Becoming an Applied Sociologist: A Personal Journey From Student to Academic to Public Servant

Becoming an Applied SociologistZuleyka Zevallos has a position as Sociologist in the Australian Public Service as well as being an Adjunct Research Fellow with the Institute for Social Research, Australia. Her paper provides a reflexive case study of her career. She argues that sociology students need better vocational training and career planning strategies.

Dr Zuleyka Zevallos


This paper presents a reflexive case study of how I have negotiated a career in the Australian public service as an example of one type of applied vocation that sociology graduates might consider. For my purposes, applied sociology means doing sociology for clients and specialist audiences in a non-academic context (Zevallos 2009). In my case, I do what Michael Burawoy (2004) terms ‘policy sociology’.

My paper demonstrates some of the challenges that I faced in seeing the different vocational possibilities of sociology once I graduated, and the trial and error process by which I came to see sociological practice as more than an academic pursuit. I offer my career introspection with a view of exploring some of the professional issues faced more widely by sociology graduates who seek to transition into paid employment. I explore these issues in greater detail in a forthcoming paper. In brief, this includes the challenges of teaching sociological theories in a way that will connect with students’ lives (Marshall et al. 2009); the problems that undergraduates experience in recognising the direct vocational applications of their sociology degrees (Stephens 2001); the lack of career satisfaction that sociology graduates experience once they get into the workplace (Spalter-Roth and Van Vooren 2008); and the broader problems our discipline faces in making sociological activities seem relevant to contemporary social settings (Crook 2003; Dotzler and Koppel 1999).

In this paper, I reflect upon three transitional phases of my career as a way to further illustrate these themes, which broadly relate to the lack of vocational training I received as a student and the strategies that I adopted as I experimented with different professional options after I completed my postgraduate qualification. First, I discuss my career as a student of sociology, particularly the problems I encountered in trying to find full-time employment in academia after I completed my PhD. Second, I talk briefly about my job hunting experiences when I expanded to other sectors outside universities, which involved a difficult shift in my perception of the type of work I could see myself doing as a professional. Finally, I share some of my experiences working as a researcher in the Australian government sector. The aim of this paper is to impart some of my lessons learned about career planning to other junior sociologists.

Part one: From student to academic

I completed high school in 1996 and I immediately went into university. I worked my way through my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees without a break. As an undergraduate, I supported myself working long hours as a waitress and then part time in the über illustrious positions of delicatessen and seafood assistant in a supermarket. During my undergraduate years, no one told me what I could do with my degree. All I knew was that I did not want to be a ‘deli chick’ forever, nor did I want to do any other type of customer service work. I wanted to do something that was interesting, something that engaged my passions, and I wanted to do something that mattered.

Like many other sociology students, I happened upon sociology when I first arrived at university to do my Bachelor of Arts at the beginning of 1997 and I was asked to pick subjects for my first semester out of a university handbook. I had never heard the word ‘sociology’ but it sounded like fun. The brief subject description reminded me of social studies, a subject I had enjoyed at school, and so I chose sociology as an elective. I had come to university to major in two subjects that I had loved during high school – literature and psychology. As life and luck would have it, neither of these subjects appealed much to me when I studied them in my first two semesters at university. For my tastes, there was too much fuddled talk of the death of the author and postmodernism in the former, and too much in the way of boring statistics and rigid, dry structure in the latter. Instead, I found myself harbouring a visceral attraction to sociology the minute I walked into my first lecture. The dynamism of the lecturers, who were so obviously enamoured with their subject matter, as well as the fascinating topics that they discussed, had me hooked. In the end, I pursued a double major in sociology and media. Initially, I thought I might like to do some type of work as writer in the media field. I continued with my major in sociology not because I could see this as a vocation, but, instead, I ran with it because it quickly became an overpowering passion.

