Enhancing Departments and Graduate Education in Geography

Small image of Enhancing Departments and Graduate Education in Geography (EDGE) brochure cover

Small image of Enhancing Departments and Graduate Education in Geography (EDGE) brochure coverEnhancing Departments and Graduate Education in Geography (EDGE) is a research and action project led by the AAG to enhance the preparation of geographers for professional careers in education, business, government, and nonprofit sectors. Sponsored by the National Science Foundation’s Research on Learning and Evaluation (ROLE)1 and Research and Evaluation on Education in Science and Engineering (REESE)2 programs, EDGE is:

  • researching issues affecting graduate education, professional development, and employment in geography;
  • publishing print and web materials for improving career preparation and advising;
  • engaging students, professionals, academic departments and employers through workshops and conference presentations;
  • collaborating with geographers as well as higher education organizations and researchers on efforts to study, support, and enhance graduate education for STEM careers.

All of these activities were pursued in cooperation with geography graduate students, faculty, graduate program directors, department chairs, and other members of the AAG.

1. NSF REC-0439914 ($1,021,369)

2. NSF DRL-0910041 ($993,031)

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More About EDGE

Geo Career MaPS (Geoscience Career Master’s Preparation Survey)

The American Geosciences Institute (AGI) and the Association of American Geographers (AAG) conducted a survey of Geography and Geology Master’s degree programs in an effort to determine the types of competencies taught and developed in graduate curricula (including internships and related professional training experiences). Funding for the research was provided by a $109,842 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Geoscience Education program (Award GEO- 1202707).

Read the Final Report
Learning from International Practice: What is Mastersness?

As part of the EDGE project’s international outreach and collaboration, EDGE researchers contributed a case study of “mastersness” to the Learning from International Practice (LFIP) initiative based in Scotland. The EDGE case study on the MS GIS program at the University of Arizona stems from a larger study of master’s education in geography.

Phase 2 (2009-2013): With renewed support from NSF, EDGE is now in a second phase of activity with a multi-year agenda focused on researching and improving geography graduate education for careers in business, government, and nonprofit (BGN) organizations.

EDGE Phase 2 has three major research components:

1) Through surveys and work logs, EDGE researchers will study the work activities and experiences of geography professionals employed by BGN organizations.

2) EDGE researchers are planning case studies and industry surveys with a variety of employer organizations in an effort to improve understanding of the factors and trends shaping employment prospects for geographers.

3) Surveys and interviews with graduate programs are also being planned to explore the role of master’s education, including professional master’s degrees and certificate programs, in preparing geography students for BGN careers.

EDGE Phase 2 will also publish a variety of resources and sponsor workshops for career preparation and professional development.

In the coming years EDGE will continue to reach out in collaborations beyond geography’s disciplinary boundaries. The Center for Innovation and Research in Graduate Education (CIRGE) will conduct the external evaluation and share in the effort to communicate the project’s outcomes with employer organizations, graduate programs, and professional associations.

Phase 1 (2005-2009): In its first phase, EDGE implemented surveys, interviews, program observations, and work logs to improve understanding of the outcomes of master’s and doctoral education in geography and the value of geography education for careers in higher education, government, business, and non-profit organizations.

EDGE research discovered, for example, that employers foresee a rising need for geographic perspectives and technologies in a variety of industries. Employers also noted the importance of skills in areas such as communication, writing, project management, collaboration and teamwork.

EDGE also developed quantitative and qualitative methods for analyzing departmental climate and the experiences of students in master’s and doctoral programs in geography. This information is being shared with geography programs in an effort to promote awareness and action toward building supportive academic and social environments for graduate students.

Research by EDGE and the Geography Faculty Development Alliance provided the empirical foundation for two books for faculty development: Aspiring Academics and Teaching College Geography. The books offer engaging and practical advice to graduate students and early career faculty. A companion website features dozens of workshop activities, discussion forums, and other community-building technologies.

The external evaluation of EDGE Phase 1 produced evidence of the project’s broader impacts, which include new and revised curricula in graduate programs, changes to career advising and mentoring practices, and support for annual departmental leadership and faculty development programs.

EDGE Phase 1 featured collaborations with Oxford University’s Centre for Excellence in Preparing for Academic Practice, the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education, and the Carnegie Foundation’s Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning program.

The following is a list of research publications produced by the EDGE Project.

