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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!


February 2018

Leslie McLees, Undergraduate Coordinator & Instructor, University of Oregon Department of Geography

Education: Ph.D. in Geography (University of Oregon), M.A. in Geography (University of Hawaii), B.S. in Zoology (Washington State University)


What attracted you to a career in education? I enjoy connecting students with the larger world, whether through their courses or their path through college. I do not aim to make them think a certain way, but to expose them to the breadth of perspectives and futures available to them. In doing so, I hope to enhance our society, and while it may sound cheesy, make the world a better place. I strive to be an engaging advisor and instructor who help my students’ draw from their own experiences to understand their world and their futures in it.

How has your education/background in geography prepared you for this position? My background and education in geography has allowed me to view the world and its seemingly unrelated processes and interactions through different perspectives. Power, processes, and systems are part of our everyday lives, and I try to bring this approach inside the classroom and advising sessions. The places I’ve seen and the people I’ve met throughout my career in geography have given me the skills to reach varied student populations, to reflect upon my own practices, and to bring students together and prepare them for the future. 

What geographic skills and information do you use most often in your work? What general skills and information do you use most often in your work? When I teach, I use spatial thinking to understand the local and global experiences of my students. When I advise my students, I provide career advice and determine what type of work might be best suited to their skillset. My background in cartography helps me in creating media advertisements, and my background in qualitative/survey fieldwork has helped me develop our program. I have found that the level of appreciation of differences in perspectives, whether they are held by my students or colleagues, is something that geographers are particularly well-suited for. I have also found that non-geographers appreciate the relevance of geography without realizing what the field truly is, and effective visual representation of problems is important in gaining support from those outside of academic geography. My ability to represent important issues spatially has gained plenty of visibility for our department and programs; for instance, people understand the importance of human-environment issues, but don’t realize how well-suited geographers are in addressing such issues (until I tell them). 

Generally, the two main skills I use daily are critical thinking and effective communication. Critical thinking skills are important in asking questions, whether they be how to recruit more people into our classes and programs, how to best prepare my students for life after college, and so on. Effective communication is valuable in meetings, as an instructor, with my students, and in conveying information in any capacity. Other valuable skills for geographers are the ability to creatively form solutions to problems, to adapt to new environments, to represent data visually, and a good sense of teamwork and ethics on the job. 

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? Within my role as a career/academic advisor, I needed to learn the bureaucracy of requirements. This type of knowledge and level of detail is something I’ve developed from experience training and working with professional advisors. Since my background is in academia rather than professional advising, I try to bridge the gap between these two worlds, and have found that professional advisors are more than willing to help me learn more about their skillset. 

Do you participate in hiring, screening, or training of new employees? If so, what qualities and/or skills do you look for? Yes, I have been involved in hiring office staff and faculty for our department. I look for effective communication skills, and a professional and outgoing demeanor when interacting with others. We look for people who can engage with our students regardless of their background, both inside the classroom and administratively. A promising candidate also possesses critical and creative thinking skills both in the classroom and in the office. 

What do you find most interesting/challenging/inspiring about your work? I would say the greatest challenge in my work would be dealing with the bureaucracy and details of advising. The most inspiring, and what keeps me paying attention to the details, is knowing the students. I not only go over requirements with them, but help them develop and articulate their goals and progress within their own bigger picture, which helps in finding programs and opportunities best suited to their goals. Perhaps a challenge has been that as an advisor, I haven’t been trained in helping to resolve other types of problems my students might have, such as mental health concerns. Students should feel safe with their advisor, as we are often the first people they come to with problems. I find a deep satisfaction in helping students navigate their challenges and connecting them with the resources our university provides.

What advice would you give someone interested in a job like yours? To gain professional advising skills, one can either take classes, or assist/shadow someone on the job. I’d suggest conducting informational interviews to see if this is the right fit for you. The key to any career path is to make strategic connections; personally, I have a strong connection with my department having earned my PhD here, and after I left, I was able to draw upon that connection to find the position I’m in now, when I decided a tenure-track job was not what I wanted. I would also say a strong background in the disciplines, meaningful connections, and relationships with students are very important in this type of work. 

What is the occupational outlook for career opportunities in your field/organization, esp. for geographers? Universities recognize that students need more help navigating higher education today, and they are hiring and training more people to advise students. I would encourage anyone interested in advising to seek training in career and academic advising, to better help students articulate their skills outside of the classroom. Though geographers gain valuable skills in getting their degree, many liberal arts programs lacked the help students need to translate these skills outside of the classroom. Employers value the skills that students have—many students just need some help in articulating them.  


Pete Chirico, Research Geographer & Associate Director of the Eastern Geology and Paleoclimate Science Center at U.S. Geological Survey

Education: Current Ph.D. Student in Geography & Environmental Systems (University of Maryland Baltimore County), M.A. in Geography (University of South Carolina), B.A. in Geography (Mary Washington College)

Describe your job. What are some of the most important tasks or duties for which you are responsible? My time is currently split between scientific research and management duties at the Science Center at USGS. My research focuses on diamond and mineral resources illegally mined in conflict zones.  I focus on the geomorphology of resource deposits using remote sensing and field mapping techniques, and combine this with knowledge of local communities engaging in mining and how these factors contribute to funding conflicts. I also serve as associate director for the Science Center, working with about 60 geologists, paleontologists, and physical scientists. My duties in this position include project planning, personnel management, and representation of our science center to stakeholders and the public.

