What is Geography?
Geography addresses some of the core social and environment issues facing the world—from climate change and applied meteorology to tourism development and international trade, from migration and population change to water resources and ecological vulnerability, from transportation planning and social justice struggles to the impact of drought and fire on the landscape. Geographers integrate the natural and social sciences and address the big ideas and questions that attract public and scientific interest, media attention, and the respect of policy-makers.
The Department of Geography embraces a “student-centered” approach, teaching a well-rounded curriculum that enables students to succeed in life and contribute to social betterment. A student-centered mission means that our faculty members are devoted not only to teaching and mentoring students in the classroom but also working with them in a variety of educational settings to cultivate research skills, career preparation, and professional leadership skills. When majoring in geography, students “volunteer” to explore, study, and change the world.
The stereotypical depiction of geographers is that they are only concerned with a dry cataloging and memorization of Earth facts. Don’t believe it for a minute! Geography is a science that examines place, space, landscape, and the environment. A geographic education prepares students to: (1) interpret people and their places—from city neighborhoods to world regions—in the context of migration, population change, race/ethnicity, human rights, technological change, and the global economy; (2) understand the processes that shape the natural organization and functioning of the Earth, the tools and techniques for measuring environmental change, and the complexity of human-environment interactions; and, (3) respect the nature and variety of cultural differences and identities within the world, the reasons and consequences behind those distinctions, and the importance of being an informed, ethical citizen. There are three main branches of geography: human geography, physical geography, and GIS/geospatial analysis.
Human geography is concerned with the spatial aspects of human life – how people and their activities are distributed across the landscape, how people use and perceive space, and how people create, sustain, and even struggle over the places that make up the earth’s surface. Human geographers often work in urban and regional planning, transportation, retail location analysis, community advocacy, marketing, real estate, education, tourism development, international business, and sustainability analysis.
Physical geographers study patterns of climates, land forms, vegetation, soils, and water. They forecast the weather, track and study environmental hazards, manage land and water resources, and plan for forests, range lands, and wetlands. Physical geographers also play a major role in the study of climate change. They use lab and field methods to reconstruct past natural environments and to understand the historical impact of humans on these environments.
Many geographers have skills in GIS (geographic information science), the mapping and visualization of data, and geospatial analysis. These sophisticated and highly sought after skills are used for examining and interpreting many of the phenomena and activities described above. GIS has been identified by the U.S. Department of Labor as constituting one of the three “hottest” emerging fields, with job opportunities growing and diversifying rapidly.
Geographers also study the links between human activity and natural systems. Geographers were among the first scientists to warn that human-induced changes to the environment were threatening the balance of life itself. Today, geographers are active in the study of global warming, desertification, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, groundwater pollution, and flooding. One can hardly understand modern world events, international trade issues, the relationships between nations, and the differences in economic circumstances and environmental quality that occur from place to place without knowledge of modern geography.
Career Opportunities in Geography
Geography’s main areas—human, physical, and geospatial—have all experienced expansion in recent years. Improved understanding of our discipline has allowed geography departments to prepare their graduates for diverse employment opportunities. Environmental opportunities abound; locational analysis for commercial enterprises remains an important option; urban and regional planning continues to lure geographers; and mapping and spatial data analyses have expanded. Teaching positions at all levels have been abundant as well. Geographers have long supplied their expertise to these areas, while recently developing new tools.
In addition to time-honored fields, geographers are making inroads into new occupational areas. Travel and tourism now offer more opportunities to geographers, as do historic preservation, archival, and museum programs, international development and policy. Employers have a better grasp of the skill set of geographers than they did in the past, but few job advertisements use the title “geographer.” Consequently, job seekers must often be creative in their job search, and they must be prepared to tell prospective employers how they can help them. This is an obstacle most accountants or computer programmers do not encounter, but is likely to remain for geography job seekers.
High School Preparation
It is difficult to set out an exact program of study for high school students because high schools have widely varying course offerings. But a high school student planning on majoring in geography should take all the geography courses he or she can. Indeed, some students choose to major in geography after taking AP Human Geography in high school. The student should also become as computer proficient as possible, which will help in developing skills in GIS. Beyond that, a prospective geography major’s mix of high school courses will depend on both what is offered and the student’s own interests. For example, if a student is interested in the foreign studies aspect of geography, he or she might take political science, a modern foreign language, and appropriate international history courses. A student interested in physical geography should be sure to take biology and physics. A student interested in geographical information systems should acquire a strong background in mathematics. The above notwithstanding, many geography majors successfully build on a general but solid high school education. At the end of the day, successful geography majors are those who show an interest in understanding why the world appears and functions the way it does, a desire to understand how cities and environments change, and how people both shape and are shaped by their natural and built surroundings.
How to Major in Geography
Students who enter the major having completed a laboratory science sequence other than geography may petition the department to waive the GEOG 131/GEOG 137 and GEOG 132 requirements. Students who enter the major with more than 60 hours credit may petition the department to waive the GEOG 101 or GEOG 121 requirement.
Select one course:
- GEOG 131 – Geography of the Natural Environment I
- GEOG 137 – Honors: Geography of the Natural Environment I
- GEOG 132 – Geography of the Natural Environment II
Select one course:
- GEOG 101 – World Geography
- GEOG 121 – Human Geography: People and Places
The major consists of 31 hours. No more than 3 hours of GEOG 490 may be counted toward the major.
