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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!


May 2018

Matt Connolly, Assistant Professor of Geography, University of Central Arkansas

Education: Ph.D. in Geography & Geographic Information Science (Texas State University), M.A.Geo in Geographic Information Science (Texas State University), B.S. in Business Administration & Management Information Systems (University of Colorado Denver)


What attracted you to a career in education? When I was a master’s student, I spent a summer working at Texas State’s Meadows Center for Water and the Environment as an interpreter, leading tours and environmental education activities on Spring Lake.  This experience allowed me to teach people about the connection between human activities and physical environments, and to appreciate the power of being an educator.

My first position in formal education was teaching undergraduate GIS labs, and through this experience I realized how much I loved explaining concepts to others. There was nothing quite like that moment of understanding when you witnessed the mental lightbulb flicker to life, and this is the main reason why I decided to become a professor.

How has your education/background in geography prepared you for this position? I attribute my ability to understand the “big picture” of human-environment interactions through integrating knowledge from multiple disciplines to my geography education.  I stress the importance of the geographer’s breadth of knowledge that allows us to provide unique insights. For instance, my work on municipal water consumption patterns taught me that human, historical, and physical perspectives are necessary in making effective resource management decisions.

My geography education also developed my sense of curiosity about the complex world around us. The ability to think spatially has made me want to explore the patterns that exist around the globe, and aim to get my students to adopt this way of thinking to stimulate their own curiosities and solve problems creatively.

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? The most important skill I use is spatial thinking to integrate data and more fully understand a given phenomenon. Spatial analysis begins with the framing of research questions pertaining to the spatial configuration of a phenomenon, and then analyzing it with qualitative visual analysis, as well as computational techniques for quantitative analysis. Reading the physical landscape is another important skill, especially in applications involving remote sensing data and fieldwork. Being able to analyze problems from multiple scales is critical in integrating data to solve a given problem, and examining the human, physical, and biological data of a particular issue—for example, water quality— provides a more complete understanding of changes over space and time.

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? My academic training has done much to strengthen my teaching, research, and publication experience. Upon completing my graduate degree, I have focused mainly on developing my writing and physical geography fieldwork skills. So far, I’ve improved my writing skills through reviewing journal manuscripts, and volunteering to help train graduate students at colleagues’ research labs has improved my physical fieldwork skills, and has created new research opportunities I would not have had otherwise. 

Do you participate in hiring, screening, or training of new employees? If so, what qualities and/or skills do you look for? As a junior faculty member, I sometimes assist in hiring new staff for the department. When hiring a faculty member, we are most concerned with how well the applicant fits into the existing department and the university as a whole. We look for teaching experience, an engaging attitude with students, and research and publication records, among other things. The importance of each factor depends on the institution type and existing faculty composition; personally, I look for student engagement ability, collaborative skills, knowledge of the university and general disposition. All in all, I look for a candidate that will be easy to work with both now and in the future.

What do you find most interesting/challenging/inspiring about your work? The most interesting part of my work is the diversity of responsibilities and working environments; it’s difficult to experience the same day twice!  My typical day on the job is rarely boring, and I’ve greatly improved my time management and correspondence skills, but I still consider it a work in progress. Perhaps the most inspiring part of my job is seeing my capstone students’ professional growth over the semester as they design and execute independent research projects for real-world clients. This course is most of my students’ first directed research experience, and it’s fulfilling to see initial frustration transform into meaningful achievement.

What advice would you give someone interested in a job like yours? Interest in a job like mine requires strategies in both graduate school and in the job search. During graduate school, ask yourself why you want to be a professor and what interests you most about the job, and discuss these questions with current faculty that you trust. The importance of sharing your thoughts is not for validation, but to gain better insight into your own motivations.

Secondly, learn about the realities of being a professor. Converse with multiple faculty members, and if your department allows it, attend faculty meetings to gain insight into the inner workings of a career in academia, as well as the working dynamics of your faculty.

Thirdly, be honest with yourself about your career goals, and the type of institution you’d feel most comfortable in. Predominantly undergraduate and research institutions each have their own cultures, and the sooner you find your “fit”, the sooner you can adapt your graduate school experience to meet your goals.