What attracted you to this industry? After completing my master’s degree in 1995, I saw an ad for a GIS specialist at USGS.  I was attracted by its reputation as the nation’s premier civilian mapping agency, and its role as an early adopter and leader in GIS and mapping technology. I initially thought I’d work here temporarily as a stepping stone to other pursuits, but soon recognized the depth and value of USGS science. I have been afforded numerous opportunities to grow here as a geographer, and have been with USGS for over 20 years now.

How has your background in geography prepared you for this position? My coursework in GIS gave me the skillset to work as a GIS specialist, and I have been able to apply my general knowledge of geography to critical problem solving. But, since the geospatial field is rapidly advancing, it has been important to continually be developing new technical skills and to be willing to learn about subject areas well outside of my initial scope of coursework and studies.

What geographic skills and information do you use most often in your work? What general skills and information do you use most often in your work? I often use GIS and remote sensing methods in collecting geographic information, and also extract data from reports, maps, and articles, oftentimes only found in a library or archival collection. Some of the skills I use in field work include sediment sampling, field mapping, and qualitiative/semi-quantitative interviews.

Some of the general skills that I use include statistical and mathematical modeling techniques, as well as using maps, graphs, and figures in illustrating abstract concepts. Communicating the results of your research effectively involves writing journal articles and reports, with graphical tools and an element of storytelling to effectively convey information to technical and non-technical audiences. 

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? Many of the technical tasks I perform today I’ve learned from watching and working with colleagues.  During my career at USGS I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with scientists and experts in many different fields, and I have come to appreciate the importance of   being able to develop and maintain positive working relationships with colleagues and co-workers.

I currently conduct fieldwork in Central and Western Africa. I’ve learned so much about conducting fieldwork in remote areas and conflict zones “on the job” through mentorship from experienced field geologists early in my career. There are some safety courses and certifications that help prepare you for some things you might encounter, but time and experience help you to develop confidence in your own abilities while in tough field conditions. 

Do you participate in hiring, screening, or training of new employees? If so, what qualities and/or skills do you look for? Yes. We look for a certain level of technical geospatial competency demonstrated through successful coursework and experience. More often, however, I seek candidates with a balance of technical skills and a background in physical geography.  I also look for strong attention to detail, research ability, writing and presentation experience, cartography and data representation capability, and foreign language proficiency. It may be difficult to quantify, but perhaps most important for a successful candidate is their desire to learn and engage in tasks with enthusiasm.

What advice would you give to someone interested in a job like yours? No job is perfect, but learning to seize opportunities that are “the right job at the right time” will provide great experiences and personal contacts that can last a lifetime. I think in many ways you create your own opportunities for achievement and advancement through hard work, continuous learning and growing, and trying new things with your organization.

I encourage others to think creatively about gaining experience. For example, I didn’t have the financial resources to study abroad in college and came to USGS with no international travel experience. However, while I was in school I was able to work as a field assistant to a biologist and spent a couple of summers working as a wildfire-fighter for the U.S. Forest Service.  So, those jobs gave me valuable field work skills to build upon when other opportunities, including those for foreign travel, came around.

I encourage job seekers to perfect their writing and presentation skills, as these are valuable for any job. Develop a portfolio with projects, writing samples, maps, and examples of fieldwork–this is a great compliment to your resume in showing your potential employer your skills and development over time.

Many professional vacancies may not be specifically looking for geography majors; therefore, it’s important to sell ourselves as geographers. Being able to explain to others how the coursework, experience, and skills that geographers possess fit  a job description, and  being able to communicate that to a non-specialist hiring manager is really important.

What is the occupational outlook for career opportunities in your field/organization, esp. for geographers? Good question!  This is a dynamic and uncertain time for geographers and other research scientists in government agencies. Permanent job opportunities are less common and much more competitive now than they have been in the past, but there are still many opportunities.  Term or temporary positions, student trainee positions, and seasonal field assistants are often the best way to get a foot in the door..  Many government agencies, such as USGS, will face large numbers of retirements in coming years, and while agencies continue to downsize, they will need to hire to maintain their workforce and continue their agency’s mission—and often look to those who have worked in student or temporary positions to fill openings. I think that the scope of geography as a field that encompasses both geospatial technology as well as subject matter expertise, such as in physical geography and field methods, places geographers in a unique position as adaptable and flexible individuals well suited to the rapidly changing workforce requirements in federal agencies.

Career Profile Archives

February 2018

December 2017

November 2017

October 2017

August/September 2017

The geographer profiles within the sections below are from interviews that were conducted before 2012 

 Education Careers

 Business Careers

 Government Careers

 Nonprofit Careers