Program Profile: California State University Long Beach

Group photo of CSULB MSGISci students
Group photo taken by a drone of MSGISci students at the River Ridge Ranch field site (with Scott Winslow, UAV and GIS Lab Manger front left and Dr. Wechsler front 2nd from left).

AAG staff recently sat down for a virtual interview with California State University Long Beach (CSULB) faculty members Dr. Suzanne Wechsler, professor and department chair; Dr. Lily House-Peters, associate professor and undergraduate advisor; and Dr. Paul Laris, professor and former department chair. When asked how their department demonstrated the value and relevancy of geography, a theme quickly emerged — actions speak louder than words.  Everything the department does is exemplary of demonstrating the importance of geography.

The department is keen on community engagement that provides research and learning opportunities for both students and faculty, adapts their program to ever-evolving geospatial technology and industry standards, and emphasizes the importance of field experience in the coursework across the program’s various concentrations. It’s obvious that CSULB’s Department of Geography is demonstrating the value and relevancy of geography daily, not only to their students, but to their university colleagues and local community members as well.

“One of the things that’s kept us going and relevant is that we’re always trying something…we’re constantly trying out and innovating,” says Laris. His response reflects the overall spirit of a department where innovation is the norm. As Wechsler puts it, being nimble and responsive is what has fostered the program’s success.

Professor and student perform field work with coastal sage scrub.
Professor Laris gives student Alexandra Trujillo a few tips on how to use a quadrat to sample coastal sage scrub vegetation at the PVP Land Conservancy.

 

Student and professor perform fieldwork together.
Student Cannon Hanson and Professor Laris prep a site for line transect sampling of coastal sage scrub habitat.

 

Creating stand-out programs to foster student success

Suzanne Wechsler has carried on this tradition in her current role as department chair where her responsibilities include directing the M.S. in Geographic Information Science (MSGISci) program. The M.S. was created 12 years ago when it was discovered that M.A. students were dropping out because they’d found work in the geospatial industry before they graduated. The problem was, that while students were obtaining excellent geotechnical skills within the M.A. program, they were taking internships that turned into the jobs they wanted, leaving them with little time or motivation, to complete their thesis. Wechsler and her colleagues realized there was a need to provide an analytical and application-based training for these students to fully prepare them for a career in the highly competitive geospatial industry, rather than the more theory-based approach of the M.A. program.

It’s about being agile and responding to the moment as best as possible, and you can’t do that without a core faculty that are dedicated and get along well…[and]…work together to…figure out how to address the moment.

—Suzanne Wechsler

The result is a vibrant graduate program which includes both a traditional Master of Arts (M.A.) and a Master of Science in Geographic Information Science (MSGISci) that received an Honorable Mention for the AAG’s Program Excellence Award in 2019, among other ranked achievements. Students can expect a small, yet strongly networked cohort environment, research and publishing opportunities with faculty that focus on local and global issues, and lectures from community leaders, activists and industry professionals to inform on current best practices and skills.  Research partnerships are built into seminars and culminating activities provide students with opportunities to gain specialized skills and competencies, and, for example, to investigate how issues such as social and environmental justice play out in community settings.

Wechsler adds that equally important to the research experiences we facilitate is the network and community we strive to develop while students are in our program, and after they graduate. With over 200 MSGISci graduates 96% of whom are working in the geospatial field, these networking opportunities are an especially important component of our program. We hope that by building a sense of community while students are here encourages them to stay connected and serve as a network and resource for future graduates.

CSULB students performing GPS data collection
MSGISci students prepare GPS units for data collection at the River Ridge Ranch study site in Springville, CA.

 

How campus visibility maintains relevancy

The value of geography is enhanced by interdepartmental relationships within the university, according to Laris. Geography faculty often collaborate on cross-listed courses with other departments or stay on the university radar through the reception of grants including an NSF REU. Additionally, some programs such as the M.S. in Geographic Information Science generate income, attract students to the university, ultimately highlight the discipline’s relevancy.

“…we’re [the geography department] a good team player,” says Paul Laris. But it’s Suzanne Wechsler  who places the credit for this success. “That’s largely due to leadership,” she says. “Paul was instrumental in fighting for geography’s place within the college.”

Building this highly felt presence within the university is something that has taken time, but it has become a win-win for the department. At the end of the day, the department leadership’s dedication has benefitted the students, faculty, and long-lasting relevancy of geography.

Put me in, Coach!

The department’s overall success reflects its outstanding faculty. To be successful, both Laris and Wechsler emphasize the importance of creating an environment where faculty are enriched and able to succeed. Drawing on their experiences, the department chair is tasked with the difficult balancing act of distributing teaching loads at a University with a heavy teaching load (12 units per semester) combined with research and service expectations.

“I’m a sports guy,” Laris confesses with a smile. But with the confession comes an important analogy: “If your team’s going [to] do well, you’re only going to do as well as each of your players. If you put them in a position where they can do the best they can do, then maybe you’ll succeed in a place like Cal State Long Beach.”

    Share

The State of Geography: Patterns and Trends by Racial and Ethnic Identity

In December, AAG released the State of Geography report, which provides an overview of broad trends in degree conferral at the undergraduate and graduate levels, both within geography and in comparison with general trends in other social sciences and in academia overall.

Last month, we examined the data for trends and indicators in terms of gender identity. This month, we look at how well graduation trends are doing in terms of representation of students across racial and ethnic groups that have been historically excluded from geography. 

As President Marilyn Raphael noted in her February 2023 President’s column, “The [State of Geography] report confirms some of the concerns about our field’s lack of diversity, offers signs of change, and leaves us with important questions about the nature and constraints of the data,” which is drawn from the National Center for Education Statistics, Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) codes.  

