Ever seen a strange rock formation and wondered how it got that way? Or watched a documentary about an overcrowded slum and wanted to understand why people were living in such poor conditions? If you choose to study geography at university, you’ll have a chance to explore these types of question, and much, much more. Indeed, geography degrees are some of the most varied out there; it's more apt to consider this as a broad academic field, rather than a single subject.
In general, geography is considered a science which attempts to explain the world around us and the impact of both natural and manmade factors and events. Those who choose to study geography will typically opt to focus either on physical geography (the study of physical processes and natural environments) or human geography (concerned with human societies and the relations between people and planet). The first of these strands is closely related to Earth sciences, and the second to social sciences such as sociology, anthropology and politics.
Common skills gained from a geography degree include:
The geography topics you cover will largely depend on whether you’ve opted for a degree focused on physical geography or human geography, though at undergraduate (bachelor’s) level it is often possible to cover aspects of both before choosing a specialization.
Human geography is concerned with the study of human societies – how they operate, develop, and the challenges they face. So if you choose a human geography course, you may cover issues such as population change, cultural and religious practices, or various aspects of globalization. Physical geography, on the other hand, is about understanding the Earth’s physical processes – from climates and weather systems, to earthquakes and rock formations, right down to what’s happening on the ocean floor.
Reflecting the broad scope of geography degrees, you’ll find them titled either as a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BSc), or at postgraduate level, a Master of Arts (MA) or Master of Science (MSc). Often the BA and MA options correspond to a human geography focus while BSc/MSc are in the physical geography field – but this isn’t always the case, so always check the course details.
Again reflecting the diversity of geography topics, entry requirements for geography degrees can vary, and are often relatively flexible in terms of the academic background required. Applicants will typically be expected to have studied some aspects of geography and achieved good grades at secondary level. Related science and social science subjects may also be an asset, including physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, sociology, economics, politics and history. You’ll need to be able to explain why you want to study geography, perhaps with reference to potential future geography careers or topics you’re especially passionate about. You may be asked to attend an admissions interview, while international students may need to submit proof of proficiency in the language used to teach the course.
An undergraduate-level (bachelor’s) geography degree will usually last three or four years, depending on the country of study, while master’s programs take one or two years. Teaching methods will include lectures, seminars and field work, often involving extended trips to different locations. As geography is such a broad subject, students have the opportunity to choose from a wide variety of optional modules. This doesn’t necessarily mean simply choosing between physical geography or human geography; often it’s possible to combine elements of both. Assessment is based on exams, course work, and field work projects. At the end of the course, students are usually expected to write a dissertation on a topic of their choice.
It should be clear by now that geography at university level is a huge subject, drawing on many other disciplines. Some possible areas of focus are also covered by similar degrees. To find out more about physical geography topics such as climate change, oceanography and meteorology, visit our guides to Earth and marine sciences and environmental studies, while for more options relating to human geography, browse our social sciences course guides.
A major field within human geography, cultural geography refers to the study of cultural customs, traditions, developments and clashes, and their relationships to the natural world. This could have an international focus, looking at the effects of globalization and issues connected to cultural exchange, integration or dominance. Or you may focus on a particular region and/or a particular aspect of culture, such as religion, language, consumption, gender or colonialism.
Students who specialize in environmental geography focus on various environmental issues and challenges, including climate change, sea level change, landscape change and habitat loss, natural resource management and natural disasters such as tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. You’ll study both the physical processes involved and the impact of humans on the environment, as well as covering topics such as environmental law and policy and environmental economics.
A specialization within physical geography, the field of glaciers and glaciations is a chance to learn all about glaciers and glacial systems, including effects on land formation and the impact of climate change. Within this field, you could expect to learn about glacier erosion and deposition, mapping and analysis techniques, and glacial environments and ecosystems. A field trip to a real-life glacier is also a possibility.
If you opt to study historical geography, also referred to as “geography of the past”, you’ll explore how different areas and landscapes have changed and developed over time. As well as analyzing physical changes and processes, you’ll also look at how people have interacted with their environments, and the development of “cultural landscapes”. Historical geography plays an important role in allowing us to understand the processes and patterns through which the world has reached its current state, and in turn make predictions for the future.
A specialization within physical geography, hydrology is all about water: water quality, movement, transportation, uses and resources. Areas of focus could include agricultural water use, drainage management, hydropower, water supply and sanitation, and flood forecasting and safeguarding.
A branch of human geography, political geography explores the various relationships between politics and physical spaces. You could study relationships between physical landforms and political boundaries; disputed territories and regions in conflict; government responses to environmental issues; national policies relating to urban development; or the role of formal and informal country groupings such as the European Union or ‘the Middle East’.
Related fields include geopolitics, which explores the effects of human and physical geography on international politics and relations, and electoral geography, which analyzes election processes and results in relation to physical spaces and boundaries.
The field of population geography involves the scientific study of human populations, analyzing trends in spatial distribution and density. You may study migration patterns, increases and decreases in population density, and learn how to analyze demographic data such as birth and death rates. This specialization will have a strong emphasis on collecting and analyzing statistical data.
If you choose to specialize in urban geography, or urban studies, you will apply your geography skills and knowledge to the study of urban areas. This field provides opportunities to explore the design, development and governance of urban areas; perceptions of and attitudes towards urban spaces; and issues relating to the identity, experiences and rights of those living in towns and cities. You may also address the various challenges for those governing modern cities, covering topics such as transport, healthcare, pollution, crime, education and labor.
These are just some of the many geography topics you may choose to study or specialize in. Others include: biogeography, climate change, coastal geography, development geography, ecology, geomorphology, health geography, language geography, migration, religion geography, sexuality geography, tourism geography, transportation geography, soil science, and others.
If you want to make a difference to the world, choosing to study geography is a good place to start. Geography careers offer opportunities to develop solutions to some of the most pressing problems for modern society, including climate change, natural disasters, overpopulation, urban expansion, multicultural integration. Here are just few possible geography career options:
Careers in cartography involve developing and producing different types of maps, as well as producing related diagrams, charts, spreadsheets and travel guides. Your role as a cartographer may also include restoration of old maps and historical documents. Cartographers work within a variety of areas, including publishing, government, surveying and conservation. Today the field draws on an array of advanced technologies, such as geographical information systems (GIS) and digital-mapping techniques.
As a town planning professional, you may deal with the management and development not only of towns, but also cities, villages and rural areas. You will put your geography skills and knowledge into use to improve existing infrastructure and find solutions to environmental issues, as well as ensuring new developments are in line with various policies and regulations. A part of your job will be to satisfy the needs of businesses and local communities, ensuring that development is sustainable and natural environments are maximally preserved.
Professional environmental consultants provide guidance on a variety of environmental issues, such as assessment of air pollution or land and water contamination; waste management; compliance with related legislation; and the development of environmental policy. Major employers of environmental consultants include governmental agencies, engineering and construction firms, waste management companies, water suppliers, and conservation groups.
You may choose to pass on your geography skills and knowledge to the next generation as a geography teacher in a secondary school, college or further education institution. Like other teaching roles, this will usually require completion of a specialized teaching qualification and/or study to master’s or PhD level. You’ll also need excellent communications skills, a basic understanding of youth psychology and lots of creativity.
Alternatively, you may choose to pursue a career as an academic in a higher education institution. This usually requires that you have successfully completed a PhD, or at least a research-based master’s degree. Academic geography careers typically combine independent or collaborative research projects with lecturing, teaching and supervision of undergraduate and graduate students. You may have opportunities to collaborate with academics based at other institutions across the world, and to contribute to papers and books in your field of specialization.