GIS skills: definitions and examples (with languages)

Updated 22 December 2022

Geographic information systems (GIS) are databases containing terrain data and other geographic features that analysts use to analyse, map and manipulate data. Working with GIS for research and analysis requires specialised skills that you can highlight on a professional CV to demonstrate that you're a suitable candidate for GIS roles. If you're preparing to apply for such positions, understanding which skills are most helpful can help you decide what types of jobs you want to pursue.

In this article, we define GIS skills, provide five examples of skills you can improve with tips on how to do it and explain how to highlight these skills in your CV, cover letter and during interviews.

What are GIS skills?

GIS skills are any proficiencies or knowledge that help you use GIS. Since this requires specialist knowledge of both software and raw data, most abilities that are useful for GIS involve data processing and computing. A GIS specialist generally knows how to handle raw data using coding languages and how to terrain, generate maps and draw conclusions with that data. They also use a broader skill set for presenting information to others, researching data sets and making propositions according to their analyses.

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5 examples of skills for GIS

Any skills that help you better comprehend the computing principles and data systems behind GIS or allow you to use this data in a corporate or research context are beneficial. Below is a list of skills that are essential for working with GIS daily:

1. GIS software proficiency

The essential proficiency you can gain is an in-depth understanding of how to use GIS software, how it works and what its purpose is. These professionals take raw datasets and use GIS environments to analyse or model them and generate graphic outputs. GIS serves as an interface between raw data and graphical representations, which you can instruct with manual processes or scripts. Understanding how to control this relationship with a GIS environment is the primary skill GIS professionals learn.

Related: How to become an urban planner (skills and requirements)

2. Coding languages

Knowledge of coding languages compatible with GIS data and systems is a fundamental skill. For example, Python is an essential programming language for anybody using ArcGIS or similar software to map because it gives you more control than others. Python is also relevant for remote sensing and data analysis. Since Python is a straightforward and beginner-friendly coding language, it's a good one to start with if you have no previous coding experience.

Related: A guide to SQL vs Python (with tips and definitions)

3. Spatial analysis

Spatial analysis includes formal techniques that analyse things through their geographical, topographical or geometric properties. A GIS professional uses data management and modelling to spatially analyse artificial and natural structures as part of their work. This includes man-made features like roads, water pipes, electrical lines and settlements or natural ones like rock formations and hills. Understanding spatial analysis is fundamental to understanding GIS since it provides an interface for raw geographical data and imaging.

Related: How to become a geospatial analyst in 4 steps (with skills)

4. Research

GIS professionals source raw data in various file formats for generating figures and images. Locating this data from appropriate and legitimate channels can sometimes require patience and involve many compatibility adjustments. It's sometimes necessary for professionals to submit applications for using and publishing certain data sources and navigate intellectual property issues. As a result, GIS professionals cultivate strong research skills, an understanding of what constitutes a reliable data source and the ability to apply statistics responsibly and critically.

Related: Primary research vs secondary research: a comparison

5. Statistics

Knowing what best practices and fundamental statistics are is critical to effectively using data responsibly. GIS uses qualitative and quantitative data from biased sources to generate models that can support high-stakes conclusions. As a professional in this field, make sure you learn how to use statistics responsibly, calculate things properly and reach unbiased conclusions. These abilities make you a valuable asset to your employers and projects.

Related: How to calculate uncertainty (plus definition and jobs)

How to improve skills for GIS

If you feel like you could improve your skills in general or want to prepare for GIS roles, there are some simple steps you can follow. Below are some tips for improving your GIS proficiencies:

1. Gain additional GIS qualifications

If you feel you could improve your GIS skills, start by pursuing additional, relevant qualifications. These include degrees, courses, certificates and other resources that teach you how to perform GIS analysis and implement it during projects. If you can't find a course specific to GIS, consider learning about a GIS element, such as geography or geology.

Related: What can you do with a geography degree? (With salary info)

2. Get more experience

To build your skills, try to gain more experience implementing GIS in the workplace or on projects. Continuously using GIS approaches allows you to improve your knowledge and proficiency and reduce time executing tasks. You might also find opportunities to learn from other professionals.

3. Perform better initial research

If you struggle to generate usable results, consider researching more reliable data sets and refining your approach. This can improve the outputs of your processes and facilitate better graphic generation. Researching is its own skill that can substantially affect your entire performance on a project.

4. Learn to code

Learning fundamental coding languages and machine approaches to GIS can help you automate parts of the process. Using scripts and other code-based approaches accelerates tasks and offers you additional control over their parameters. Some of the most useful and widely compatible languages for GIS scripts include Python, R and Visual Basic.

GIS skills in the workplace

While it's easy to learn GIS basics and implement them in projects, understanding how to use them in the workplace can be challenging. The following are some tips for applying the relevant proficiencies in the workplace:

  • Improve software knowledge. Using GIS for business solutions sometimes creates obstacles or situations that require you to relearn systems to succeed. Find online resources for GIS and coding languages to improve your skills, overcome challenges and maintain a flexible approach.

  • Note reliable sources. Many organisations have specific sites and organisations they rely on for geographic data. Note these reliable sources and any appropriate permissions to use this data for practice or to test new approaches.

  • Use a hybrid approach. When using GIS for businesses or organisations, there may be specific guidelines for the appearance of end results. Use a hybrid approach of scripts and a front-end low-code to generate results that adhere to organisational guidelines yet benefit from your expert coding knowledge.

  • Communicate results. Communicating the results of geographical data analysis to others is a difficult skill that GIS professionals develop throughout their careers. Use graphs, figures and charts to explain data and findings effectively to non-specialists.

How to highlight GIS skills

You can highlight your GIS abilities by describing how you have leveraged them to complete projects in an appropriate environment according to your purpose. Below are some ideas for where and how to demonstrate different GIS proficiencies in your applications:

GIS skills for a CV

The best skills to focus on in GIS CVs are those that you can explain with brief descriptions, as a CV is a snapshot of your career and benefits from being concise. Try to list any specific GIS tools, such as ArcGIS or GeoPandas, to demonstrate the types of resources you're familiar with and can use comfortably. Your CV is also ideal for listing your coding proficiencies, such as Python, SQL, Visual Basic and R.

Related: 10 essential archaeologist CV skills (plus examples)

GIS skills for a cover letter

Use your cover letter to provide a sense of your knowledge of geographical and statistical theory, as these concepts are more complicated and can require elaboration. Provide detailed explanations of the aspects of geography you specialise in, such as landslides, volcanos or topography, so that employers understand what theory knowledge you could bring to the role. You can also elaborate more on complex mathematical knowledge and approaches you use. This demonstrates your understanding of the technical side of GIS for them.

GIS skills for an interview

Use the interview stage of an application process to have in-depth discussions about any more complex proficiencies or specialisms you have. Employers may want to learn more about the specific skills you developed on projects or in dedicated modules. You can also use the interview to ask what abilities the employer values and what systems they use. This can help you explain what you already understand about those topics or how your existing knowledge is transferrable.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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