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Are Sociology Programs Downsizing?

by Roberta Spalter-Roth
Research Program on the Discipline and the Profession

A recent series of articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that academic departments are downsizing as retirements accelerate and “hiring freezes abound.” State budget shortfalls and declining stock portfolios have affected scholarly disciplines in both the humanities and the sciences, including English, history, physics, and math. Interviews with department chairs suggest that teaching loads are increasing, as specialties are being cut, and temporary faculty are being hired to cover classes.

Are similar trends occurring in the social sciences and, especially, sociology? Is sociology facing a “retirement bubble”? Can we expect a downsizing of sociology departments over the next decade as the largest cohort of full-time tenured sociologists ages and retires? Will departments be able to replace them with new tenured or tenure track full-time hires? Many older sociologists earned their PhD degrees and assumed academic positions during the steady periods of growth in sociology that lasted until 1976. After 1976, there was a steady decline in the number of new PhDs, until 1990 when the numbers began to slowly increase. In 1999 and 2000 (the last years for which data are available from the National Science Foundation’s Division of Science Resource Statistics), the numbers of new PhDs declined slightly. If sociology departments and programs are able to replace retiring faculty, new PhDs could face a favorable job market. Under a scenario of financial woes, however, retiring PhDs might not be replaced and, as a result, new PhDs will face a tighter job market and departments will shrink.

Aging in Sociology Compared to Other Social Sciences

Relative to economists and political scientists, younger PhDs in sociology represent a smaller share of employed PhDs, ranging from 18.5 percent to 25.4 percent, across four age cohorts younger than age 50. (See Figure 1) Conversely, within five older cohorts (i.e., greater than age 50), sociology PhDs constitute a larger share of employed PhDs across these cohorts, ranging from 30.5 percent to 34.2 percent. Figure 1 shows that, compared to these other two social science disciplines, the sociological community is older. This inverted “age pyramid” in sociology suggests that, so far, younger PhDs are not replacing older sociologists.

Employment Status of Older Sociologists

One explanation of these findings is that academic sociology programs, the largest employers of sociologists, are downsizing and younger sociologists are not being hired to replace older ones. But one alternative explanation is that older sociologists are not leaving full-time employment and hence there are fewer to replace. Data from the ASA membership database suggest that this is not the case, however. Since 1999 the percentage of ASA members over age 65 who report that they are employed full time has decreased from 39 percent to 30 percent. Retirement is the reason for the loss of almost half of department faculty, according to data from How Does Your Department Compare? A Peer Analysis from the 2000-2001 Survey of Baccalaureate and Graduate Programs in Sociology. In 2000-2001, almost 46 percent of sociology faculty, across all types of institutions, left as a result of retirement or death; only about 4 percent left as a result of the failure to receive tenure, while half left for “other” reasons.

Faculty Replacement

As of 2000-2001, sociology programs were not facing downsizing, but the mean number of full-time faculty per department increased by about 1/10th of a faculty member in academic year 2000-2001, according to the ASA survey. Figure 2 shows that 1.5 full-time sociology faculty members were hired and 1.4 full-time faculty members departed. Assuming that all sociology departments and bachelor degree programs experienced similar rates, about 110 new faculty members were added in AY 2000-2001. As Figure 2 shows, there was a decrease in tenured or tenure track faculty in sociology departments or programs, as 1.3 new sociology faculty members were hired in tenured or tenure track positions, compared to 1.4 tenured or tenure track faculty members who departed. Assuming that all sociology departments and programs in AY 2000-2001 experienced a similar loss rate, there was a loss of about 110 sociology faculty members across academia. These findings suggest that sociology programs did not downsize in 2000-2001 but, instead, restructured away from tenured faculty toward full-time contract faculty (see Figure 2).

What does the future hold? According to the ASA survey, about 20 percent of the 2001 sociology faculty are expected to retire by 2007 and about 32 percent by 2012. This finding suggests that sociology departments and programs will be facing a retirement bubble. Some departments have already faced this bubble. There is, however, significant variation by type of institution, with the highest retirement rates expected in sociology departments at doctoral institutions. As of 2001, restructuring, rather than downsizing, appears to be the favored approach for dealing with faculty departures. The next round of ASA survey data on baccalaureate and graduate programs will shed light on whether restructuring continues, downsizing begins, or, perhaps, growth occurs.

How Does Your Department Compare? A Peer Analysis from the 2000-2001 Survey of Baccalaureate and Graduate Programs in Sociology can be ordered on the ASA website at It is publication number 624.R03.