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Making a Life in Applied Sociology:
Working at an Employee-Owned Research Corporation
Margaret Weigers Vitullo, ASA Academic and Professional Affairs
“I’ve learned that making a ‘living’ is not the same thing as ‘making a life’.”
What are the contours of a satisfying career in sociology? Undergraduates tell us that they choose sociology both because it is fascinating and because they want to gain the knowledge and skills to help change the world for the better (Spalter-Roth and Van Vooren 2009). For many graduate students their passion for sociology and desire to change the world are channeled into dreams of becoming a professor in a tenure-track position. Less frequently does the image of a sociologist working in an applied setting come to mind. Are there unique satisfactions to be found in applied careers? Can a person maintain an identity as a sociologist outside of academia? What about one’s sense of idealism and passion to change the world for the better? Four staff members at Westat, in Rockville, MD, generously agreed to be interviewed about these topics, each offering insights on the satisfactions and challenges of careers in applied sociology.
Westat is a for-profit, employee-owned research company. In addition to the 2,000 employees that work at the Rockville headquarters, the company also employs researchers at five regional offices across the United States and eight international offices around the world. Westat clients include federal and state governments, foundations, non-profit organizations, and private industry. The interviewed Westat staff members are below:
Rula Zaru (BA, McDaniel College), a research assistant, was born in Palestine and moved to a rural county in the United States as a young girl. From her first courses as an undergraduate at McDaniel, Zaru found that studying sociology provided a vocabulary and set of theories to translate her feelings and experiences to others as well as herself. “Sociology helped me explain my life, and that’s why it was more than just, ‘Oh, that’s my major’; sociology became a way of life for me.”
Atsushi Miyaoka (MA, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill) is a senior statistical analyst. His lifelong interest in human behavior led him to study sociology as an undergraduate in Japan and then come to the United States to study English and earn a master’s in sociology. His mentor at UNC introduced him to the world of applied sociology.
Jenna Scott (PhD, Syracuse University) is a senior research analyst. She intended to go into the professoriate, but after teaching in inner city Baltimore and doing an internship at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in Washington, DC, during graduate school, she decided on an applied career.
Robert Hill (PhD, Columbia University) retired in 2009 after a 30-year career that included 10 years at Westat as well as equally long tenures at the National Urban League and Morgan State’s Institute for Urban Research. Born in Brooklyn, NY, he was always interested in history, but was told that a career in engineering would be more lucrative. While an engineering major at City College in New York, he met a sociologist who was teaching the history of engineering and discovered that his quantitative aptitude and fascination with historical context could both be at home within sociology. During graduate school at Columbia University, he began his applied research career working closely with Robert Merton at the Bureau of Applied Social Research.
Working as a Team
Academics often strive to become the expert in a narrowly defined area, working alone or with a small number of close colleagues. In contrast, each of the four Westat employees discussed the pleasure of working with teams. Zaru said that the people she worked with were the source of her greatest satisfaction. Hill put it this way: “At Westat you are rewarded for your team work, not for individual accomplishments or showing up colleagues.” Scott echoed that view, saying that the collegial atmosphere and the opportunity to learn from her peers was deeply satisfying. In her first project at Westat she was impressed with how the team members collaborated to achieve the highest possible methodological rigor for their work. “After that, I was basically hooked,” she said.
A theme that echoed across the interviews was the joy of being in an environment that encouraged constant learning and provided support for professional development, including funding for conferences. Atushi described research teams as centers of constant learning. “Almost all of my research projects are interdisciplinary, with people with different skill sets and different content areas. So we fight, we discuss, and we learn from each other!” Even in an entry-level position growth is encouraged. Zaru said that when she found herself interested in a particular topic her supervisor supported her in learning more and pursuing her interest.
Work that Makes a Difference
Another source of satisfaction for these four individuals came directly from the applied nature of their work. Scott said, “sometimes as graduate students, we’re stuck in our ivory towers, we’re writing about things no one else cares about… but after my experiences teaching in the inner city in Baltimore, the idea of being able to create change through research was something that was really important to me.” Hill, looking back across his career, vividly recalled the excitement of presenting a briefing to the Kerner Commission, which was established by President Lyndon Johnson to explore the causes of the 1967 race riots in the United States. In an applied setting, “you see your research being used more,” he said. “It wasn’t [just] theoretical…”
Of course, no job is without its challenges. Competing for grants is difficult and comes with rigid deadlines, and Hill and Scott both mentioned how disappointing it can be when a grant on a fascinating topic goes to another organization. Working with clients means that project methodology does not always follow the researchers’ preferences. Opportunities for open-ended discussions of sociological theory are rare. While lack of interaction with students is a lament of some applied sociologists, Hill addressed this by regularly teaching graduate level courses on an adjunct basis (one course at a time, scheduled once a week in the evening). He also served as an outside committee member for more than two dozen dissertations. “In other words, I had my cake and ate it too, because I could work with the students and didn’t have to go to all those faculty meetings.”
Maintaining a connection to sociology
Can an applied researcher maintain a connection to a disciplinary home? Hill’s professional identity seemed to be more closely tied to the primary focus of many of his projects: “my work has focused on the strength of black families.” For Zaru, who has been a working professional for less than a year, the question was hard to answer. She responded, “I see myself as a learner. Right now I am in sponge mode, absorbing everything around me.” Scott explained that if someone asked about her profession she might say that she’s a researcher, or a consultant, but “I always say that I am a sociologist.” Atushi’s response was an unequivocal — “I’m a sociologist.”
Spalter-Roth, Roberta and Nicole Van Vooren. 2009. “Idealists vs. Careerists: Graduate School Choices of Sociology Majors.” American Sociological Association, Washington DC.
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