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American Sociological Association


Career Preparation: Making the Most of an Undergraduate Major

Success in most careers depends upon both long-term career preparation and short-term responses to changing circumstances. It is virtually impossible for anyone to anticipate fully what lies five years ahead, much less ten, twenty, or thirty years. Yet, because sociology gives students a broad liberal arts preparation, it can be viewed as a solid base for many career paths. In addition, students who have developed a relatively clear idea of their preferred career path can shape their undergraduate curriculum accordingly. Furthermore, basic skills in research design, data analysis, and conceptualization of problems will help BA graduates compete for jobs across all sectors.

The Liberal Arts Advantage. A bachelor's degree in sociology provides an excellent liberal arts foundation for embarking on the wide range of career paths that many liberal arts majors pursue. Your undergraduate training in sociology can open a variety of doors in business and the human services. Sociology majors who enter the business world work in sales, marketing, customer relations, or human resources. Those who enter human services work with youths at risk, the elderly, or people experiencing problems related to poverty, substance abuse, or the justice system.

When we ask sociology majors who are already employed outside academic settings to reflect on their education with the wisdom of hindsight, they value most highly their undergraduate courses in social research methods, statistics, and computer skills. These courses help make BA undergraduates marketable, especially in today's highly technical and data-oriented work environment. In addition, sociology majors develop analytical skills and the ability to understand issues within a "macro" or social structural perspective. Learning the process of critical thinking and how to bring evidence to bear in support of an argument is extremely important in a fast-changing job market.

Consequently, as a sociology BA, you have a competitive advantage in today's information society. The solid base you receive in understanding social change--as well as in research design, data analysis, statistics, theory, and sociological concepts--enables you to compete for support positions (such as program, administrative, or research assistant) in research, policy analysis, program evaluation, and countless other social science endeavors.

The well-educated sociology BA graduate acquires a sense of history, other cultures and times; the interconnectedness of social life; and different frameworks of thought. He or she is proficient at gathering information and putting it into perspective. Sociological training helps students bring breadth and depth of understanding to the workplace. A sociology graduate learns to think abstractly, formulate problems, ask appropriate questions, search for answers, analyze situations and data, organize material, write well, and make oral presentations that help others develop insight and make decisions. Sociology BA graduates have an advantage in understanding human behavior on three levels:

  • how individuals behave in organizations, families, and communities
  • the ways in which these social units function as groups
  • the wider social, political, and economic contexts in which decisions are made and in which groups function.
Linking to Other Majors and Minors. You can amplify the power of your sociology major by taking a multidisciplinary approach. Employment analysts predict that the most successful people in the 21st century will be those who have been exposed to a wide variety of disciplines and have taken the time to study in some depth outside their field.

You can begin the process of multiplying your perspectives as an undergraduate major in sociology by planning a double major with criminal justice, economics, English, anthropology, a second language, political science, or education. Or, you can take a minor or concentration in computer science, business management, marketing, human services, law and society, social work, or pre-law--just to name a few possibilities. Work with your advisor to develop an integrated set of courses that will provide depth in one or more areas.

The Value of an Internship and Service Learning. Internships during or just after the undergraduate years offer invaluable experience that can bring to life the sociological concepts and theories you study in books and in the classroom. You can sample potential careers, build your resume, and learn new skills during a well-chosen internship experience. Participation in an internship affords an excellent way to explore career options and help determine what aspects of sociology interest you.

A wide range of internships is available to sociology graduates. Whether you enjoy working with families or learning more about statistical methods to track population growth, you can find an organization that will give you the opportunity to gain experience while you work toward their goals. Many agencies and institutions offer internships, and many colleges will provide college credits for internship experience. While some internships provide remuneration, many are unpaid. Remember that an internship will help pave the way to subsequent employment opportunities, so working without pay may well be worth your investment of time and energy in the long run. Data show that sociology students who take part in internships find it much easier to find employment later.

Courses that included service learning – volunteer work that is connected to the course topic – are also valuable for career testing and practical experience in applying sociological concepts, methods, and theories.

Staff Administrator in a Public Assistance Agency

Education: Through his undergraduate studies, William became interested in using his knowledge to serve people. William saw his BA in sociology as a tool for providing services to people in need in a large metropolitan area. With the help of his professors, he found an internship in an inner-city shelter for the homeless; after two semesters helping conduct a count of the area's homeless population, William decided to apply for a job with the city's Department of Human Services.

Current Position: William works as a program coordinator, drawing on his internship experiences and his undergraduate sociology courses in the family, social stratification, communities, and group dynamics.

Responsibilities: William's work includes routine processing of reports and legal forms, as well as extensive contact with clients and direct engagement with the problems of the poor, disabled, homeless, elderly, and minorities. He combines his efforts with other employees; using his knowledge of how human services and welfare systems work, he often acts as a trouble shooter by providing help to clients who might otherwise "fall between the cracks."

Benefits: William's job requires him to maintain contacts with other public and private agencies that affect the lives of the poor. For example, one of his friends from college now works on the staff of a large community mental health center, and another is involved in supervising rehabilitation for state penitentiary inmates. Like William, they are using their sociology BAs as a foundation for social service positions. All three receive satisfaction from being able to experience day-to-day accomplishments in helping others.

William's salary is commensurate with the wage scales of public sector employees generally. He could progress through Civil Service channels to a career of relative security. However, he is considering going back to school to earn a graduate degree, which would help him compete for administrative positions.

In order to develop an internship, ask yourself these questions:
  • "What are my talents, skills, interests, and areas of knowledge?"
  • "In what areas would I like to grow?"
  • "What are my strongest assets?"
  • "How can I make a meaningful contribution in a relatively short time?"
When you address these questions and are ready to search for an internship that will benefit both you and your "employer," the following strategies may help:
  • Volunteer your time and skills to an employer on a temporary or part-time basis in order to establish initial contact and lay the foundation for future work.

  • Contact your cooperative education, internship and/or service learning coordinator on campus for a listing of organizations that accept interns and for general advice on how to find an internship and derive the most benefit from it.

  • Contact your college or university sociology department for advice on internships. Organizations might send internship announcements to them and your professors may have contacts in the community. Sometimes college course credit can be arranged with the department.

  • Contact by letter and follow-up telephone call several nonprofit organizations, corporations, businesses, and government or educational agencies in the geographic location that interests you--the broader the net, the more likely someone will offer you an internship.

  • Write to the National Society for Experiential Education for the National Directory of Internships (latest edition). This publication lists opportunities in 75 fields of interest, by state, type of organization, and specific organizations. NSIEE, 3509 Haworth Drive, Suite 207, Raleigh, NC 27609-7229.

  • Join the American Sociological Association for information and networking opportunities at the national, regional, and state levels.

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Last Updated on January 08, 2005