Halfway through my second year, I switched away from the idea of working in media. Instead, I had only one objective: to get good grades so that I might get into the sociology Honours program vowing that I would produce a strong thesis so that I would in turn obtain a scholarship to do a PhD. The pursuit was one of sociological knowledge; I knew that I wanted to do work where I produced sociological knowledge but I did not really have a particular career in mind. To put it another way: I had a vague notion that I wanted to keep doing research, probably in some kind of research organisation (yep, my ambitions were exactly this vague), but I did not fully understand what this work in the magical sociological research organisation would entail. In this sense, I was similarly following the model of other sociology Honours students in Andrew Singleton’s (2009) study, most of whom, like me, aspired to do further study in order to satisfy both pragmatic and pedagogical interests. Singleton carried out an online survey of 80 second and third year social science students in Australia; 45 of them were enrolled in sociology, and 35 were enrolled in criminology. On the one hand, Singleton’s participants saw that doing Honours was an advantage to them in finding professional work (pragmatism). On the other hand, they were also equally interested in developing their knowledge and in undertaking more in-depth study into a particular topic (pedagogy) (2009: 7–8).

In my case, the pragmatic ambitions that led me to pursue a higher degree as way to gain an advantage in the job market were not very well formulated. I did not really understand how I might go about securing a research position, such as the steps involved, where to look, how to apply, and what extra training and experience might be expected of me. I thought that producing good research projects via my theses would be qualification enough to get a research position, but I did not have a full appreciation of how my skills might be used more specifically and to what effects. I did not have a realistic idea about the type of work that people with PhDs do, but I expected it would be more or less similar to what I was doing at university. This is a typical misconception among sociology postgraduates, because of the narrow ideas of research work that our discipline perpetuates (Dotzel and Koppel 1999).

The reality is that I faced employment uncertainty, but strange as it might seem, I was never really fussed about the details. I simply trusted that I would find a job, like a pot of gold at the end of my academic degree rainbow. This sounds ridiculous now, but I do not really think that such naïveté is an alien mindset among some other sociology graduates out there. In a way, sociology students trust that the university system will take care of them, probably because in many instances, the difficulties and realities of the job marketplace is not something that is ever flagged as a professional concern. Sure, we all study the inequalities that flow on from the labour force, but we do not really turn this lens to the job realities of ‘professional’ sociologists. By this I mean that our discipline does not really expose students to what happens to people once they complete a sociology degree and go in search of employment. This means that graduates are ill prepared for the reality of finding work in an area that seems closely related to their degrees, and they have not been taught how to satisfactorily manage their careers (Saplter-Roth and Van Vooren 2008).

The first warning bells sounded when I was doing my Honours year in the year 2000. One of my lecturers approached me gently to reconsider applying for a PhD. She said that she did not doubt that I would write a good thesis, but she felt that I might become over qualified for most jobs. I was affronted. I did not really understand what she meant and she was not really able to give me any specific examples, other than to say that there are not many jobs within academia, so there was no point in getting a postgraduate qualification. She said that most other research jobs did not require PhDs. (Admittedly, this is nowadays increasingly changing.) At the time, however, I had no illusions of becoming an academic, so I did not heed her warning, as incomprehensible as it was to me at the time.

I began my PhD in January 2001, during which time my primary supervisor encouraged me to become a sociology tutor for the subjects he convened. I strenuously resisted at first, but he eventually convinced me that this would be a great learning experience. Teaching was my first foray as a professional sociologist, and I loved it. I enjoyed the interactions with my students, and this work meant that I was forced to keep abreast of other subjects beyond my narrow thesis interests. My PhD involved qualitative interviews with second-generation migrant women, and identity issues regarding ethnicity, gender, sexuality, race, religion and nationality. About one year into my PhD, my casual position as a sociology teacher had me doing a 360 degree turn: I became convinced that academia was my calling.

I submitted my PhD in September 2004 and I received my grade before the end of that year. I was now a qualified sociologist, and so I began applying for academic positions as a lecturer and as a researcher. These job applications were heartbreakingly unsuccessful and I was not sure what I was doing wrong. Admittedly, I did not really understand the reality of the academic job marketplace. All I knew was: I had my PhD under my belt; I had been teaching for three years; and I had published throughout my degree, just like postgraduate students are told to do, including one refereed journal article, a co-authored book chapter for an international audience, and several other peer-reviewed conference papers. All of this was not enough. What else should I have done? What did I do wrong? I did not know better at the time, but low-level lecturing and research assistant positions are the holy grail not just for junior sociologists, but also for people with much more postdoctoral experience, such is the finite number of entry-level positions into academia.

