At a Glance
Imagine moving down a rocky beach toward a blue line of water. You check the virtual tour's altimeter and compass, then spin 360 degrees to take a good look around. You are a geographer and this virtual tour is part of a computer model replicating one of the small Arctic islands in the Foxe Basin.
While the tour might be fun for armchair polar adventurers, you are more interested in the model as a demonstration tool. Your work as a geographer over the past few years has involved modelling the effects of climate change on Canada's Arctic coastlines and coastal communities. This model is the culmination of your research, demonstrating the catastrophic results of global warming on these northern islands. As a geographer, you model the effects of climate change on physical features such as Arctic coastlines. You began your research by consulting historical information, poring over old photos and maps to gather as much data as you could. You then compared the archival data to current information to begin mapping the evolution of these coastlines.
Through this comparison process, you identified changes in coastal geomorphology, in particular areas susceptible to soil erosion. You then began incorporating meteorological records and correlating changing weather patterns to physical changes, for example, the movement of sea-ice packs. You used remote sensing equipment to gather current meteorological data, such as temperatures and wind patterns, as well as topographic data, such as elevation. Using this information and your skills as a geographer, you constructed a computer model to predict the physical changes in Arctic coastlines if global warming continues at its current rate.
Duties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as a geographer:
- Advise governments, developers, and other organizations on environmental, social, and economic issues.
- Prepare maps, graphs, and other visual tools for displaying geographical information.
- Develop information systems for storing, interpreting, and displaying geographical data.
- Consult with all levels of government on different site planning, for example designating heritage sites.
- Conduct research relating to climate, landforms, environmental conditions, transportation, urban development, population, welfare services, industry, or geographical regions, including writing reports and presenting research findings.
- Collect and analyze information on communities, people, and the environment.
- Interpret business patterns for real estate developers and retail companies and coordinate marketing plans.
- Assist other companies and researchers to identify, acquire, and use geographical information.
- Integrate data, both qualitative and quantitative, using geographical referencing techniques.
- Collaborate with community decision- and policy-makers on important local issues, for example, water risks, oil and gas exploration, and land claims.
Geographers work in a variety of locations, including, but not limited to:
In the office:
- Collecting and analyzing qualitative and quantitative data for reporting
- Researching literature and drafting models
- Communicating on the phone and in meetings with clients, government departments, and the public
- Researching new technology and advancements in geography, and consulting with other geographers and professionals
In the field:
- Conducting land- and community-based surveys
- Inspecting ongoing projects and conducting assessments
- Conducting key informant interviews, focus groups, and participant observation
In the lab:
- Processing field samples and generating data
- Analyzing archival material
Where to Work
- Federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal government departments
- Colleges, universities, and research institutes
- Environmental and engineering consulting firms
- Cartography labs, surveying, hydrographic, and computer mapping companies
- Museums, archives, and libraries
- Planning and economic development agencies
- Conservation authorities
- Not-for-profit, non-governmental, and international organizations
Education and Skills
In most cases, the minimum education requirement to work as a geographer is a university undergraduate degree. Geography can be studied as a Bachelor of Arts program (human geography) or a Bachelor of Science program (physical geography). The following post-secondary programs are most applicable to a career in this field:
- Environmental science
- Environmental earth science
- Geographical information systems
- Urban and regional planning
- Environmental planning
Certification is not mandatory for geographers, but many practitioners choose to belong to the Canadian Association of Geographers (CAG). If you are a high school student considering a career as a geographer, you should have a strong interest in:
- Social studies
While still a senior in high school I signed up for a course in visual landscape perception at Harvard University’s summer school. The professor introduced me to a new way of looking at geography. I had never before considered how the space we are in affects who we are. These new concepts of the way people act in different spaces stimulated my interest, however, it was not until later that I pursued geography in a dedicated way. My next encounter with the topic of cultural geography occurred during my undergraduate study at the University of Toronto.
I chose an elective course called “Modern Urban Landscapes” because it appeared to be on the same topic as the one I had taken at Harvard summer school. My curiosity for the elective course grew and I abandoned my degree in International Development to continue undergraduate studies in social anthropology at Dalhousie University in Halifax. This is where I began to think about geography in a serious way even though the university had no geography department. I focused on feminist geography, which contemplates the relationship between space, identity, race, and gender.
When I was offered a scholarship to study these complex issues for my Ph.D. at University London College in the United Kingdom I felt I had found my intellectual home. Academic positions in the United States, Australia, and Canada as well as consulting contracts contributed to my experience base and I now work with interesting people doing exciting work in inclusive geographies and the environmental fields.
The work I do to create research papers helps me to stay up with the new information in my area of expertise. I also attend conferences, read extensively, and interact with colleagues to share information and discuss topics of mutual interest. I have also been fortunate to have mentors and advisors who provide valuable advice as well as scholarly support for my work. Social/cultural geography is a very wide field.
There is great potential and I like to think, “geographers can do anything”. My personal aspirations for the future include a hope that more diversity of people and especially more women of mixed racial and cultural backgrounds will enter the field of geography. We need this range of perspectives to expand our abilities to solve the problems of today and the future. One of the things I intend to do is continue to teach and research the topic of multicultural geography as well as write a book on the subject.
To begin a career in geography you need to be open to new ideas, eager and excited to think about the environment in new ways. Try to get the right mentors and choose your academic and professional leaders with care. The right leader will make a big difference to your experience in this field. The academic credentials are important of course, however, the personal attributes of determination and high standards will prove valuable in the long term.
It is a challenge to ensure my approach to work maintains a relationship to large and small spaces. I talk about geography all the time and communicate how the spaces where things happen relate to the environment. Other geographers take a more traditional approach to their role in geography. My emphasis is on how the element of space has an effect on day-to-day interactions. I enjoy the fascinating discussions that come out of my interactions with colleagues and clients.
As a professor, I am encouraged by the students in my classes who have a commitment to make the world a better place. During my travels, I also meet many interesting people and see different cultures. On a daily basis, all of the elements of my geographical interests are involved. People are part of the environment. It is important to consider not only how people affect the environment but also how the environment affects people.
My efforts to express my ideas on how our identities shift with changes in location have had multiple benefits. The most obvious is the growing acceptance of the concepts of multicultural geography. Another is the emerging trend for women to express their opinions in these areas and for these opinions to positively enhance both the people involved and the environment.