Geographic Information Science PhD

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Student Handbook

Our Geographic Information Science (GIS) PhD program offers a path to building the skills, knowledge and abilities needed for a career focused in research or post-secondary teaching. In addition to innovative coursework, our state-of-the-art research centers – including the Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science, Spatial Analysis Research Center (SPARC) and Urban Climate Research Center (UCRC) – offer students the opportunity to work with our exceptional faculty on interesting and diverse research projects.

We place our focus on location – the heart of geography, urban planning, climatology, and GIS – and from that foundation, we develop cutting-edge techniques and solutions to the complex issues facing society.

The program admits students who have completed a master’s degree, and offers an option for students with strong potential to enter the PhD program directly after completing a bachelor’s degree.

Degree Overview

The 84-hour program of study includes a research requirement, written comprehensive exam, a prospectus and a dissertation. Prospective doctoral candidates should have a passion and interest in geography, spatial analysis, GIS or related fields, have demonstrated research skills and have a minimum of a 3.00 cumulative undergraduate GPA. We welcome applicants without geographic information science degrees. Incoming students must demonstrate or attain competence in cartography and quantitative methods, and complete other basic coursework that will enable them to pursue graduate studies in their area of specialization.

Focus Areas

Students in our Geographic Information Science PhD program have the ability to build a path of knowledge that reflects their personal interests within the realms of GIS. From spatial analysis to climate science, you will work alongside our esteemed faculty as you focus your research in one of our broad interdisciplinary themes, including:


Computational Spatial Science

Research spans a wide array of spatial scales from the application of methods to examine individual spatial behavior to the study of urban sprawl, neighborhood dynamics, regional and international economic growth and convergence patterns.


Earth Systems & Climate Science

Our strengths in climate science and in earth surface and vegetation dynamics lie within the rich research tradition of physical geography. Earth systems and climate science research is conducted on a variety of spatial and temporal scales, from investigations of modern urban climate systems to the long-term climatic variability driving landscape changes.


Sustainability Science & Studies

Our researchers explore human-environment relationships, landschaft, landscape morphology and natural hazards as they are reconfigured into contemporary themes of sustainability such as political ecology and land change science.


Transportation Planning and Policy

Researchers are exploring the transition to sustainable transportation, emphasizing innovations in planning and policy to reduce the need for travel within cities; shifting travel to non-automobile modes such as walking, cycling and public transit; and low-carbon transportation fuels and propulsion technologies.

How to apply

The School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning application process is completed online through ASU Graduate Admissions. The application deadline for Fall admission is December 15. Prospective students must submit the admission application and fee along with official transcripts and required supplemental application materials.

Learn more about our financial support options


Training in geographic information science follows an apprenticeship model. Students work closely with a mentor to complete required coursework, research training, a comprehensive examination, and a doctoral dissertation. The goal of the program is to prepare students to become independent and creative scientists who publish advancements and findings in major, peer-reviewed outlets.


A minimum of 84 hours is required.


Requirements and electives


Core courses


Remote sensing course


Other required courses






Total hours required


Courses and electives

Students benefit from a wide variety of course work and research opportunities in broad interdisciplinary themes that span the expertise of the faculty within the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, including: Computational Spatial Science; Earth Systems & Climate Science; Sustainability Science & Studies; Transportation Planning and Policy.

Course TitleCredits
GIS 520GIScience Issues and Debates3
GIS 521Geographic Information Science Programming3
GIS 571Spatial Statistics for Geography and Planning3
GCU 585Geographic Research Design and Proposal Writing3

Students select remote sensing course in consultation with faculty advisor.

GCU or GPH 591Seminar: Geography ColloquiumTwo semesters, 1.0 hour each

Any graduate level GCU, GIS, GPH, or PUP course may be taken as elective, including Research and Reading & Conference credits. Interdisciplinary courses may be taken, but must be approved by the department.

Thirty (30.0) credits from a previously-awarded master’s degree may be applied toward the doctoral plan of study.

There are two options for fulfilling this requirement: Research Examination (RE) or Submitted Paper (SP). Student should discuss with their faculty advisor which option is best suited to their specialization and overall research interests.

Research Examination (RE) Option

The research examination tests the ability to do independent research. PhD students who choose to do the research exam will prepare a statement of their area of specialization in geographic information science and complete an intensive two-week research project culminating in a written paper, administered by the student’s supervisory committee.

Submitted Paper (SP) Option

The submitted (or published) paper option requires that the student submit a paper meeting the following requirements:

·       first-authored manuscript

·       in English

·       submitted to a peer-reviewed journal (not a book chapter or conference proceeding)

·       prepared in accordance with the journal’s requirements

·       reviewed and approved by the student’s advisor

Students take a written comprehensive exam intended to assess their mastery of geographic information science thought and methods, and their field of specialization. The comprehensive examination is administered by the student's supervisory committee and consists of essay questions posed by each committee member. The questions may have multiple parts and may be specifically related to the member’s discipline.

After approval by the doctoral committee of the written comprehensive exam, students will have an oral exam intended to test a student’s mastery of geographic information science thought and methods, and area of specialization. The oral exam will be based on the written portion of the exam, and students will be expected to be able to articulate and clarify the content of the written component. The oral exam is an assessment of whether a student is ready to participate in scholarly discussions, to proceed towards candidacy, and to submit a dissertation proposal

The doctoral dissertation is an extensive piece of original research that demonstrates the capability of the student to act as an independent scholar and use experimental methods. The student is required to submit a written dissertation proposal to the supervisory committee. As part of the proposal, the student is required to submit a publication plan (including research question(s) posed and motivation, assumptions made and methods employed, and anticipated time to completion) indicating the strategy for completing publishable papers, intended for the peer-review literature, from the dissertation. Upon successful defense of the proposal, the student advances to candidacy for the PhD. Upon approval of the dissertation manuscript by the supervisory committee, the student will schedule an oral defense of the completed dissertation.

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