In late 2004 and early 2005, my job hunting traversals accidentally led me to a job with the Metropolitan Fire and Emergency Services Board in Melbourne, where I was living at the time. They advertised a six-month contract for a ‘gender diversity specialist’. I happened upon this advert looking for a gender studies research/lecturing position (that is, I typed ‘gender’ and ‘research’ into a job search engine). Given my interest in gender, and my lack of other options, I applied for this job. Much to my surprise, after so many rejections, I was offered the position at the end of the interview. Just as I was ready to accept this position, my former PhD supervisor offered me a lecturing position, taking over his role as convenor for one semester. Even more amazingly, another senior sociologist, having seen me recently present a conference paper on my thesis, also approached me to take over as lecturer and convenor for another course in a different university. I was thrilled, but both opportunities jointly presented only temporary employment. I negotiated a six-month part-time contract with one university, but the other institution would only take me on as a casual lecturer.

My graduation ceremony was in early 2005. By this stage I had been in the role of fully-fledged lecturer for a couple of months. That first semester was brutal on me. No longer being a student teacher, I was now responsible for managing all aspects of the courses with little guidance and support, including writing a course from scratch without really knowing what I was doing. Once the first semester was up, all that was on offer was more casual teaching. Both universities promised that full-time positions would come up and my colleagues told me to hang in there. For the next six months, I scraped a living doing casual research work within my alumni university and I kept applying for full-time positions in other universities around Australia, including postdoctoral positions, but again, with no luck. This raises another set of questions: whose job is it to teach sociology’s first public about the realities of following different professional paths and what it takes to be successful? How does an early-career researcher secure ongoing work given our lack of experience and lower publications record? How long should we expect to languish in temporary, poorly-paying jobs before we might find something more fulfilling and stable? The job hunting trail, particularly for highly qualified graduates, is yet another element of professional life that we are not taught as sociology students.

I persevered with what seemed like endless, fruitless applications in other cities and countries. I was living on little pay and I was quickly eating through my savings, barely paying my rent and major bills. I was poor, miserable and I became disillusioned. From memory I only received two academic interviews. The first job interview was as a low-level qualitative research assistant; I emphasise the ‘qualitative’ because the job was specifically carrying out qualitative interviews. The job description had a couple of throw-away lines about ‘experience in preparing research … including quantitative data’ and ‘sound computing skills including … basic numerical skills’. Nevertheless, since the job was specifically labelled ‘qualitative’ and the two lines about quantitative experience were not highlighted as being required skills. I thought I would be a competitive candidate. I had conducted three research projects involving qualitative interviews: 11 interviews for a third-year project; 13 interviews for my Honours thesis; and 50 interviews for my PhD. Plus I had done some casual phone interviewing for a university research centre as a postgraduate. I thought I met all the other stated requirements, so I was excited. The interview was conducted over the phone and I became completely unstuck when I was asked a very specific statistical question. Admittedly, it was a question I should have known the answer to, given that I had taken statistics in first-year psychology and then again as part of a third-year sociology subject. I completely failed the interview. Nonetheless, here we have another lesson: sociologists are trained to be specialists initially in a very narrow area (their dissertation topic). In practice, however, academic sociologists looking to hire early career researchers actually expect them to be broad methodological experts. This does not follow the way in which postgraduate degrees are structured in many Australian sociology courses. Yes, methodological rigor has been identified as a disciplinary strength (Marshall et al. 2009). Anecdotally, however, it seems to me that few students are mixed-methods experts. Our discipline either needs to change the way in which postgraduate courses are structured, to ensure proficiency in both qualitative and quantitative skills, or established sociological professionals need to adjust their expectations of early career researchers. An alternative pathway is to better equip sociology graduates to the realities of what is expected of them by some employers, so they might better understand these ‘hidden’ tricks-of-the-trade and to strengthen their employment prospects by taking additional methodological training.

