If you thought geography was all about oxbow lakes and rainy field trips, it might be time to look at the subject again. At a time of growing concern about climate change, shrinking energy resources and global poverty, geography is one of the most relevant courses you could choose to study.
The subject is popular. Last year, 8,500 young people studied geography at undergraduate level and 32,000 pupils took it at A-level, making it one of the 10 most popular choices at sixth form.
Professor Jonathan Bamber, head of admissions in the school of geographical sciences at the University of Bristol, says the beauty of the subject lies in its relevance. "If you have any interest in the environment and how it works you would find a geography degree very stimulating," he says.
The Royal Geographical Society defines geography as the study of the earth's landscapes, peoples, places and environments. The focus is on the way they interrelate, which makes the subject unusual in combining social and natural sciences. Students on most courses will learn the basics of human and physical geography, with the opportunity to focus on one or the other after the first year.
"We find that most students have a preference when they come but it often changes during the first year when they learn more about what's involved," says Bamber. "Geography covers a wide range of subjects - everything from the earth sciences and maths to political science, sociology and economics. Because of that it has more chance of exciting people with a broad range of interests and backgrounds than possibly any other subject."
There are more than 250 geography degrees and diplomas offered around the UK, and hundreds more combining geography with subjects from French and anthropology to accountancy and drama.
Those applying will be expected to have maths and English language skills, and a geography A-level will also help. The other A-levels sought by admissions tutors are very broad - somebody with an interest in human geography might have studied history or economics, for example, while someone more interested in physical geography might have chosen sciences.
If you already know what you want to do - be it tracking deforestation in the Amazon or planning housing developments for a local council - a more specialist course might be attractive. There is a huge range on offer, including marine geography, development geography, geology, and geography and tourism.
One course new this year is the BSc in conservation and geography at Coventry University. "It's not just about cuddly animals in small-scale habitats," says James Bennett, a lecturer on the course. "We look at bigger issues like the management of resources, energy, deforestation, climate change and desertification. These are issues that impinge on our lives whether we like it or not and people need to get the connections between them."
Students on the BSc learn practical skills such as species identification and how to use geographic information systems - software mapping tools used in conservation. Bennett says potential students should be able to demonstrate a commitment to environmental issues. "If they have volunteered in the past and have the motivation to make a difference we know they are serious about the course," he says.
Whichever course you choose, geography is a good way in to any number of jobs. "It's a very employable subject," says Steve Brace, head of education and outdoor learning at the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). "Because it combines the social and physical sciences it gives people a lot of transferable skills. Graduates will have experience of field-work practicals and of working in teams, which employers value."
More than 50 per cent of geography graduates end up in careers directly related to their degree, including environmental consultancy, teaching, mapping, and work with charities and NGOs. Others enter careers in industry, finance, law or retail.
Among the geography graduates featured in a recent careers campaign organised by the RGS was a travel writer, a climate change officer, lawyer, trade policy advisor to the Government, a BBC weather presenter, somebody using geographic information systems to track crime trends for the Metropolitan Police, and a biodiversity officer for Shell. "We see graduates leaving and going into a huge range of related professions," says Brace. "Geography really does open all kinds of doors."
Mapping it out
Janice Weatherley, 31, graduated with a BSc in geography from Birmingham University in 1997. She is now based in Brussels and works as a European Union policy officer for two organisations - A Rocha, a Christian conservation charity, and IUCN, a global conservation network
"I had done some volunteering when I was 16, so I already knew I wanted to work in nature conservation when I started the course, which was quite unusual. After leaving Birmingham I did a Masters in rural resources and environmental policy. At that time I was very interested in the links between environmental issues and poverty alleviation, so afterwards I spent a year in Mexico working on an agricultural research project. I then worked for three years as a project development officer at the Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust, developing local projects and raising money for them.
My working life has been fairly varied, so for me, studying geography was perfect. It gives you a broad base of knowledge about environmental issues, history, development, science and philosophical ideas. It doesn't train you for one job but helps you develop lots of different skills.
If you are at all interested in environmental issues and love being around nature, as I do, then geography is a good option. Plus, you get to go on lots of field trips, which you don't get with most degrees!"Reuse content