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American Sociological Association


The Common Core of Sociological Careers Open to MAs and PhDs: Teaching, Research, and Practice

Three activities form the common core of most sociological work--teaching, research, and practice. MA and PhD graduates, especially professors, may engage in all three simultaneously or at different times in their careers. BA graduates usually work in research or in applied settings in which the sociological perspective adds valued insights.

Teaching: Despite the broad applicability of sociology at the BA level, a substantial majority of graduate-level sociologists teach, whether in high schools, two-year colleges, four-year colleges, or universities. Sociology is a rewarding field to convey to others. It combines the importance of social relevance with the rigor of a scientific discipline.

Faculty Member in a Liberal Arts College

Current position: While finishing her doctoral thesis, Joanna successfully competed for a position on the faculty of a small liberal arts college. After five years of high performance, Joanna has been promoted to Associate Professor with tenure, which serves as a safeguard of academic freedom.

Responsibilities: Joanna teaches introduction to sociology, social problems, and the sociology of sex and gender. Occasionally she teaches during the summer for additional pay. She helps students make choices among career goals, works with students and faculty on campus-wide projects, and is active in community programs that serve the homeless. Since college programs emphasize general education, Joanna works with faculty members from other disciplines.

Benefits: Joanna knows that her salary may be slightly lower than that of her colleagues in universities or in some state institutions, but life in this college town is relatively inexpensive. Most importantly, she is doing what she really enjoys--working closely and informally with college students.

Sociology is not only taught to future sociologists and to undergraduate students as part of their liberal arts education. It also forms an important part of pre-professional programs in law, education, business, medicine, engineering, social work, and nursing. In addition to the standard college and university courses, sociology courses are popular with adult and continuing education programs and are increasingly prominent in the nation's high schools.

Teaching sociology differs across settings. A general introduction for high school students requires different skills than does a course for college seniors. These differ from leading an advanced research seminar for doctoral students. For many, teaching represents a desirable occupation with considerable job security and the satisfaction of facilitating learning for students who are struggling with the most intriguing issues that sociology addresses. What is most important is that you include preparation for teaching as part of your graduate work – avail yourself of any seminars, workshops, or discussions on the campus – in the department or at the institution's teaching center – to develop expertise and practice in teaching, including the preparation of a teaching portfolio.

Teaching Sociology in a Community College

Current position: Frank discovered how much he enjoys teaching when he served as a teaching assistant in graduate school, and eagerly accepted a community college position upon receiving his MA degree. He is a member of the Social Science Department, where his colleagues include other sociologists, anthropologists, economists, political scientists, and psychologists. This interdisciplinary environment, and the opportunity to teach first generation college students appeal to him.

Responsibilities: Frank teaches five classes per semester in crime and deviance. His other responsibilities include preparing for courses, serving on college committees, and advising students. Meanwhile, Frank must also devote time to reading so that he can keep abreast of new developments in his field.

Benefits: Since Frank is a member of a union which represents all community college teachers, his salary is quite competitive. After several years of satisfactory service, Frank should receive tenure. He is building a solid retirement pension and receives comprehensive medical coverage.

Research: Sociology graduates can conduct research in a variety of employment settings, whether in a university; a public agency at the federal, state, or local level; a business or industrial firm; a research institute; or a non-profit or advocacy sector organization. Some self-employed sociologists researchers direct their own research and consulting firms.

Research follows teaching as the most common career option within sociology. Note, however, that one does not necessarily have to make a choice between teaching and research. Many teaching positions, particularly in universities and four-year colleges, require and support research activities. Institutions vary according to whether they place greater emphasis on research or on teaching as the primary route to advancement. Some institutions place more emphasis on teaching, and many are attempting to achieve an optimum balance between research and teaching. When you investigate an institution, be sure to examine its mission statement and faculty handbook. Furthermore, as you will see in the section on "Sociological Practice," many sociologists conduct research outside of academic settings.

Staff Member of a Research Institute

Education: While completing a BA in sociology, Mary Anne found that she especially enjoyed courses in research methods, statistics, and urban sociology. After college, Mary Anne joined a large, private research institute that conducts sociological studies for government agencies, businesses, and political groups. Many studies focus on urban and metropolitan problems. Mary Anne began the job with a BA in sociology. Since joining the institute, she has taken three graduate courses toward an MA degree in Applied Sociology. Her employer pays for the courses and gives her a flexible schedule two days a week so she can fit classes in during the early evening.

Current position: During her first several years, Mary Anne was a "research assistant," but she is now an "associate project director" with more responsibility for developing new research projects as well as supervising the research process. She has developed a keen sense of how clients' problems can be addressed. She writes research proposals and follows them through from discussion and revision to funding. She feels confident that her research contributes to the resolution of complex issues such as metropolitan government and urban revitalization.

