March 2014 Issue • Volume 42 • Issue 3

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National Trends Push Departments to Focus on Career Advising: ASA Can Help

Margaret Weigers Vitullo, Academic and Professional Affairs Program

Career advising is an increasingly central activity for sociology faculty and departments. Larger student loan burdens, the continuing effects of the Great Recession, and an increasingly diverse student body all mean that students are considering the employment implications of their college choices from the start of college. In 2013, 86 percent of first-year college students said the ability to get a better job was “very important” in their decision to go to college. Seventy-three percent specifically said that being able to make more money was important to their decision. And nearly 70 percent of these first-time freshman said they either “agree strongly” or “somewhat agree” with the statement “the current economic situation significantly affected my college choice.” (Eagan 2013).

The Department of Education’s proposed college ranking system and changing institutional criteria for measuring program success may be creating still more impetus for providing career advising within departments. Moreover, student satisfaction with the major has been shown to increase when they are able to participate in discipline-specific career preparation activities (Senter et. al. 2012).

Linking the Major to a Career

The ASA’s newly released 2nd Edition of the booklet 21st Century Careers with an Undergraduate Degree in Sociology, which includes 13 profiles of individuals who majored in sociology, is designed to help students and faculty with the important task of linking the major to positive employment outcomes for students. Three key themes emerge in this new edition. The first theme is that within a few years sociology majors often go on to a wide variety of interesting career paths. The young professionals profiled in the book include research associates, non-profit managers and program coordinators, marketing specialists, entrepreneurs, parole officers, and crime analysts, among others. They describe the satisfaction they find in their work, and are unequivocal about the value of their sociology degree in their current professional context.

The second theme is that the sociological imagination, combined with research methods and data analysis tools, creates a powerful set of employment skills for undergraduates. In her profile, Amanda Makulec, an international public health consultant, describes data as a new form of currency. She says, “cultivating a strong understanding of research methods and, at the very least, basic data analysis skills will be respected by potential future employers.” Andrew Cober, a consultant for a communications and marketing firm, states, “without hesitation I would say the most important skill I learned through studying sociology that has translated directly into my current job is critical thinking. Clients and employers are looking for individuals who can process information, dissect it, and recognize both the stated and latent meanings there. With information increasing exponentially and information delivery channels fundamentally reshaping how we ‘learn’ and what we ‘know’ about the world, critical thinking skills are vitally important.”

The third theme that emerges is that students can and must take an active role in creating their own 21st century careers before they are ready to enter the job market. Several of the professionals profiled urged current students to take advantage of internship opportunities. Jessica Lightfoot, an Intelligence Research Specialist, said, “My advice is to do as many internships as possible.” Joe Pate, a specialist in conflict resolution who works closely with law enforcement in cases of domestic disputes, advises students “to get engaged: talk to professors, participate, and look for research and internship opportunities. Sociology is a discipline that implores us to take the concepts from the textbook and apply them outside the classroom.”

What Departments Can Do

In a 2012 study on the employment outcomes of recent sociology graduates, the factors that were most highly associated with career-level employment after graduation were consulting with faculty members, participating in capstone seminars and career workshops in the department, and talking with internship advisors and former employers. Graduates who only looked for jobs online or in the newspaper were far less likely to find career-level employment.

At the federal level, the Department of Education is working to create a college-ranking system that would use a variety of metrics, including average salaries of graduates (Lederman, et. al. 2014). Although highly contentious, the initiative will undoubtedly have a lasting impact whether implemented or not. Virginia is already using salary data to evaluate post-secondary institutions in that state. The Association of American Colleges and Universities, in their recent publication How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment (2014), seems to be working to broaden the conversation regarding employment outcome measures to reflect more than salary levels. And a variety of colleges and universities, including Syracuse University, Keene State College, University of Colorado-Boulder, and DePaul University, are conducting alumni surveys to measure employment outcomes, even as they work to understand the meaningfulness of that data (Rogers 2013). These institutions seem to be working to get ahead of the curve as they are conducting analyses that in some cases differentiate outcomes by college, program, and major.

The Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work at Dayton University is one example of a department engaged in providing career advising as well as tracking student employment outcomes. The department has compiled its own booklet with information on employment outcomes for department graduates. In addition, department faculty use 21st Century Careers as a tool to help recruit new students and help majors with career planning. All advisors in this department with nearly 200 majors receive a copy of 21st Century Careers for themselves as well as copies to give away to prospective students and their parents. Laura Leming, Department Chair, explains “[21st Century Careers] helps show a national perspective—it’s not just me saying that our degree is a useful degree.”

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