Challenges and Opportunities in Applied Sociology Careers

Hello colleagues. Today is the first of a new series of posts about Careers in Applied Sociology. This first post sets up the issues sociology graduates experience. In follow up posts, I provide advice on how to start your job search; preparing your CV and application; managing the interview; and negotiating pay.

A longitudinal study published by the American Sociological Association, “What Can I Do with a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology?,” follows a cohort of USA-based sociology students who graduated in 2005. The first report shows these sociology graduates are highly satisfied with the conceptual training they receive. Further research also shows these sociology majors are highly employable, as most find a full-time paid work within the first two years of graduating. At the same time, while around 90% of graduates are either somewhat satisfied or very satisfied with their jobs, most are not working in roles closely related to their degrees. The stronger the connection between their role and sociology, the higher the career satisfaction, and overall happiness with having majored in sociology.

Sociology graduates identify gaps in the skills they are taught. Namely, there needs to be a stronger focus on vocational training. Let’s look first at the research about the type of jobs sociology graduates secure, as well as their career satisfaction. We then see how race and gender impacts these outcomes.

Employment of sociology majors

Data from the USA provide the most comprehensive snapshot on sociology careers, bearing in mind that national differences might lead to different outcomes, and race, gender, disability, sexuality and other social statuses will also play a role in the careers of applied sociologists (as with all individuals). The overwhelming majority of students pursue sociology to understand key concepts (90%). Their major also reflects their enjoyment of course material (75%), while for others, it’s their desire to change society (40%), especially for Black and Latin sociology graduates who are most interested in the latter. Graduates agree that their qualifications provide basic understanding of concepts, theories, issues and the impact of institutions, with Latin students especially confident of the latter. At the same time, sociology graduates see a mismatch between their training and career prospects.

Sociology is a discipline that is geared to an academic careerpath, but only a minority of sociology graduates will become academics in tertiary institutions. Graduates don’t feel confident promoting specialised skills such as ethical issues in research, and few feel they receive strong statistical training they can cite on their CVs. Only 40% of graduates participated in sociology clubs, internships, service learning and mentoring, which might have helped them enter applied sociology careers strongly aligned with their degrees.

In their follow-up study tracing this cohort of sociology graduates, What are they doing with a Bachelor’s degree in sociology?, Professor Spalter-Roth and Nicole Van Vooren surveyed what former students were doing two years after graduation, to find what they were actually doing against their prior goals. The researchers find that, as the graduates had planned, most do not go onto further study and instead the majority (60%) enter the paid workforce. One-fifth are working whilst doing postgraduate study (20%). These numbers demonstrate that sociology majors are highly employable, as most graduates have found work full-time work within the first two years of graduating.

Figure showing that at wave 1 (2005) 42% of sociology majors said they would be only working and not doing study; while by wave 2 (2007) 60% were working
More sociology majors are working. Source ASA: Research and Development Department, What Can I Do with a Bachelor’s Degree in Socioloyg? Wave I and Wave II

Job roles

Of those who were in full-time employment, 26% were in social services and counselling roles, mostly working in not-for-profits. They report working on issues that are closely related to their degrees, such as supporting abuse survivors, working in child services, advocating in youth justice, providing services to disadvantaged families, and assisting victims of disasters.

Around 16% work in administrative and clerical support. Their roles involve running information and computing systems, they undertake accounting, filing duties and employee training. Fourteen percent (14%) work in management. They tend to work in human resources, especially in recruitment and training companies.  Other roles include “financial analysis, workforce planning, quality assurance, and employee evaluation.” A further 8% work in teaching and libraries. They are largely employed in educational, policing, and other criminal justice organisations. Others work in services (8%), as well as sales and marketing (10%). The latter predominantly work in for technology companies and their duties include marketing plans and research and writing for advertising.

Less than 6% work as social scientists and researchers. The researchers argue this shows a wide gap in sociological degrees, which are inadequate in training graduates to gain such roles. Specifically, graduates noted that they “did not receive enough training in research methods, computer applications, and statistics as part of their undergraduate major to obtain positions in the science workforce.” For this reason, some graduates went onto do further training or took up internships. Of those, around half still ended up in counselling professions.

Part-time workers (less than 35 hours paid work) were employed across the same fields as full-time workers, but half of those who were also studying were working as social science researchers.

Job satisfaction

Around half of the graduates were very satisfied with their current jobs and 42% were somewhat satisfied. At the same time, the majority of them were employed in roles that were not closely related to their sociology degree. Those who said there was a close association between their job and sociology were more likely to feel very satisfied with their careers. A lower connection to sociology led to greater career dissatisfaction. When the participants had first graduated, the majority were happy with their choice as a sociology major (70%), but two years later this enthusiasm had waned (60%).

This is troubling not just for those individuals but for our broader discipline, as it demostrates a discord in the way in which we teach and train students:

Respondents noted that there were few jobs labeled “sociologist” and that they had not been helped by career counsellors at their schools to know for what jobs sociology majors qualified and what skills they should emphasise in their job search.

Race and intersectionality

Other research by Professor Spalter-Roth shows that sociology graduates who are racial minorities experience significant barriers in their sociology careers. Black and Latin students in the USA are attracted to sociology to better understand relationships between people and social forces. Racial minorities are most likely to participate in training and networking sessions, but they are the least likely to become employed in academia. Women of colour face the greatest disadvantages, and doubtless this inequity deepens for women of colour who belong to other minority groups.

This presents two imperitives for our discipline. First, addressing inequities in our field, including race, gender and other social disadvantages for racial minorities (intersectionality) to increase the career opportunities for minority graduates. Second, providing more specialised support for people of colour, such as sponsors who can help minorities navigate vocational demands, devoting time to help find them work, as well as address discrimination in our field and in employment.

Next time

Next week, we’ll cover how to get started with your job hunt. Don’t forget to check out our existing recources to help you plan your career. See our video interviews with applied sociologists sharing their career journeys from student to practitioner, or read our feature articles on sociology careers from around the world, as well as other inspiration.

Until then, for some inspiration, see the infographic below for a few of the job descriptions from applied sociologists.

Infographic - sociology graduates - selected job descriptions. Features icons including a hand, graduate certificate, a person at a desk, a briefcase, people under a magnifying glass, a woman with a megaphone, a report with graphs, and a wifi symbol.
Selected job descriptions of sociology graduates. Source: Roberta Spalter-Roth, Nicole Van Vooren. Image: Sociology at Work
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