Geography university courses – what to expect

Lake and glacier in Alaska
Some geography degrees focus on physical geography, some specialise in human geography and others cover both aspects. Geography opens up an equally broad choice of future careers.

A geography degree can be a bachelor of arts (BA) or a bachelor of science (BSc). In many cases a course labelled as a BA will focus on human geography – the social, economic, cultural and historical elements of geography. A course labelled as a BSc will typically focus on physical geography – the natural aspects of geography.

Some degrees cover both physical and human geography. This is because there are areas of crossover where, for example, the scientific approach of a BSc would be helpful to understand population geography, migration, inequality or globalisation. It is important to check individual course details carefully.

Geography degree entry requirements

Entry requirements vary depending on the type of course you are applying for. Courses that focus on human geography typically require either geography or a humanities subject at A level, Scottish Higher or equivalent. Courses that focus on physical geography often ask for either geography or a science subject. General studies and critical thinking are usually not included as part of university offers.

Ellen Drysdale, who graduated from Durham University in 2016 with a 2.1 in geography, found that the base knowledge she had from her geography A level was helpful but that the style of teaching and the content were very different so it was not essential.

Mark Rallings, who graduated from Plymouth University in 2014 with a 2.1 in geography, found that his maths A level helped him in his geography degree.

BA human geography degree, or BSc physical geography?

Some degrees cover both physical and human geography. Many others focus on one or the other: BA courses tend to cover human geography and BSc courses tend to focus on physical geography but check individual course details carefully.

Alexander Reeves, who graduated from Queen Mary, University of London in 2012 with a 2.1 in geography, found that his modules in first year were relatively fixed. It was in second year that he was asked to choose whether he would follow a more human or physical path.

Studying geography at uni – modules and field trips

There is a wide range of choices in modules for geography degrees, but the details of modules tend to be tailored to the expertise of the lecturers. Some examples of module topics are:

  • population change (migration, population growth, global health, inequality or globalisation)
  • climatology (the forming of different climates)
  • biogeography and soils
  • citizenship
  • environment and development
  • fluvial and marine environments
  • human activity and environmental change
  • statistics.

Ellen said: 'I really enjoyed my political geography modules because they focused on political events in modern history alongside contemporary political events (for example the Arab Spring, the refugee crisis and the Paris terrorist attacks). I found studying the effects they had in terms of national and international response and the movement and displacement of people really interesting as it was all happening at the time.'

Alex’s favourite modules were the ones that involved field trips: 'I was very lucky in that I got to go to LA and Las Vegas in my second year to study new cities and how the American model differs to that of the UK. I also went to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in third year, where we looked at the relationship between the north, the south and the rest of the UK. There was also an option to go to India and look at the development of NICs (newly industrialised countries) but sadly I didn’t choose that module. These trips definitely helped to bring the course to life.'

What teaching methods are used on a geography degree?

Teaching methods vary from university to university but the following elements are typical.

  • Most modules will involve a one or two-hour lecture every week where you listen to a lecturer and take notes.
  • You will usually also have tutorials (discussions led by a lecturer or PhD student), or seminars (interactive classes led by a lecturer).
  • Geography degrees commonly include compulsory field trips; these are sometimes fully or partially subsidised but it is advisable to check this with individual universities.
  • It is common to have laboratory sessions to analyse findings from field work.
  • Most universities have the option to do a dissertation (or in some instances it is compulsory) as part of a geography degree. This is a large written project, ranging from 6,000 to 12,000 words, on a title of your choosing. You will be assigned a supervisor who is knowledgeable in the area you are investigating to support you throughout the process.

How many contact hours will I have on a geography degree?

Contact hours vary from around 10 hours to 15 hours a week (although the higher end of that is more applicable to BScs). However, fewer contact hours does not mean less work; you will be expected to study outside of your contact hours. Mark found that his self-study increased with each year of his degree, while his contact hours diminished.

Alex advises that students who wish to study geography need a good drive to work in their own time as self-study is a crucial element of the course.

Degrees similar to geography

Alternatives to studying physical geography often involve specialising in one particular area. They include:

  • geophysics
  • environmental geoscience
  • geology.

Human geography is considered to have some crossover with subjects such as:

  • economics
  • politics
  • international relations
  • history.

After your geography degree – jobs you can do

You can choose from a wide range of jobs with a geography degree. If you want a career in geography after graduation there are lots of roles where you can put your knowledge to good use, but if you fancy a change there are plenty of alternatives.

Careers in geography

Jobs directly related to geography include:

  • Cartography: studying, designing, producing and distributing digital and conventional maps, charts, spreadsheets and diagrams for public sector and commercial customers.
  • Environmental consultancy: ensuring that clients comply with environmental regulations.
  • International aid work: managing and developing emergency response programmes within areas that have been subject to war, natural disasters or other environmental or developmental problems.
  • Landscape architecture: planning, designing, overseeing and advising about the development and construction of external land areas such as gardens, parks and recreational areas, and residential, commercial and industrial sites.
  • Logistics and distribution management: coordinating the storage, transportation and delivery of goods.
  • Nature conservation: managing, protecting and improving areas of environmental importance through conservation work, publicity and scientific monitoring.
  • Town and country planning: organising our environment to make it a better place in which to live.
  • Transportation planning: assessing public, private and commercial transportation needs and analysing and devising new road or transportation schemes.
  • Water conservation: monitoring, managing, protecting and improving environmental areas where groundwater is critical, such as wetland habitats, and taking action where required to rectify problems.

Some of these jobs require specific postgraduate qualifications. For more detailed job descriptions, visit the job descriptions page of TARGETjobs, our website aimed at graduates.

What else can you do with a geography degree?

Many careers are open to graduates with any degree subject. See our guide to which jobs need a specific degree for more information.

Geography degrees are considered challenging and academic by employers so they are well respected – though the grade you get and the university you attend will affect this.

‘Why study geography at university?’ Skills you'll gain

A geography degree will help you to develop some useful skills that will help in many jobs, whether or not you want a career in geography.

  • Geography degrees often involve giving presentations; this is good for confidence in public speaking and verbal communication.
  • Essay writing is a large part of geography degrees, which improves your research and written communication skills. It is also good practice for working to deadlines.
  • The fieldwork modules and (if you opt for it) the dissertation module may involve interviewing people. Interviewing is a skill in itself but it is also good practice in collecting and analysing qualitative and quantitative data, and combining these results with wider readings to make acute observations and draw meaningful conclusions.
  • Group projects also tend to feature at least once a year in geography degrees; these are good practice for working in a team and dealing with people you wouldn’t necessarily choose to work with.

Think beyond your geography course

Alex went into a career in politics after studying a masters in global politics and law. He is now working as a parliamentary officer; he negotiates between parliamentarians and those in industry. Alex’s advice is to always try to focus on your next step because geography is such a broad subject. He says: 'Geography is great because it keeps a lot of options open to you and offers a wide range of transferable skills. However, further study may be needed in order to specialise and get into the field you want to.'

Alex adds: 'Theresa May has a degree in geography, so see how far it can get you!'

TARGETcareers would like to thank Ben Mason, teaching fellow in social statistics and demography at the University of Southampton, for his input into this article.

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