In the report and this article, AAG is using the term “historically excluded populations” to designate the students in these categories. American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Hispanic or Latinx, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, Student Visa Holder, Race/Ethnicity unknown, and Two or More Races. We also used the term to follow the practice of AAG’s JEDI committee, which uses the term intersectionally, acknowledging that multiple modes of discrimination can combine (e.g. racism, sexism, ableism, classism), and describing the persistent barriers of the discipline, be they formal or perceived:  

“Geography is not perceived as a welcoming discipline for women, queer and trans people, oppressed racial/ethnic groups, and other individuals from historically excluded populations. There are several interconnected reasons for this. First, modern geography’s roots in white, Western, patriarchal, settler colonial, and cis-heteronormative understandings of the world mean that the discipline has long reflected and perpetuated systems of oppression. Second, there are systematic and structural barriers that limit the recruitment and retention of diverse faculty and students. Third, marginalized faculty and students do not necessarily see geography as relevant or reflective of their realities, and as a result, they do not see in it prospects for a well-defined, practical, and impactful career. Together, these elements create impressions of geography that range from antiquated to hostile. While these perceptions exist today, they should not mark geography’s future. Receptivity will only improve if we become intentional about embedding JEDI into standard practices within the AAG and the broader geography discipline.” [Source: AAG 3-Year Justice Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Plan, 2021] 

The State of Geography report is among AAG’s efforts to embed JEDI into standard practices within our organization and to encourage their adoption throughout the discipline. 

Signs of Promise  

Even as growth in overall degree conferrals has dropped in geography for roughly the past decade, the graduation rate of students in historically excluded populations has grown during the same time. In fact, during the past 25 years, the percentage of degree-earning geography students who are from historically excluded populations has more than doubled, from 14.8% in 1994-1995 to 36.4% in 2020-2021. The trend is most pronounced in graduate studies, particularly PhD programs. Our analysis included student visa holders among the categories because NCES counts them among the race and ethnicity categories they track. This group of students makes up a large proportion of students at the graduate levels, and themselves form a diverse cohort of many racialized identities within and beyond an American context, although it is hard to identify specific racial or ethnic groups in this category.  

At the bachelor’s degree level, the proportion of students in many racial or ethnic categories increased, with the greatest gains among students of more than one race and Latinx or Hispanic students. There was little growth in bachelor’s degree conferral among American Indian and Alaska Native students or Black/African American students.  

In fact, there appears to be almost no growth in bachelor’s degree conferrals for Black students since 2010. Given total growth, the percentage appears to be declining for percent growth of Black students, a phenomenon that adversely affects the number of Black PhD graduates and, consequently, Black geography faculty.   

Trends in Geography Bachelor’s Degrees Conferred by Race and Ethnicity 
Figure 22. Trends in Geography Bachelor’s Degrees Conferred by Race and Ethnicity

 

At the master’s and doctoral levels, U.S.-based diversity drops dramatically, while student visa holders become a significant proportion of degree recipients. The increase in student visa holders, proportional to other student groups, during the past decade suggests that international students–who often have quite different understandings and experiences of race—may be more attracted and welcomed to U.S. geography than U.S. students of color. 

There appears to be an inverse correlation between the level of degree and the diversity of the students pursuing the degree. Diversity is greatest at the undergraduate level, drops at the master’s level, and drops still further at the doctoral level. 

Figure 24: Trends in Geography Master’s Degrees by Race and Ethnicity

 

Figure 26: Trends in Geography Doctoral Degrees by Race and Ethnicity
Figures 24 and 26: Trends in Geography Master’s and Doctoral Degrees by Race and Ethnicity

 

How Geography Compares Among Disciplines 

Because geography is an interdisciplinary science, we compared student choices of major among several social science and physical science disciplines. As a graduate degree sought out by students from historically excluded populations, geography holds its own among the social sciences at the master’s level, with slightly better representation at the PhD level than most other social sciences (with the exception of economics). At the bachelor’s level, however, geography has a lower rate of representation among these students than most other social sciences, except for history. 

Geography fares similarly to other physical sciences in the amount of representation from historically excluded groups in bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and PhDs. Representation increases from bachelor’s to master’s to PhD. 

Overall, geography is behind virtually all other fields of study we examined across all degree types, in terms of racial and ethnic representation. From 1997 to 2019, Jordan et al. (2021) found that “geography [doctorates] consistently trailed the social sciences and the academy,” a gap that has been widening.  More than half of computer science degrees, to cite one example, are conferred on students from minoritized backgrounds—across all levels of degree. This indicator has relevance for GIS studies within geography: computer science and data analysis, perhaps data visualization, are a popular degree for students of many backgrounds, and GIS programs can leverage this popularity, combined with greater efforts to attract and retain students from diverse backgrounds. 

Detail from Figure 20. Minoritized students (in red), as an overall proportion of bachelor’s degrees in (L to R) geography, business management and related services, and computer science. The values rise from left to right.
Detail from Figure 20. Minoritized students (in red), as an overall proportion of bachelor’s degrees in (L to R) geography, business management and related services, and computer science.

 

Concluding Thoughts 

The growth in geography degrees among students from historically excluded populations is good news for the discipline: it is they who have contributed any new, positive growth to the field in recent years. That growth is nowhere near the levels needed for full, representative equity, however. While it offers a signpost to a more diverse geography, the overall lack of diversity is also a reminder that we must redouble our efforts. 

