Robert A. Ryerson, Ph.D., CMS, FASPRS,

President, Kim Geomatics Corporation


A number of things appear to be changing in the job market for graduate students with an interest in remote sensing. First, there are fewer academic or government research positions. Second, increasingly the new positions in the field tend to be in industry and NGOs, including organizations that do not consider remote sensing to be their primary focus. Third, there are increased expectations (hope?) that new graduates will have a basic skill set that will allow them to contribute immediately after being hired. Fourth, many companies have no idea how valuable a person with a Ph.D. or Master’s degree might be. Fifth, many recent graduates are considering the potential of becoming entrepreneurs.

This paper assesses the implications of the changes in the employment marketplace and outlines some of the knowledge, approaches, and basic skills that students would be wise to develop as they prepare themselves for careers in our wonderful, exciting field.

Index Terms: Employment advice, skills, entrepreneur


With fewer academic or research positions now available, those with the Ph.D. degree can no longer assume that they will land a highly-focused research-oriented position in academe or government. Similarly, those with a Masters degree are less likely to obtain a research-oriented position. There is also a growing desire on the part of employers for experience. This leads to the growing importance of internships and cooperative education, something already widely available at the college and undergraduate level. A related implication is that in general students must have a broad understanding of the technology and its application in addition to the specialized knowledge developed in the course of the research on which the student is focused. Remote sensing specialists are expected to understand the environment in general (not just imagery), and be able to apply their skills to a broader range of topics. In that sense, the world is returning to how it once was: remote sensing was at one time an “add-on” to some other area of study.

This leads to the need to develop a different approach to both how research is focused, who should be involved in that research (especially from outside academe), and what skills should be developed. The required skills in light of the changing job market will be documented as will the sorts of attributes the students should focus on in selling themselves to prospective employers. This paper is based on a combination of personal observations and a number of papers and reports of studies (some of which are proprietary) which the author led or contributed to listed in the references below.


Industry and NGOs tend to require skills that are markedly different in some respects from what academe demands. This is especially so in organizations which see remote sensing as a tool, not as the primary focus of activities.

There are a number of skills that are useful in both academe and industry/NGOs. These include the ability to:

· Write concisely & clearly in the main working language;

· Identify and summarize the literature on a specific topic;

· Understand what is still in the research domain, and what is a solution that can be applied for a client that expects a result.; and

· Focus on a problem – and solve it.

In addition to these skills, there are certain skills and abilities that may be considered to be more important in industry and NGOs. These include the ability to:

· Speak in public with confidence;

· Deal with clients (inferring both certain standards of dress and personal appearance as well as a degree of self-assurance);

· Clearly explain the science (or work) and the limits in writing and orally for a non-scientific audience;

· Apply your knowledge to a broad array of problems – some of which you have never considered before;

· Estimate what tasks will be required to meet a project’s objectives and how long it will take to do them;

· Work quickly and understand that deadlines are, in fact, deadlines;

· Understand the exigencies of business, including profit and loss – and realize that some days you won’t make it home for supper;

· Manage technical staff; and

· ….the list could go on.


Since many (if not most) companies have an imprecise idea how valuable a person with a Ph.D. or Master’s degree might be to their enterprise, it is important that the student be able to sell him- or her-self. According to one well respected expert in the employment field the first step for students should be to assess their strengths and weaknesses in terms of skills and abilities. One should then play to one’s strengths and work on the weaknesses. There might also be concern in industry that a PhD researcher is only interested in pursuing his or her relatively narrow research field, which may be of only marginal interest to their core business. It is important to emphasize how your skills and knowledge are transferable and your broad interests. Part of the “sales job” should take place early-on in the process while developing the thesis topic. Researchers in remote sensing and geo-information can make their research more useful and their work more rewarding – both financially and intellectually, by trying to solve the real needs of real people. Industry is a good place to start, as are the customers of industry. International development can also lead to an especially rewarding career.

A second reason for developing early contacts with industry is that most employers are looking for people with experience – not just a degree. It simply makes sense for the student to pursue a thesis topic that gives her or him experience as well as an advanced degree. Some universities have even required students to seek at least some of their funding and support for their research from industry or government agencies. That attitude develops a valuable skill – finding money! (It also tends to sow the early seeds for an entrepreneurially focused career.)

A third reason for engaging industry is to develop contacts that will prove useful in securing future employment. And many needs do remain in government, which eventually have to be fulfilled by public servants or industry. If a graduate student’s research interest is close to that of a given government department, it would be wise to understand how that department deals with getting the work done. It may be that they are (or are considering) contracting out the work. This would be another way of selling oneself to industry, by having the right contacts in government.

