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American Sociological Association: Sociological Careers Open to MAs and PhDs: Teaching, Research, and Practice
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Society and Social Life
Adapting to Change
Looking to the Future