Refereed articles

1. Monk, Janice, and Kenneth Foote. 2015 Directions and Challenges of Master’s Programs in Geography in the United States. The Professional Geographer. DOI: 10.1080/00330124.2015.1006537

Measured by growing student numbers and new programs, master’s education is one of the most dynamic areas of U.S. higher education. We focus here on the current state of programs that award the master’s as their highest degree, so-called master’s only departments, a distinct institutional type in the United States, which has received little research attention. Focusing on sixty-four geography programs, considerable differences are apparent in terms of size (both student and faculty numbers), mission, and curriculum; this includes a number of new programs and hybrid degrees that have recently been developed. The findings raise questions about levels of program staffing, program structure, student recruiting, and overall program quality and viability. Given the changing nature of master’s education, further attention should be focused on helping universities create, strengthen, and expand such programs in the future.

2. Lukinbeal, Chris, and Janice Monk. 2015. Master’s in Geographic Information Systems Programs in the United States: Professional Education in GIS and Geography. The Professional Geographer. DOI: 10.1080/00330124.2014.983630.

This article examines the rise of master’s degree programs in geographic information systems (MGIS) in the United States. We reviewed MGIS program Web sites and conducted thirteen in-depth interviews with program directors. Results show the range and complexity of programs in terms of mode of delivery, staffing, and engagement with the geospatial industry. The diversity of MGIS programs, their differences from traditional master’s programs, and their focus on professional education all point toward a new style of degree program that challenges us to think differently about the future of graduate education in geography and GIS.

3. McKendry, Jean, Joy K. Adams, Joy K., and Michael Solem. Employer perspectives on the value of geographic expertise, skills, and technologies. Research in Geographic Education, 16(1): 23-39.

4. Schlemper, M. Beth, Joy K. Adams, and Michael Solem. 2014. Geographers in business, government, and nonprofit organizations: Skills, challenges, and professional identities. The Professional Geographer. 66(3): 480-492.

This study examines the experiences of geography graduates who work in business, government, and nonprofit organizations. We analyzed 352 logs from eighty-two professionals detailing professional activities, challenges, and opportunities during one work week each month, over a period of six months. Our analysis explores interpersonal relationships and working conditions affecting participants’ progress toward work goals,workplace climate, and professional identity. Geographic information systems and technology accounted for more than half of the geographic skills respondents reported using on the job, and administrative and leadership factors were the most commonly cited types of transferable skills. Professional geographers value collaborative workplaces as well as opportunities to work independently with the confidence of their supervisors, and their sense of a professional identity is enhanced when they feel valued and are recognized for their work. Professional development activities are important because they reinforce geographers’ sense of positively contributing to their organizations, enhance interpersonal interactions, facilitate work on specific projects, and expand individuals’ knowledge and skills. Moreover, our findings suggest that nearly half of the reported workplace difficulties could potentially be reduced or eliminated as a result of more and better professional development. Nonetheless, many employers do not consistently provide opportunities for professional development to their employees. Based on our analysis, we contend that professional development is a beneficial investment for lifelong learning, from undergraduate and graduate education throughout the entire course of a professional career.

5. Solem, Michael, Aurelia Kollasch, and Jenny Lee. 2013. Career goals, pathways and competencies of geography graduate students in the USA. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 37, no.1: 92-116.

This study examines the motivations and career goals of geography graduate students and the extent they are prepared in transferable skills. Women and students specializing in geographic information science and technology are primarily motivated by career opportunities in the private sector, whereas doctoral students express a preference for academic career paths and their goals are more influenced by faculty and departmental prestige. Students in Master’s programs and those specializing in physical geography are more likely to seek positions with government employers. Master’s and doctoral programs are providing opportunities for students to develop competency in a wide-range of transferable skills. However, there are many organizational and business-oriented skills that employers value but which are not commonly taught in graduate curricula in geography programs.

6. Monk, Janice, Kenneth Foote, and Michael Solem. 2012. Rethinking Postgraduate Education in Geography: International Perspectives on Improving Practice. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 36, no. 1: 25-27.

This symposium brings together multi-national assessments of the current state of and challenges facing postgraduate education in geography. Contributors from Europe, Australia, South Africa and the USA identify ways in which restructuring of educational systems and wider political contexts affect programmes within the field. While highlighting the implications of initiatives such as restructuring of degrees in European universities, merging of Geography into interdisciplinary units in Australia, efforts to strengthen professional development programmes in the USA and to widen racial participation in South Africa, they also demonstrate the many challenges that remain to innovation, particularly as these are affected by economic conditions and policies.

7. Monk, Janice, Kenneth E. Foote, and M. Beth Schlemper. 2012. Graduate education in U. S. geography: Students’ career aspirations and faculty perspectives. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 102, no. 6: 1432-1449.

