GISP? We Don’t Need No GISP!

Or do we?

Or better yet, what I’d really like to know – Do I?

Over the last few weeks I’ve been organizing and filling out the applications for a couple of professional certifications: the APA’s American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) and the GIS Certification Institute’s Geographic Information Systems Professional (GISP). I have been working as an independent planning consultant specializing in the use of GIS for the past eight years, and thought it was time I got around to doing this. What’s been holding me up so far has not been that I did not qualify for either one, but my work load. It’s difficult to dedicate the time required to fill out the application forms, acquire and organize the documentation, and prepare for the tests when one has a full load of paying work sitting in front of them. Since my work load has slowed a bit this year, I figured it was time to take the plunge, and get it done.
At the same time I was assembling all of my documentation, there was a noticeable rise in the level of discussion about GISP certification amongst my Twitter followers. This is not unusual. The GISP topic comes up from time to time, and always seems to stir the emotions of the GeoNerds that hang out there. What did surprise me, though, was the level of animosity expounded toward GISP by some. I decided that before I follow through with sending in my $250, I should explore and analyze the requirements and potential benefits of becoming a certified GISP.
I decided to start my analysis by comparing GISP to the other certification process I am familiar with – AICP. The following table compares the two certification process requirements.




Education None required, but affects amount of experience needed Required – conference attendance can count toward education
Experience At least 2 years, up to 8 years if no degree At least 4 years
Code of Ethics Yes Yes
Contributions to the profession Only need a current APA membership Required, through combination of publication, association membership, conference participation, awards, volunteering
Test Yes, 150 multiple choice questions None
Fee $450 $250
Continuing education for maintenance/renewal 32 hours every 2 years Must accrue work experience, educational achievement, and contributions to the profession every 5 years
Renewal Fee No set fee, whatever the cost of the CM (continuing maintenance) materials or classes are $115


Surprisingly, AICP does not require any formal education at all. However, a graduate degree from an accredited institution does allow you to take the certification test with only 2 years of work experience. Lesser degrees require more work experience.
While the GISP does not explicitly require any formal education, it would be very difficult to satisfy the educational requirement through conference attendance alone. 300 full conference days would be needed to fulfill the GISP education requirement if the applicant had no degree or formal class time. That’s 60 full work-weeks worth of conferences.


AICP requires between 2 and 4 years of experience depending on the level and accreditation of the degree received (or 8 years with no degree). GISP requires 4 years of work experience regardless of the education.

Code of Ethics

Both AICP and GISP have written codes of ethics that members are expected to adhere to.

Contributions to the profession

AICP requires only current APA membership, while GISP requires the applicant to document their contributions to the profession. These contributions can include merely membership in a GIS organization, or more direct contributions, such as publication of a book or article, participation in a conference or workshop, or volunteering for a non-profit organization.

Test vs. No Test

The most obvious difference between the AICP and GISP requirements is the lack of a test for the GISP. Is this a problem for the GISP? Does it diminish its clout? Would a test improve its acceptance among the GIS crowd? Many of the anti-GISP commenter’s point to the lack of an exam as the main reason GISP is not a valid certification process.

My Thoughts

Amongst practicing planners, AICP is expected if you are to be considered a true professional planner. In GIS circles, GISP – not so much. Overall, I found the AICP application requirements easier to fulfill than the GISP requirements. Granted, the AICP application only allows me to qualify to take the test, but with my education and experience, I do qualify. I  do NOT yet qualify for GISP. Essentially the difference between the two boils down to test vs. experience. Which one is the better measure of professional ability? I come down on the side of experience. I believe the GISP certification process is as valid a process as any other. It emphasizes education and work experience more than does AICP. It expects adherence to a code of ethics  and rules of conduct. Most importantly in my mind, it expects contributions to the profession, (and continuing contributions to maintain certification) which AICP surprisingly does not. It’s these contributions to the profession that I lack, and will be working on the next few months so I will be able to become a GISP.

Why the Antipathy toward GISP from some GISers?

I believe GISers are a particularly independent lot, and feel like GISP is akin to following the herd. GISers are by their nature, non-conformists. GISers are a much more laid back group compared to planners. Compare the two photos below. The first is from the 2009 APA conference, the second from the 2009 ESRI UC.

APA Conference
Notice the suits, button down shirts, and ties at the APA conference.
Notice the lack of ties. There are a few button down shirts, but there’s also an abundance of polo shirts at the ESRI UC. One guy is even wearing flip-flops!

I know not everyone will agree with my analysis, but from my standpoint, GISP is a valid and valuable certification process. I believe it shows the holders of a GISP have certain qualities that those who do not qualify for GISP don’t. Over the next few months I will be working to fulfill the last few requirements, and sending in my application to become a GISP.

Blogs and other GISP related articles:

Roger Diercks’s Geofoolery blog post Trying to get to the GISP of the matter
Peter Batty’s geothought blog post: The GIS Certification emperor has no clothes
ArcUser Online article: Do You Want to Be a GISP?
The ENTCHEV GIS Blog post: Building a Brand The GISP Debate and A GIS Veterans Point of View
‘sproke: Are you REALLY a GIS Professional?

