Geography is a very diverse field, which means that the kinds of jobs people
do vary like crazy and that affects the specific curriculum they take.
Geography resembles anthropology in that its subject matter covers both the
natural sciences and the social sciences (unnatural sciences?), as well as a
specific range of techniques (e.g., GIS, cartography, remote sensing, and
spatial statistics). Geography has been defined in any one of the following
- Geography is the study of the relationships between society and nature,
how people alter their physical environment and how the physical environment
can impact human society. This definition of geography insists that
geographers have to work at becoming both natural scientists and social
- Geography is the study of the regional differentiation of the earth's
surface. This definition is not very strong today but, even so, it expected
that you would learn about both the natural environment and the social
environment of a given region of interest.
- Geography is the study of the spatial distribution of particular
phenomena. This definition is the one that most readily lets people
specialize, often quite narrowly. You can decide to be strictly a natural
scientist, interested, for example, in the distribution and orientation of
ventifacts in the Mojave or the distribution and ecological dynamics of a
particular vegetative association in the Santa Monica Mountains.
Alternatively, you could decide to be a strictly social scientist, studying,
for example, how a given religion came to dominate a particular region and its
impact on geopolitics. You could study how the distribution of particular
demographic groups might affect the locational strategy of a corporation
interested in providing goods or services to that group. If you like, you can
blend the natural sciences and the social sciences, studying, for example, the
social and spatial distribution of deaths due to a moderate earthquake on the
- Geography is the study of Planet Earth as the home of humanity. This
is the oldest tradition in geography and it is very much a natural science.
No human geographer would feel comfortable with this definition. A lot of
physical geographers, those studying rivers, tectonics, aeolian processes,
weather, climates, and vegetation, are attracted to this definition. Many of
them, in fact, feel that geography took the wrong offramp about a hundred and
thirty years ago or so, when some geographers began to explore social science
So, sprawling across the natural and social sciences and creating all sorts of
unique techniques, geography is extremely diverse. A geographer has to pick a
subject of interest and then choose classes that will get him or her the
training they need to do that kind of geography.
What I'd like to do is review some of the kinds of jobs various kinds of
geographers are doing.
Geography used to be a strictly academic discipline -- most people trained in
it went on to become teachers or professors. That is no longer the case,
though a lot of geographers remain interested in teaching and academic
research. There are loads of geographers working in government agencies, a
trend that really got going about fifty years or so ago. For the last thirty
years, a lot of geographers have been finding work in the private sector.
Those of you interested in physical geography (what we call the natural
science end of geography) might find yourselves working in a government
agency, studying some aspect of the natural environment. For example, there
are quite a few geographers working in NASA or for NASA projects. Most of
these are doing work in the Earth Science Enterprise area, such as Dr. Chris
Lee who runs the RESAC here. A few, however, also work in projects about
Mars. There are a lot of geographers working at the USGS, EPA, NOAA, the
National Park Service, the State Department of Water Resources, the Los
Angeles City Department of Water and Power, the US Navy studying coastal
geomorphology, in short, a variety of government agencies at the Federal,
State, and local levels. These people are doing various natural science
functions, such as monitoring and tracking water and air pollutants, mapping
vegetation, monitoring climate change, predicting the behavior and direction
of a wildfire, specifying which areas are likely to be flooded in a "100 year
flood," or tracking a disease outbreak in montane forests in New Mexico.
If you are interested in this kind of work and wish to concentrate in physical
geography, you should prepare yourself by taking a lot of physical geography
and geology or biology courses, depending on your specific interests. It is
necessary to acquire a good grounding in the basic physical principles
underlying these higher level sciences, so it would be a good idea to take
some physics and chemistry as well. All the sciences communicate with one
another through a mathematical language of one form or another, so do not put
off acquiring a good background in algebra at a minimum and, ideally, calculus
and/or statistics as well. What will make you very competitive as a physical
geographer is picking up all the geotechniques: GIS, cartography, remote
sensing, and spatial statistics. Take every opportunity to get out into the
field as well: Your future job will involve field work or depend on analogies
with field experiences.
Those of you interested in how the environment and society interact or how
some aspect of human society works may be more drawn to human geography. This
is the social science end of geography.
Government sector work
A lot of human geographers also work in government agencies. A very large
percentage of urban and regional planners are geographers, as are
environmental planners. They work in city and county planning agencies,
updating general plan elements for cities, for example, and deciding whether a
variance should be granted to an existing plan to allow a land-use not fully
anticipated in an older general plan. They analyze problems likely to affect
an area, such as whether the population is growing or not, where new housing
needs to go, what sorts of infrastructure problems will be created by new
growth, whether there is a fair mix of housing types available to cut down on
discrimination. They try to bring in physical constraints that a city or
region has to face, such as earthquakes, floods, mudslides, wildfires, and
drought. Many are involved with environmental impact assessment, as well.
There are a lot of geographers at FEMA, too, working at the Federal
level to reduce Americans' risk of being victimized by a natural or
technological disaster. Most states also have governor's offices of emergency
management, doing a lot of things that FEMA does, but targeted to their own
If shaping social policy toward environmental and human
problems appeals to you, then you should study all aspects of human geography
(e.g., cultural geography, social geography, urban geography, economic
geography), basic physical geography, the regional geography of the areas in
which you'd like to work, and take lots of classes in related fields, such as
political science, public administration, sociology, and economics or,
possibly, the natural sciences. A large part of your work will involve
quantitative analysis, so, again, I would not shy away from math, especially
algebra and statistics. Virtually every planning department at every level of
government is now using GIS, so, again, I'd encourage you to take GIS and
Private sector work
Other human geographers work in the private sector. Certain businesses have
become very familiar with what geographers can do: banking, real-estate
development, major retailers, the tourism industry, and utilities, especially.
It is very common for them to analyze population growth and redistribution
trends, to help businesses optimize their networks of stores or branches or
lines. This is, in fact, an area in which geographers are commanding large
entry salaries. If this appeals to you, again, I'd recommend taking GIS,
cartography, and statistics, as well as courses in economic geography and
population geography. It would be very helpful if you also took some courses
in market area analysis, data base management, programming, and/or management
There are also many environmental consulting firms. They do things like write
environmental impact assessments for client companies to help them design
developments that will have the best probability of getting through permitting
by local or state agencies. If working in this milieu and doing environmental
work is attractive to you, I'd prepare much like a physical geographer but
also include some economic and urban geography, because EIAs often include
assessment of traffic impacts and other social phenomena.
Some Other Things
Another thing you should really work on in college, no matter what sort of
geographer or geologist or anthropologist you wish to become, is writing.
Virtually every professional, scientific, or managerial job depends on your
ability to write concisely, very well, and very fast. Writing does not come
to most people easily -- you have to work at it. Take the standard-issue
English classes. Additionally, look for writing-oriented classes in your
Something else that will really help you understand the job market and
motivate you to acquire needed skills in the area you'd like to work in
eventually is an internship. It looks great on your résumé,
helps you get a sense of the "real world" and what it needs of you, and gets
you into professional networks that will help you find work later on. The
Geography Department here runs a very strong internship program, which Dr.
Christine Jocoy runs.
I could only just barely scratch the surface here. The Association of
American Geographers has a very nice web page about "Careers in Geography,"
and it is well worth surfing around in:
first placed on web: 07/27/02
last revised: 02/01/13