The second academic position for which I was interviewed in the year following my PhD submission was as a religion studies lecturer in Sydney. They wanted a theology expert. Despite my sociological knowledge being outside what they wanted, I was still flown in for an interview. In the end, I was told I was their second choice, but I did not get the job. Nevertheless this was the first inkling I had that my sociological expertise was more sought after outside of sociology departments. I reflected back to my experience with Metropolitan Fire, now over a year ago, and their enthusiasm to hire a sociologist without hesitation. Desperate and frustrated, I decided to have a bit of fun with my job hunting, and I broadened my search. I started to imagine a life beyond academia.

Part two: Job hunting traversals outside academia

The more I got into the non-academic job hunt, the more I got creative. It was rare that I did not hear anything back after submitting an application. In almost every case, I was offered an interview. More often than not, I was short-listed for the job, and in some cases I was even offered the job pretty much on the spot. This had less to do with my personal qualities and more about the marketability of sociology to other sectors. The first step to achieving more job prospects was to communicate the applicability of sociology to the specific working context of potential employers in a succinct letter of application and a well-organised resume. The second step was learning to be more discerning on the types of job offers out there. This meant learning how to broaden the search terms for online job engines and then getting a better sense of which jobs I could actually see myself doing with a sense of satisfaction. I tried my luck in many different fields. At first this was fun, but speaking to more employers, I began to get a sense that my expertise was highly valued, and I had lots of choices, so I had to start narrowing down my search.

Eitzen, Zinn and Gold (1998) note that PhD alumni learn by trial and error how to construct their ideas of their careers and how to pursue different types of jobs. I certainly personified this argument. Unfortunately, in many cases, I was wasting the valuable time of prospective employers by showing up for interviews where I was unsure if I wanted to do the work, but I was experimenting with new areas that seemed far removed from what I thought I should be doing as a sociologist. Some of the relatively unusual positions included: Board Member with the Office of Film and Literature Classification; Project Manager with an international qualitative market research company that wanted to expand their operations in Asia; a Graduate position with a business research firm; Communications Consultant with a private company; Human Resources Advisor; and Technical Writer.

I started formulating a better sense of which industries might help me feel professionally and personally rewarded. I will offer more specific advice on the particulars of job-hunting later on. For now, it is safe to say that freeing myself from my narrow conventions on what sociology is about, what it can be used for, and with whom I could do it with, was highly liberating after so many knock backs from the academic sector. Nevertheless, this broader job searching net introduced a new form of job hunting uncertainty, as I found that sociology had a place in highly unconventional places. Since I had no prior understanding of such career paths, I often felt a sense of panic about what types of jobs were ‘good’ and which were ‘less good’ from a professional viewpoint. In the back of my head, I always felt that I would eventually return to my first love of teaching after I had more experience. I wanted to do something that would not take me too far off the academic track. As often happens though, opening the door to new possibilities has a way of changing everything else.

Towards the end of 2005, I was faced with the most formative life choices I have ever made. I was offered two jobs at the same time. One was running the research and policy projects of a not-for-profit organisation in my home town of Melbourne. The other job was based in the smaller city of Adelaide, working as a social scientist within the Australian Public Service, with a social institution much-loathed by most sociologists the world-over: the defence system. The job involves working in an interdisciplinary team of mathematicians, computer scientists, and social scientists working on security and social cohesion policy issues. In the end, and not without much soul searching, this was the job I accepted.

In large part, my job choice was about scratching a professional curiosity — it seemed so bizarre to me that a sociologist might work in this particular environment, so I had to try it out. I was especially enthused about the prospect of learning to work in a dynamic team where other people did not think like me. In small, though no less insignificant part, it simply came down to a feeling. The panel of interviewees were the senior level researchers with whom I would be working, and their personalities, interests and ethics seemed to match my own. The prospect of working with this particular team, doing work that stretched the boundaries of my sociological imagination won out over staying close to my beloved family and friends. And so I moved out of academia and into the role of public servant.

Part three: From academic to public servant

I will not address the specifics of my job in this paper, although I have discussed some of this work in other publications, which the reader may easily acquire via an internet search. My current paper is a subjective reflection on my career path, and so I will speak more generally about my personal experiences as a public servant. (Having said that, another reality about working in the public sector is that publishing externally on topics which seem unrelated to client work is not highly valued. Most of my management team would not understand my desire to reflect on my sociological career lessons and failures. Hence I write this paper on my own time and under my Adjunct university position, rather than in association with my employer.)

