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American Sociological Association


Graduate Training in Sociology

Many undergraduate sociology majors pursue graduate training in sociology in preparation for academic and practice careers in the discipline. A master's degree or doctorate will be essential for higher education teaching and advanced research or applied careers. Others choose graduate work in other fields such as social work, education, public health, business administration, and urban planning, not to mention law, medicine, and divinity school.

MA vs. PhD Degrees. The Doctorate in Philosophy (PhD) is typically the highest degree awarded in sociology. The Master's degree may be either an MA (Master of Arts) or an MS (Master of Science). The master's degree, which takes from one to three years, can either be a step toward the PhD or an end in itself. It generally signifies sophisticated knowledge of the field's perspectives and methods, but does not necessarily indicate that any original research has been conducted. In some cases a thesis is not required or may be replaced by a practicum or other applied experience. For those seeking to enter the applied world of research and program management, a master's degree in sociology may be excellent preparation. The PhD requires at least four or five years of study beyond the BA and signifies competence for original research and scholarship as evidenced by the completion of a significant research study called a "dissertation." This degree prepares individuals for careers in academic and applied settings.

For many positions within public agencies and the private sector, a master's degree suffices. For community college teaching, a master's degree may be acceptable, but a doctorate opens more doors. Teaching and research at the university level and high-level employment with good promotion prospects in non-academic research institutes, think tanks, private industry, and government agencies usually require a PhD.

Most graduate schools that offer the PhD also offer a master's degree as part of the program. However, some universities offer the master's only, and a few are exclusively devoted to the PhD. While many PhD students receive fellowships or use private means to study full-time, some must work part-time to support themselves. Fortunately, teaching or research assistantships often form part of the learning experience in exchange for a stipend or a tuition waiver.

New graduate students usually begin with courses quite similar in content to their undergraduate courses, although the work is more demanding and sophisticated.

Courses and Dissertations. Graduate courses typically focus on basic theoretical issues, a wide range of research methods, and statistics. Many entering PhD students who did not major in sociology as undergraduates will find this work new to them. A year or so of courses usually culminates in an examination or major paper, and perhaps the awarding of an MA or MS. Training then shifts to doing sociology and more interactive learning. Lecture courses give way to seminars as advanced students begin to conduct individual research in developing areas of specialization. At this point, the student is typically ready for some type of qualifying examination for the doctorate.

The final PhD requirement, the dissertation, must be an original piece of scholarship. It can take many forms and be relatively brief or very long. The dissertation should make a substantial contribution to existing scientific knowledge. Most departments require a formal proposal that must be approved by a faculty committee. This same committee often presides over the student's oral defense of the dissertation once it is completed, a ritual that marks the end of the student's training and the beginning of a career as an autonomous scholar.

Choosing a Graduate School. Over 250 universities in the U.S. offer PhDs and/or master's degrees. Universities differ greatly in their strengths and weaknesses, the nature and structure of their curriculum, costs, faculty specializations, and special programs and opportunities for students.

Some graduate programs specialize in preparing students for applied careers in business, government, or social service. They may feature student internships in agency offices rather than traditional teaching or research assistantships. Others emphasize preparation for the professorial life. Departments continue to differ on requirements regarding language proficiency and statistical skills; whether they require a Master's degree en route to the PhD; and, if so, whether a Master's thesis is required or course work alone is sufficient. Some departments will be strong in your particular area of interest, and others will be weak.

Fortunately, you have a key resource for making your choice. ASA publishes the Guide to Graduate Departments of Sociology, which contains critical information on degrees awarded, rosters of individual faculty and their interests, special programs, tuition and fees, the availability of fellowships and assistantships, deadlines for applications, and the names, addresses, and telephone numbers to contact for further information and application forms. College libraries should have a copy of the Guide. One can also be ordered directly from the ASA Executive Office (ext. 389).

Consult with others as you develop a list of schools to which you want to apply. Undergraduate sociology teachers who know your strengths, weaknesses, and special interests may be able to guide you through this complex process toward a realistic choice. Most sociology teachers have friends and colleagues in various departments around the country (or otherwise know the strengths of different departments). Even if they do not know anyone personally in a particular department, they should be able to help you make an informed decision. Also, make sure that you are exploring several options. Many departments have homepages which allow you to get a snapshot of departments, their faculty, their curriculum, and their specialty areas.

Sociologist in a Health Center

Education: Mark earned his PhD in sociology after working as an Emergency Medical Technician throughout college. In graduate school he took courses in medical sociology, the sociology of mental health and illness, and sociology of health policy.

Current position: Mark holds a faculty and research position in a state-supported Health Science Center that includes schools of nursing, medicine, dentistry, public health, and allied health professions. He and other social scientists form a unit in the Department of Community Health. Mark's responsibilities include teaching future physicians, nurses, planners, and other health workers about the sociological aspects of health care organizations.

Responsibilities: Mark also consults with health agencies, providing data about the population groups to be served and about sociological aspects of the distribution of disease and illness. He conducts research on how patients with heart disease fare in their family and work settings after release from the hospital.

Benefits: Mark is well paid, better than most academics in the social sciences, and enjoys working with health professionals and providing them with fresh perspectives on how to improve medical services in a rapidly-changing market.

Early in your senior year or in the year before entering graduate school, you should begin to make contact with the schools you wish to consider. Most departments require you to fill out an application form, including a personal statement on why you want to pursue graduate work, why you chose sociology and that particular school. In addition, you will probably be asked to supply a transcript of your undergraduate record and several letters of reference. Many departments require applicants to take the nationally administered Graduate Record Examinations--a battery of exams on verbal and quantitative skills, and a subject exam in sociology. Because these examinations are administered on a fixed schedule in designated locations, you must apply to take them several months in advance; your college should have all the appropriate information and forms; they are also offered in computer-assisted formats.

Finally, take advantage of the opportunity to visit the departments you consider. Departments differ in specialties, availability of direct support, tone, style and environment. You are considering not just a set of courses, but a larger learning context and a town and region in which you may be living for the next several years. Therefore, if at all possible, you should try to visit the department in person or at least request all materials available to potential applicants.

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Last Updated on January 08, 2005