Finally, involving industry will also provide the basis for a more useful understanding of industry – what questions are likely to be of more interest, how industry or other client funding works, and the importance of both contacts and contracts. While success in research and work does depend on what you know, who you know can also be very useful.

There are a number of questions the student should ask before he or she starts. “Yes” is the desired answer to each question.

· Does your professor have contacts and funding sources in industry?

· Does your professor have a successful track record in contract research?

· Does your professor have a good record in having previous graduates hired by industry or NGOs?

· Will there be an industry partner who provides funding, data, or who has a direct interest in the work?

· Is your thesis or research to be focused on a key or “real” problem that keeps someone (preferably someone with money!) “awake at night’?

· Will a company or other client be a user of the outputs?

· Will the external partner provide someone appropriate to serve on the thesis committee?

· Do the Dean, Department Head and other faculty members support more practical research? (I have spoken to more than one Dean who categorically rejects anything practical as not being “worthy” of a graduate degree.)

· Will you own the Intellectual Property (IP) that is developed?

With a sufficient number of “Yes” answers you have found a program that should help in an eventual quest for employment.


Another aspect of the “sales job” is recognizing the simple fact that many of the qualities that make for a good graduate student are similar in many respects to those that employers are seeking. These include many of the skills referred to above – ability to focus, write clearly, etc. And at the same time, some of the qualities that make for a good graduate student may make for a relatively poor employee. The various aspects of this “sales job” are explored as a series of “do’s and don’ts.”

· Do attend symposia and conferences;

· Do present a professional appearance and visibility;

· Do make contacts and meet people;

· Do study the good speakers (and bad);

· Do listen and learn;

· Do present papers (and seek constructive criticism);

· Do ask intelligent (and only intelligent) questions;

· Do join and actively participate in the appropriate professional society;

· Do offer to write a paper with your professor/advisors;

· Do join on-line interest groups in the field;

· Do subscribe to on-line business-focused publications (e.g. Profit Magazine);

· Do keep in mind that if you think you know a great deal, your education is lacking….a good education will lead you to understand how little you really know!

· Do make yourself aware of government programs that aim to help industry that could be used to at least partially pay for your salary for a certain period of time – in Canada one might look to MITACS or TECTERRA’s GeoHire programs;

· Do contact or approach people in the field whose work is interesting and relevant to yours – and tell them that;

· Do make sure that you understand how government departments work that are involved in the areas you are researching and what their needs are. Many government needs remain, which eventually have to be fulfilled by new hires or industry. For instance, if a graduate’s research interest is close to that of a given government department, it would be wise to understand how that department deals with getting the work done. It may be that they are (or are considering) contracting out the work. This would be another way of selling oneself to industry, by having the right contacts in government.

· Do carry a business card with the correct contact details on one side and your interests (think of it as a short CV) on the other;

· Do exchange business cards and follow-up with a polite e-mail such as “I enjoyed meeting you at meeting x. I appreciated the time you spent with me and look forward to meeting you again.” Such an approach can open doors.

· Do ask yourself “What is my dream job?” Once that is identified you can start figuring out how to get there even if it takes 2-5-10 years to do so.

· Don’t be too loud or brash at meetings, conferences or professional get-togethers;

· Don’t wear outlandish clothing to meetings – you get only one chance to make the first impression;

· Don’t spend all of your time with students at meetings - mingle;

· Don’t be afraid to approach people who are senior and might offer useful advice – they will either enjoy the attention or ignore you – the first is good and the second doesn’t matter!

· Don’t contact people for the sake of contacting them – have a valid reason for doing so (having their business card is a valid reason);

· Don’t assume you know more than the older person you are speaking with – the older they are, the more likely they have survived all manner of problems you don’t even know exist!


There has been a great deal written about the success recent graduates (and even drop-outs) have had as entrepreneurs. A number of people known to the author have done very well in our field, or related fields. And yet others have failed miserably as entrepreneurs. There has been a great deal written about what makes a successful entrepreneur – and what doesn’t. Here we suggest that anyone contemplating that route read and think long and hard about being an entrepreneur…it can be fun, and rewarding, but it isn’t easy. What is presented here is only to whet the appetite.

