Geospatial intelligence students boost careers with online program

These unique students are looking to expand their experience and knowledge with the Master of Geographic Information Systems. Learn more about Dan and Ericka.

MGIS graduate leads FBI's geospatial team for the 2018 Winter Olympics

Parrish Henderson, Penn State World Campus graduate and 13-year Army veteran, is leading the FBI's geospatial team, which collaborates with U.S. and international agencies and governments to provide safety for athletes and attendees. Learn more about Parrish's story.

Quink recognized with 2016 Michael P. Murphy Award in Geospatial Intelligence

Tyson J. Quink, a student in the Penn State World Campus Master's in Geographic Information Systems program, is the 2016 recipient of the annual Lt. Michael P. Murphy Award in Geospatial Intelligence. Tyson received his bachelor's in GIS from West Point and formerly served as a platoon leader in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Read more about Tyson's recognition.

Penn State World Campus professor sets off on journey to improve geospatial intelligence

Todd Bacastow, lead faculty for the geospatial intelligence programs offered through Penn State World Campus, has developed a massive, open online course (MOOC) to advance the geospacial field beyond its current limits. Read more about his research and the class.

Penn State selected as Center of Academic Excellence in Geospatial Sciences

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has recognized Penn State as a Center of Academic Excellence in Geospatial Sciences. The award was granted in recognition of Penn State's dedication to investing in the quality and future of the geospatial workforce. Read more about the CAE GS recognition.

Geospatial Intelligence: A Smart Career Move

Written by Celeste Altus, Military Advanced Education 2011 Volume: 6 Issue: 6 (July/August)

There is no doubt that on September 11, 2001 the world changed. The terrorist attacks of 2001 prioritized national security like no other time in modern history, placing a new emphasis on careers in the defense industry, government and certain private industries. As a result, disciplines such as geospatial intelligence have shifted into high gear, with opportunities for work and college programs on the rise.

Geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) is the analysis of imagery and geospatial information: what may have formerly been called mapping or topography. Beyond information on locations, geospatial intelligence combines data on physical features of land, its inhabitants, barriers and safe points of entry; critical information for both national and international disasters as well as military operations. For example, geospatial intelligence was needed in the relief efforts during Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, more recently in Japan’s enormous earthquake and tsunami, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Given its high demand, the subject is also gaining popularity as an academic discipline in United States institutes of higher education.

Top of the Class

There are several national schools that offer certificates, bachelor’s and postgraduate degrees in geospatial intelligence, but a few are leading the field, such as Pennsylvania State University and its online component, Penn State World Campus, and the University of Texas at Dallas.

Penn State World Campus offers an online graduate certificate in geospatial intelligence that teaches skills in geospatial technology, spatial thinking and information literacy. The certificate is comprised of classes that bear 13 credits and can be used to work toward an advanced degree in the field. When students complete the certificate, they receive both a Penn State and U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF) certificate.

Certificate holders can use this program as a foundation for a master’s degree in geographic information systems or the master of Professional Studies in homeland security, geospatial intelligence option. The master’s programs in this discipline are highly selective, admitting only 30 percent of applicants.

Todd Bacastow, Ph.D., is a professor of geospatial intelligence at Penn State who has been with the GIS certificate and master’s programs since their inception.

Before returning to Penn State, his alma mater, in 1994, Bacastow had a career in the U.S. Army and taught for a time at West Point. At Penn State he has had a hand in authoring courses and currently serves as the option director for the geospatial intelligence option of the master’s programs and sits on numerous committees and panels advising the professional development of the geospatial intelligence professional.

The students in Penn State’s certificate program are on average 36 years old, many have over 12 years of work experience, and most are currently employed with an intelligence agency or a vendor serving one of the agencies, Bacastow said. Approximately 50 percent are veterans or are currently serving in the military.

Of geospatial intelligence, Bacastow said, “the field is just beginning to understand itself.” In light of current politics and the growth seen in the intelligence community, the outlook for careers in GEOINT is generally good. “The geospatial community was always a small portion of that. It has sort of come into its own now. It has been growing as fast as the other parts of the intelligence community; but maybe even faster … Employment in the field has been better than other areas; it has been a growing field for, I’d say, the last seven years,” he said.