In developing the report, we encountered several unknowns, such as the “race/ethnicity unknown” category and the student visa category. As noted in our article on gender, qualitative information is also not available. Gaining qualitative insight is crucial because an increase in graduates from groups previously excluded does not mean that racial bias and inequality do not exist. Jordan et al. (2021) identify four drivers of inequity in doctorate programs: 

  1. lack of dedicated funding for underrepresented minority doctoral students,  
  2. minimal prior exposure to academic and professional geography,  
  3. passive recruitment strategies, and  
  4. pervasive whiteness of departments. 

[Exploring Persistent Racial and Ethnic Representation Disparity in U.S. Geography Doctoral Programs: The Disciplinary Underrepresentation Gap] 

In her 2002 article “Reflections on a White Discipline,” geographer Laura Pulido looks at her own experience as a student and faculty member of color within geography programs. Finding that “the study of race is both marginalized and fragmented within geography,” she ultimately moved from geography into a newly organized American studies program that acknowledged ethnicity and race. She writes, “Although other issues also existed, comfort and intellectual community were the key reasons I made the move.” These studies indicate that pragmatic factors such as funding and active recruitment should be coupled with a strong commitment and follow-through for the representation of many identities, and a welcoming and supportive intellectual environment for engaging critical questions around race, ethnicity, and identity. 

As we previously noted in our article on gender identity and degree conferral, NCES data do not lend themselves to being examined intersectionally, that is, with an acknowledgment of the complex ways discrimination and marginalization can function across multiple identities. Separating out race and ethnicity from gender cannot be done: we are all a combination of various identities and experience our lives through the lenses of those identities, including our experience of exclusion. Quoting the JEDI Committee once again, “…there are systematic and structural barriers that limit the recruitment and retention of diverse faculty and students [and] marginalized faculty and students do not necessarily see geography as relevant or reflective of their realities, and as a result, they do not see in it prospects for a well-defined, practical, and impactful career.” Although the numbers indicate that more students of differing identities are finding their way to geography, especially for advanced degrees, we must find ways to build on this positive trend: to actively working toward structural change in the discipline and to find out more about what attracts students of differing identities and experiences to geography, and what contributes to their decision to pursue advanced study.  

Get Involved in the Next State of Geography Report:

We look forward to further expanding on our findings in the State of Geography Report in the future, with data from a variety of sources, including NCES, AAG surveys, and AAG member expertise. We welcome questions, ideas, or suggestions about the findings at data@aag.org.   

Read the full report
Further Reading

Peake, L.J. & England, Kim (2020). (What Geographers Should Know About) The State of U.S. and Canadian Academic Professional Associations’ Engagement with Mental Health Practices and Policies, The Professional Geographer, 72:1, 37-53, DOI: 10.1080/00330124.2019.1611455 

Brinegar, S.J. (2001). Female Representation in the Discipline of Geography, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 25:3, 311-320, DOI: 10.1080/03098260120084395 

Kinkaid, E. & Fritzsche, L. (2022). The Stories We Tell: Challenging Exclusionary Histories of Geography in U.S. Graduate Curriculum, Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 112:8, 2469-2485, DOI: 10.1080/24694452.2022.2072805 

    Share

The State of Geography: Patterns and Trends by Gender Identity

In December, AAG released the State of Geography report, which provides an overview of broad trends in degree conferral at the undergraduate and graduate levels, both within geography and in comparison with general trends in other social sciences and in academia overall. For the next several months, we—the authors of this AAG report–will examine how these trends manifest, with similarities and differences, among students of differing gender identities, as well as those in racialized categories of identity who have been historically excluded from geography. 

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) data for Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) codes form the basis of the State of Geography report. Simply looking at these data, shows immediately how conclusions and even the formulation of questions are constrained by the limits and assumptions in how data are framed and collected. While acknowledging the ways in which the data themselves can shape expectations, we use the information from NCES both to examine the status quo and to push further into new avenues for change and for strengthening the discipline’s equity and representation. 

CIP data about gender is based on only the two normative choices: male and female. These categories effectively erase the presence of the transgender and nonbinary people who are pursuing geography degrees. AAG’s own data-gathering, based on voluntary identification of gender by our members, demonstrates that at least 2% of our members identify outside the normative binary. Because the two conventional classifications of gender are so rigid, people who identify differently from “man” or “woman” have to be miscategorized to be counted, their gender identities erased by design. As AAG uses these terms in the absence of better options, we acknowledge the flaw in the data and the need to push the field to more accurately capture the range of genders in future reports. 

Still a Man’s Field, But Promising Indicators of Change

The bottom line is that geography remains a male-centered field. However, NCES data and other sources indicate that while people identified as women are underrepresented in total geography degrees conferred, they have more consistent positive growth in degree conferral than people identified as men. The higher representation of women in geography graduate programs than in undergraduate programs could indicate that many women (and any nonbinary people classified in the data as women) find their paths to geography after earning their bachelor’s degrees in other fields. They also appear to have a higher representation in doctorate programs, where the data categories of men and women have reached close to 50:50 parity, and on two occasions students identified as women have achieved 52%.  

Comparative bar chart showing the ercentage of total degrees conferred by Geography and Geography-related CIP code by gender and degree type, 1986-2021 (Figure 8 from the report)

 

This proportional change is partly due to a decline in degrees for those identified as men, and partly due to a growth in degrees among students identified as women. The 2012 inflection point, possibly related to the Great Recession that began in 2008, is visible in Figure 7. The pronounced decline in geography degrees during 2012 was not as severe for degree-holders identified as women, compared with those identified as men.  