The career aspirations of U.S. graduate geography students and how these are perceived by faculty and addressed in departmental curricula and programs have important implications for sustaining and enhancing geography’s position in higher education in the current period of economic, political, and social change. Recent interdisciplinary research on academic socialization identifies differences in expectations between students and faculty as an important factor affecting departmental climates, completion of graduate degrees, and assessments by graduates of their preparation for the workforce. Based on qualitative analysis of interviews conducted in five doctoral and five master’s departments selected to reflect a range of programs across the United States, we found considerable difference between students’ aspirations and faculty perceptions. Approximately half the doctoral students interviewed were considering careers in academia, although many were also considering opportunities in other sectors or were uncertain of their future directions. Students in master’s departments were predominantly interested in careers outside academia. Doctoral faculty and curricula tended to stress preparation for research-oriented academic careers. Master’s faculty generally recognized students’ aspirations and adapted curricula to meet them, especially by the provision of internship programs. We take into consideration campus location and the gender, ethnicity, and international origins of students. The results suggest improving graduate programs and advising by aligning them with student career plans and aspirations.

8. Schlemper, Beth. 2011. Challenges and coping in graduate school. The Geographical Bulletin 52, no. 2: 67-72.

This paper addresses challenges and coping strategies of graduate student in US geography programs. Through semi-structured focus groups with 117 graduate students enrolled in ten departments (five doctoral and five master’s programs), time management and the academic dimensions of graduate school emerge as major challenges. Students benefit from building support networks with their advisors, committee members, other faculty members (both inside and outside of their departments), peers and other students, and family or friends. These relationships help students balance the demands on their time as well as the academic side of graduate school. They also discover that active involvement in their departments contributes to a sense of belonging and becoming a professional.

9. 2011. Changing Geography in High Education: Towards a Scholarship of Academic Practice. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 35, no. 3: 331-455.

This issue of JGHE is a special Symposium consisting of nine articles written collaboratively by geographers from over a dozen countries. The papers stem from a workshop organized by the International Network for Learning and Teaching Geography (INLT), with support from the AAG’s EDGE project; the UK Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences; Taylor & Francis; and JGHE.

10. Solem, Michael, Nick Hopwood, and M. Beth Schlemper. 2011. Experiencing graduate school: A comparative analysis of students in geography programs. The Professional Geographer 63 no. 1: 1-16.

This article focuses on the role of departmental culture and academic climate in shaping the experiences of master’s and doctoral students in geography. Structured logging of experiences at nine geography graduate programs over six months reveals the types of support provided to graduate students; how students cope with emotional, academic, and financial challenges; and ways students become integrated (or not) in department communities. Analysis of log data considers variation by subgroups (gender, citizenship, program type, full/part time status, race/ethnicity). For all students, the findings indicate the importance of unplanned, spontaneous and other informal events as well as relationships of a more formal nature with advisors and faculty in the department and beyond. Students also noted the importance of having access to resources, professional development opportunities, and support from peers as factors affecting their sense of progress and belonging in a department community.

11. Schlemper, Beth and Janice Monk. 2011. Discourses on ‘Diversity’: Perspectives from Graduate Programs in Geography in the United States. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 35 no. 1: 23-46.

This qualitative and contextual study explores how ‘diversity’ is interpreted by graduate students and faculty in ten departments of geography in the United States. It applies a model that considers historical, structural, psychological and behavioral dimensions. Themes addressed include issues related to gender, international origin, race/ethnicity, age, family status, disciplinary subfields and institutional location; silences persist around sexual orientation and disability. We highlight differences across subgroups of students, faculty perspectives and the approaches used in departments that have attained greater diversity, especially of racial and ethnic minorities.

12. Solem, Michael, Jenny Lee, and Beth Schlemper. 2009. Departmental climate and student experiences in geography graduate programs. Research in Higher Education 50 no. 3: 268-292.

[Recipient of the Journal of Geography in Higher Education’s Biennial Award for Promoting Excellence in Teaching and Learning]

This study explores how graduate students enrolled in M.A./M.S. and Ph.D. geography programs perceive the social and academic climate of their departments. A second objective is to understand how these students self-assess their own professional abilities, values, and goals, and whether these self-assessments differ across demographic and institutional contexts. The survey instrument for this research is based on data collected from graduate student focus groups and on validated constructs of academic culture and climate from previous research. T-tests, ANOVA, and regression analyses identified significant differences among graduate students and their perceptions of departmental climate when compared on the basis of gender, citizenship, race/ethnicity, disciplinary subfield, and institutional type. Interview data provide additional context for analysis of the survey data. The primary areas in which we detected differences in graduate students’ experiences were 1) diversity issues, 2) disciplinary and institutional cultures, 3) career planning and development, 4) financial matters, and 5) quality of the learning environment.

