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Profiles of Geographers

Learn more about geography as a field of study and about geography careers from profiles of geographers working in education, business, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies. Read about why they chose to pursue geography and how a career can be exciting, meaningful, and successful!

 

June 2021


Dan Cole, GIS Coordinator & Chief Cartographer, Smithsonian Institution

Education: M.A. in Geography (Michigan State University), B.A. in Geography (SUNY Albany)

 

 Describe your job. What are some of the most important tasks or duties for which you are responsible? The most important aspects of my job include: 1) teaching staff on the use of GIS; 2) cartographic and GIS research for a variety of academic subjects (history, art, paleobiology, geology, anthropology/archaeology, botany, invertebrate and vertebrate zoology, and entomology); 3) static, animated and interactive map production for over 20 temporary and permanent exhibits; and 4) administration of GIS and remote sensing software packages for our staff. This includes dealing with various geospatial companies in negotiating academic pricing on software and services, which has enabled the Smithsonian to pursue geospatial research at a lower cost.

What attracted you to this career path? As a young adult, I wanted to stay connected to academia since I enjoyed conducting cartographic research, teaching, and production. I applied for jobs at universities and research centers, even if they weren’t advertising openings.  I ended up hearing from one of their cartographic contractors that the Smithsonian Institution (SI) planned to hire a research cartographer at the National Museum of Natural History, so I applied and was hired in 1986.  Four years later, my position evolved into the GIS Coordinator for SI. My service now covers over 400 GIS and satellite image processing users, in addition to over 500 story map developers and writers, including staff with very little knowledge of geography, cartography or GIS.

How has your education/background in geography prepared you for this position? As a geographer, I’m able to jump between projects in a wide variety of academic subjects and provide input on spatial analysis that may not occur to the other scientists. After all, geography intersects nearly every other field, whether in biogeography, physical geography, or cultural geography. My educational background has enabled me to participate as an author, co-author, editor, book reviewer, and map GIS judge.

What geographic skills and information do you use most often in your work? What general skills and information do you use most often? Cartography is the primary skill that I use most often.  Proper cartographic design is imperative to graphically communicating what our scientists want to convey to other scientists in academic publications and to the public in the exhibits.  For GIS, I frequently need to seek out additional layers of spatial data that can help describe why collections and artifacts are found where they are, or why some biological features have moved/are moving/will move due to climate change or other human and environmental changes.

Are there any skills or information you need for your work that you did not obtain through your academic training? If so, how/where did you obtain them? The primary skills that I need but didn’t get in my academic training involve getting started with and staying up-to-date with various software packages, as well as being current with any new programs or add-on modules that help our staff in their research.  Over the years, I have taken hundreds of hours of in-class and online training sessions so that I can, in turn, train staff to use the software or provide consultations to staff on any problems dealing with the software.

Do you participate in hiring, screening, or training new employees? If so, what qualities and/or skills do you look for? While I have been asked on occasion (very infrequently) to sit on a review committee that recommends who should be hired, being a staff of one person, I don’t have anyone (other than interns and volunteers) to supervise.  Nonetheless, I have continually provided GIS training for new and existing staff, volunteers, interns, contractors, and research associates over the past 30 years.

What advice would you give to someone interested in a job like yours? The advice that I give to nearly everyone who is interested in a cartographic/GIS position is: while you’re still in school, plan to get a minor or double major in the field that interests you.  That is, if you’re interested in wildlife or conservation biology, get a background in zoology and/or botany; if you’re interested in anthropology, geology or paleobiology, minor in one of those fields.  If you’re happy as a GIS technician/programmer, minor or double major in computer science.  Regardless, get a broad-based education that enables you to serve your clients in any field.  Join various professional and academic organizations like AAG, CaGIS, ASPRS, NACIS, SCGIS, and so forth to expose yourself to others’ work that is within your interest.

What is the occupational outlook for career opportunities in your field/organization, esp. for geographers? The career opportunities in both GIS and cartography continue to be great.  Check with https://www.gjc.org/, https://www.gisjobs.com/, https://www.mygisjobs.com/, https://www.geosearch.com/,  https://www.esri.com/en-us/about/careers/https://hexagon.com/about/careers, https://careers.pitneybowes.com/, https://www.indeed.com/, https://www.usajobs.gov/, etc.

Share Your Experience

The AAG is conducting a new series of interviews with professional geographers to highlight the important work geographers perform in their careers. Once completed, the interviews will be featured on the AAG's website as part of our monthly Profiles of Professional Geographers series. 

For the profiles we seek practicing geographers representing all sectors of the workforce, including those working in private business, government (state, regional, local and federal), nonprofit/NGOs, and education (K-12, community colleges, and higher ed) to showcase the broad range of career opportunities available to geographers.

If interested, please email Mark Revell at mrevell@aag.org or call 202-234-1450, ext. 165.

We hope you will consider participating!  

 

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