- GEOG 310 – Introduction to Cartography
- GEOG 415 – Quantitative Methods in Geography
- GEOG 499 – Proseminar in Geography
Select one geospatial course:
- GEOG 411 – Introduction to Geographic Information Science
- GEOG 413 – Remote Sensing: Types and Applications
- GEOG 414 – Spatial Databases and Data Management
- GEOG 419 – Practicum in Cartography/Remote Sensing
Select one human geography course:
- GEOG 320 – Cultural Geography: Core Concepts
- GEOG 340 – Economic Geography: Core Concepts
- GEOG 343 – Geography of Human Rights
- GEOG 344 – Population Geography
- GEOG 345 – People and Environment
- GEOG 421 – Geography of Folk Societies
- GEOG 423 – Geography of American Popular Culture
- GEOG 441 – Urban Geography of the United States
- GEOG 442 – Urban Spaces and Urban Society
- GEOG 445 – Cities in a World System
- GEOG 449 – Geography of Transportation
- GEOG 451 – The Global Economy
Select one regional geography course:
- GEOG 361 – Regional Dynamics of the United States and Canada
- GEOG 363 – Geography of the American South
- GEOG 365 – Geography of Appalachia
- GEOG 366 – Geography of Tennessee
- GEOG 371 – Geography of Europe
- GEOG 373 – Geography of South America
- GEOG 374 – Emerging Landscapes of East Asia
- GEOG 375 – Geography of South Asia
Select one physical geography course:
- GEOG 331 – Natural Hazards
- GEOG 333 – Climate Change and Human Response
- GEOG 334 – Meteorology
- GEOG 430 – Global Environments of the Quaternary
- GEOG 432 – Dendrochronology
- GEOG 433 – The Land-Surface System
- GEOG 434 – Climatology
- GEOG 435 – Biogeography
- GEOG 436 – Water Resources
- GEOG 439 – Plants, People, and Climate in North America
- GEOG 450 – Geomorphology
- GEOG 454 – Terrain Analysis
Select 9 additional hours:
300-400 level geography courses
Students must maintain an overall GPA of 3.25 to graduate with honors. Twelve hours of honors work must be taken, including GEOG 497 and GEOG 498, under the direction of a faculty mentor. A written final copy of the thesis must be submitted to the Department of Geography. Balance of credit hours may be taken in honors courses or through honors-by-contract arrangements. Students should consult their advisor about participation.
Special Programs, Co-ops, and Internships
The Geography honors option entails writing an honors thesis under the guidance of a faculty mentor and completing six credits in honors courses. Geography majors also have the opportunity to work on geography-related projects off campus as interns. Geography internships are often available with Tennessee Valley Authority Oak Ridge National Labs, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Geographic, the City of Knoxville, local planning agencies, and private firms. Majors sometimes find work opportunities in the department’s cartography/map-making shop or as assistants and collaborators on faculty research projects. A growing number of Geography majors take advantage of Undergraduate Research Experience (GEOG 494). Such experiences provide geography majors with first-hand knowledge of the work professional geographers do and further their preparation for their careers.
Highlights of Geography
Geography majors play an active role in the life of the department. Club Geography is our undergraduate student organization that is involved with various activities, such as hiking, trivia nights, and fund raising. Majors are also active in Geography Awareness Week, held every November, and help promote the discipline by organizing public awareness events and speaking to schools, civic groups, and students across campus. Geography majors occasionally join faculty and graduate students in attending professional meetings. Outstanding geography majors may be inducted into Gamma Theta Upsilon, geography’s national honor society.
Geography is a highly internationalized discipline. The department’s World Geography course (101) serves as an introduction to today’s world for many UT students. The department offers a course on the Global Economy (451) as well as a suite of courses focusing on different world areas including South America (373), Europe (371), and East Asia (374). Even the department’s topical courses such as Human Geography (121), Urban Geography (441), Transportation Geography (449), Population Geography (GEOG 344), Population and the Environment (345), and Biogeography (435) have strong international components. Many faculty members are engaged in international research. They have also led students on study-abroad trips and have been active in semester-abroad programs sponsored by the Center for International Education. Several recent geography majors have had international internships and some have assisted faculty members in foreign-based research.
Students are highly encouraged to begin planning early in their academic career and to consult with an academic advisor about the best time to study abroad as well as what courses to take abroad. For more information about program options, the application process, and how to finance study abroad, please visit the Programs Abroad Office website.
Also, learn more about UT’s Ready for the World initiative to help students gain the international and intercultural knowledge they need to succeed in today’s world.
Academic Plan and Milestones
Following an academic plan will help students stay on track to graduate in four years. For all first-time, first-year, full-time, degree-seeking students, UT has implemented Universal Tracking (uTrack), an academic monitoring system designed to help students stay on track for timely graduation. In order to remain on track, students must complete the minimum requirements for each tracking semester, known as milestones. Milestones may include successful completion of specified courses and/or attainment of a minimum GPA.
To see a sample academic plan and milestones for this major, please visit the undergraduate catalog.
For More InformationRonald V. Kalafsky, PhD
University of Tennessee
Department of Geography
Knoxville TN 37996 USA
The information on this page should be considered general information only. For more specific information on this and other programs refer to the UT catalog or contact the department and/or college directly.