On top of the world: You could be a globetrotter with geomatics

A postgraduate qualification in geomatics could take you all over the world, from working in the Thames estuary to the furthest reaches of the Arctic. The subject is concerned with gathering and interpreting spatial information, and with the geographic makeup of the natural and built environments; more informally, it's "an unholy alliance of maths and geography", as James Kavanagh, director of land at the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), puts it.

This merging of disciplines gives the subject a broad appeal and opens it up to applicants from a wide range of backgrounds, not solely those with a first degree in engineering or surveying. Prospective students often come to the subject with undergraduate qualifications in maths, geography, or environmental or marine sciences, drawn to what Kavanagh describes as geomatics' "great combination of hands-on skills and deep intellectual knowledge".

Many courses aim to get students used to this combination right from the start. While the subject is grounded in measurements and data, there's still a substantial element of practical work, according to Jonathan Iliffe, senior lecturer at UCL's department of civil, environmental and geomatic engineering (www.cege.ucl.ac.uk). "There are a lot of opportunities to get hands-on experience. We move rapidly from the classroom to getting students' feet wet, or dirty, carrying out something practical."

The academic cohort is varied, says Iliffe; it includes students fresh from their undergraduate studies but also an increasing number of mature students who have worked in related areas for some time. There are even career changers looking for something new – "We get people who say, 'I drifted into my IT job and it's not what I thought I'd get from life,' and I think this field appeals to them as it's exciting, challenging and intellectually interesting."

Courses are available at institutions all over the world, from UCL, Cranfield, Glasgow and Newcastle in the UK, to the University of Melbourne in Australia, so you can see the international relevance of the subject. Depending on their focus, courses are accredited by either the RICS or the Chartered Institute of Civil Engineering Surveyors, the professional bodies associated with the industry. For a complete list, visit www.rics.org/courses or www.cices.org.

The makeup of geomatics programmes varies between departments. Students can choose to follow taught programmes (MSc or MEng qualifications) or move further into research (MRes, MPhil and PhD), depending on their interests. Often those interests change during the course of study, says Iliffe, with some students arriving "interested in one thing, and leaving interested in surveying museum artefacts". Research topics vary too, he says, with PhD students working on everything from GPS systems for shipping to studying silent earthquakes.

Outside the campus there is a growing demand for skilled geomatics postgraduates, so employment prospects are encouraging in fields such as Ordnance Survey mapping, the offshore oil and gas industries, and hydrographics, where senior employees require high-level qualifications in the geomatics subjects.

"A postgraduate qualification really does open up another world to people," says Kavanagh. "I've noticed that the Masters qualification is particularly recognised internationally." He believes that the maths and geography foundations underpinning geomatics qualifications contributes to their high standing in the international jobs market, as well as demonstrating a high level of skill in the people who have them.

"It's a very exportable qualification," he says. "There's been a lot more exploration going on, and companies are already telling us that they're expecting a shortage of marine surveyors in the next few years, for example. You really will work anywhere – not just the North Sea."

As technology improves and methods of gathering spatial information become increasingly sophisticated, the demand for geomatics postgraduates will only rise. Both Iliffe and Kavanagh are quick to point out that the work being done in the field can have a profound impact on the world around us.

"Once you're into the Masters end of things, you're going beyond just capturing the data – you're making decisions based on that data," says Kavanagh. He cites the positioning of offshore windfarms as a real-world example: "A large part of that process will be done by people with these qualifications."

The diversity of the subjects and advances in IT mean that geomatics is about much more than being out in a field with a theodolite, says Iliffe in conclusion: there are opportunities for both practical and more research-intensive roles. And for those who long for the outdoors? "There's still adventures in this world," says Kavanagh. "The exploration work going on the Arctic: the first people in there will be the surveyors. They'll be first in, and stay there right through to the clean-up operation."

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