Finally, make sure to gain experience with the publication process during graduate school. Demonstrating your ability to publish your work is critical; in addition to its attractiveness to employers, familiarity with the publishing process is an important survival skill, and your institution will want to see that you can publish your research while managing other responsibilities.

As far as job search advice goes, first and foremost: know when and where to look for jobs! Professional association job boards (e.g. the AAG Jobs in Geography Center), higher education websites (e.g. HigherEd Jobs, The Chronicle of Higher Education, etc.), and professional networking sites such as LinkedIn and ResearchGate are all great places to start. Don’t forget that your advisors and faculty can be excellent networking resources as well.

Also keep in mind the academic job season. The primary job season usually begins in August and lasts until October/November, during which postings are heaviest. Positions posted in January or later tend to be temporary or visiting appointments. Pay attention to the details of a particular job ad as closely as possible, and tailor your cover letter with information on the particular institution you are applying to. Finally, don’t shy away from visiting, fixed-term, or post-doc positions. They can make for great short-term alternatives that keep you in the industry, and provide valuable experience for tenure-track jobs.

What is the occupational outlook for career opportunities in your field/organization, esp. for geographers? The wide applicability of geographers’ core skills in social and natural sciences makes for a strong occupational outlook in higher education. Though many academic geographers work in Geography departments, there are a number of additional opportunities in interdisciplinary settings such as combined departments, research clusters, and the like. Unfortunately, shrinking university and research budgets can exclude many within the pool of qualified applicants. However, there are numerous informal education opportunities for geographers. For instance, many environmental/resource management agencies hire academics to develop materials and relay important information to the public. Though the path to a tenure track position will remain difficult in the future, it’s critical to gain experience and hone your skills within geographic education in the meantime. 


Joe Scarpaci, Executive Director, Center for Study of Cuban Culture & Economy

EducationPh.D. in Geography (University of Florida), M.Sc. in Geography (Penn State University), B.A. in Geography (Rutgers University). Post-doctoral Bridge Certificate in Marketing, AACSB (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business)

Describe your job. What are some of the most important tasks or duties for which you are responsible? I offer investment information for U.S. companies interested in staking a claim in Cuba’s future economy. This entails appraising them of, and simplifying, the current implications for businesses registered in the U.S. that must abide by the Trading with the Enemy Act.

I also design and lead interpretive educational/cultural tours in compliance with the current trade embargo. Since the early 1990’s, I have held licenses through my organization or from the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), and have since introduced over 900 American students and civic organization members to the island through these itineraries.

What attracted you to this industry? My early research in heritage tourism and the Centro Histórico of Latin American cities led me to nine UNESCO heritage sites, including Havana and the more recent addition of Cuenca. My field work addressed city, provincial, and national governments aiming to attract new clientele to their aging historic districts - an alternative traveler than those coming to Latin America and the Caribbean for traditional tropical amenities. Place promotion and branding, I realized, become front and center in understanding how these places aimed to position themselves in the international tourism market. This inspired me to accept an offer from Virginia Tech to a post-doctoral bridge program in marketing, which required 320 hours of intensive summer study. After completing the program and receiving my certificate, I began teaching full-time and online in international business, hospitality, and marketing programs. Additionally, I’m able to consult with businesses in Hollywood and on Wall Street about working in Cuba under U.S. Treasury guidelines.

How has your education/background in geography prepared you for this position? Geography’s interdisciplinary approach provided an excellent foundation for international marketing, which itself draws on several concepts relating to economic, cultural, and methodical foundations found in geography; however, it’s worth noting that business administration faculty often view interdisciplinary affiliations as “weak”. My “jack-of-all trades” geography training, however, was encouraged. When it comes to publications, books are not as valued as in geography, and the peer-review process is much more rigorous. All in all, my geographical fieldwork methods, foreign language training, ability to synthesize material, etc. have been assets to my work in international marketing.