 

Line chart showing the number of degrees (combined bachelor's, master's, Ph.D.) conferred by Geography and Geography-related CIP codes, 1986-2021 (Figure 7 from the report) 

How Geography Compares with Peer Disciplines

Gender proportions for bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geography remain relatively stable in their make-up since 1986, even though other social science degrees at these levels have diversified more visibly by gender during the past several decades. The pattern of higher attainment of doctoral degrees by students identified as women is similar in all social sciences and geography.  

In the physical sciences, the gender mix is also showing signs of being more inclusive of people identified as women, this time at all levels from undergraduate through doctorate. Studies in natural resources and conservation in particular show a larger participation of students identified as women relative to other physical sciences related to environmental studies and to geography.  

Studies in natural resources and conservation in particular show a larger participation of women relative to other physical sciences related to environmental studies, and to geography.

Overall, although there are positive developments in gender equity within geography, especially at the doctoral level, it still lags behind sibling disciplines such as meteorology, geology and earth sciences, natural resources and conservation, and anthropology in attracting more gender-diverse pool of candidates. 

Success Is Not Only in Numbers

The data available to us add to our understanding of the state of gender diversity in geography and academia from 1986 until now. How can we gain further insight, not only into changes in the gender representation in our discipline, but the factors that lead to greater success in diversity and inclusiveness? 

An important research goal is to better meet the reality of gender in data collection and studies. Major institutions must transform their data efforts to better include the full spectrum of gender, and they must hear from their research communities to demand this transformation. For example, AAG recently signed on to a joint letter to the National Science Foundation to hold it accountable to previous promises for data collection efforts for sexual orientation and gender diversity. In terms of attainment goals, while it is tempting to let success rest with a desirable ratio, such as the number of degree conferrals, it is better to see such a number as potentially encouraging and a cue to strive further with programming and approaches that promote greater gender representation across the entire career spectrum, including greater support for and access to tenure-track and leadership opportunities.  

Numbers alone are not the issue; they are only the indicators of issues, but they are an important starting point. AAG is looking at ways that we can bring about greater quantitative knowledge of the full spectrum of gender diversity in geography. We also know that there are important qualitative considerations underlying the trends we see in geography. For example, we know that the experience of pursuing a degree can be very different across genders. Faculty representation and experience is both an important part of this and its own area worth examining. The work of Brinegar (2001) indicates that gender representation of both faculty and students matters to successful outcomes. Beyond representation, we need to better document how women, trans, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming people are either empowered and supported or frustrated and discouraged as members of departments, as teachers, mentors, and colleagues. 

 Experiences in the classroom set the tone: Kinkaid and Fritszche (2022) analyzed 32 class syllabi for graduate-level Introduction to geography classes for the prevalence of many influencing narratives and assumptions, including those related to gender. The researchers found that “seemingly minor decisions about framing, content, and organization” led to reaffirmation of exclusionary ideas about geography, but with some examination and reframing, can also lead “toward more inclusive and diverse imaginaries of the geographic tradition.” 

The role of care and support in the academy and professional societies has been studied by Peake and England (2020), Mullings, Parizeau and many others, including the gendered aspects of mental health and wellbeing. Support for mental health and wellbeing, in turn, has a direct impact on the success of geographers of all genders. Career-related questions that additional data could address include: What are the career prospects for geography graduates of all genders, within and outside of academia, in the private sector, and in government? What do we know about pay parity and advancement opportunities? Are goals for gender equity being developed with intersectional experiences in mind, with attention to the experience students and faculty who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), who or different nationalities and citizenships, and with access and accommodations for disabilities, to name only a few considerations?  

Early trends are also of interest. Data exist from gender trends in AP Human Geography class enrollment in high school, where it seems likely that more people identified as female than male are signing up. Could this open the door wider for undergraduate choices of major? Especially intriguing in this regard is the deepening trend among those identified as women—and we might discover if we collected more detailed data, people of diverse gender identities—to study and contribute to the study of natural resources, climate, and conservation, food security, critical studies, and the like. Is there enough awareness and incentive for these studies to be pursued through geography? 

Thinking creatively about how to address these questions through data will take a collaborative effort from all of us. In 2023 and beyond, AAG looks forward to working with our members and geography departments to enhance our understanding of and take action on these questions.  

Next month, AAG’s State of Geography series continues with articles on categories of race and ethnicity, as well as data needs. 

Get Involved in the Next State of Geography Report:

We look forward to further expanding on our findings in the State of Geography Report in the future, with data from a variety of sources, including NCES, AAG surveys, and AAG member expertise. We welcome questions, ideas, or suggestions about the findings at data@aag.org.   

Read the full report
Further Reading

Peake, L.J. & England, Kim (2020). (What Geographers Should Know About) The State of U.S. and Canadian Academic Professional Associations’ Engagement with Mental Health Practices and Policies, The Professional Geographer, 72:1, 37-53, DOI: 10.1080/00330124.2019.1611455 

Brinegar, S.J. (2001). Female Representation in the Discipline of Geography, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 25:3, 311-320, DOI: 10.1080/03098260120084395 

Kinkaid, E. & Fritzsche, L. (2022). The Stories We Tell: Challenging Exclusionary Histories of Geography in U.S. Graduate Curriculum, Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 112:8, 2469-2485, DOI: 10.1080/24694452.2022.2072805 

    Share

The State of Geography: Data and Trends in Higher Education 

By Mark Revell and Mikelle Benfield

This year, AAG debuts The State of Geography report, presenting trends and indicators in post-secondary geography education in the United States. This report uses Classification of Instructional Program (CIP) codes, established by the National Center for Educational Statistics, to provide a snapshot of geography degree conferral patterns at the undergraduate and graduate levels. These data help identify trends and areas in need of additional attention, such as decreasing degree conferral in geography, racial and gender diversity across the discipline, and more.  

