When he finished gymnasium in 1884, Cvijić wanted to study medicine abroad, but his municipality couldn't pay his scholarship. His professor from Šabac gymnasium, Vladimir Karić, suggested he attend geography lectures at the so-called Great School in Belgrade. Cvijić did that, and entered the Nature-mathematics section of the Great School. He finished his studies in the year of 1888. For one school-year he was a lecturer in Second Belgrade Gimnasium. After that, in 1889, he started studies of physical geography and geology at Vienna University with state scholarship. Cvijić finished his studies in Vienna in 1892, and in 1893 he defended his doctoral dissertation on subject "Das Karstphänomen" (The phenomenon of Karst) on the same university.
In March 1893 he became regular professor at the Philosophy Faculty of Great School in Belgrade. First he held physical geography and ethnography lectures, and later only geography lectures.
Apart from pure geography, Cvijić is known for his work in geology (geomorphology, tectonics, paleogeology and neotectonics). His monography about Karst generated very positive reviews in European scientific circles, and his speech about the structure and classification of mountains on The Balkan Peninsula based on geology-tectonic knowledge made him famous as the first Southern-Slavic [geotectonist. He always included geology in his geography works. His two books named "Geomorphology" are valuable even today, and represent outstanding base for modern research. He also explored Balkans' psychology types.
In 1905, when Belgrade University was founded, he was among first eight regular professors, who elected the rest of the staff.
He founded Geography College of Philosophy Faculty in 1893 and was the Head of it from the start until 1927. Together with other geographers and natural scientists he founded the Serbian Geographic Society in 1910 in Belgrade. He was the president of this society until his death. He was twice rector of Belgrade University in 1906/1907 and in 1919/1920.
Cvijić was known world-wide among scientists, and received many acknowledgements. He became Associate of the Serbian Royal Academy on February 5, 1896, and full member on February 4, 1899. By the act he became a president of The Serbian Royal Academy, on April 12, 1921. He held this position for the rest of his life. Beside this, he was an associate of The Soviet Academy of Sciences, Yugoslav Academy of Sciences and Arts, Science association Parnasos in Athens, honorable doctor of Sorbonne and Charles University in Prague. He was honorable member of many geographical, etnographical, natural science, and other associations across the world (Petrograd, Budapest, Bucharest and others). He received English, French and American medals for scientific achievements.
The most important works (on geology) include:
Over 30 years he traveled through Balkans, which resulted in number of works, and founding "anthropogeographic school".
Typical of his work is analysis of the influence of climate and geography on human building patterns (morphology). Cvijić was among first to emphasize that humans are ecosensibile creatures. When it comes to forming of anthropology types Cvijić underlines social structure (occupation), endogamy and exogamy and migration as primary factors. Particularly strong is influence of environment on etnopsychological characteristics of population – basic concepts for this Cvijić gave in his work on anthropogeographical problems of Balkan peninsula, which is further elaborated in the work Balkan peninsula and Southern-Slavic countries. This work was first published in French, and in 1922 expanded and printed in Serbian. Etnopsychological typisation that Cvijić gave in this works, was ideologically severely criticized after World War II in Yugoslavia.
There is Jovan Cvijić Memorial museum in his family house in Belgrade (5, Jelena Cetković street). This house was built in 1905 and since 1963 is under protection of state. In this house is legacy of Jovan Cvijić with 1463 items.
There is a geographic institute "Jovan Cvijić" in Belgrade, number of schools and streets in Serbia are named after him. He is still considered as the most significant Serbian geographer. His students continued his work, and six of them later became members of Serbian Academy, among them: Pavle Vujević, Borivoje Z. Milojević and Milisav Lutovac.
His life and work were particularly well-researched by geographer Milorad Vasović who wrote a 454 pages book "Jovan Cvijić - scientist, public worker, statesman" in 1994.