There is one key factor that appears to lead to success in developing commercial applications and products associated with remote sensing. That key factor appears to be early contact with industry players at both the corporate and operational level to determine what the real strategic operational problems are that need a solution. Those problems need not be (and rarely are) in what one might think of as remote sensing or geospatial companies. And it goes without saying that someone must be willing to pay for the solution. The researchers who then direct their research teams to solve the underlying research questions building on but not duplicating other research seem to have results that are commercial sooner, with better and earlier uptake from industry. A further benefit is that students from such teams are hired faster, leading to even more research.

The potential for successful commercialization typically depends on the people (inside and outside of the venture), the opportunity (what you plan to sell and to whom), the external context (law and regulations and the macro-economy), and the deal (relationships among and between the venture and resource providers – money, ideas and management). There have been many books and papers written on how to evaluate each of these.

Do you have what it takes to be an entrepreneur or business leader? There are many web sites, papers and even books written on what it takes to be an entrepreneur. (See for example or ) Many of these will list some of the attributes already noted above. To these one can add that entrepreneurs need a great deal of self-confidence, and cannot be afraid of failure. Many successful entrepreneurs in the USA and Canada have at least one failure. Indeed, having a failure is regarded by some as a necessary step in becoming successful. At the same time, one also has to know when to walk away from a business idea – yours or those proposed by others. As the old country and western song by Kenny Rogers goes “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away and know when to run.” [9]


There are many opportunities for those with post-graduate degrees in remote sensing provided that the student has paid close attention to several basic factors. These include how the research is focused, who should be involved in that research (especially from outside academe), and what skills should be developed. A related implication is that, in general, students must have a broad understanding of the technology and its application in addition to the specialized knowledge developed in the course of the research on which the student is focused. A number of useful approaches have been suggested as well as the attributes which the author believes are most useful in recent graduates seeking employment. A list of “do’s” and “don’ts” have been given for the student to consider when selling himself or herself to potential employers.


This paper has benefited from comments provided by a number of colleagues, including Doug Bancroft former DG of CCRS, Andy Dean of the Hatfield Group, Claire Gosselin of Effigis, Brigitte LeBlon of the University of New Brunswick, Jon Murphy of GoGeomatics and Derek Peddle of the University of Lethbridge. However, basic responsibility for the content and message is the author’s.


[1] R. A. Ryerson, C. Froese, D. Bancroft, and T. Shipman “An Approach to Determine User Needs for Remote Sensing in Key Policy Areas: The Case of the Oil Sands” 33rd Canadian Symposium on Remote Sensing, Ottawa. June 2012. (A similar paper was presented at the 33rd Asian Conference on Remote Sensing, in November 2012 in Thailand.)

[2] R. A. Ryerson and P. Samson “Making International Development More Efficient and Transparent With Remote Sensing and Geospatial Information” Presented Paper 32st Asian Conference on Remote Sensing, Taipei, Taiwan. October 2011.

[3] R.A. Ryerson and S. Aronoff (2010) “Convergence and Societal Impacts of Geographic Information and Remote Sensing in the GeoEconomy” Invited Opening Keynote Paper 31st Asian Conference on Remote Sensing, Hanoi, Vietnam. November 1, 2010. Based on the book “Why ‘Where’ Matters” by the same authors available at

[4] R.A. Ryerson with S. Aronoff, K. Lim, T. Cary, and J. Fairall Researching the Impact of Mass Market Geomatics Contract Report 29-P39002788W, Natural Resources Canada.

[5] R. A. Ryerson and G. Blair “The Commercialization of Research: Turning Research into a Business Opportunity” Invited Presentation to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China. October 12, 2005

[6] R. A. Ryerson and E. Quiroga “Taking Remote Sensing from Development Projects to Operational Use: Some Common Attributes of Successful Projects” Session Keynote Paper Geo Asia Pacific Conference, Bangkok, Thailand, October 2000. Also presented at the 23rd. Canadian Symposium on Remote Sensing, St. Foy, Quebec, August 2001.

[7] R.A. Ryerson L. Sayn-Wittgenstein, and F. Hegyi Remote Sensing in Canada” Chapter 14 in G. McGrath and L. Sebert Mapping a Northern Land Queens and McGill University Press, Kingston, Ontario/ Montreal, Quebec.

[8] R. A. Ryerson “Image Interpretation Concerns for the 1990’s and Lessons from the Past” Photogrammetric Engineering and Remote Sensing (Presented at the 1988 Fall Meeting of the ASPRS, Virginia Beach, Va., USA and invited to submit for publication to the Journal by ASPRS President) 55 (10): October 1427-1430.

[9] The Gambler lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC. 1978.

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