13. Solem, Michael and Kenneth Foote. 2009. Enhancing Departments and Graduate Education in Geography: A Disciplinary Project in Professional Development. International Journal of Researcher Development 1 no. 1: 11-28.

This paper describes the development, implementation, and preliminary outcomes of Enhancing Departments and Graduate Education (EDGE) in Geography, a multi-year project begun in 2005 to study the process of professional development in graduate geography in the U.S and sponsored by the National Science Foundation. As a research and action project responding to the needs of graduate geography programs, EDGE seeks to provide academic geographers with an empirical perspective of disciplinary as well as interdisciplinary and generic skills that MA/MS and PhD students develop as a result of graduate education. Related objectives are to understand how disciplinary skills are applied by geography graduates once they enter the professional workforce in both academic and non-academic professional settings, and to gauge the extent graduate programs are sufficiently preparing geography graduates for those careers.

14. Solem, Michael, Ivan Cheung, and M. Beth Schlemper. 2008. Skills in Professional Geography: An Assessment of Workforce Needs and Expectations. The Professional Geographer 60 no. 3: 1-18.

This study compares the skills of professional geographers and the needs of employer organizations across major sectors of the U.S. workforce. Following a series of focus groups, two surveys were developed to explore: (i) the extent specific skills were performed by geographers in different professional positions, and (ii) the value of and anticipated demand for those skills from the perspective of employers. Overall, respondents in the focus groups and both surveys emphasized the need for general skills ranging from time management and writing ability to information management and computer literacy. But employers also cited many geographic skills as being vital for enhancing the work of professionals in all types of organizations. Competency in field methods, the ability to work across disciplinary boundaries, and spatial thinking were three skill areas that characterized the work of geographic professionals irrespective of specialty.

Conference proceedings

Foote, K., M. Solem, and J. Monk. 2009. Developing geographic competencies for careers in higher education, business, government, and non-profit organizations. Proceedings of the Development of Competencies in the World of Work and Education (DECOWE) Conference, 24-26 September 2009, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Practicing Geography

Practicing Geography: Careers for Enhancing Society and the Environment is a comprehensive new resource from the Association of American Geographers (AAG) and Pearson, designed to prepare students for STEM careers in business, government, and non-profit organizations. Funded by the National Science Foundation, this project brings together members of the geography community to discuss workforce needs, expectations, and core competencies in professional geography, profiling the professional applications of and opportunities in geography today. Practicing Geography presents dozens of geographers applying their knowledge, skills, and perspectives in communities, businesses, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations, both domestically and internationally.

Aspiring Academics

Aspiring Academics is a set of essays designed to help graduate students and early career faculty get started in their careers in geography and related social and environmental sciences. Rather than viewing faculty work as a collection of unrelated tasks, Aspiring Academics stresses the interdependence of teaching, research, and service and the importance of achieving a healthy balance in professional and personal life. Drawing on several years of research, the chapters provide accessible, forward-looking advice on topics that often cause the most stress in the first years of a college or university appointment.

Teaching College Geography

Whether you are a graduate teaching assistant or the full instructor of a course, Teaching College Geography provides a starting point for becoming an effective geography teacher from the very first day of class.

Divided in two parts, the first set of chapters in Teaching College Geography address “nuts-and-bolts” issues of teaching in the context of new technologies, student demographics, and institutional expectations that are the hallmarks of higher education in the 21st century. In the second part, chapters explore other important issues: effective teaching in the field; supporting critical thinking with GIS and mapping technologies; engaging learners in large geography classes; and promoting awareness of international perspectives and geographic issues.

Teaching College Geography is based on the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL), a broad-based, international movement to create more effective linkages between teaching and research in all disciplines. SoTL encourages all academics to become critically reflective teachers who constantly consider the effectiveness of their practices, keep abreast of research on teaching and learning, and contribute to the process of educational improvement by sharing innovations with peers and students. Toward that end, the book’s chapters include activities that can be completed in workshops, seminars, and informal gatherings of graduate students and faculty. Visitors to the book’s companion website can find additional activities, post comments related to the chapters, participate in electronic discussions, and share their own resources and tips with others.

The following organizations were directly involved in the planning and design of the EDGE research:

Center for Innovation and Research in Graduate Education (CIRGE). The center serves as the external evaluator for EDGE-Phase 2. In 2008, CIRGE released a study based on a survey of social science PhDs who earned their degrees between July 1, 1995 and June 30, 1999. The survey focuses on job search, work/life choices and dilemmas, and doctoral program evaluation. Geography was one of the disciplines studied in the report, which is available on the CIRGE website.

