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California State University, Long Beach
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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 four ways:

  • 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 scientists.
  • 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
    Newport-Inglewood Fault.
  • 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 questions.

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.


Physical Geography

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.


Human Geography

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 states’ problems.

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 cartography, too.

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 information systems.

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 field.

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: