Student Story

John RitzmanJohn Ritzman

GIS Specialist, City of Bothell 

John Ritzman wasn’t sure of a career direction as he was finishing up his undergraduate degree in earth and space sciences. That’s when he discovered GIS, and decided to enroll in the Master of GIS program at the UW. In this interview, the 2015 graduate talks about how the program helped him launch a successful career in the GIS field.

Why did you choose to enroll in the GIS master’s program?

I found GIS at the very end of my undergraduate studies, and felt I needed more education before making it into a career. I chose the UW program because it offered a much more comprehensive “starting set” of skills related to GIS than just technical training. I also liked it because the online learning environment allowed me to pursue other avenues of GIS training as well, including volunteer and assistant positions and a part-time job.

Can you tell us about your current career, and how earning your master’s degree helped advance it?

The GIS program has helped me immensely in my career in government GIS and application design. I applied when I was a GIS volunteer at a local city, and was then able to supplement that on-the-job training with formal education and a wider array of experience through the program.

After graduation I was able to land my first full-time job as a GIS specialist at the City of Bothell. I got the job by combining the two sources of GIS training, which were made possible by the program’s part-time, online learning environment.

What was the online learning experience like for you?

I had never taken an online course before the GIS master’s program, and wasn’t specifically looking for one when I applied. Despite my initial indifference, it quickly became one of my favorite aspects of the program. Taking classes in the evening, without having to commute, not only saved a significant amount of time but also allowed me to be more financially stable and continue learning GIS in the workplace during the day.

An added benefit was that the student cohort continued to be engaged in diverse experiences outside of class. This enriched the program, showing how the projects and class materials related to their own professional lives.

What was the chief outcome of completing the master’s program?

The main outcome was abundant, physical proof that I had performed many of the duties required in a professional GIS setting. The program did an excellent job of building up my proficiency in both technical skills (year one) and applications (year two), along with professional skills such as user needs assessment, project management and collaboration.

Were you able to make connections?

I have made numerous connections through the program that I intend to keep up the rest of my life. I worked as an assistant for a faculty member and was able to help contribute to some of the program’s longer-term projects, as well as learn directly from his GIS expertise. This connection led to many more through the GIS program’s involvement in regional, national and international efforts working to improve quality of life and the environment.

Thanks to the program’s cohesive student cohorts, I was also able to learn a great deal from my fellow classmates. They all brought a significant amount of GIS and professional know how, and I built many friendships that I still have today.

Did you gain any experience that was helpful in meeting your professional goals?

Experience in GIS programming (Python, Java and ModelBuilder) and data management have been indispensable in reaching my professional goals. I have been able to perform tasks quicker and more reliably and to contribute significantly more to projects at work after going through the GIS program.

The capstone project in the last quarter, along with each quarter’s final project, also offered numerous opportunities to hone my project management and collaboration skills. This has allowed me to take on larger projects at work with greater interdepartmental collaboration.

What did you enjoy most about the GIS program?

I enjoyed the focus on holistic and systems thinking and on how GIS fits into global environmental, scientific and industry trends. This component allowed the program to demonstrate the wide variety of applications for the technical skills we were learning, allowing us to pursue whatever career path we liked.

What would you say to someone who is thinking about taking the UW GIS program?

The program is an excellent choice for someone who has been exposed to GIS in an academic or professional setting, but wants to step up to making it a full-time career. It offers a comprehensive array of training, including technical skills, GIS workflows, applications, interdisciplinary collaboration and professional workplace skills.

At the same time, the program respects your time as a worker, student, parent, etc. It gives you the chance to continue your life or pursue other forms of GIS training simultaneously while taking the next step in your career.