Recent changes in geography majors and graduation rates observed in this report take place against a broader backdrop of change in higher education, where uneven or declining growth in enrollments and degrees has taken place in numerous majors since 2012, and has been aggravated more recently by COVID-19. Our findings indicate a similar slowing of the robust growth in geography majors that began in the 1990s and peaked in 2012. The overall number of geography degrees has steadily declined since then, tracking with declining degree conferrals in many other disciplines, with the greatest impact felt in the social sciences and humanities, and at the undergraduate level. The trends for post-graduate degrees are more encouraging, with steady growth until very recently, almost certainly due to the impacts of COVID-19. 

Geography by Many Other Names

This report only captures trends for the six CIP codes that are currently related to geography, acknowledging that geography is also interdisciplinary and embedded in other disciplinary studies not clearly addressed by CIP codes. As new codes have been added over the years, we can see trends in disciplinary growth. In particular, GIScience and cartography degrees take up a larger proportion of current degree conferrals, particularly among master’s degrees. The proportion of GIS-related degrees is less dramatic at the bachelor’s and doctorate levels. 

Image of a portion of page 4 of the PDF report showing just the change in proportion among master’s degrees over time
Master’s degrees have shown higher proportions of GIScience and cartography degrees in recent years.

 

Reviewing CIP categories that have been added since 1980 yields insight into directions for the discipline. Three categories that are used most often date from, respectively, 1980 (Geography), 2000 (Geography, Other), and 1990/amended 2010 (GIScience and Cartography was Cartography from 1990-2010). Three additional categories created in 2020 have yet to be widely adopted, but identify known directions for geography practice: Geospatial Intelligence, Geography and Environmental Science, and Geography and Anthropology. 

While the interdisciplinary nature of geography makes it widely appealing for study, it also makes the discipline a challenge to track due to the variety of non-geography CIP codes that departments can apply to their programs. For example, GIScience programs may use a computer science CIP code; physical geography may be classified through a natural sciences CIP code. The reason behind the choice of codes by program coordinators could range from codes that are better suited to visa programs to choosing high-growth non-geography CIP codes more likely to be favored by college administrations. In fact, AAG’s Guide to Geography Programs in the Americas already notes some CIP codes used by geography programs that were not included in this initial report, such as public health. Then, too, geography is being taught in other programs that are experiencing very high growth, such as atmospheric sciences, natural resources and conservation, and computer science and IT. These could be masking geography study, or could represent combined programs and departments.  

Minding the Undergraduate Gap

Along with geography degrees at all levels, undergraduate degrees climbed steadily from just over 3,000 in 1986 to peak at roughly 5,000 in 2012. Growth has declined since then, reaching the level last seen thirty years ago at roughly 4,000 degrees conferred. When compared with all social and physical sciences, however, The State of Geography report found that geography has held its own, with a similar rate of growth to the combined rates for all social and physical sciences. Notably, natural resources conservation is the top physical science degree, and growing swiftly. This is a relevant finding to the capacity of geography studies to appeal to undergraduates, since spatial skills are indispensable to natural resources conservation. Almost all the sciences have experienced a dip in degree conferrals since 2008, and most lag far behind fields such as business management, marketing, computer sciences, and engineering. Part of this is likely the fallout from the Great Recession: The share of students majoring in social science and humanities degrees dropped steadily between 2008 and 2018, while the share of majors perceived as “recession-proof” grew. 

Line chart showing Geography’s performance relative to select other social sciences

Line chart showing Geography’s performance relative to select other physical sciences
Geography’s performance relative to select other social and physical sciences.

 

In short, geography as a major makes a good showing within both families of science to which it has affinities. This indicates the enormous opportunity that lies in breaking geography out of silos and rethinking the breadth of its appeal to undergraduate students. In fact, Stoler et al. found in their 2020 study of student preferences that the actual word ‘geography’ rated far lower in undergraduate students’ minds than words suggestive of many geographic focus areas, such as ‘environment’ or ‘sustainability.’ The news about conventional geography degrees for undergraduates is sobering, and the discipline’s influence among college students seems far from waning. 

Graduate Study Strong Despite Setbacks

While the net number of bachelor’s degrees conferred has grown by only one-third since 1986, effectively falling from historical highs to 2000-era levels, graduate studies grew by almost 100% (96% and 98%, respectively). Since 2016, however, graduate degrees have dipped sharply along with other disciplinary degrees in social or physical science compared with other disciplines, possibly a partial consequence of economic factors that are now aggravated by COVID-19.   

Line chart showing the comparison of Geography with other fields of study
Geography majors across all levels of study (bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate), compared with select other fields of study.

 

Among the comparison fields in the report, geography graduate studies outperform virtually all other social sciences we examined at the graduate level when it comes to percent growth: they are second only to economics at the master’s level, and the number one choice at the doctorate level among the social sciences we compared. Among the physical sciences we compared, geography is second only to the rapidly growing field of natural resources and conservation at the master’s degree level (the same scientific field that has also greatly grown in undergraduate degrees). Doctorates in geography are outpaced by those in three physical sciences that all have close affinity with our discipline: natural resources and conservation, geology, and atmospheric science. It is worth asking why, if geography is such an attractive post-graduate degree, it has less traction among undergraduates. Are many geographers drawn to the discipline too late to change majors for their bachelor’s degree? Does the major even exist at their college? A student cannot earn a geography degree if none is available. Bjelland (2004,) found that only 7% of undergraduate liberal arts colleges offered a geography degree. For their part, the state university systems have made program changes since 2008, including combining or eliminating programs, due to increasing budget pressure and austerity. These changes yielded many more hybrid departments that may not explicitly recognize their geographic components (this is especially true in departments of urban planning and environmental science).  

