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What Research Skills Do Sociology Undergraduates Take into the Labor Market?

by William Erskine and Roberta Spalter-Roth, Research and Development Department

Recent sociology college graduates are highly satisfied with their undergraduate experience, according to a survey of 1,777 graduates in 2005, although the skills and concepts they take away from their programs may not show up on their resumes. As part of a National Science Foundation-supported (NSF) survey, ASA asked seniors why they majored in sociology, what skills and concepts they learned, what activities they participated in, and their post-graduation plans. Email addresses for majors graduating during the 2004/ 2005 academic year were provided by 96 schools. Students completed an online questionnaire hosted by Indiana University’s Center for Survey Research. This article focuses on the relation between skills learned and those featured on their resumes.

Seniors’ Satisfaction with Sociology Programs

Seventy percent of students say they are “very satisfied” with their educational experience as sociology majors. There are, however, significant differences in satisfaction with aspects of sociology programs across type of schools. Almost 80 percent of majors graduating from baccalaureate-only departments report strong overall satisfaction, compared to about 70 percent at master’s comprehensive, and doctoral institutions. Majors at baccalaureate- only schools are particularly satisfied with access to faculty outside of class, teaching quality, availability of technology, ease of obtaining the courses they needed to graduate, and interaction with fellow majors. About two-thirds of respondents from masters and doctoral universities report strong satisfaction with the quality of teaching, availability of technology, and faculty access. Relatively few graduating majors are satisfied with career or graduate school advising, regardless of the type of schools they attend.

White students responding to the survey are most likely to say that they are strongly satisfied with faculty access outside of class (68 percent), while African American graduates are most likely to say they are strongly satisfied with course availability (65 percent). There are no significant differences between men and women regarding overall satisfaction with their sociology program.

Seniors’ Skills

Senior majors seem confident in a number of skills they gained from their sociology baccalaureate programs. Figure 1 presents in descending order the research-related technical and communication skills seniors strongly agree that they learned. About 70 percent of participating graduates strongly agree that they can identify ethical issues in research, develop evidence-based arguments, evaluate methods, write reports, and form causal hypotheses. On the other hand, fewer graduates express a high comfort level with statistical software and statistics. Less than half strongly agree that they could use leading statistical packages. Generally, majors seem more confident they have learned the research communication skills presented in Figure 1— developing arguments and report writing—than the more technical skills such as learning statistics and statistical software.

African American and Hispanic graduating seniors are more sanguine than whites about their quantitative skills. About two-thirds strongly agreed, compared to 55 percent of whites, that they could interpret the results of data gathering. Half of African American students, compared to 40 percent of Hispanic and 36 percent of white students, strongly agreed that they could discuss percentages and tests of significance in a bi-variate table. No significant differences were found between men and women concerning statistical software skills.

Despite their relative pessimism about their statistical skills, graduating sociology majors strongly agreed that they learned conceptual skills that help them to explain relationships between institutions, social processes, and individuals, and to understand how to change society. More than 80 percent strongly agree that they learned about people’s experiences as they varied by race, ethnicity, class, and gender. More than 70 percent strongly agree that they learned about social institutions and their impact on individuals.

Although the 2005 cohort learned about social processes and differential experiences, only about 40 percent of the 2005 cohort strongly agreed that they practiced “soft skills” as a part of their majors. These soft skills included working in groups, getting involved in volunteer activities, participating in service learning programs, and interacting with their fellow majors. If soft skills are desirable in the professional work force, then these findings suggest the need for more concentration on this kind of training in the undergraduate sociology curriculum. Female majors are significantly more likely to have taken part in these activities than males.

Seniors’ Resumes

Figure 2 presents the research-related skills that seniors will list on their resumes. Fewer than half of majors will list any of the research skills that they learned. Using statistical packages is the top research-related skill, with 40 percent of majors agreeing that they will list it, the same percentage that strongly agreed they had learned this skill. In contrast, 28 percent say they would mention identifying ethical issues in research, the skill that about 70 percent strongly agreed that they had learned. These results suggest a possible mismatch between vocational skills used in job searches and conceptual skills learned as part of the sociology curriculum.

Although the number of Hispanic majors responding is relatively small, they are significantly more likely than other groups to list a variety of skills on their resumes. About 40 to 50 percent of Hispanics list skills such as writing reports for non-sociologists, developing evidence-based arguments, using computer resources to develop references, evaluating different research methods, and identifying ethical issues in research. They are not as likely as other groups to mention their proficiency with statistical packages. In most cases, African Americans were less likely to list these skills, although they are not significantly less likely to say that they have the skills.

Women undergraduates are significantly less likely to say that they would list skills like the ability to interpret results, develop evidence-based arguments, evaluate different research methods, and discuss percentages and significance tests on their resumes, although they do not differ significantly from their male counterparts on the research skills they have gained from their sociology programs.

While more analysis is required, these results suggest the need for a hard look at the design of undergraduate sociology programs, especially if the aim is to develop undergraduate students’ skills and social capital to better fit the new realities of an increasingly technological, diverse, and post-industrial professional workforce. Along with emphasizing the importance of scientific, technological, and other skills, NSF reports have recommended enhancing “soft or relational skills” in an “increasingly interdisciplinary, collaborative, and global job market.” In addition, relationships gained through mentoring and networks are seen as essential, especially to the advancement of minorities. Given these new realities, the traditional undergraduate sociology curriculum may not be emphasizing the importance of learning both research and relational skills for professional employment.

We will continue to analyze the results of the first phase of the survey. In 2006 we will survey these majors again to find out if their post-graduate aspirations match their actual activities and what sociological concepts, skills, and activities they find useful in the early stages of their careers.

A complete discussion of the population sample and survey design, as well as additional results and information, can be found at page.ww?section=BA+and+Beyond&name= BA+and+Beyond+Home. A chart book elaborating on the study findings and methodology will be available in the ASA online bookstore shortly. This hard copy version will include a section on career websites, books, and blogs for newly minted sociology college graduates.

Discuss this article in the ASA Member Forum by visiting the Member-Only page on the ASA website at