September/October 2013 Issue • Volume 41 • Issue 6

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From The Executive Officer

Sally Hillsman was on vacation at the time of publication and was therefore unable to write a Vantage Point column for the September/October issue of Footnotes. In her absence we are running a column focusing on non academic careers from the November 2010 issue of Footnotes, which remains relevant today even though the sociology job market has recovered from the recent recession. (See

Sociological Careers – Can Graduate Training Meet the Challenge?

sally hillsman

Sally T. Hillsman,
ASA Executive

According to a recent American Sociological Association (ASA) Research Brief, there was a 35 percent decline in the number of jobs advertised in the ASA Job Bank between 2008 and 2009, and a 32 percent decline in the number of academic departments posting those jobs, yet there was an increase in the number of applied jobs during the time period (Spalter-Roth, Jacobs, Scelza 2010). While not the first time our departments and doctoral students have faced a serious academic job decline, these findings reflect not only the realities of the current Great Recession, but also the longer trend of state and federal disinvestment in higher education that is now contributing to fewer full-time tenure track opening in many U.S. colleges and universities. 

The possibility that there may be fewer academic jobs in the coming years is a serious problem that the discipline must vigorously confront. The ASA is doing so through the advocacy efforts of our Public Affairs and Public Information staff in collaboration with COSSA (Consortium of Social Science Associations) as well as through the efforts of ASA’s Research and Academic and Professional Affairs Programs, and in collaboration with several universities on a sociology post-doctoral program. However, on another level, these challenges also serve as an opportunity for disciplinary self-reflection and consideration about how graduate training is preparing future sociologists for successful sociological careers.

Successful Sociological Careers

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In 1963, the year I began graduate training in Columbia University’s Sociology Department, an eminent sociologist concluded his description of a sociologist by saying,
“…the interest of the sociologist is primarily theoretical. That is, he is interested in understanding for its own sake. He may be aware of, or even concerned with, the practical applicability and consequences of his findings, but at that point he leaves the sociological frame of reference.” 

This perspective reflected what most students and faculty I knew felt about graduate training and it continues today (albeit in a more gender-neutral formulation). Yet even back then there was an unsettling undercurrent in this formulation of “the sociologist.” Is an academic job devoted to theoretical work the only professionally meaningful conclusion to PhD graduate preparation? Are sociologists in the professoriate, as well as those in other economic sectors, working outside “the sociological frame of reference” when their sociological training and imagination is focused on non-theoretical work?

These are not merely hypothetical concerns, especially as the decades have passed and sociology PhDs, higher education leaders, and society in general have faced new and growing challenges. Our society needs professional sociologists practicing sociology in a variety of settings, all of whom should be trained under the most rigorous academic standards.

And yet, the typical perspective in graduate education (in 1963 and beyond) tends to overlook the disciplinary contributions of thousands of professional sociologists across the country and the world doing sociological work. This discrepancy tends to push those sociologists toward the disciplinary margin whether their workplace is an academic setting or a government, non-profit, or even commercial setting. This consequence constricts the networks of “loose ties” among sociologists in academic and other sectors, ties which Granovetter’s research has shown are central to successful job searches.

Deep Roots in Sociological Practice

As the national disciplinary association, the ASA mission statement ( explicitly states that the Association serves researchers and practitioners (such as sociologists working in government, industry, and non-profit sectors), as well as faculty working in college and university settings. The statement reflects a long-standing interest in what is sometimes called sociological practice or applied sociology among PhD sociologists, as demonstrated by the establishment of Columbia’s Bureau of Applied Social Research (1937) with Paul Lazersfeld as its first director and Robert K. Merton as his key intellectual partner. Former ASA presidents Peter Rossi (1980) and William Foote Whyte (1981) led a series of initiatives to promote sociological practice within the ASA, and Michael Buroway (2004) made the concept of “Public Sociologies” the focus of his presidency and the 2004 Annual Meeting. Yet, the association itself still struggles with meeting our full mission.

For decades, sociologists working outside of academia have composed about 20 percent of ASA membership. Outstanding sociologists move across the academic world and the world of practice with considerable fluidity. Currently, the discipline is delighted to have sociologists in a number of high powered positions within the federal government or private sector research organizations, including Robert Groves as the Director of US Census Bureau; Cora B. Marrett, Acting Deputy Director of the National Science Foundation; James P. Lynch, Director of Bureau of Justice Statistics; Georgette Bennett, President of Tanenbaum Center for Inter Religious Understanding; and Michael Jacobson, President of the Vera Institute of Justice.

The ASA mission statement also directs us to advance sociology as a “scientific discipline and profession serving the public good.” When we undervalue our discipline’s deep roots and current engagement in sociological practice, we impede the growth of sociology as a profession with careers that span many sectors where meaningful sociological work is accomplished. When we overlook an array of immensely satisfying career opportunities for PhD graduates, we encourage a sense of alienation among some accomplished sociologists who feel that without an academic affiliation they do not have an acknowledged place or role in the discipline.

Taking a Broader Disciplinary View

Academic sociologists view expanding sociological knowledge, methods, and theory as their top priority as scholars, along with teaching the next generation of sociologists to do the same. Sociologists in practice take sociological knowledge, methods, and theory into research, business, government, and other settings where they test those theories and apply the methods to a variety of complex challenges confronting social organizations or society at large. Programmatic application of research findings, evaluation of social and individual intervention programs, modeling social interactions, studying social networks, and conducting cost-benefit/comparative cost analyses can and does contribute to building core disciplinary knowledge, theory, and methods as well as informing practice and policy. But this broader perspective of sociological work, even when done by academic sociologists, does not often impact graduate sociology programs as the training ground for the profession.

In graduate programs, training for careers as scholars in professoriate and training for practice-centered sociological careers should include rigorous training on the sociological theory, content, and methods. As in most academic disciplines, becoming a sociologist requires extensive training in disciplinary scholarship; it does not require becoming a career scholar.

Many sociology graduate students “confess” that they feel they must hide any interest in practice or applied work and especially a goal of a sociological practice career. The scramble for tenure-track academic jobs in a tight market often includes those who might be interested in sociological practice, but who don’t want to be viewed as second-class citizens in their home university. If they do broaden their search, they may not get much help because applied positions are viewed as second rate simply because their professors don’t have the “loose ties” with sociologists in other sectors.

It is not hard for graduate programs to figure out what to do; it is hard to figure out how to make the graduate school climate more flexible without feeling as though training is “leav[ing] the sociological frame of reference.” When they engage in reflection about graduate programmatic enhancements, sociology departments often find that, regardless of career orientation, many doctoral students need more grant-writing skills (Spalter-Roth 2007) and more training in how to manage research teams, especially with interdisciplinary memberships, if they are going to compete successfully for national grants. As a grant maker in the federal government, I read far too many applications from highly successful academics who displayed an embarrassing lack of skill in research management. These are not “practice specific” skills.

My graduate training in sociology began with training in the Columbia Sociology Department and simultaneously at Columbia’s Bureau of Applied Sociology. I was lucky. I have done scholarship and I have done practice, but at no time in my career have I felt my intellectual work was outside the sociological frame of reference. There are many similar to me in the discipline, and there are many graduate students who might choose to join us. Embracing a broader view of scientific careers in sociology is a challenge to the discipline beyond a tight academic labor market and will remain so.


Sally T. Hillsman is the Executive Officer of ASA. She can be reached by email at

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