Notes on the Future

The overall decline in growth in geography degrees in the U.S. in recent years, especially among undergraduates, is concerning. Yet the relative strength in advanced degrees demonstrates staying power for the discipline, even at a time when so many disciplines and degrees are also declining. This could indicate that geography, often referred to as a “discovery” major, is resonating with students once they have discovered the field. Additional promising news, although outside the scope of this first report, is the apparent growth among associate degree geography or GIS programs at community colleges. There are now 210 community colleges in the United States that grant associates’ degrees in geography and GIS, compared with an estimated 158 in 2018. Shabram and Housel have found that many community colleges are “agile and demand-driven,” responding to the growing, unmet workforce need for spatial skills, noted by Solem et. Al. (2008). 

Geography is also better positioned as a STEM science in future: the Geography and Environmental Studies CIP offers an important chance to increase geography’s visibility in this popular scientific area. Similarly, the Department of Homeland Security recent added Geography and Environmental Studies to its list of STEM degree programs.  

These new developments can contribute to heightened awareness of geography, as well as better understanding of its power as a major and a career choice. 

Note: The State of Geography Report also covers the conferral of degrees by race, ethnicity, and gender. These dimensions are crucial to a full understanding of the momentum of the discipline, and will be covered in future articles. 

Get Involved in the Next State of Geography Report:

We look forward to further expanding on our findings in the State of Geography Report in the future, with data from a variety of sources, including NCES, AAG surveys, and AAG member expertise. We welcome questions, ideas, or suggestions about the findings at data@aag.org.  

Further Reading

Bjelland, M. (2003) A place for geographers in the liberal arts college? The Professional Geographer, Vol 56, Issue 3 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.0033-0124.2004.05603001.x  

Revell, M. Community colleges are changing the landscape of higher education. (2021) ArcNews, Fall. https://www.esri.com/about/newsroom/arcnews/community-colleges-are-changing-the-landscape-of-geography-education/  

Shabram, P,, and J. Housel, (2021) Building a partnership to build a pipeline for geographers. New Directions for Community Colleges, 194 Sum. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/cc.20453 

Solem, M., I. Cheung, M.B. Schlemper. (2008) Skills in professional geography: An assessment of workforce needs and expectations. The Professional Geographer, Vol. 60, Issue 3.  https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00330120802013620  

Stoler, J. D. Ter-Ghazaryan, I. Sheskin, A.L. Pearson, G. Schnakenberg, D. Cagalanan. (2021) What’s in a name? Undergraduate perceptions of geography, environment, and sustainability keywords and program names. Annals of the American Association of Geographers. Vol 111, Issue 2. https://doi.org/10.1080/24694452.2020.1766412 

View the report

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0123

    Share

Program Profile: Lakeland Community College’s Geography and Geospatial Technology Program

Photo of geography students receiving instruction on UAS operation during a class lab. Credit: Bobby Oliver
Geography students receive instruction on UAS operation during a class lab. Credit: Bobby Oliver

“Keeping up with technological change in the industry is key to our program,” explains Bobby Oliver, M.A., GISP professor and department chair for the Geography and Geospatial Technology program at Lakeland Community College (LCC) in Kirtland, Ohio. “We’re constantly updating and revising our curriculum to meet all of the changing needs, to ensure our students have access to the most current and advanced geospatial technologies out there.”

At LCC, keeping pace with the geospatial industry is essential to ensure the success of the hundreds of students who enroll in the Geography and Geospatial Technology program. Not only do Oliver and the LCC faculty accomplish this goal, but they do it well. In 2020, the program was recognized with the AAG Award for Associates Program Excellence. We asked Oliver what it was that made them stand out from the rest and her response was threefold: service-learning opportunities, a community engagement focus, and a highly connected professional network.

Photo of students at Lakeland Community College participating in an introductory geography class; by Bobby Oliver
Students at Lakeland Community College participate in an introductory geography class. Credit: Bobby Oliver

 

Community-oriented learning as a pathway to excellence

Since the program’s inception in 2011, LCC geography students have completed service-learning projects with the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, the City of Euclid’s Shore Cultural Center, and many other Cleveland-area nonprofit organizations. In response, these projects have often translated into internship opportunities for students.

We do a lot of community and college-wide engagement and make it a goal to create service-learning projects for students. We require our students to go out and be part of professional organizations within the community.

—Bobby Oliver

The involvement of LCC students within the local Cleveland community facilitates a symbiotic relationship centered around the value of a geographic education. For Oliver, this is a key component to the program. It enables students to apply their growing knowledge and skills in the real world while also building connections and bringing awareness to organizations that may not have previously understood the value of geography.

Finding success through championing the students and championing the program

Program faculty have also taken a proactive, integrative approach to teaching students about how the skills they’re learning in the classroom translate to professional careers, something geography students often aren’t aware of. Internships with local employers, job shadowing, alumni engagement, and professional meetings are well engrained elements of the program. “We have what’s called a career service checklist our students go through within each one of the courses in their program,” explains Oliver. “All of these things have helped build their job search skills for when they hit the job market.”

Developing and maintaining relationships with local professionals working in geography, GIS, and other related professions has been critical to the program’s success. Many of these professionals are on the program’s advisory board, which has strong and diverse representation from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. This has the added benefit of ensuring that students learn on the latest software platforms used by industry professionals.

