What do geographers do?

“Geographer? Wait, that’s a profession? You can actually go to school for geography? Sounds like a waste of four years of tuition your life. The world has already been mapped out and I can access it all on my phone. Plus, why do I need to know the capital of Malawi when I can look it up right here on my phone? See, I found that it’s Lilongwe, and it took me under 4 seconds.”

This is the average ensuing dialogue of any mention of the geography profession in this day and age, and has been for the past several years. Ever since the onset of the Cold War, where Western nations and the Soviet bloc emphasized the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (more commonly referred to as STEM) in order to compete against one another, geography has taken a back seat. As a result, there is a shortage of geographically competent people on this planet, which, in this global age, is not ideal.

What’s worse? They don’t see the need to understand geography. Especially when all of the statements from the beginning of this article are true. Yes, geographer is a profession. You can go to school for geography. The world has been mapped out. You can access it all on your phone. You can look it up on Google maps. However, the mistake here is that that’s not what geographers do. Yes, geographers were the ones who helped map out Google maps as well as give it the functionality that it has. However, they just don’t sit there and revel in awe of what they just accomplish. They don’t get paid to sit and memorize maps and regurgitate capitals of countries and their subdivisions.

Before we proceed to see what geographers actually do, you must remember that geography is a science. According to the Merriam-Webster definition of geography, it is “a science that deals with the description, distribution, and interaction of the diverse physical, biological, and cultural features of the earth’s surface.” Geographers take a location and study its various attributes, both natural and man-made, including people, and make recommendations for projects that are based in that location.

For example, if a city wanted to create a new subway system, they would use geographers to study the landscape, make route recommendations, and map out the entire route. We can compare this kind of analytical work with more “practical” occupations. A doctor will look at the patient, find out where the source of discomfort is, study that particular part of the body, figure out the problem, and make a recommendation, which could be medication or surgery. A mathematician is given a problem to solve, looks at the source of the problem, takes a few derivatives and integrals coupled with a Laplace transformation here and there while trying to solve partial differential equations, and comes up with a model that can be applied to solve the problem. An engineer is told that something needs to be built. The engineer then draws a schematic, figures out the materials needed, applies the necessary concept, and gives his or her plan which ends up being the recommendation. As you can see, these occupations all follow a very methodical process, and geographers are no exception.

So, now that you have the basis of understanding that geography is something that can be studied and applied to solve real-world problems, let’s take a look at some of the different occupations that geographers have.

Urban and Regional Planners – In order to properly understand a city or town, and how we can allow it to grow and best use the space to develop it, we need to have some sort of spatial expertise. This is where geographers come into place. Because they are experts in all things pertaining to space, they can give some valuable recommendations and see things that engineers or architects otherwise would overlook.

Cartographers – Yes, the entire world has been mapped out already. That doesn’t mean that we don’t need specific maps to solve problems. For example, John Snow was a physician in London in the 1800s. In 1854, a cholera outbreak struck the Soho neighborhood of the city. Nobody knew the source of the outbreak or how to stop it. Snow mapped out all the cases of the outbreak and determined that everybody who was infected was in the vicinity of a certain well that they drank water out of. Upon further inspection of the well, it was found that the well was heavily infected by fecal matter. Once that was removed, the outbreak was finished and everything went back to normal. This shows how crucial maps can be. Geographers now use a modern tool called Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to make their maps. These maps show different layers of information such as median income, elevation, and population density. They use GIS to make recommendations for many many different problems from construction to community development.

Surveyors – Without surveyors, we wouldn’t know where certain boundaries are. We wouldn’t have exact distances from Point A to Point B. We wouldn’t have maps that are scaled properly. Surveying is a natural choice for geographers because of its spatial nature. Like cartographers, even though the world has been mapped out, in the case of a new development or a specific situation, surveyors can provide valuable information for these projects.

Geoscientists – Geoscientists have a strong background in geology as well, and mainly work in laboratory settings and do field work. They analyze field samples and make recommendations on the condition of the natural characteristics. If a rail company wanted to bore a tunnel through a mountain to lay down tracks for its new route, geoscientists would look at the natural composition of the area and make recommendations off of their findings. If done properly, they can do so without causing a catastrophe with the mountain and keeping a stable rail line.

These are some of the most common occupations that geographers hold. However, they are very flexible in what they can do, and are always required in any situation that has spatial implications. Hopefully now, you understand what importance they hold in society and in the workplace, and why their geographic knowledge is highly important to the progression of the world.