November-December 2009 Issue • Volume 37 • Issue 8

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Are Students Satisfied with Their Sociology Master’s Degree?

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

In the current recession, potential master’s students are being cautioned not to incur additional debt unless the program is helpful for a specific career (Taylor 2009). The National Academy of Sciences (2008) recommends programs that prepare science students (including social science students) for business, non-profit, and government agency careers. In their view, successful programs should couple disciplinary education with practical skills training to better meet employer needs by providing strong disciplinary foundations along with internships and research experiences.


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In 2008, more than 428,000 students were enrolled in graduate schools, with 85 percent enrolled in programs leading to a master’s degree, according to the Council of Graduate Schools (Bell 2009). The largest number were enrolled in career-oriented education and business programs, followed by health sciences and engineering. The number of master’s degrees awarded in the sciences (including social science) more than doubled between 1970 and 2006, yet over the course of these years, the number of master’s degrees awarded in sociology declined by about 13 percent, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. Sociology appears to be less successful than other science disciplines in growing its master’s degree. Is this because the master’s degree in sociology is viewed as a stepping stone to the PhD? Until now, the discipline knew very little about the expectations of sociology graduate students and their satisfaction with graduate programs.


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To determine students’ expectations and their satisfaction, in spring 2009, the first wave of a longitudinal master’s survey was conducted under the auspices of the ASA Research and Development Department and the ASA Task Force on the Master’s Degree in Sociology. After sending surveys to about 1,600 master’s students, we achieved a 55-percent response rate (N=872). We examined what proportion of these students anticipated pursuing a PhD after completing their master’s degree and what proportion expected to complete their education with a master’s degree (at least in the foreseeable future). Does expected terminal degree affect student satisfaction with their master’s program?

Future Educational Plans?

Most students enter graduate programs in sociology because of their interest in the field. More than three-quarters (78 percent) cited this as one of their reasons for getting a master’s degree in sociology. Beyond this common interest, students enter the program for different reasons with different outcome expectations. These expectations vary by gender, race, and ethnicity (See Table 1.). About 43 percent of survey respondents do not expect to pursue a PhD or other graduate school training in the foreseeable future, while 49 percent report intending to pursue a PhD in sociology. The remaining 8 percent expect to pursue a PhD in another field such as psychology, education, or social work. However, within the first 12 months after obtaining their master’s degree, 54 percent of respondents do not plan to go on for additional graduate training, suggesting a substantial portion of master’s candidates intend to go directly into the labor force.

Although women comprise about 70 percent of survey respondents, they are significantly less likely than men to expect to pursue a PhD in sociology (46 percent compared to 59 percent of men). In contrast, members of racial and ethnic groups intending to pursue PhDs are in relative proportion to their representation in the population of respondents, with whites slightly over-represented and blacks and Latinos slightly underrepresented. These differences are not significant, however. We expected to find that students planning to pursue a PhD would have parents with more education, however, as with our earlier baccalaureate study (see May/June 2008 Footnotes, p.1), this was not the case. In both studies, parents’ education did not seem to influence who went on to pursue post graduate degrees.

Satisfaction with Master’s Program

Given the financial and other investments of graduate students, how satisfied are they with their programs? Overall, 30 percent of respondents were very satisfied with the characteristics of their program and 56 percent were satisfied; 14 percent were dissatisfied (see Figure 1). Except for dissatisfaction with career services, there are no significant differences between those pursuing a master’s degree in order to obtain a PhD in sociology and those pursuing a terminal master’s.

The survey found that students who expect to obtain a PhD are most satisfied with their ability to see faculty members outside of class. They are more satisfied with their ability to do so than those who expect to obtain a master’s degree (60 percent versus 44 percent). Those expecting to obtain a PhD are also more likely to report having an easier time getting core courses, and being very satisfied with the quality of teaching (39 percent versus 34 percent).

There are only other small differences in satisfaction with program characteristics. Career counseling is the program characteristic with the smallest percentage of very satisfied respondents (14 percent of future PhDs and 12 percent of terminal master’s students). Those expecting terminal master’s degrees are significantly more dissatisfied than those who expect to pursue a PhD (34 percent versus 27 percent). This difference is especially problematic for master’s students who intend to move into the job market upon graduation.

The majority of students seeking a terminal master’s or expecting to pursue a PhD are either very satisfied or satisfied with their programs. But master’s students who want better jobs as a result of obtaining this degree have less satisfaction. Although they are job-orientated, only 12 percent of the master’s-only candidates are satisfied with the career counseling that they received. This is a clear area for improvement if sociology departments want to grow their master’s programs. Teaching students about job searching skills and the local and national labor markets as well as encouraging internships may be important parts of the curriculum for these students. logo


Bell, Nathan. 2009. Graduate Enrollment and Degrees: 1988 to 2009. Washington, DC: Council of Graduate Schools.

National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council, Committee on Enhancing the Master’s Degree in the Natural Sciences. 2008. Science Professionals: Master’s Education for a Competitive World. Washington, DC:  The National Academies Press.

Taylor, Mark C. 2009. What’s a Master’s Degree Worth? New York Times. June 30. Retrieved from


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