Reader Comments

  1. Don – This is a great article. I started my GISP application when it first came out in 2003 and still haven’t finished. I changed jobs, worked on a masters degree to pursue teaching and accidentally started a consulting business. The final task on my list is to get client letters. They would be more than supportive but I would rather do their work than ask for a letter during a project. Perhaps I can include the request with my invoice and a coupon for Subway? It’s not that the application is that hard to do, it’s a bit anticlimactic without a formal test. Perhaps there should be some hazing involved in the process. GIS’ers do tend to stray from the herd but I think we also tend to be a bit masochistic, why would we have stayed in this field for so long?
    Regarding AICP, its been on my radar. I have a planning degree but perform GIS analysis to support planning. This may not be considered “planning” work in the eyes of APA but I am more intrigued than the GISP, probably because I’m not a planner by trade but can function as one.

  2. I have found many GISers to be technocrats who get caught in details. They want something to be perfect before providing their support for it. A certification process is not perfect, therefore they don’t see value in it until it is made perfect.
    Even if a qualifications or competency test were required, GISers would nitpick it to death. “What, no Ruby on Rails question?”
    I recently saw a comment that the GISP represents commitment to the profession, not competency. I thought that was a good description.

  3. “I recently saw a comment that the GISP represents commitment to the profession, not competency. I thought that was a good description.”
    Holy crap! Really? So I’m not committed to the profession unless I go GISP? And GISP doesn’t represent competency?
    If it’s all the same to you, I’ll stick with uncommitted and competent.

  4. Having um’d and ah’d over GISP-AP (Asia Pacific) I finally took the plunge and got certified.
    The interesting sub context (regardless of competency or not) is that is would ‘help’ distinguish you in a crowd of job applications (not guarantee you)….however, the flaw with that in Australia in particular is that despite GFC, there is an overwhelming skills shortage and has been and will continue to be for a long time. What that ultimately means is if you have a decent pulse you will get any job anywhere and will get trained up and forgiven for lack of experience.
    In that sort of environment how does that set me apart other than having another set of letters to boost my ego?
    I knew all this before I decided to apply, and I did so out of my ‘contribution’ to an industry rather then to get more money than the next GIS’er.
    The debate still goes on…..but for me, letters or no letters I love the industry, always have, always will.

  5. So Don…where’d you end up on the AICP / GISP question?…I see these posts from last year.
    I’ve been AICP for almost 10 years now – but don’t really even need it; but I do GIS for planners and for a planning organization.
    Since I’ve been doing GIS for 15 years it doesn’t seem like I need GISP (so I still have not gone down the path). But something I’ll probably do in the near future.

    1. Hi Nick –
      I passed the AICP exam shortly after I wrote this post. I have enough points to apply for GISP, but have been waiting for the economy to recover a bit before spending the money on the application fee. I agree that the letters after your name aren’t always necessary to get new work. I see it more as a personal accomplishment and showing support for the profession.

  6. I am in the process for GISP. I think it is actually great, considering the amount of different activities you have to do and the broadness of skills it covers.
    What I don’t like: They had a grandfathering provision when it was first established. This allowed, in my opinion, many people who are not skilled GIS professionals to get their GISP based on their work experience alone.
    Otherwise I think it is a good thing to have, but should net be the be all and end all for a skilled GIS practitioner.

    1. I absolutely agree with comment of grandfathering. During this time I had begun process of applying to get my GISP however my organization would not pay the fee so I refused to pay a fee in principal since the Certification was not highly sought or proven to be on solid. I have over 30 yrs. in IT/GIS have forgotten more than most have learned yet they have GISP’s and I have found they rarely have the qualifications to pass a fundamentals in GIS class it is a sad testament to the class of the certification. I would love to attain the certification however I feel that it doesn’t really buy me anything in terms of defining me as a professional.

  7. Interesting, I have pondered this question for years. I find that most are against it for various reasons namely it does not accord any advantage to job seekers, second their are multiple certifications out there (i.e. in Canada there is also CGS-GIS or the new ESRI certification), and finally it is harder to obtain than some others.
    Myself, I see it as a personal development point and as others have said a commitment to the industry, though I do not expect that it will change anything for me in way of pay or job security.
    There must be a demand for GISP, other than GIS and right now the discrepancy does not exist, and as such the vast majority think that it is not worth the time or cost to become certified.
    On the subject of the test, it would be interesting to see how to implement a standard on a industry that is so diverse and still make it universal.

  8. My thoughts – I like the social aspects of the down-to-Earth “crunchy granola”, somewhat left-leaning GIS crowd. However, for career advancement it took me over three years to complete the application and now I am a GISP (secondary certification to PG). The continued education requirement prompts me to keep advancing on my own time, which I would not otherwise do. Many employeers who need a GIS professional do not understand GIS themselves and may hire the GISP over the non-GISP. If a mapping work product ever gets legally contested, the GISP will likely be more readily accepted as an “Expert Witness” whereas the non-GISP may not. The GISP certification is a career positive, not a negative.

  9. Normally I wouldn’t comment on dead posts, but this comes up in the searches pretty high and there has been another comnment in the last quarter.
    John, I have to disagree with the “expert witness” argument. Any lawyer worth his salt could disqualify that if it was necessary to a case on the basis of the requirements of the GISP – or lack of certifiability.
    The biggest value the GISP presents is to those employers who have little understanding of the industry and thinks it is a qualification or uses it as a filter for resumes (and thereby does themselves a huge disservice).

  10. I have over 15 years GIS related experience. I worked in a Florida County’s Planning and Development Department and implemented it’s GIS System in the early 2000’s. Unfortunately because I got my degree in Public Administration, and took only one Geography related course, it is almost impossible for me to get my GISP unless I go back and get a Master’s in GIS. Realistically not a cost effective solution at this point in my career.

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