Sociology students gain numerous useful ‘generic’ skills throughout their degrees, such as: thinking critically about different ideas; learning how to acquire different types of high-quality data and the problems associated with not treating such data in a careful manner; working in teams; sharing knowledge via oral presentations and in written form; and having an appreciation of the ways in which social characteristics and life experiences shape particular taken-for-granted views of the world that need to be challenged. We are told these are useful skills to have — but other than using them to deconstruct journal articles and academic books, students are seldom exposed to concrete ‘real world’ examples of how these skills might be used on very specific problems. Additionally, as has been my point throughout this paper, students are not really taught how to capitalise on these skills when they are looking to enter the non-academic job market.

Employers in the policy sector want researchers who can clearly and effectively communicate with wide audiences. One dimension of Burawoy’s (2004) typology of sociologies is with respect to external audiences who require reflexive knowledge (public sociology), and internal audiences who require instrumental knowledge (policy sociology). In both cases, these two sets of audiences are non-specialists for whom sociological talk is a foreign language. This means stripping away academic jargon and presenting information and research outcomes in different ways.

My job requires that I find ways of educating other analysts about social problems in tangible ways that enhance social policy. I undertake research using secondary sources, such as theoretical papers, ethnographic studies and demographic data. I critically evaluate and discuss these resources in order to produce research reports to answer specific questions. Sometimes these questions would be more familiar to academic sociologists, such as: which groups in society are socially disadvantaged? Some questions I answer might seem fairly mundane to academics, such as: what is the role of women in developing nations? Do they have the power to exert social influence over men? This might seem very basic, but not so when we remember that we all have to be taught how to think sociologically. Other questions I deal with are more specialised. For example, I have analysed the world-wide scholarly literature in order to think about how social structures might shape the motivations of suicide terrorists, and what might be done to address such structural issues. In other projects, I have studied the literature on the economic and political bases of insurgencies in different regions. Such questions might seem somewhat more controversial for a sociologist to answer when they work as public servants, particularly given that sociologists are sometimes wary of how social science might be misused by government (Hogan, T. 2009: 3–5).

Reflexivity about the research process is a central tenet for all sociologists (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992). This includes thinking critically about all steps of the research process and the outcomes of our data and analysis. This also refers to the social consequences for the groups whose lives may be impacted through our sociological work. Issues of reflexivity are no less important for applied sociologists working in social policy, such as when they work to shape policy agenda within ‘imperfect’ conditions and under tight time constraints (Hogan, A. 2009). Equally, negotiating issues of power and ethics takes on a new dimension given the different client groups with whom policy researchers deal. This includes elites who manage social policies, disadvantaged groups whom are the targets of policy, and other professionals with whom we network in order to implement policy change (Bowman 2009). In a later paper, I plan to reflect on my role as researcher in the public sector, including issues of ethics, and the challenges my job poses to my status as a ‘good’ sociologist in the eyes of my external colleagues. (In fact, I will argue that I am now positioned as being a ‘bad’ sociologist twice over in the eyes of many of my academic peers for working in the fields of governance and defence/security.) For now, it is suffice to say that policy work is challenging because it involves collaborating with government groups that some academic sociologists see as unsavoury.

Rather than simply contributing knowledge through research, I am also charged with producing answers about what can be done about social problems, such as working on specific programs, and providing advice on step-by-step policy development in order to address particular issues, such as social marginalisation and political violence. At the same time, working with people from the natural and computational sciences means that I have to do lots of oral and visual representations of abstract theories and concepts that are unfamiliar to my colleagues in order to make my analysis more accessible. I essentially have to ‘translate’ sociological knowledge into other forms such as diagrams, tables, and brief, easy-to-understand PowerPoint slides. Elsewhere, I have reflected critically on this process, as some types of knowledge are not easily or usefully communicated in visual forms. Nevertheless, demonstrating the utility of sociology in non-academic contexts necessitates a reconstruction of our ideas into other outputs.

