Mapping Out a Major in Geography

If you’ve ever played classic Trivial Pursuit and easily earned every blue wedge, impressing fellow game-players with your knowledge of the world’s oceans, mountain ranges, and countries, you may gravitate toward a geography major in college. Geography studies the Earth and everything it encompasses, including its land masses, water sources, natural resources, and other topographical features. But it’s not all about the land: Geographers also study how humans fit into these landscapes (what’s known as cultural geography), examining the political and social systems found on Earth, both regionally and worldwide. You may scrutinize how different populations use an area’s land, for example, or how a natural disaster affected a particular region and its inhabitants.

What do geography majors work on in school?

Your coursework in college will likely be a mix of basic physical geography and Earth system science (including hydrology, oceanography, climate systems, and meteorology, among other possibilities) and cultural geography, including studying political systems, environmental issues, and social constructs around the world. You’ll also study specific methodology for qualifying and quantifying your findings, including cartography, statistical methods, and Geographic Information Systems, or GIS. Hands-on fieldwork in addition to classroom studies will be an important part of your work.

Because jobs in this field are increasingly becoming interdisciplinary, it helps if you’re able to pinpoint what path you’d like to take early on during your college years so you can then take supplemental classes—perhaps taking real estate or economics courses, for example.

So where can you expect a geography major to take you?

Students with geography degrees have plenty of career paths to choose from.

Naturally, you can opt to go for the namesake job and become a geographer in a variety of capacities, either for federal government (where the majority of jobs fall), state governments, engineering firms, or in academia doing research; you’ll likely need a degree beyond the bachelor’s to nab a job in the latter category, either in geography or in Geographic Information Systems, or GIS (certification, while not required, can also show you’re well versed in GIS).

Other related careers that a geography undergrad major can lead to include:

• Cartographer (mapmaking)

• Demographer (studying human populations)

• Geopolitical analyst

• Surveyor

• Housing development manager

• Emergency management supervisor

• Environmental consultant

• Urban planner

• Real estate appraiser or broker

• High school or college geography instructor

• Soil or water conservationist

A geography degree can put you on the paycheck map.

As there are various paths you can take with this major under your belt, there’s no one salary range to note. But respectably paid careers can be had: Straight-up geographers earned a median annual salary of nearly $75,000 in 2016, while surveyors and cartographers hover around the $60,000 mark (both jobs also forecast a faster-than-average job outlook between 2016 and 2026).

You can help a business boost its bottom line.

By specializing in the economics of geography, you can help find ideal sites for a particular company, brainstorm on what parts of the country or world a certain product or service will sell best, or even figure out the most efficient way to deliver a product or service. Your knowledge of a region’s demographics, consumer habits, and local fuel costs, for instance, can help catapult you into a valued position with a company seeking out market share in today’s competitive business environment.

By studying the past, you can guarantee a better future.

Checking out the evolution of a landscape or people in a particular region can lend insight into what changes those landscapes have undergone over the years, and what benefits or disadvantages those changes wrought. By studying and sussing out patterns, you can help predict the future ways people will interact with the land they live on and determine how to fend off or mitigate such issues as overpopulation and climate change. Your work may also help better allocate how the world’s precious natural resources are allotted and used—an area of growing concern.

You may choose to indulge your sense of adventure.

Your geography knowledge can be put to use helping communities worldwide, perhaps going to work for organizations such as the Peace Corps, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, or the Red Cross. With a geography major, you’ll be able to bring to these groups specialized knowledge on how people embedded in certain regions affect their land, whether it’s through their agricultural methods, migration patterns, or just their day-to-day living routines. In this type of role, you’ll get to learn about different cultures—always a plus in our increasingly globalized world.

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