I Can Feel Like a Ship Without a Rudder

By Susan Pitt [1]

I have finally come to the realisation that I am a sociologist, but some times I have felt like a ship without a rudder. I have drifted off course without the benefit of others around me to steer me back, and I have had to work hard  to stay headed in the right direction. I have in the last year completed an Honours degree in Sociology and left the protective bosom of University to find my place in a working world. I no longer have the privilege of being surrounded by people that share my view point on the occurrences that arise continually around me. Here is my story about the discovery of my sociological imagination, and how never having worked inside the realm of academia, my conviction that I am a sociologist has been challenged.

To become a sociologist was not a given. I did not choose sociology, it chose me. I started my university career later in life and I remember innocently asking one of my friends what was sociology. For a long while sociology was a means to an end of completing my degree and being  accepted into a Psychology Honours course. By the end of my second year I was working full steam ahead and toiling away at excruciating units such as Research Methods and Neuropsychology that were prerequisites to the Psychology Honours programme. Sociology was my second major and fortunately I was also completing the units that were prerequisite to the Sociology Honour program as well— prerequisites that would steer me in the right direction.

It can be funny how things work out. While being  a means to an end, my interest in sociology was becoming heightened. This heightened interest and prodding from lecturers was becoming difficult to ignore, and I made the decision to go with my instinct, venturing away from the Psychological discipline. Sociology changed  the way I viewed the world. I was on my way to  becoming a sociologist, I just did not recognise it.  I was  becoming reflexive about my own life, and how the concepts I had learnt had shaped the outcomes of my own experiences and life course. To use Bourdieu, I was managing to think in a completely astonished and disconcerted way about things I thought I had always understood.

Sociology changed the way I viewed the world... To use Bourdieu, I was managing to think in a completely astonished and disconcerted way about things I thought I had always understood.
Sociology changed the way I viewed the world

The completion of my Honours year is one of my greatest achievements. I was able to put all my skills into practice, into a project that I was not only interested in, but passionate about.  I designed my project, and even though at times it was not clear to those around me, it was always crystal clear to me. I could see the connection between gay men’s construction of masculinity and their mental health help-seeking pathways, even if  no one else could, and I would not to be deterred. I must have sounded like a broken record rattling on to anyone that would listen.

By the end of my Honour year I had completed and achieved success in my project and I felt  confident of my place. I felt like a sociologist and I was surrounded by those that shared my passion and was fully embraced in the bosom of university and sociology. I earned First Class Honours and PhD scholarships followed  at three universities. I felt privileged and confident, yet I did not realise how lucky I was until after I left. I made a difficult decision not to continue with my studies; instead taking up employment with the Australian Public Service—never thinking that I would question my place as a sociologist.

I have been fortunate to gain a Graduate position which I liken to a traineeship for university graduates. Over the course of a year, I am rotated through three different sections of a Department,  to equip me with a broad knowledge and skill base. These rotations are accompanied by training which details my responsibilities as a public servant. The only prerequisite is that I have university degree. I have not specifically been employed for the skill set of my chosen discipline. I am not working with other sociologists and am not required to use my hard-earned skills. This disconnection from all that had been hard-earned and familiar lead me to question my place as a sociologist.

I see social discourses, perceptions of risk, the nexus between gender and power, and the gendered division of labour as important issues that I try to incorporate into the way I think about my job and how I might affect social change.
Using sociology to think about my job

The transition from university to employment has been discombobulating to say the least. In my Honours year at university I never questioned my sociological standing. I left confident that while my sociological skills would always be developing, they were firmly entrenched. I commenced my new employment around the same time that I would have been commencing university for another year. I had moved interstate for my employment and away from all the networks I had developed over the last five years at university. I realised that I had taken many things for granted.

I took for granted the libraries that tertiary institutions offer, and while inter-library loans are available to me through my employment, it is for work purposes only. I do not have free access to sociological texts that others may take for granted. Nothing classic, like Marx, or contemporary like Connell, and while one can always peruse on the internet, there is nothing like picking up a book and having a good look. The online access to sociological materials through my employment is limited too. I have been fortunate to retain, until the end of the year, my free of charge library login details through my alumni university, and I have used this to access relevant information on more than one occasion. But more than anything, I miss the people.

Large libraryI miss people that share my ways of looking at the world, and who understand the basis of my opinions. I have been fortunate to retain ties with my Honours supervisors and former students, but some how it is different. I am not in constant contact with them and when we are in contact we have other things to catch up on as well.  We are all so dispersed around the country and busy with life, and we do not have the resources to all be in the one place at the one time. We do not have the ability to talk until the wee hours of the morning about our ‘religion’, and I miss it. I do not get the opportunity to pass people in the hall and pa use for a moment to discuss my latest idea or request clarification on confusing issues.

Without all these valuable resources I have felt lost, like a ship sailing without a rudder, with few resources and no one to help me stay on my sociological course. I do not have a ready network or peers to draw on for support or to clarify and stimulate my thinking, like I did last year. While it is different, I have come to realise that I am changed forever and there is no going back. My life and the lives of those around me are viewed through a sociological lens and I know that the glasses will never come off. I view the aspects of everyday life that surrounds me in ways that others do not see and I view and tackle employment tasks in the same manner. I see social discourses, perceptions of risk, the nexus between gender and power, and the gendered division of labour as important issues that I try to incorporate into the way I think about my job and how I might affect social change.

I feel fortunate for the new opportunities and skills that my graduate placement has given me, however those of us that work outside academia may some times question our identity as a sociologist and we have to work hard to stay connected. I am hoping to attend the TASA Conference in December. To do this I will be taking holidays to travel interstate, financing my own travel and conference registration, and hopefully staying with friends while in Melbourne. Please do not mistake this as a complaint as I will be thrilled to be there. It is all part of a long-term plan I have for myself, to continue working and begin studying part-time to complete my Doctorate. I will keep my foo t is both camps until I can make up my mind where I need to be. I think that I already know, but time will tell. The time will come where I need to be surrounded by those who speak my language and share my passion. Oh and I think being Dr Pitt would be quite satisfactory too.

Sociological lens


Bio at the time of first publication (2008):
Susan Pitt has recently commenced employment with the Australian Public Service in Canberra after graduating with First Class Honours from the University of Tasmania. She was previously employed in the retail sector where she developed her fascination with people and their lives.


[1] This article was first published by Nexus in June 2008. Original Citation for this article: Bennett, A. (2008), ‘Opportunities for Teaching Sociology within Enabling Courses,’ Nexus June 20(2): 23-24.

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