Benefits: Mary Anne's salary now ranks above average for those in her graduating class. With success in obtaining contracts and advising clients, her income will probably increase considerably. Mary Anne may stay here, move to another research firm, or consider starting her own agency.

As many research specializations exist as there are content areas and methods of sociological inquiry. Methods range from field work and intrusive interviews to questionnaires and surveys; from working with census materials to analysis of historical documents; and from real life social experiments to laboratory simulations.

"Evaluation research" is especially important in shaping social policy and programs. Here the investigator uses a variety of sociological methods to assess the impacts of a particular policy or program. Ideally, such evaluation involves careful research designed before a policy trial goes into effect. It may also involve surveys of individuals directly or indirectly affected by a program, or organizational analyses of a policy's implications for changes in the agency responsible. Frequently, evaluation research may be focused on the conduct and organization of the program itself in an attempt to explore unintended and unanticipated consequences of a social policy. Evaluation research is a response to the recognition that it is not enough to launch new policies or programs and hope for the best; they must be continually assessed to see if they are functioning as intended.

Enjoyment of research and writing is essential if one seeks a career in the more advanced academic settings. In these institutions, research as well as teaching is expected. As the profiles throughout this booklet indicate, other kinds of jobs also feature sociological research and some of them are exclusively research positions. In fact, the number of full-time researchers whose jobs require no teaching at all is increasing fairly rapidly.

Research Director in a Telecommunications Firm

Education: As an undergraduate, Jim took a few courses in business and computer science to supplement his major in sociology. He especially liked working with the computers that sociologists use extensively in their research. Jim also became fascinated with the social impacts of computerization. In graduate school, he focused on courses in the sociology of science and technology, demography, and organizational analysis. He completed his MA thesis on future organizations and the computer revolution.

Current Position: Jim moved from a California university town to Chicago where he took his first job as a research assistant in a market research firm and, after six months, became an analyst of the market for PC software. He broadened his knowledge of telecommunication products and applied his sociological research skills to studying markets for office telephone systems, cellular (car) phones, and cable TV. While he learned a great deal about the products, his real expertise concerns demographic characteristics (age, sex, class and ethnic background) as they affect the attitudes of people to whom these products are marketed. He is a pioneer in studying the social impact of the new "information highway."

The sociological advantage: Jim's knowledge of demography and organizational change helped him stand out from other market researchers who have less depth in these areas. After only eight years in the field, Jim is sure this background and perspective helped give him the competitive edge to be selected as Director of Research for a newly-created telecommunications firm.

Sociological Practice: Given the usefulness of their methods and perspectives, sociologists have developed many career paths that take research into the realm of intervention or "sociological practice." This broad category refers to positions that involve "applied" or "clinical" sociology--using sociology to affect positive change among individuals, families, organizations, communities, and societies.

Sociological practice is the application of sociological knowledge-- concepts, methods, theories, predictions, evidence, and insights –to understanding immediate problems and their solutions. This work is "client-driven" meaning that the work is designed to solve a specific situation posed by the employer, rather than "discipline-driven" to add to the knowledge base of the field of sociology, although applied work can and does make those contributions.

Some sociological practitioners ("clinical sociologists") have expertise in counseling individuals and families. Others ("applied sociologists") use sociological knowledge and research methods to effect larger-scale change, for example by conducting social and environmental impact assessments, evaluating programs, facilitating organizational development, mediating and resolving conflicts, or revamping social policies. All these approaches have one thing in common: They help individuals, groups, organizations, or governments to identify problems and their deeper causes, and to suggest strategies for solution.

The application of sociological knowledge is key to careers in the fields of policy making and administration, government, business, social services, and industry.

Policy-Making and Administration. Opportunities exist for sociologists who can use their basic sociological training to help others make more informed policy decisions and administer programs more effectively and imaginatively. This career option has broadened in recent years. Sociologists in this area may not teach in an academic setting, but often find themselves explaining the critical elements of research design, methods, and data analysis to non-social scientists. A solid research and theory background leads to this kind of position.

Although a skilled policy administrator might not conduct his or her own research, he or she would be expected to read the research literature, design useful research projects that others will conduct, cooperate with full-time staff researchers or outside consultants, and apply the developing knowledge of sociology and the social sciences to problems that involve housing, transportation, education, control of the AIDS epidemic, corporate downsizing, health, welfare, law enforcement, or other major issues.

Sociologists have the opportunity to incorporate sociological knowledge into planning and policy-making in areas dominated by other professions. For example, in the mental and physical health fields, sociologists serve with planning boards and health services agencies; they play similar roles in education, law enforcement, and government. Sociologists have contributed their knowledge effectively in many other areas as well.

Planning Officer in a State Department of Planning and Development

Education: Paula earned a PhD in sociology with specialization in population and demography, urban sociology, and economic sociology.

Current position: Paula has worked for five years in the State Department of Planning and Development and has now risen to Assistant Director in the Office of Long-Range Forecasting. Her position involves considerable sociological knowledge and skill, especially in projecting population shifts into and out of the state's major urban areas, especially the inner cities.

