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BCIT GIS Advanced Diploma Program

November 18, 2011

For my next look at post graduate GIS programs in Canada, I examine that of the British Columbia Institute of Technology located in Burnaby.  BCIT offers an Advanced Diploma in GIS that is designed for those with a university or college degree in a related discipline.  BCIT offers the program to students on a full-time or part-time basis.  This is a challenging program that will give you much of the technical knowledge you need to help set yourself apart in today’s job market.  

The BCIT GIS Advanced Diploma program puts a strong emphasis on computer programming.   I spoke with the Program Head, Sheila Churchill, and she elaborated on this aspect of the coursework, “We want our graduates to not only be very skilled in customization and creating applications, but creating web applications as well.”  Students learn GIS as they apply to Java, Python, JavaScript, PHP among others.  Thus, you will need to know about programming concepts and design before enrolling, though not necessarily familiar with any of the above languages in particular.

It should be noted that BCIT has admitted strong candidates whom did not have significant programming experience.  In these cases, staff directed the potential applicants toward online programming tutorials to ensure they could gain basic programming fundamentals and to see if they would enjoy the programming aspect of the GIS courses.  Churchill stated that there have been several cases of students that came to the program with little programming knowledge, yet progressed onward to be very successful in the program.  Students also use the web to present materials and thus need to know how to use HTML and an HTML editor before beginning courses.  Students also find it highly beneficial to brush up on high-school math skills before classes begin.  

In addition to the emphasis on programming, the BCIT program will give you an understanding in GIS as it relates to database structure, remote sensing, cartography as well as spatial analysis relating to both environmental and business applications.  Students get hands-on experience with the latest ESRI and Autodesk GIS software and you will also be exposed to IT, management and organization issues as they relate to GIS.  All your work culminates with a project/practicum course to gain real-world experience with a GIS employer.

Applicants must have completed a university degree, BC associate’s degree or have a diploma of technology before entering the program.  Applicants with an international degree will need to submit for a full evaluation of credentials.  In applying, students will also need to provide a resume and write a letter explaining their interest in the program and how they will prepare for the challenges it will bring.  This is because the program is highly intensive with 30 hours per week in labs and lectures and a further 20 to 30 hours per week in coursework.    

I was hoping to speak with a graduate of the BCIT Advanced Diploma program to inquire how the program can enhance one’s career prospects.  I was lucky to connect with Laura McGarvie, a GIS Data Management Specialist at Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission in California (PSMFC).  McGarvie got her degree in Geology at UBC.  She explained to me how a geologist got into marine biology intermixed with a year or so at BCIT: “When I finished my geology degree in 2001 the price of commodities was down and Bre-X had really weakened confidence in Canadian mining companies.  Because of this there was no work for new geologists.  I ended up working as a fisheries observer with Archipelago Marine Research.  I stayed in this line of work until I returned to BCIT.  I mention this because my combination of education and work experience was what prompted me to go to BCIT and pursue GIS.  Because I didn't have a biology degree I felt I couldn't advance my career in fisheries.  And because I had no geology experience and my degree was kind of stale I felt as though my career as a geologist was going nowhere.  I saw GIS as an avenue to get back into geology or to further my fisheries career.  It definitely accomplished both.”

McGarvie believes that the BCIT emphasis on programming was integral to her success: “I was very impressed with the BCIT GIS program.  I think BCIT really knows how to engage their students and get them to be very dedicated to their education.  In my opinion the best thing about the BCIT GIS program is that it teaches students some really great programming and database skills on top of the basic GIS skills you would expect to gain.  At my current job it is these additional skills that have set me apart from the other GIS staff and helped me to excel.  The programming and database skills that the GIS program gave me allowed me to not only be much more efficient with my GIS work but opened me to other job opportunities.”

McGarvie also found BCIT’s relationship with employers for the final project/practicum to be extremely valuable because she was able to combine her newfound GIS skills with her degree discipline:  “Another great thing about the BCIT GIS program is the project/practicum.  This is a great way to give the students experience and to hopefully place them directly into a job when they graduate.  My practicum was with a gold exploration company.  I was able to secure this practicum because I had a geology degree.  When I graduated there was a lot of demand for GIS professionals with a geology background (I suspect there still is).  I got really lucky and was hired by the gold exploration company two weeks into my practicum.  I stayed with this gold exploration company for 9 months and spent two months in Nunavut which was quite an experience!”  

After nine months with the exploration firm, McGarvie realized that she preferred fisheries work.  Despite the horrible economic situation in California, she believes her GIS skills continue to make her stand out: “At the end of December my main contract that brought me to California is coming to an end.  Of the three people employed by this contract I am the only person who will maintain employment with PSMFC.  I believe that my ability to stay employed is a direct result of the database and programming skills that I have on top of my GIS skills.  So I am very thankful that the BCIT GIS program teaches a variety of subjects in addition to GIS (and does a great job at doing so).”   

So clearly, if you have the drive to succeed in an intense GIS program, BCIT can help to move your career to another level.  But what does the program cost?  Tuition for the full year program is $5,421.48.  Books are estimated to cost around $500 to $600.  If you’d prefer to tackle the program on a part-time basis, tuition is charged at $600 per course.  One must complete 20 courses to complete the BCIT Advanced Diploma program.

It should be noted that BCIT offers several GIS programs.  They offer many of their introductory level GIS courses to people that are just looking to gain a working knowledge of how to use GIS applications by taking one or two courses.  BCIT also offers a Bachelor of Technology Degree in GIS, aimed at students who, when they enter the program, have an Associate Degree or a Diploma of Technology and do not yet have a Bachelor's Degree. The B.Tech in GIS consists of the same technical courses as the Advanced Diploma. As well, to earn the degree, the student must complete additional Management and Liberal Arts credits, and also complete six months of employment in the GIS field.  Furthermore, in the fall of 2012, the Advanced Diploma program will be offered in its entirety online through distance learning.

Click here to read more about BCIT GIS.