Although most students will study geography at some point during their education, you may not know what a geographer actually does. Geographer, one of the highest-paying social science jobs, is an occupation that is concerned with places, spaces, maps and much more. If you decide that geography is the major for you, then you might end up working as a physical geographer, a human geographer, a cartographer, a photogrammetrist or a scientist or researcher in other capacities.
Physical geographer isn’t just one of the major categories of geographer career paths. It’s also the type of geographer that you’re most likely to think of, especially if you automatically associate geography with maps.
The primary focus of a physical geographer is studying and mapping the physical characteristics of an area, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). A physical geographer is interested in everything from the natural water sources and plant life of an environment to the soil and landforms that make up the region.
Although the study of physical geography itself is valuable in the sense that it tells us more about the physical world around us, geographers aren’t only interested in academic knowledge. Often, they apply their research and study to practical matters of identifying useful natural resources and understanding the potential consequences of policies, programs and economic development on the physical environment.
Students interested in physical geography will likely take classes in biogeography, hydrology, climate principles, geomorphology and the geography and climates of different types of regions, such as forests, mountains and arctic regions.
Other geographers focus more on how humans use geographical space. Specialists in human geography look at the relationships between human activity the physical environment through space and time, the BLS reported.
Within the field of human geography are more specialized subdisciplines like social geography, cultural geography, historical geography, economic geography and political geography. Some human geographers focus on urban geography, or the geography of cities, while others focus on the geography of rural areas. Although human geographers look at different aspects of human organization and physical environments, they do so through the lens of geographical principles and research methods.
In a human geography concentration, you may take classes in the economic geographies of globalization, population geography, immigration and ethnic geographies and geography and tourism. Students also take courses in specific areas of the world.
Cartographer or Photogrammetrist
If the map aspect of geography is what most interests you, you may prefer to pursue a slightly different career: cartographer. Unlike geographers, cartographers don’t emphasize scientific research inquiry. They are the architecture and engineering professionals who compile information and data to develop maps, according to the BLS. This occupation overlaps with photogrammetrist, which the BLS refers to as a specialization within mapmaking that emphasizes the use of technologies to conduct satellite surveys and develop models with the help of Geographic Information System (GIS) software.
There are more than 10 times as many cartographers and photogrammetrists working in the United States than there are geographers, according to the BLS. Of the 11,800 American workers employed in this occupation, 33 percent work for local government agencies. The architectural and engineering services occupation employs 23 percent of the field. Rounding out the top five employing industries for cartographers and photogrammetrists are the industry of management, scientific and technical consulting services, state government and federal government agencies, accounting for 7 percent, 6 percent and 5 percent of employment, respectively.
The work of cartographers has changed over time, with modern cartographers working in areas such as web mapping accomplished with the help of computer programming languages and complex information presented through cartograms and flow maps.
Types of Career Opportunities for Geographers
Geographer is a small occupation, with a workforce of just 1,500 across the United States, the BLS reported. However, the opportunities that exist in this profession – particularly within the government – are surprisingly diverse.
Nearly two-thirds of all geographers work for the government, with 60 percent of this workforce finding federal government jobs and another 6 percent working for state government entities, according to the BLS. Although you might expect government jobs in geography to exist in the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, these roles also encompass so much more. As a government geographer, you could work for NASA as the Earth Observations Chief Scientist, according to O*NET, or as a research geographer and science advisor with the Department of the Interior.
The next highest employing industry for geographers is the architecture and engineering industry. In one of these roles, you might hold a job title like Geographic Information Systems Geographer, GIS Physical Scientist or Supervisory Geographer, O*NET reported.