Beth Pearson, ASA Congressional Fellow in the Office of Senator Elizabeth Warren
While I was finishing my dissertation last year as a graduate student at Berkeley, I helped organize a series of panels on non-tenure-track careers for sociologists. My participation was only partly altruistic— as an organizer, I hoped to also push my secret agenda of finding out whether it was possible to do policy work as a sociologist, and what that might look like. While many sociologists contribute to policy through their academic research, I was curious about those individuals who more directly worked with policy. I was curious how those who had shifted their professional focus away from the academy had managed to make that transition—and whether they regretted it or whether they rarely looked back!
One conclusion was clear: sociologists are out there making an impact in a wide range of policy-related arenas. Some were working for policy evaluation firms or government agencies, others were applying sociological insights while writing books for popular audiences, directing university research centers, or helping run advocacy organizations. I was struck by how little ambivalence most of these panelists expressed about leaving academia behind, or at least not pursuing the traditional tenure track in the same manner as their former colleagues. I was also sobered by their stories of how difficult it was to continue doing peer-reviewed scholarship while holding down full-time employment.
Joys and Challenges
Now, six months into my time as the ASA Congressional Fellow, I have also experienced many of the joys and challenges that these panelists spoke about as they discussed their careers in policy. Policy work is fast-paced, always done in a team, and involves submitting your work to a constant cycle of feedback and revision. After spending the better part of a decade sitting alone in front of my laptop as a graduate student, I find these features of the job energizing and rewarding.
I have also been pleasantly surprised by how useful my quantitative skills have been in my role as a staffer. The standards that develop inside the discipline for statistical skills can be intimidatingly high – at least for someone like me who wrote my first line of STATA code in graduate school and figured I was more likely to make a contribution through qualitative, comparative historical work than by running regressions. But the training we receive as sociologists provides a key foundation for being able to navigate around a dataset, interpret statistical analyses, and speak fluently about quantitative findings. I also think sociologists have a particular advantage in this area because our discipline is methodologically pluralistic. We are well-suited for evaluating and discussing the various measurement tools that exist to help us reach conclusions about the social world.
During my fellowship year, I’ve had the opportunity to work on a number of projects that combine both qualitative and quantitative skills. In December, Senator Warren released a report analyzing how many tax filers in each metropolitan area in the country would be impacted if key provisions of the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit were not made permanent. Senator Warren also produced a series of state factsheets outlining the impact of her bill to boost Social Security and other important benefits for seniors, veterans, and other Americans, following the announcement that there would be no cost-of-living increase for these benefits in 2016. Contributing to the development of these resources required me to be able to write clearly about technical issues, but it also required working with data to analyze how different geographies would be impacted by these policies.
Ultimately, the biggest differences between working as a sociologist inside academia and in the policy world are in my daily routine. I was used to long days of quiet, potentially punctuated by a coffee with a colleague or a trip to the library to photocopy old volumes of the proceedings of the National Tax Association meetings (exciting, I know!). Satisfying, for sure, but I also found these aspects of academia a little isolating. Now I am surrounded by coworkers, collaborate on a number of projects, and spend as much time e-mailing and making phone calls as I do workshopping sentences on my computer screen. I remember hearing similar perspectives from the sociologists who participated on the panels about policy and non-tenure-track jobs and thinking that these differences in daily routine were interesting, but perhaps not essential when it came to making major career decisions. Now I’m not so sure—the way our daily work lives unfold are major contributors to our job satisfaction.
Sociologists’ skills can certainly be put to good use in the policy world, and I look forward to continuing to contribute in any way that I can during the remainder of my fellowship year. I encourage others to do the same. For more information on the ASA Congressional Fellowship, see www.asanet.org/career-center/grants-and-fellowships/asa-congressional-fellowship.
This article is from the May-June 2016 issue of Footnotes