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The Executive Officer’s Column

Sociologists at Work

The news about the job market in sociology is a good way to end the year and to begin thinking more broadly and creatively about the years ahead. Especially with professions like ours that bring an incisive, critical eye, bad news has a way of spreading fast (as it did during the 1980s for the social and behavioral sciences) and lingering on. Acknowledging and internalizing more favorable projections is—perhaps appropriately—a more deliberative and cautious process.

The signs, however, for sociology are worthy of a New Year’s toast. Research support for the social and behavioral sciences has grown steadily, for example, over the 1990s. The National Science Foundation’s Director Rita Colwell is calling for a major research initiative in 2003 and a budget doubling strategy for our fields. At the National Institutes of Health (NIH) resources are slowly, yet steadily expanding for the behavioral and social sciences. The NIH-wide research conference held last June on “Progress and Promise in Research on Social and Cultural Dimensions of Health” is putting in place priorities for social science research that should have an impact on investments in funding far into the future.

Research support is one indicator of the well-being of the discipline, but are there jobs for our graduates? The simple answer is “yes” whether one is attending a session at the ASA Annual Chair Conference focused on hiring at a time of higher demand (especially in some specialties) or looking at “hard” facts. Data from the ASA’s survey of PhDs who received their degrees between July 1996 and August 1997 showed a relatively low unemployment of 3.4 percent and a very high proportion employed in the academy (83 percent), although not all in tenure track or permanent positions. (See ASA’s Research Brief on “New Doctorates in Sociology: Professions Inside and Outside of the Academy,” Vol. 1, No. 1, 2000.) Furthermore, in 1997, approximately 50 percent of these graduates were in tenure track positions (a solid proportion given that some had just received their degrees in August 1997), and, by 1999, sizably more of them—approximately 75 percent—were in tenure track jobs.

Other ASA indicators similarly convey good news. For example, the total number of listings in the ASA Employment Bulletin increased 15 percent from 1998 to 1999 and another 21 percent from 1999 to 2000. Although our data on listings does not adjust for successive listings of the same job for more than one month, there is no reason to believe that repeat listings have increased over time.

Another “good news” indicator comes from the Employment Service held each year at the ASA Annual Meeting. In 1995, the last year prior to 2000 that the ASA meeting was in Washington, DC, 63 employers interviewed prospective candidates for jobs. In 2000, this number was up to 97 employers while the number of job candidates had dropped from 401 in 1995 to 262 in 2000. From just the most recent data, a more favorable market can also be observed. In 1998, candidates had on average 3.2 interviews with employers and, in 2000, they had 4.8 interviews. Taking into consideration that the Employment Service is used by only a small quadrant of potential employers and employees (our data indicate that the Employment Bulletin is the primary method for the first-job search), it is revealing that more employers are turning to this service with their jobs.

The larger employment context considered by such scholars as Bill Bowen and Julie Sosa in Prospects for Faculty in the Arts and Sciences (1989) or by Jack Schuster in his 1992 article in The Encyclopedia of Higher Education is worth consideration as well. As these social scientists see it, demand for PhDs in the social sciences can be anticipated to be strong through this next decade—given projected high undergraduate enrollments, anticipated faculty retirements, and increases in nonacademic employment despite what might be changes in the structure of the academic markets (e.g., higher student-faculty ratios, more use of part-time faculty). They also note a likely increased demand for social scientists in other employment sectors. While the academic market for sociologists is now quite favorable and continues to be the primary work sector, over the last 30 years there has been a slow trend toward increased employment of PhDs in other settings. Rachel Rosenfeld importantly reminded us as far back as 1988 that entry into other work sectors should be seen as a “pull” not a “push” which is occurring over time irrespective of the tightness of the academic job market.

As we turn to 2001 and consider prospects for the discipline, we might do well to acknowledge that sociology is in a good place for present and future generations. We have much to offer and seem to be doing so for undergraduate and graduate students who are again drawn to our field. While we should not be complacent in this period of success, it is certainly far better to move forward from strength than to seek to navigate in a period of diminished interest and resources. How we seize upon the opportunity to reach earlier and more broadly into the pipeline for new recruits; how we revisit whether or how to increase the number of new PhDs produced each year; and how we go about our training of secondary school, undergraduate, and graduate students are issues well worth discussing among chairs and directors of graduate and undergraduate programs as well as prospective employers. Meanwhile, let us enjoy the fact that sociologists are hard at work doing very important things!

Felice J. Levine