How to Thrive in Geography

The difference between just taking classes and getting an actual education often is a by-product of engagement and integration. As a research-intensive university, the UW offers more opportunities and challenges than high school or community college, so don’t be shy about making the UW work for you! Here are a few tips from advisers, librarians and students for achieving a sustaining and satisfying undergraduate experience:

1. Construct a narrative about what you can do (or want to do or will be able to do) as a geographer.  Geography is a very broad discipline, so it is important to develop a focused, strong interest (environmental issues, immigration, globalization, sustainability, labor, health care, etc.) and use that interest as a way to integrate projects, coursework, research, internships, and extra-curricular activities. It’s important to try various kinds of geographies–migration and population studies, resource analysis, globalization, sustainability, urban social justice, etc.– in addition to GIS. All of our tracks can lead to satisfying careers, and you’d do best when you find a subject area that you thrive in.

2. Take Geog 315 as soon as possible (we usually offer it in Aut and Spr). We don’t want to teach you what to think so much as how to think and what to think about. Geog 315 helps you develop crucial habits of mind, including: knowing how to frame a researchable question; knowing different analytical methods you can apply to a given question and when and how to apply each of them; locating and qualifying sources; using maps and data to support your argument, and finding holes in the research of a given question. In other words, the course helps you to develop your own skills as an independent researcher, instead of just spitting back information given to you by a professor.

3. Get to know the faculty and graduate students. Schedule meetings, bring them your ideas, ask for their tips on classes to take or books and articles to read or lectures to go to.  Find out what they’re studying. Get their honest critiques on your work. Remember they are each part of an invisible learning community, both at the UW and beyond, centered around their subject expertise. This is one of the most efficient ways to begin to feel like an insider—a member of a discourse community. As one student put it, “talk to your professors and TAs. They can lead you to your first career faster than spamming your resume to different companies.” As another put it, “attach yourself to a professor and don’t let go until graduation”.

4. Check out the Geography Honors program. It requires a year-long workshop/seminar, usually with fewer than 10 other Geography majors, and organized around a particular topic, such as urban culture, food and sustainability or globalization. This seminar helps students design, execute, write up, and present a research project. It’s a chance for seniors to independently build upon their passions and interests in geography in a larger, more complex project, while forging ties of support and caring within a small group of like-minded geographers. Students learn to help and support others in their work, share and exchange resources and ideas, and give and get constructive feedback. Admission to the program is competitive, and largely based on GPA (around 3.5).  For details, consult the Honors webpage.

5. Go to Friday colloquia if there’s a topic that interests you. Not only do you get to hear a variety of in-depth talks on a wide array of subjects, but you also can ask questions and see how graduate students and faculty frame questions. There’s also a reception after each colloquium, where you can talk with faculty and grad students informally. Changing colloquium subjects are on flyers posted around the department, and also featured on our homepage.

6. Take related courses in other departments. The advising office publishes a quarterly list of suggested courses, broken down by concentration. Making those last few credits complement your work in the major is an invaluable enhancement to your education, and will help your broaden your resume.

7. Showcase the dependable strengths you develop in the major: programs and software you’ve used; analytical and modeling techniques, GIS skills and geovisualization techniques; working with census data, constructing and conducting surveys, learning how to read scholarly articles; learning how to write and defend arguments, etc. Course syllabi often contain learning objectives and learning outcomes—translate some of these into resume language. For a start on some of this language and keywords, see our resources on Careers and Disciplinary Keywords.

8. Get to know your fellow students. They can offer you a lot of unexpected insights and perspectives, critique your work, and help you discover other UW connections and opportunities. They are an often overlooked resource. As one student put it, “It turned out that I learned at least as much from my fellow students than I did from my professors. Not just content, but also how to put things together”. Don’t turn this into an impersonal commuter campus, but treat it like a real learning community.

9. Think at least three quarters ahead about class scheduling. This means working with Geography advisers to develop a sense of academic focus, purpose, and direction—a kind of mental map of where you want to go and how to get there. Of course, you can only use (or make) a map if you know where you want to. Another way of putting this is to say that a list of courses is not the same thing as an inquiry-driven academic plan. (See tip 1). While we can’t always know too far in advance whether class offering times will clash (unavoidable in an era of classroom shortages and scheduling constraints), we try to keep our three-quarter curricular forecast up to date.

10. Engage in independent research (including Geog 499 credits). Working with a faculty member on your own research project can give you the confidence and analytical tools to create a first-rate research project that can be showcased on a resume. As one student put it, “If you’re interested in GIS, be as pro-active as possible. The labs might be frustrating at times, but they’re really not that hard in principle. If you want to go further in the GIS world you really need to work past the step-by-step instructions and do some independent research.”

11. Think about graduate school. That credential can be all-important, and you can really sharpen your skills and focus by doing post-undergraduate work. If you’re considering graduate school, getting to know the faculty and doing your own research are paramount.

12. Get an internship. Upon entering the major you are subscribed to the departmental Listserv that lets you know about internships. We also keep an updated list of where our students have had recent internships. Another good source for internships is HuskyJobs.

13. Pay attention to job postings early. You may still have a few years left in school, but it’s never too early to start studying job descriptions related to your career or academic interests. In particular pay attention to the types of qualifications that employers desire, so that you can start taking classes and internships which will make you more desirable when you are on the market. Upon entering the major you are subscribed to the departmental Listserv, Jobs4geogs, that lets you know about a wide range of jobs.

14. Get involved in community service or volunteer work. We publish a list of area organizations and companies where our students have recently volunteered or that partnered with us. Another great source is the Carlson Leadership and Public Service Center.

15. Get to know Geography Librarian Amanda Hornby  and the extensive digital resources available through the UW libraries. Access to this depth and quality of digital sources material is a rare privilege for you while you are at the UW, so take advantage of it. Amanda can help you navigate the information ocean, sharpen your searches and your research focus, find the right sources, use the map library, find out what your professors’ academic work is all about, and much more. This is one of the most reIiable ways to improve your academic engagement and performance.

16. Know that you are not alone, and take advantage of campus resources. College can be a stressful period of life full of many life changes. In addition to Department of Geography’s academic services, you have access to a broader set of resources offered by the University of Washington. Find a list of health and safety resources here, and longer list of academic, financial, and career resources here.