GIS poster project by Lakeland Community College Geography student Caroline Petersen on Flow Map Analysis of Cambodian Refugee Migration, 1976-1995
GIS project by Lakeland Community College Geography student Caroline Petersen on Flow Map Analysis of Cambodian Refugee Migration, 1971-1995

 

How increased visibility is essential to program viability

As with many geography programs, maintaining strong enrollments is the foremost challenge the program faces, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only added to the difficulty of recruiting and retaining students. However, Oliver and other program leaders have developed innovative solutions to attracting students, by exploring opportunities with other departments on campus, leveraging a dual enrollment program with area high schools, and making ongoing efforts to increase the program’s visibility on campus and in the community.

For our program to be successful, we have to make sure that people see what we’re doing, and how it impacts our community. Making sure the campus is aware that we’re here and [that] what we do is very essential—especially when it comes to [LCC’s] enrollments and long-term viability.

—Bobby Oliver

 

Video of LCC alumni Caroline Peterson sharing her experience in the LCC GIS program and how she uses those skills in her career.

An annual GIS Day event, Women in GIS luncheons, presentations to the Math Club and Model U.N., and collaborative projects with other departments across campus have all helped to highlight the program’s value. “We’re really trying to get the students to see how our community and region use GIS, and how geographic and geospatial skills are used in real jobs,” says Oliver. “These are the things that I feel really put us ahead, for a two-year program.”

    Share

Program Profile: Salisbury University – GIS

Photo of Michael Scott
Michael Scott

GIS has been taught at Salisbury University since at least the early nineties, says Dr. Michael Scott, a graduate of the Department of Geography and Geosciences and now a professor in the department and dean of the Henson School of Science and Technology. Continuing the success of their GIS program, in 2007, the department expanded into graduate education with their M.S. in GIS Management (MSGISM).   

Photo of Andrea Presotto
Andrea Presotto

“We realized that our students were doing very well in terms of finding employment and working in the field,” said Dr. Andrea Presotto, director of the MSGISM. “But the organizations they worked for were not particularly strategic about managing their GIS implementations.”   

The new M.S. program was conceived as a combination MBA and GIS degree, to better equip students with the skillsets necessary to become not only effective GIS practitioners, but also address this gap in data management and become leaders in public administration, grant writing, enterprise operations management, and a host of other skills beyond the technical level. This outside-the-box thinking and response to employment realities have elevated the program to one of the most respected departments on campus.  

A Regional Approach

On Maryland’s Eastern Shore, agriculture, tourism, fisheries, residential and commercial development all face challenges in response to increasing climate change. The Department of Geography and Geosciences at Salisbury University has positioned itself as a big part of the solution for the communities in the region. In 2004, department faculty formed the Eastern Shore Regional GIS Cooperative (ESRGC), which Dr. Scott directs, to help organize the region’s small towns to pool their resources for much-needed GIS project support.    

“One small town doesn’t have the ability for a GIS staff to do data collection and analysis. If you put seven or eight little towns together, suddenly there are enough resources to hire somebody to actually get that done,” explains Scott.    

[Our students] are able to get this very intensive, on-the-job experience, but the only way that works, of course, is the ESRGC has to know that the quality of the students getting GIS education coming out of the department is great, because they’re going to put them right to work.”

—Michael Scott

An outreach unit of Salisbury University and joint effort between a collection of Maryland Eastern Shore regional councils and the university, the ESRGC has grown to include 10 full-time staff, nine of whom are alumni of the department. In good years, Scott estimates that the cooperative hires anywhere from 25 to 30 interns from the department, where they acquire the invaluable real-world experiences and skills needed to move directly into professional GIS positions, even before they graduate.  

“[Our students] are able to get this very intensive, on-the-job experience,” Salisbury University’s Dr. Michael Scott explains, “but the only way that works, of course, is the ESRGC has to know that the quality of the students getting GIS education coming out of the department is great, because they’re going to put them right to work.”

Photo of students in a Salisbury University GIS class demonstrating mapping on their computers
Photo courtesy Salisbury University

If you build it, they will come…

Students and alumni of the Department of Geography and Geosciences have earned an excellent reputation throughout the region, a credit to the dedication of the department’s faculty, and their student-centered approach. As Dr. Art Lembo, a professor in the department and Technical Director of the ESRGC explains, this starts with the physical building itself:   

“We requested the faculty offices be located in an off-hallway suite that allows our doors to be open all the time, so the students can better interact with the faculty. We made structural changes to accommodate better interaction, because it’s just in our DNA to give the students this kind of experience.”  

It trickles into [our students] bringing their friends, who can become majors as well.”

—Dr. Andrea Presotto

Dr. Dan Harris, a professor and chair of the department, notes that unlike other academic buildings on campus, which typically close at midnight, the Geography and Geosciences faculty years ago made a special request to the president of the university to allow the department lab to remain open 24 hours to provide students with the opportunity to be in the building at any time. This level of attention to detail concerning the physical learning space is representative of the student-first, innovative thinking that has set the program apart.    

“It trickles into [our students] bringing their friends, who can become majors as well,” Dr. Andrea Presotto, Geography and Geosciences professor at Salisbury University.   

Photo of Dan Harris
Dan Harris

“We have faculty who are really good at getting [undergraduate students] in for field courses, and we embed field experiences in their classes. It’s really important to show the students that it’s not just a discipline where we come in and lecture in a classroom, and you walk away and read a textbook. We actually want them to get out and see it,” says Dr. Dan Harris, department chair.