In some cases, my work might use social theories and concepts in other ways. For example, rather than spending a great deal of effort into explaining Marxist theory and its evolving variations, class analyses can be illustrated through other models. I also work with social modellers to help them produce quantified models of qualitative sociological ideas. To take a more specific example, some political conflicts are discussed in terms of ethnicity or religion, but sociology establishes that other socio-economic bases of social conflict are more important, such as geographic and economic disadvantage. Introducing sociological measures into statistical analyses and in other mathematical models facilitates an understanding of social stratification in a way that more closely matches the ways in which some policy makers prefer to receive information. (Eeek — after running away from statistics as an undergraduate, here it is again!)

By the same token, my role is also to communicate my knowledge in other more appropriate ways, such as by introducing easy-to-understand conceptual frameworks, like typologies. Take the complicated correlation between ethnicity, crime and poverty. From the point of view of some policy makers, some cultural groups might seem to conform to societal expectations of success and ‘good’ civic participation. For example, they have a sense that the children of many Southern European and North Asian migrant groups are relatively ‘well integrated’ into Australian society, and that these groups largely seem to be more successful than other migrants. Research seems to support this view that some migrant-background groups do better than others (Khoo et al. 2002). Conversely, from the point of view of some policy analysts, other seemingly underachieving migrant groups have lower educational and employment outcomes and a seemingly higher propensity for illegal behaviour or ‘social deviance’. Examining the role of culture in other ways, however, puts the problem in a new light. Thinking of culture as a mechanism of social institutions can help policy makers to see how the education system is structured in such a way so that particular forms of knowledge ways of knowing are more readily rewarded, thus leading to better life outcomes. Similarly, other learning styles are discouraged within the mainstream school system, and thus they become a source of disadvantage. In this case, providing specific empirical insights from the education literature would help to break down a seemingly insurmountable social problem into a set of institutional practices within the school system that can be targeted and improved. This might involve presenting case studies of teacher initiatives and grassroots programs that have worked to turn around children’s school participation and civic engagement. Equally useful would be examples of pedagogical practices that do not resonate with particular groups in particular situations, and how the curriculum might better support alternative teaching and learning styles. More broadly, rather than simply focusing on ethnic culture, working class culture, geography and socio-economic disadvantage brings the divergent outcomes of different groups into a new focus.

These are not new insights for most sociologists, but they are novel for many policy makers. The sociological literature that makes this point, however, is difficult to read by non-specialists, and much of it comes across as resolutely critical of government without offering specific alternative programs and policies. Producing ‘merciless critique’ without a workable substitute simply alienates the very people who are in charge of making policy changes (Hogan, A. 2009). The trick is getting the policy audience to listen; first by coming at the problem from their point of view, and then by systematically ‘disproving’ it, using different data sources, and easy to understand language. In my case, this has meant producing several different types of reports using both the qualitative data and quantitative data, and conducting several face-to-face workshops where policy workers can ask me specific questions.

Quantified social models and case studies are not new to sociology. The reality of the public service sector, however, is that researchers are answerable to the ‘So What?’ principle. Returning to my example above regarding crime and disadvantage: if the issue does not lie with the problems of particular cultural groups but rather with the institutional culture of the education system: so what? What can we do about it? Making vague recommendations that we need to improve the education system is not enough. It is my job to help policy analysts think through the problem step by step. What measures of reform need to be implemented? If teachers need to be better trained to address the different learning cultures of different groups, what specific information should be included in education and training programs? Who writes and administers such programs? Who pays? How do we evaluate whether a new program has been more successful than the previous model? These are all questions that sociologists can answer, but getting the knowledge to the right people who can make policy changes is something that our discipline could do better. Essentially, we might begin by socialising our students to think about the applications of their craft to particular policy problems and for specific client groups.


This paper has provided a reflexive account of my career experiences after completing my PhD as a way of shedding light on the challenges involved in securing meaningful employment as a professional sociologist. I began with a case study of my subjective experiences as a student and worker, and in the subsequent sections, I used my personal journey to generate some lessons learned about career planning.

