From Active Military to a Career in GIS

Q & A with an Online M.S. GIST Graduate

When it comes to solving complex problems, graduates of the USC Spatial Sciences Institute’s Geographic Information Science and Technology (GIST) graduate programs are uniquely distinguished in how they think about and use GIS principles and technologies to redefine spatial thinking and location analytics. The spatial thinking, analysis, modeling, and visualization skills taught in these programs can be leveraged in virtually any field or industry, including the military.

Recent graduate Charles Becker, M.S. GIST ’16, shares how the program prepared him to continue a career in geospatial intelligence as he transitions from active military to civilian life.

Q&A with Charles Becker, M.S. GIST ‘16

Tell me a little about yourself. What led you to join the Air Force?

I went to Towson State University (now Towson University) and earned a degree in geography and environmental planning, and I was working on cartography. I originally went into the Army just temporarily so I could hopefully work into some kind of cartographic job, but I ended up staying and then getting commissioned in the Air Force. I’ve been in the Air Force for just over 20 years and the military for 23 ½ years.

What was your role in the Air Force? What kind of work did you do (especially pertaining to GIS applications)?

I’m an intelligence officer, which meshes nicely with spatial sciences. I’ve been in operations the whole time so I do a lot of mission planning, target planning, execution debriefing and mission analysis. The rest of my time is strategic planning and analysis.

GIS supports multiple disciplines, and in the military, it’s very interesting because it’s critical. I’ve used analysis a lot, anything from terrain analysis to travel perspectives for military forces. In Afghanistan, we did a lot of analysis and I’ll give you one example that I can talk about. We analyzed movements of hostages and patterns to determine the most likely places that they would take the hostages. The great thing about that is then we were able to take other limited assets and apply them against areas that we knew they were most likely to come back to so we could hopefully catch them and then do a rescue mission.

Why did you choose to pursue an M.S. in GIST? Was it essential that it be online?

One of the reasons I began the USC program is because I’m getting closer to retirement, and I wanted to work in the geospatial intelligence field. I’d always wanted to get a master’s in this field and then I waited while we went on different tours. When I got to the Edwards base in Southern California, I found the program at USC and decided it was a good time and a good program for me to do something I’ve been wanting to do. The program set me up for something I want to do not just with the military but when I retire from the military, hopefully as a civilian in the intelligence field.

I’m lucky because I was very close to USC and I was able to visit campus a few times, but to have all the same access as an online student to professors and libraries and resources as any other student was nice. I looked at a couple of programs, but all of the pieces fell together for the USC program in that the courses they offered were ones I wanted to take.

I understand that you were enrolled in the program and working on your master’s thesis while deployed. How did you balance both?

With very little sleep! Well, the good thing was I didn’t have any distractions of home. The place I was at had private internet access so I was able to connect at work and in my room. USC gave me a copy of ArcGIS to put on my laptop, which was nice because there was no way I had the speed to access the server. But I had the library access and everything else, so I was able to do all my preliminary background work and figure out my methodology.

In the first part of the thesis, I could do half an hour here, half an hour there whenever I had time. What was difficult was I couldn’t quite execute the methodology until I got home, as I needed larger blocks of time. I was able to get about 80% or so into it while deployed, however, and then when I got back, I had two weeks off so I was able to complete it soon after returning.

What surprised you most about online learning?

There have been a lot of pleasant surprises. One is the knowledge, the enthusiasm, and the attention that the professors have, how they really work with you to guide you. I can’t say enough about Dr. Vos. He’s outstanding. I was so unsure about where I was going at the beginning of the thesis but by the time I got a couple months in, everything just kind of lined up. I don’t think I would have been able to complete it while I was gone without the attention that he put into it.

The other thing I would say is that the academic rigor that USC maintains for the online program is good. Some online programs get a bad rep just by kind of letting people get through it without much difficulty. USC’s M.S. in GIST is an online program but it’s just as challenging as if you were sitting there in the classroom every day.

In what ways has the GIST program prepared you professionally? Has the program provided you with new skills that have made an impact in your career?

Outside of the technical skills that the program gives you, everything from the database course to the spatial modeling course, and the use ArcGIS, which is the industry standard, is valuable.

Even though I’m going into a management position, the fact that I have those skills and I know the capabilities is good. It’s really more about being able to critically think about how you might use GIS to solve a problem. The technical stuff, you can learn which buttons to push and whatnot. They do teach you that, but I think more importantly is the ability to, as they say in the program, think spatially, think how these different relationships might work, how you might solve a problem.

The thesis was great example of that idea because although I never expected to be writing a thesis on the topic I did and was something totally new to me, but I was able to apply everything I had learned. I was able to come up with a question, a methodology, and conduct the analysis even though it was an area I had no previous experience in.

Is there a course or faculty member in the Spatial Sciences Institute that you have found especially inspiring? Why?

I’m very happy with the program. I could tell that USC is very interested in helping people, making sure that they do learn and do graduate.

All the faculty I had were good. The two I’d call out would be Dr. Vos and Dr. Kemp. When I got down into the final bits for the thesis, I was also not only doing regular meetings online with Dr. Vos but I was also calling him every now and then if there was something we had to work through before we could go on. Most of the time, it was email and online meetings, for which he was very available.