    Share

Geography can take you there

    Share

Geographer – The original green job

    Share

AAG Early Career and Department Leadership Webinar Series Continues in Fall 2021

By Julaiti Nilupaer, Mark Revell, Ken Foote and Shannon O’Lear 

This May marked the culmination of a year-long series of webinars developed by the AAG in partnership with past president Ken Foote (University of Connecticut) and current council member Shannon O’Lear (University of Kansas). The Early Career and Department Leadership webinar series launched in fall 2020 as part of the AAG’s COVID-19 Rapid Response initiatives also represents a broader effort at the AAG to expand year-round programming for members and the wider geography community. Read on for results from this year’s series and news about the series that will kick off this fall.  To access the series, click here for Early Career webinars and here for Department Leadership webinars.

The series has featured two distinct but interconnected themes: (1) building and sustaining strong academic programs and (2) helping students and young geographers navigate their early careers. The department leadership thread has covered a wide range of topics, from the impacts of COVID-19 on the future directions of graduate programs, to questions about rebranding, renaming, merging or blending geography with other programs, to creating inclusive courses and curricula, facilitating respectful workplaces and being a good colleague. Early career-themed webinars have focused on articulating career pathways and helping young geographers build strong professional networks, as well as the value they bring to a diverse range of business, government, and nonprofit sector careers.

Locations of 536 attendees from Spring 2021 webinars. Approximately 84% of them were in the United States.

Over the whole year, the series has so far attracted 2,454 registrations. This spring, 536 live attendees across 23 countries (see Map 1) participated in at least one webinar. AAG survey data found that most audience members were either employed in higher education or were graduate students pursuing master’s degree or PhD; 77 percent of them identified themselves as human geographers. Regarding their overall experience (on a scale of 1-5), 72 percent of audience members rated a 4 or 5 (see Graph 1) and were looking forward to more opportunities to engage with panelists and other audience members. Graph 2 below highlights some of the attendees’ experiences. 

Graph 1. Feedback on attendees’ overall experience for Spring webinars

The AAG thanks those from across the discipline who volunteered to help lead the webinars. Altogether 42 panelists and presenters were involved during the year, including faculty, students, and professionals from a wide range of universities, organizations, and businesses. The organizers benefited greatly from suggestions made by panelists and the audience about topics to address in future webinars. We are sincerely grateful for every attendee who participated regardless of time zones, offered insightful comments, asked thoughtful questions, and provided honest feedback that will make the upcoming events even better. 

Graph 2: Feedback from attendees for Spring webinars.

This Fall, More of a Good Thing 

AAG is pleased to announce the continuation (and expansion) of the Early Career and Department Leadership webinar series through 2022 and beyond. We are excited to find new ways to serve our members. Based largely on audience feedback, here are some ideas we are using to create webinar events that we hope will address the needs and interests of AAG members, from students to department chairs and everyone in between:  

  • More sessions on early career topics: The AAG will continue to provide webinars on careers in geography, including on academic career paths for geography PhDs; strategies for funding, grant writing and publishing; and active pedagogy. 
  • More sessions on department leadership: The AAG will continue next year on topics related to diversity, equity and inclusion; leadership styles and strengths; and supporting non-tenure track faculty. 
  • More career mentoring opportunities: The AAG recognizes the strong need for attendees to receive timely and high-quality mentoring from panelists. Our early career webinars this fall will feature extended time for open discussion and career-oriented mentoring. 
  • More networking space for each session: The AAG will update the webinar format to make it easier for attendees to network with one another virtually. 

An exciting collaboration opportunity this fall will be the AAG Regions Connect meeting in October, a first-ever convening of several AAG Regional Divisions’ fall meetings over a span of a few days, with a climate-forward model for sharing virtual content along with in-person gatherings. The AAG is working with the regional meeting organizers to provide career and professional development sessions during AAG Regions Connect. Registration and details for AAG Regions Connect will follow soon.

To attend a free session, visit the AAG Early Career Webinar series here, and the AAG Department Leadership webinar series here.

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0097


Have a great idea for an Early Career or Department Leadership webinar? We’d like to hear from you. Send your suggestions to Mark Revell, Manager of Career Programs and Disciplinary Research. 

    Share

Participate in AAG’s New Career and Research Mentors Program

Within AAG’s COVID-19 Rapid Response Task Force, members proposed the creation of a mentoring program in a time when students and colleagues may have limited access to previous peer and professional contacts and mentors, while also facing new challenges. In response, the AAG has created a new program with the goal of facilitating more connections in our community and keeping students and early career geographers energized and engaged with their geography education, research, and careers. While this program is in response to the pandemic and the related disruption of activities, the availability of volunteer mentors helps to serve those who at any time have limited access to geography mentors and professional support.

How does it work?  AAG members may volunteer to be a mentor by signing up online and providing information about their areas of expertise and interest. Students and early career geographers seeking a mentor can view the current list of volunteers and reach out through the provided contact information to start a dialogue. An active AAG membership is required for volunteer mentors only, not those seeking a mentor.

While the program only recently launched, over 40 AAG members have already signed up as mentors. Their specialty areas range the breadth of geography, and their interests and experiences can speak to diverse circumstances and challenges of students and early career geographers. Current volunteers note personal and professional experience with underrepresented groups, non-traditional students, switching careers, work/life balance, English as a second language, non-academic career paths, and more. Among all mentors is the shared desire to support our discipline and help others benefit from positive mentoring experiences like those that have helped them:

  • “It’s important to build community and capacity within our discipline. Mentoring helps to pay it back for all those who paid it forward.”
  • “I got where I am today because of the guidance and help of others.  I would love to give that back to our discipline.”
  • “It’s so important to have support networks, and I have also found that passing it forward helps me to sustain my own well being.”

For more information, to sign up as a mentor, or to view the list of volunteer mentors, visit aag.org/mentorship. For questions, contact us at mentoring [at] aag [dot] org.

    Share