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? As I mentioned, the ability to synthesize both qualitative and quantitative information, as well as the ability to effectively display my work in visual and written formats and my Spanish language skills are the tools I most rely upon. Working in Cuba, I was amazed by how many “experts” on Latin America or Cuba had so little knowledge about flora, fauna, political and social history and theory, and climate patterns. I’d sat in on so many lectures where these basic factors — which would be immediately picked up by geography students — were totally absent.

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? I mentioned previously my post-doctoral certificate in marketing; otherwise, I’m not sure if field work counts as training, but my Spanish language skills have definitely been most helpful. The notion of “going native” is a false approach; however, I’ve found over the course of doing ethnographic work throughout the region that locals appreciate a foreigner’s ability to speak Spanish. I stress the importance of language to my students; with Spanish in particular, the use of present and imperfect subjunctives tend to be most difficult for English speakers, and I encourage my students to master that.

Having run 32 study abroad programs in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Chile and working with international organizations has forced me to summarize my research clearly and effectively. My center has worked with several alumni organization, museums, civic organizations, and high schools and university programs as a result. Taking account of these varying audiences, I try to “hit the right altitude” in giving lectures, assuming very little and presenting interesting and “big picture” topics on globalization, urbanization, consumer behavior, etc. rather than convey trivial information about the region.

Do you participate in hiring, screening, or training of new employees? If so, what qualities and/or skills do you look for? In the past, I have hired part-time U.S. and Latin American-based scholars. I look for good people skills, strong bilingualism, and effective team players. Travelers in Latin America don’t want a boring and introverted docent accompanying them. Using locals, I also keep an eye out for good English skills, and the ability to keep politics in check.

What advice would you give to someone interested in a job like yours? I appreciate the luxury of being able to be flexible with my time and with my choice of projects; however, this requires a sense of seasonality and advance planning. Another challenge tends to be good budget development skills and learning how to monetize your skills. Understanding how to conduct a marketing plan, even with geographers who don’t speak your language, is essential.

I stress the balance of having your work validated in North America while earning the respect of locals; with that, I cannot over-stress the importance of language skills. Language skills should not be treated as secondary skills, especially with the decline of Spanish and Portuguese with Fortran and COBOL (in the 1970s) and C++ (recently) being treated as “substitutes” to modern languages in contemporary higher education curricula. You should never assume that any key informants will “speak English anyhow”—personally, this is a terribly misguided assumption.

What is the occupational outlook for career opportunities in your field, esp. for geographers? Any geographer can find their own niche, but this requires understanding the big picture. In my case, it means understanding supply chains, which in economic geography we might call the production chain or the value-added chain or the commodity chain. At each point, there is an opportunity to connect a market with a client, whether it is a B2B setting (business-to-business) or B2C (business to consumer/client) one. One of my mentors at Penn State, Pierce Lewis, who was a talented and broad-thinking scholar, wrote a Presidential Address in the 1970s following his tenure as AAG President.  In that talk, he urges students to pursue their interests without putting on ‘blinders,’ and then try some more, but to also avoid those with narrow focus who might attempt to put blinders on your vision. He encouraged geographers to work on projects not confined to one place, and that pay attention to context. 

While deciding between graduate programs in the mid-1970’s, I was given advice to develop systematic skills at the master’s level, and to then focus on regional specialization at the doctoral level. I opted for a M.Sc. program at Penn State; though they had little in the way of Latin American studies, I did indeed pick this up later at the doctoral level at the University of Florida.

I remember being at Penn State while Peter Gould, the professor of my seminar on the history/philosophy of geography, opened a recent issue of the AAG’s Annals and read the caption of a photo that read something like “Campesino in field in white pants”. He didn’t have to say anything else; it was clear that this was overly descriptive. Hence, the debate on idiographic versus nomothetic approaches to geography, and the quantitate vs. qualitative debates. All geographers will have to choose those paths as their careers evolve.

Two other faculty members at Penn State — Ron Abler and Wilbur Zelinsky — told their graduate students that a good dissertation could be defended in at least two or three other departments; at the time, I found this to be hyperbole on their part, but now I see they were right. My undergraduate advisor at Rutgers (Bria Holcombe) encouraged travel and journaling, even as an undergrad. I echo the advice of these sage geographers.

Career Profile Archives

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

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