A key challenge for sociology remains the types of support we offer our students along the way to their professional outcomes. My story is not unique, but it does bring out some issues that could do with direct management at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. I received no career guidance as an undergraduate student. I followed a major in sociology because I fell in love with it, but other than having a vague sense that I would eventually find work as a researcher, I did not really have a well-thought out career in mind. The only real piece of advice I received was that I may become overqualified for most jobs outside academia if I chose to go on with my PhD. Given that I did not really understand my employment options, this advice held little meaning, and the well-meaning educator who alerted me to this over-qualification conundrum could not communicate her warning in a more concrete way. I pursued a higher level of qualification for both pragmatic and pedagogical reasons, although the pragmatic side was ill-conceived. Other students consider doing Honours because they think it will help their employment chances and because they want to become a specialist, such as an accomplished sociologist (Singleton 2009). Most of these prospective students, however, do not end up taking up this extra study, largely because they do not really know what it involves. This follows the findings of other studies which show that sociology graduates do not really know how to use their degrees to find work that makes them feel fully satisfied (Spalter-Roth and Van Vooren 2008).

I had assumed as a postgraduate that I would complete my degree and find work as an academic. I did not fully appreciate the lack of choices available in this sector. There is a narrow number of lecturing and research positions, and junior sociologists are competing with more experienced postdoctoral fellows for the same jobs. This puts early career sociologists at a disadvantage, as we are left to learn about where to look for jobs, how to apply for them, and how to deal with the tacit expectations of the academic market. This includes the notion that we should be mixed-methods experts, and that we should put up with casual work, poor pay and stressful conditions with little guidance and support. Instead of expecting to find employment after we have completed a PhD, postgraduates can expect to put in even more time ‘beefing up’ their publications records and their research experience doing ad hoc work. This would suggest that completing a postgraduate sociology degree is not really the final step towards professional practice, but rather, that there is another suspended state of uncertainty while we figure out alternative ways of making a living. On the one hand, we can easily attribute this to the external conditions of the job marketplace, particularly nowadays after the global economic meltdown. On the other hand, sociology is (among other things) charged with championing social change and with looking after vulnerable groups (Hogan, T. 2009). If we cannot do a better job of looking after our own graduates, at the very least by providing them with honest and explicit advice about their future job prospects, our discipline has a serious institutional flaw.

The discipline of sociology leaves postgraduate students to figure out what it takes to be a professional without much assistance (Eitzen, Zinn and Gold 1999). This includes learning how to write lectures and courses if they try out the academic route, or floundering around, trying to get a feel for their non-academic options in job sectors that are unfamiliar. There are some positive changes beginning to take place. The Australian Sociological Association (TASA) is currently trialling an inaugural mentorship program that aims to link sociology students at the Honours, Masters and PhD levels with a professional sociologist external to the university where that student is located. Rather than acting as another academic supervisor, the mentor is simply there to provide career advice and support. It would be especially useful to have non-academics involved in this process, although time will tell the extent to which applied researchers will take on this important cause. TASA is also looking to increase the number of sociology courses offered in Australian high schools, and it is exploring other options to better meet curriculum issues in universities (Marshall et al. 2009). This includes the way in which sociology courses are ‘branded’ and promoted on university websites, and linking sociology courses to other groups that might help to promote sociology. There are probably other synergies that need to be explored with applied sociologists in other vocational settings and in other countries.

Part of the reason why students find sociology so obscure is because academic and applied sociological practices are disjointed. In this sense, both sides of the discipline could benefit with stronger collaboration. The work of academics seems more readily accessible to students because lecturers are the primary ‘face’ that students associate with sociological practice. In comparison, the work of applied sociologists seems invisible in many cases because it largely happens in other contexts to which students and some academics are not privy. I share my story with the hopes of raising awareness and debate about how sociology is done outside universities. In particular, I argue that applied and academic sociologists need to find better ways of working together in order to help the career progression of students, and in order to break down the abstract nature of our discipline more broadly.


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SAW logoArticle copyright: © Zuleyka Zevallos 2010. Published by Sociology At Work. All rights reserved.

Article citation: Zevallos, Z. (2010) ‘Becoming an Applied Sociologist: A Personal Journey From Student to Academic to Public Servant,’ Working Notes, Issue 1, June, online resource:

One Comment on “Becoming an Applied Sociologist: A Personal Journey From Student to Academic to Public Servant

  1. Pingback: It’s Time to Bring Academic, Applied and Public Sociology Together | The Other Sociologist - Analysis of Difference... By Dr Zuleyka Zevallos

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