Responsibilities: Paula not only commissions research on her own, but she keeps up with the growing research literature. While she does relatively little research herself, Paula's work is particularly important since she keeps informed about relevant studies on the socio-economic problems of inner city neighborhoods and prepares frequent reports and analyses based on new findings. She serves as a bridge to outside research experts working on contracts with the department. In addition, Paula has taken on administrative responsibility for a growing staff that works under her supervision. Her work directly affects how much funding the state provides to urban governments.

Benefits: In addition to making a good living, Paula finds satisfaction in contributing insights to critical decisions concerning the state's future urban growth and its strategies for cooperating with local governments.

This type of career involves working closely with producers as well as consumers of research, ultimately as a supervisor, administrator, or staff specialist. As with any occupation, it is unlikely that younger persons will be hired directly into such high level positions. Typically, they work their way up from lower-level staff positions. It is not uncommon for recent sociology graduates to be hired as staff members in a government agency and then follow a career which involves increased policy influence and administrative responsibility. Competent administration often involves good sociological principles, although few administrative positions formally require sociological training.

Other Opportunities in Government. In government settings, many sociologists conduct research and evaluation projects, others manage programs, and some are engaged in policy analysis or problem solving for their agency. Although specific areas of expertise vary, sociologists command an arsenal of skills, knowledge, and experience that can be put to good use at all levels of a complex government. They are employed in such Federal agencies as the Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute of Aging, National Institute of Mental Health, National Institute of Drug Abuse, Bureau of the Census, the Department of Agriculture, the General Accounting Office, the National Science Foundation, Housing and Urban Development, the Peace Corps, or the Centers for Disease Control--among many others. Some work at non-governmental organizations such as The World Bank, the National Academy of Sciences, the Social Science Research Council, Children's Defense Fund, Common Cause, and a wide range of professional and public interest associations. At the state level, many are engaged in urban planning, health planning, criminal justice, education, and social service administration.

Staff Member of a Federal Agency

Education: After graduating from a small predominantly Black college in the South, Linda received a fellowship for graduate work at a private university in the North. She progressed quickly, choosing to specialize in the sociology of education, a subject which fascinated her. While completing her PhD thesis, she spent summers working for a Senator who supports national education reform.

Current position: Linda has only recently joined the staff of the U.S. Department of Education where she serves as a Social Science Analyst. Her division focuses on key issues in minority education--recruitment, financial support, mentoring, and career development.

Responsibilities: In her new job, Linda conducts research on the access of minority students to higher education. Her findings will be presented to Congress as education reform proceeds. She supervises two assistants.

Benefits: Linda's salary is determined by the U.S. Civil Service scale, which provides her with a reasonable and stable income, and excellent benefits including pension, medical coverage, and vacations.

Because government sociologists face complex problems that require complex solutions, they must be able to produce good data and place it into a broader context. Skills in survey and evaluation research and special knowledge in such areas as health sociology, aging, criminal justice, demography, and the family enable the sociologist to understand (and sometimes shape) current or proposed government programs that affect vast numbers of people. Some special programs afford students an opportunity to gain government experience:

The Federal Cooperative Education Program allows students of many disciplines, including sociology, to alternate full-time college study with full-time employment in a Federal agency. Many agencies that attract sociologists participate in this program. Contact the Office of Personnel Management in Washington, D.C., the agency personnel office, or your college placement office.

The Presidential Management Internship Program (PMI) offers Federal employment to students upon completion of their graduate program. Sociology majors are eligible under this program. It offers rewarding entry-level positions that provide exposure to a wide range of public management issues. This program also provides substantial opportunities for career development, on-the-job training, and job rotation to expand skills and knowledge. For more information, contact the Office of Personnel Management or your career placement office.

Opportunities in Business. Many sociologists with BA degrees enter the private sector, working primarily in sales, human resources, and management. Corporations employ full-time (or hire as consultants) those with advanced degrees, especially in the fields of marketing, advertising, telecommunications, and insurance. Businesses especially benefit from sociologists who specialize in demography--the study of population--and market research--the study of the needs, preferences, and life-styles of potential clients or customers. Many sociologists work in public opinion or market research, producing findings of interest to leaders in politics, communications, and advertising. Industrial or corporate sociologists--experts on productivity, work relations, minorities and women in the work force, linking technology to the organization, corporate cultures and organizational development--constitute another specialized group.

Sociologists in the corporate world command an arsenal of skills and knowledge that help solve a wide range of business problems, increase job satisfaction, serve consumers better, and make companies more profitable. These include:

  • using demography and forecasting to plan for the future;

  • using training techniques to deal with organizational change;

  • finding out what consumers want through market analysis and focus groups;

  • increasing productivity and efficiency through team-building and work reorganization.

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Last Updated on January 08, 2005