it on github. Presentation is important! No one has time to look through all of your code to figure out what this project is about. Here are some examples for attractive projects with not too much code (#1, #2). Don’t forget to share a link to your Github or other profile on your cv!