In September 2008, the AAG received a supplemental grant from NSF to support collaborative research with Oxford University’s Centre for Excellence in Preparing for Academic Practice. This funding supported a longitudinal study based on monthly logs of the mentoring relationships, study habits, and professional development activities in which graduate students are engaged.

Professional and Organizational Development Network (POD) in Higher Education. POD specialists participated in the development of the EDGE book Aspiring Academics and provided additional evaluation services for the project.

Under the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) Leadership program, the AAG collaborated with the Carnegie Foundation and several institutions on efforts to develop and disseminate resources for improving the pedagogical knowledge and training of graduate students.

The AAG books Aspiring Academics and Teaching College Geography are supported by a collection of professional development materials intended for faculty development workshops, graduate seminars and mentoring programs.

The materials provide practical, hands-on activities based on the ideas presented in the books and were written by geographers with input from faculty development professionals. Many of the materials are based on activities developed for the Geography Faculty Development Alliance workshops at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Download the Materials

Sessions and Workshops on Careers and Professional Development

  • EUGEO Conference in Rome, Italy (September 4-7, 2013)
  • Association of Pacific Coast Geographers (September 25-28, 2013)
  • Northeast Arc Users Group (September 30 – October 2, 2013)
  • Romania Geography Education Symposium (October 11-12, 2013)
  • 36th Annual Applied Geography Conference in Annapolis, MD (October 30-November 1, 2013)
  • AAG Annual Meeting in Tampa, Florida (April 8-12, 2014).

Principal Investigators

  • Michael Solem (AAG), Project Director EDGE Phases 1-2
  • Kenneth Foote (University of Colorado), EDGE Phases 1-2
  • Jean McKendry (AAG), EDGE Phase 2
  • Janice Monk (University of Arizona), EDGE Phases 1-2
  • Beth Schlemper (University of Toledo), EDGE Phase 2
  • Patricia Solís (AAG), EDGE Phase 2

Advisory Board

EDGE-Phase 2
  • Larry Carlson (Carlson & Associates)
  • Judy Colby-George (Spatial Alternatives)
  • David DiBiase (Pennsylvania State University)
  • Kate Edwards (Englobe, Inc.)
  • Rob George (Rite Aid Corporation)
  • John Frazier (SUNY Binghamton)
  • Rob Kent (California State University Northridge)
  • Susanne Moser (Susanne Moser Research and Consulting)
  • Lisa Nungesser (Parsons Brinckerhoff)
  • Ben Ofori-Amoah (Western Michigan University)
  • Linda Peters (ESRI)
  • Trudy Suchan (U.S. Census Bureau)
  • James Baginski (AAG Graduate Student Affinity Group, Ohio State University)
EDGE-Phase 1
  • Teresa Dawson (University of Toronto at Scarborough)
  • Dee Fink (University of Oklahoma)
  • Vicky Lawson (University of Washington)
  • Duane Nellis (Kansas State University)
  • Patricia Solís (AAG)

Research Consultants

  • Joy Adams (AAG)
  • Nick Hopwood (Oxford University)
  • Beth Schlemper (University of Toledo)
  • JW Harrington (University of Washington)
  • Lori Homer (University of Washington)
  • Aurelia Kollasch (University of Arizona)
  • Jenny Lee (University of Arizona)
  • Sue Roberts (University of Kentucky)
  • Fred Shelley (University of Oklahoma)
  • Rebecca Theobald (University of Colorado at Colorado Springs)
  • Antoinette WinklerPrins (Michigan State University)

Project Evaluator

Center for Research and Innovation in Graduate Education (CIRGE)


EDGE is administered by the Association of American Geographers. The EDGE team would like to thank Mark Revell, Sara Siegel, Ivan Cheung, Gayathri Gopiram, Jongwon Lee, Mark Purdy, and Nikolas Schiller at the AAG for their contributions to the project.

We also appreciate the following individuals for providing helpful comments on early drafts of the EDGE proposal: Vincent Brown (Federal Emergency Management Agency), Susan Hanson (Clark University), Harley Johansen (University of Idaho), Ann Johnson (Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc.), John Mercer (Syracuse University), Kavita Pandit (University of Georgia), Douglas Richardson (Association of American Geographers), Barbara Ryan (United States Geological Survey), Terry Slocum (University of Kansas), Nancy Torrieri (US Census Bureau), Steve Yoder (Johnson County Kansas Automated Information Mapping System), and Julie Zimmerman (Environmental Protection Agency).

Finally, we wish to thank our NSF program officers, David McArthur and Myles Boylan, and their colleagues for their support and advice.