Career Profile: Chris Weston

GIS Analyst and Environmental Epidemiologist
Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center
Portsmouth, Virginia

During the employment-seeking process, it is common for college graduates to commit hundreds of hours of time toward job applications, resume writing, conference attendance, phone calls, social media, and other forms of networking. If you're brand new to the professional job market, you probably need “X” number of repetitions just to learn how things work, but beyond mastering the basic steps, is it really necessary to invest so much time and effort? To echo a simple statement offered by Richard Serby (the CEO of Geosearch, Inc.) at a panel held during the 2012 AAG Annual Meeting, “You only need one job.” Perhaps it makes more sense to focus more deliberately on fewer opportunities, narrowing your scope to those that are most meaningful and relevant to you. As you push forward toward your new professional goals, I encourage you to courageously look inside yourself and center your vision on the skills and experiences that best represent your interests and strengths. By finding a clear focus and expressing your desires with every fiber of your hard work, you will go places, my friend.

I set off on my career path by immediately straying from my set course. I made the academically dubious decision to follow my high-school sweetheart to the first university that granted both of us admission, Southern Illinois University of Carbondale (SIUC). By doing so, I forewent my long-held intention to study chemistry at Northwestern University (as my father had recommended) to honor the warm spark inside my youthful heart, a decision for which I am unequivocally grateful. This reordering of priorities unexpectedly developed into numerous blessings in my life. During my undergraduate tenure at SIUC, I changed my major seven times and accumulated 158 credit hours before graduating cum laude with a B.A. in sociology and a B.A. in German in 2005. Looking back, I am grateful that my primary studies traversed numerous schools of thought, because I can now hold constructive conversations within many scientific and professional circles. Perhaps the ideal of academic efficiency (i.e., graduating with 120 credit hours and moving on) is an algorithm that sells the curious soul short of what it is capable of finding.

My next steps in life were more deliberate. I enlisted in the United States Army as an information systems manager, thus beginning the most challenging period of my life. During my four-year enlistment, I served twelve months with the 2nd Infantry Division near the demilitarized zone in South Korea and fifteen months with the 101st Airborne Division near Tikrit, Iraq, in addition to stateside duty at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Military service during a "wartime" era requires the highest degree of technical competence and keen organizational skills. It bears its own unique sacrifices, but in exchange, it imparts skills, experiences, and benefits that will assist veterans as they transition from military to civilian roles and throughout the remainder of their lives.

Following my honorable discharge from the Army, I enrolled as an undeclared graduate student at Southern Illinois University in 2010. Medical school was my new goal. I spent the spring and summer semesters taking cellular biology, human physiology, psychology, and mathematics. However, fate soon led me into a conversation with the first geographer I have ever known, and that person’s intuitive perspectives on important local and national topics steered me toward other geography faculty members who encouraged me to apply to their master’s program. I knew immediately that I was interested in Geographic Information Systems, given my previous experience with military information systems. Choosing a thesis topic was an entirely different story. I contemplated web-based GIS, vector-borne diseases, and organic agriculture, ultimately choosing to conduct a spatial epidemiological analysis of breast cancer and environmental risk factors in Illinois. In support of my research, I took courses in advanced GIS, remote sensing, geovisualization, spatial analysis, biostatistics, database management, and high-performance computing.

Prior to completing grad school, I presented my thesis results at the 2012 AAG Annual Meeting in New York City, thanks to the encouragement of my thesis mentor, Dr. Tonny Oyana. The conference further exposed me to the AAG's Enhancing Departments and Graduate Education (EDGE) project (www.aag.org/edge). The numerous EDGE sessions enabled me to refine my resume for specific public and private employers and introduced me to important job search strategies and interviewing techniques. The key message I extracted from these sessions is simple: It’s important for geography students to thoroughly understand and effectively communicate the value of their skills. My favorite EDGE session was a panel on the status of the GIS workforce, chaired by David DiBiase of Esri. The take-away message of the discussion was that now is an excellent time to enter the GIS job market (especially at the master’s level) due to a large number of industry-wide retirements. I encourage current students to take advantage of this opportunity by digging deeper into GIS, considering a master's degree, and adventuring into the world of computer science by learning some computer programming and exploring various kinds of information technology. I found the EDGE group discussions and responses to audience questions so crucial and relevant because they involve actual professionals, professors, and students with real problems and experiences. It’s a wonder that there isn’t a cover charge just to enter the room of an EDGE session.

When I returned home after the 2012 Annual Meeting, I was "under the gun" to determine an employment plan while finishing my 120-page thesis, all in three months' time. Fortunately, I was in a motivated, job-seeking mindset. I started working feverishly on my resume and applied to approximately 30 jobs. Within 45 days (and after only two interviews) I accepted an offer for a post-graduate fellowship through the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) in which I was contracted with the United States Navy as a GIS Epidemiologist in Portsmouth, Virginia. This employment opportunity has allowed me to implement GIS strategies within the framework of a public health surveillance department (a unique opportunity for which I am grateful). Starting in July of this year, I will make a long jump from Virginia to Redlands, California, to join Esri’s Professional Services and Consulting Department. My mission will be to provide subject matter expertise within Esri’s Health and Public Safety business objective as a consultant/project manager. It is becoming obvious that the common thread tying together my experiences as a geographer is human health and epidemiology.

I credit my professional successes to three distinct steps that I have taken. First, I have worked hard to develop a remarkable understanding of my experiences, interests, and skills. Second, I chose to focus my graduate coursework on an area of geography that interested me (spatial epidemiology). Third, I started developing face-to-face relationships throughout the larger geographic community, which has led to a plethora of additional benefits, in particular, the development of a social network that can support me during my career progression.

In closing, I want to elucidate a skill that anyone can use to develop a nearly unstoppable momentum to achieve any goal: the human capacity for creative imagination, or cognitive vision. The human cerebral cortex is powerful in a way that makes me excited to be a Homo sapiens. Whether you seek to support HIV prevention in Shanghai, China, or you want to be the Chief Information Officer of a large company in Sydney, Australia, you can align your actions with your goals by centering your thoughts on them on a daily basis. Being a visionary for your own cause is an easy task, because you already know who you are, what you want, and where you want to go. If you want to become the next moon-walking astronaut, picture your big moonboots gliding along that dusty, gray surface. See your next giant step toward that goal and take it.

-- Chris Weston, M.S., Geography
This article was originally published on the AAG website in July 2013.