Geographic information systems (GIS) are a broad category that offer a wealth of useful tools. Applied across a variety of industries, GIS can be used to create multi-layered maps and conduct impressive geospatial analysis.
However, if you're new to the concept and simply looking to learn GIS - it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.
This guide explores different options for learning GIS, offering resources to help you get started. From getting a GIS degree, to professional GIS certification, to self-led free online courses - we’ll break down all the options.
New to GIS? Understand the basics with our overview guide Intro to GIS: What It Is and How to Get Started.
Higher Education: Get a Degree in GIS
If you're looking to start a career in GIS, or just prefer a structured educational setting - pursuing a degree in GIS could be the right choice.
One thing to keep in mind: though there are many bachelor's degrees with a GIS component, very few undergraduate programs focus on GIS exclusively. Most people complete a degree in a related field, like geography or environmental science, first.
One common suggestion is to get your feet wet by taking GIS as an elective. Make sure it's something you're really interested in, and then consider specializing with a master's in GIS.
If you're really committed to focusing on GIS right away, there are a few options.
Harrisburg University in Pennsylvania offers a Bachelor's of Science in Geospatial Technology, and Northern Arizona University has an undergraduate degree in Geographic Sciences - with the option to choose an emphasis in geospatial technologies.
If you're serious about pursuing a career in GIS, you should consider working towards a master's. Not all GIS positions require a master's; however, having one will strengthen your resume considerably.
According to EnrivonmentalScience.org, there are 138 on-campus graduate programs currently available in the U.S. Be sure to consider your finances, lifestyle, and learning style when weighing which GIS program is right for you.
As with anything, formal GIS education has upsides and downsides.
- A more competitive resume
- Structured educational setting
- Well-rounded, comprehensive curriculum
- Most expensive option
- Significant time investment
- Set schedule constraints
Is a GIS degree worth it? That’s up to you to decide.
Simply put, a degree in GIS is the path to employment in the industry. If you want a career in GIS, you should consider a degree very seriously.
If you already have a degree in GIS, but want to further your knowledge, skills, and career - you may want to consider a professional GIS certification.
GIS Professional Certifications
GIS certification is meant for professionals who've already started their GIS career. If you're still just learning and are looking for GIS tutorials and other online resources - skip to the next section.
If you've already started your GIS career, GIS certification can help you learn specialized skills and differentiate you from the competition.
There are two main GIS certifications that employers look for: GISP and Esri Technical Certification.
Geographic Information Systems Professional (GISP)
Of the two, GISP is the more recognized certification.
Earning the GISP requires:
- At least four years of full-time, professional GIS experience
- A proven track record of contributions to the GIS community
- Formal GIS education
- A passing grade on the GISCI Geospatial Core Technical Knowledge Exam
The focus on professional and volunteer experience is one of the main things that differentiates GISP from the Esri Technical Certification.
Esri Technical Certification
The Esri Technical Certification is exam-based, focusing almost exclusively on technical skill acquisition.
There three types of Esri Technical Certifications: Desktop, Developer, and Enterprise. Each of these three test types has two levels of potential achievement: Associate or Professional.
People generally choose one area of focus and take only those certification tests.
This certification is also focused exclusively on Esri GIS software and technology.
GIS Geography provides a full breakdown on both certifications if you want to learn more.
Learn GIS Online for Free
If you want to learn GIS on your own, the DIY route is always an option.
There are tons of resources available online, including self-paced online tutorials, courses on GIS fundamentals, online textbooks, and more.
There are significant advantages to this approach: it's free and you have more freedom. Focus on the sub-topics that interest you most, and take lessons when you have the time.
Something to keep in mind is that free resources often aren't as comprehensive, and won't have the same (if any) professional weight.
However, even with these limitations, free resources can still help you build a strong GIS foundation.
Free resources to learn GIS online
- Fundamentals of GIS - UC Davis, Hosted on Coursera
- Maps and the Geospatial Revolution - Penn State, Hosted on Coursera
- 55 GIS courses - Coursera
- Essentials of Geographic Information Systems - Online Textbook
- Nature of Geographic Information Systems - Online Textbook
- 5 Lectures on QGIS, GRASS, and Inkscape - FOSS 4G Geoacademy
- Learn GIS for Free (Focused on open-source) - Link compilation, OSGeo
- Esri Tutorials & Web Courses - Esri, 330+ courses
(Check the box that says 'Free' to narrow your search)
Even if you end up opting for formal GIS education - it never hurts to check out free resources first.
Additional GIS Learning Resources
So far we've covered the main categories for potential GIS education, but if none of those sound appealing - there are a few other options.
There are plenty of paid online GIS classes, or if you want to take things a little old school - there are tons of quality GIS books that can help you learn new skills.
We've included these paid online options, as well as two lists of recommended GIS books below.
- Esri Tutorials & Web Courses - Esri, 280+ paid classes
- 520 GIS related courses - Lynda.com ($29.99/month)
As you can see, there are numerous ways to learn GIS. From a GIS degree, to a professional certification, to learning GIS online - the options are plentiful.
What’s the best way to learn GIS? Answer that question by considering your ultimate goal.
If you want a GIS career, go the traditional route with a four year undergraduate degree, followed by a master’s. This is the best way to ensure you get the right knowledge, and a credible educational foundation.
If you’re just looking to test the waters, or learn something new for fun - online courses are a fantastic option. There is so much knowledge readily available for free.
Best of luck on your road to learning GIS, and in your potential GIS career!
Get your feet wet in GIS today
To jumpstart your journey, don't miss our articles on the best GIS data collection tools and free GIS software.