At the University of Texas at Dallas, geospatial sciences and geography are taught within the school of economic, political and policy sciences. The university offers multiple degrees in the subject: a bachelor’s in geography, master’s and a doctorate in geospatial information sciences, and graduate certificates in geographic information systems, remote sensing and geospatial intelligence.

Dr. Stuart B. Murchison, Ph.D., an associate professor at UT Dallas, said students with graduate geospatial intelligence certificates have been in high demand since 9/11 and that a multitude of organizations hire these graduates. Private companies, city, state and federal government, federal contractors, all branches of the military, and intelligence agencies from the National Geospatial- Intelligence Agency (NGA) to the CIA and NTSA are looking for students with these particular skill sets.

At the University of Texas, the graduate program has students learning about geographic information systems (GIS), analysis of remotely sensed imagery, geospatial statistical analysis, as well as practicing working knowledge of global positioning systems (GPS). “Employers need to recruit students that have spatial analytical and critical thinking abilities, as well as informational literacy,” Murchison said.

Opportunities Abound

The professional opportunities for students of geospatial science are extensive and include positions as geographers (both cultural and economic), analysts, software technicians, database managers, developers, engineers and remote sensing specialists. Industries to which students may contribute their skills range from public policy to public safety, social services to real estate.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the nation’s top source of geospatial intelligence, provides imagery analysis, maps and geospatial data for all kinds of missions: U.S. national defense, disaster relief, and safety of navigation. In April, the NGA held a national hiring event, selecting applicants to interview at the end of July for a large amount of entry-level positions within the agency. Open positions included imagery intelligence analysts, political geographists, counterintelligence officers, information assurance officers, information security specialists and systems engineers. All these positions are open only to U.S. citizens with a top-secret security clearance and a bachelor’s degree or equivalent work experience.

Although many of the positions on geospatial intelligence are military or government-based, anyone looking to study this discipline should not overlook the possibilities in the private sector, said Jeffrey Oliver Breen, president of Cambridge Aviation Research in Cambridge, Mass. The field is not limited to disasters and missions; it also provides intelligence for navigation, both on land and sea.

“The analytical training of an intelligence analyst combined with hands-on geo-intel skills would be invaluable to a wide variety of civilian employers,” Breen said.

He said in his field, aviation, Next- Gen is allowing for the development of a greater variety of approach and departure procedures. Airports are just beginning to work with their communities to incorporate noise and other concerns into the design of these flight procedures, as well. “In aviation the prospects are especially bright,” he said.

Rusty Rex, a graduate of the Penn State certificate program and now a geographic information systems specialist who helped direct responders to specific sites after the Gulf oil spill, already had an established corporate career when he enrolled at Penn State. Rex chose to study geospatial intelligence to advance his career and out of a desire to study something unique and not commonly offered at the local community or state college. He said he had a professional interest in large-scale disaster response as well as a personal interest in geopolitics, the intelligence community and international relief.

“I didn’t want to take graduate courses that covered material that I already know or could easily learn in my daily work environment,” Rex said. “Much of the geo-intelligence material was new to me.”

In his opinion, the most rewarding part of the Penn State certificate program was the interaction with fellow classmates, including active duty military serving overseas, intelligence professionals and international relief workers. “Those interactions and discussions cannot be found in a textbook,” he noted. He said he would recommend that civilians in similar jobs consider studying the topic as it has a broad application. “Geospatial intelligence is needed in any disaster response, be it natural or man-made,” he said. “It is up to the GEOINT professional to gather, organize and analyze the necessary data and provide the information and intelligence to decision-makers and the ‘boots on the ground.’ For example, an island is not just a feature on a map. It may have cultural, historical, environmental, economic and perhaps some strategic or tactical significance. A geospatial intelligence professional needs to wade through this information and analyze it in its spatial context.”

Murchison highlighted the advantages of military service to this field of study. “Graduate certificate holders that have prior military experiences have unique opportunities because of their previous use of many of these technologies and understanding of their uses in combat,” Murchison said. Additionally, veterans might also have several levels of clearances that can be an advantage to employers. “The use of geospatial intelligence saves time, money and most importantly lives,” Murchison said. “Military veterans, based on their experiences, are uniquely aware of the endless possibilities of this program. Almost everything on Earth has a spatial component; this program allows trained scientists to utilize their skills to explore spatial concepts that have never been thought of—yet.”

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