January 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 1

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Should New PhDs Consider
Non-Academic Careers?

Roberta Spalter-Roth and Nicole Van Vooren, ASA Research and Development Department

Should sociology graduate advisors be encouraging new PhDs to consider non-academic careers? The American Anthropology Association (AAA) has revamped its annual meetings and publications because roughly half its membership works outside the academy in government agencies, for-profits, and non-profit organizations, according to a recent article in theChronicle of Higher Education (http://chronicle.com/article/Nonacademic-Members-Push/125440/). The AAA aims to promote alternative careers for graduate students, partly because of a tight job market for tenure-track jobs and partly because many soon-to-be PhDs want to pursue alternative careers. The Chronicle article also reports that some academic scholars in anthropology are unhappy with this shift.

Results from an ASA Research Department’s Job Bank Survey show that junior sociologists are also facing a tight job market (Spalter-Roth, Jacobs, and Scelza (http://www.asanet.org/research/2010_Job_Bank_Brief.pdf). But are there any signs of movement within the sociological community to encourage new sociology PhDs to consider and pursue professional sociological careers in research, practice, or policy outside the academy?

Recent Activities by the ASA

There have been recent efforts to increase information about of alternative careers in sociology as there were in the 1970s when higher education was under stress. The ASA Task Force on Institutionalizing Public Sociologies was created by Council in August 2004 and charged with: developing proposals for the recognition and validation of ongoing public sociology; developing guidelines for evaluating public sociology as a scholarly enterprise; and proposing incentives and rewards for doing public sociology. The Task Force report was accepted by Council in 2007 and placed on the ASA website. Council did not endorse its recommendations

In 2007, the ASA Research and Development Department presented the results of "Beyond the Ivory Tower"—a survey of 600 PhD sociologists employed outside the academy who answered questions about their job characteristics, their use of sociological concepts and skills on the job, what they wished they had learned in graduate school, and their job satisfaction (http://www.asanet.org/images/
). Also in 2007, a new joint section, the Sociological Practice and Public Sociology (http://www.socprac-pubsoc.net/) was formed to support "enhancing the professional image of sociological practitioners, expanding opportunities for the practical application of sociological principles and techniques, and furthering the production and critique of sociological knowledge by providing a dialogue among sociologists practicing in a wide variety of academic and non-academic settings." A workshop on non-academic jobs was held at the 2010 Annual Meeting by the ASA Academic and Professional Affairs Program—which was by no means the first such informational workshop.


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NSF Career Data

Despite activities such as these, the latest data from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Survey of Earned Doctorates do not suggest that new sociology PhDs are moving beyond the academic sector. The accompanying table shows the employment sector of new sociology PhDs who had secured a job commitment at the time of the surveys in 1989 and 2009. In 1989, nearly four out of five new sociology PhDs (78.8%)expected to work in academic positions. Twenty years later the proportion was virtually unchanged. While there was an increase over the last two decades in the percentage of new doctorates in all social science fields who expected to become academics, sociology PhDs remained 20 percent more likely to expect to do so than other social scientists. (This gap would be wider if sociologists weren’t also included in the count of all social scientists.)

The industry and business sector is the next largest area where new social science PhDs expected to work at both points in time (17.0% and 14.9%); but less the case for sociologists (3.3% and 6.4%). While the percentage in industry remains small, it did double over two decades. The proportion of sociologists expecting employment in non-profits remained stable over this period (7.6 % and 8.1%), while decreasing for other social science fields, and the proportion of sociologists who expected government employment decreased (13.6% and 7.2%).

Overall, these data suggest that early-career sociologists have not expanded their professional purview to other sectors of the economy, despite the erosion of tenure-track positions, especially at public colleges and universities (http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/05/12/workforce). ASA Executive Officer Sally T. Hillsman called for "disciplinary self reflection" in her November 2010 Footnotes column. According to Hillsman, sociologists need to understand that the "growing social challenges" require that professional sociologists, "trained under the most rigorous academic standards" build on the discipline’s history of social practice and do sociology in a wider variety of settings. She further suggested that sociology faculty should not "undervalue" the work of non-academic sociologists or the applied work of their academic colleagues, but rather make a place for them with the wide scope of the discipline. One PhD sociologist employed in the federal government who responded to the ASA Research Department survey said:

"The discipline needs to reduce snobbery and acknowledge that careers outside the academy are not only personally fulfilling, but are crucial to the development of the field."

To continue providing information about alternative sociological careers to current sociology graduate students, who may be unable to get sufficient information in the academy, the ASA Research and Development Department will distribute a second "Beyond the Ivory Tower" survey. It will start with a DC focus group in the spring of 2011 to discuss what issues and questions should be in the subsequent questionnaire. ASA members are also encouraged to send suggestions to research@asanet.org. logosmall

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