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NSCC COGS Advanced Diploma in Geographic Sciences

October 11, 2011

The demand for professionals with GIS skills is increasing.  I’ve found it to be a common issue that many recent graduates and experienced professionals have not been able to develop the GIS skills required by today’s employers.  Perhaps they were unaware of the demands and did not pursue GIS education or they were aware, but their school did not offer a substantial GIS program.  In either case, there are schools across Canada addressing this problem with tremendous post-graduate GIS programs.  I want to start with a look at one of the best; the Advanced Diploma in Geographic Science at The Nova Scotia Community College Centre of Geographic Sciences (NSCC COGS).  

I spoke with various people that have connections to COGS, but first I’ll outline the nuts and bolts of the program.  The COGS Advanced Diploma is really intriguing because you can follow any one of three flexible pathways depending on your area of interest.   

   1) Remote Sensing
   2) GIS
   3) GIS for Business

All three of the above share a common first term to lay a foundation of fundamentals.  Once the first term is complete, each student gets individual attention from instructors about how to structure their second term so that the elective courses chosen will satisfy diploma requirements and reflect the student’s area of interest.  It’s important to note that the program at COGS changes to address industry and has done so since the 1980s.

The program lasts about nine months.  Tuition is approximately $3,800 for Canadian residents.  If you are thinking you might supplement your living expenses with a part-time job, the program states that there really is not much time for it given the demands on your time for classes, labs and course work.  Those that teach the program make sure that entrants understand what will be expected of them.  Students will spend 22 to 28 hours per week in lectures or directed labs.  Reports can be anywhere from 5 to 100 pages in length and are expected to be of post-graduate or Geomatics industry-standard quality.  The program is taught in Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia, a very small town in the Annapolis Valley.  Some graduates choose various Master’s programs; one that is popular is to leverage the COGS diploma with a one-year Joint Master’s at Acadia University. These students work with Acadia professors and Applied Geomatics Research Group scientists towards a Master’s of Science in Applied Geomatics.

Of course the real indicator of the success of this kind of program is whether or not graduates get hired into their desired field to apply what they’ve learned.  The program website has an impressive list of employers that have hired COGS graduates.  I find it to be refreshing that the school puts considerable effort into helping market their graduates to interested employers.  COGS puts together a graduate profile so employers can see exactly who is graduating, which of the three programs they are from and what career goals they possess.  Here is a link to the latest graduate profile as an example.

I wanted to provide insight into what COGS has helped its graduates to achieve.  To do so I spoke with three different people with connections to the program.  The first was Michael Turner, President of Turner Drake, a real estate consulting firm headquartered in Halifax.  I wanted to know how Turner first connected with COGS.  It happened about five years ago, “When you run a business you’re obviously trying to discern where the trends are, and I thought GIS was going to be the next wave.  I’d heard good reports about how intensive their GIS for Business program was.”  Turner was interested in working with COGS and wondered how they could collaborate.  Once he’d heard that students were required to complete a large project, he suggested that his firm could share their vast collection of data on real estate values which dates back to the 1960s.  The first student to take advantage of this data in the COGS GIS for Business program was actually hired by Turner and now heads their Economic Intelligence Unit.  This Unit carries out market surveys, site selection, trade area analysis as well as supply and demand analysis for its clients using GIS and their vast dataset.

The second person I spoke to was Matt McGrath, a program manager in software products, specifically dealing with geodatabase development at ESRI headquarters in Redlands, California.  McGrath currently supervises nine COGS graduates on his team.  He noted that COGS graduates make excellent product engineers because they have spent so much time using the software, they can act as an ideal user-advocate as they test products in development.  He spoke to the reasons COGS GIS grads have done so well; “I think there are two things fundamentally, one is they start with degrees in related fields.  You’ve got people who have degrees in fields such as physics, geology or computer science.  Then they go for eight months and do this intensive program, with the (ESRI) software, learning its uses.  Plus, they’ve got a good mindset.  They’re encouraged to figure things out on their own – they’re really self-reliant and self-directing.”   McGrath mentioned that the ESRI Human Resources department has identified COGS as one of the top two or three schools in terms of the quality of hires.  Not one of the top two or three programs from Canada mind you, top two or three – period.  This helps to explain why they’ve hired more than 70 graduates from COGS over the past several years.

One of these graduates, and the third person I spoke to about COGS, is Craig Gillgrass, a senior product engineer on ESRI’s geodatabase team in Redlands.  Craig gained a little bit of knowledge about GIS as he earned his degree in geology.  Upon graduation he began work at a mining company where he realized that GIS was his main interest, not geology.  So he left the mining company to further his education in GIS.  I asked him what his motivation was to move out to Nova Scotia to take the COGS program.  A friend of his had already graduated from COGS and successfully found a job in California. “If I could sum it up really quickly, I heard there was this school on the East Coast that if you went there and did well, you could get a job in California.  That was my main goal.”

I wanted to know how he felt the COGS program prepared him for life at ESRI and he echoed McGrath’s sentiments, “COGS could not have done a better job preparing me for this line of work.  The main thing you learn coming out of COGS is how to solve problems.”  

It’s evident what one can achieve if you are successful at COGS, but what does it take to be successful?  Gillgrass continued; “You get out of COGS what you put into it.  A 40-hour week is what you need to probably scrape by.  It really prepares you for the workforce in that way.  When you’re trying to get stuff done and you’ve got a number of projects on the go at the same time, we were easily putting in 60 to 70-hour work weeks.” 

While this may seem like an awful lot of work and time to invest, both the location and structure of the program make it easier to make this investment.  Gillgrass noted that while Lawrencetown is a friendly place, it’s very small and people that come from large cities can initially experience a bit of culture shock; “But it’s good because it really lets you focus on the work and learning as much as you can, as opposed to getting distracted by other things.  At the same time though, there’s lots of hiking and biking trails.  It’s a great way to break up the week by spending a Saturday hiking out to Cape Split.  There are definitely ways you can relax and unwind, but at the same time, because of where it is located it really does let you focus and get down to business as much as you can. ”

The structure of the program also helps to ensure you get the most out of your time in Lawrencetown; “There’s a great support structure at COGS.  When I was there (10 years ago), we had a lot of people (in the class) that did not have a lot of programming experience.  They weren’t ready for the intensity of it.  As opposed to university where you are left to fend on your own, at COGS it’s very different.  The instructors and administrators are very interested in people being successful.  They’re not interested in throwing you into the fire without any help.”      

From everything I’ve learned through my research, COGS appears to have a unique program.  If you’re serious about a career involving GIS, GIS for Business or Remote Sensing and you believe you are up for a challenging, intensive full-time program, I encourage you to look further into the COGS program.  Click here for a link to the COGS website and find the “programs” tab to learn more.