Applying for an Applied Sociology Job
Welcome to part four of our series on Careers in Applied Sociology. We started with the issues graduates encounter in establishing their careers. Next, we covered some steps on how to look for work. Then we looked at how to tailor your CV and resume. Today, let’s touch on some tips of how to get started on writing your application. Let’s go!
If there is anything that is unclear about the role on the job ad, be prepared to have a conversation that reflects you’ve read about the role and the company. I’ve had people contact me and say: ‘Here’s my CV. Do you think I should apply for this job?’ Do not focus the conversation on getting your potential new boss figure out if you would fit the role. This unfortunately gets across the fact that you don’t know how your skills fit the criteria and it will do you a disservice.
If the job is clear to you, then don’t phone or email unnecessarily. If there are gaps in information you need in order to apply or decide to put in an application give them a friendly call! Employers are busy people. Show them you value their time and expertise by asking useful questions that will help you improve your application.
Be positive and confident
More times than I’d like to count, I’ve had candidates call me and complain about their current job or they speak angrily about being looked over for opportunities. It’s wrong and unfortunate if you’ve had a tough time. Please find the support you need to work through this, as you obviously deserve better. But if you speak ill of your current employer, you might send the wrong message. At the same time, there is no issue with speaking constructively about gaps in your current job and what you’re looking for!
I once interviewed for a senior role and they asked me the inevitable, ‘Why are you leaving your current employer?’ I told them the truth: I was looking for a role that better aligned with my sense of ethics and social justice, and I was excited by the advertised role that specified an interest in intersectionality. We then had a good discussion of how I could use intersectionality in the role. (Yes, I got the job.) A good way to frame past issues is by thinking through: how does the new job align with my professional needs?
I have hired people who told me they were looking for a change from a workplace that hadn’t met their expectations. One candidate asked me during the interview: ‘
What are the project’s deadlines and deliverables? How would we manage the hectic timeframes? What happens if we don’t deliver?
What I liked about this approach is that I could see they’d worked somewhere that hadn’t managed these things well and she was clear about what type of workplace she wanted to work in. I gave her the job and she remains one of the best colleagues I ever hired.
Equity and diversity
One would hope that sociologists are invested in working with inclusive teams, but don’t take this for granted! The fact is that many sociologists from dominant groups end up working with other people who look like them (especially White sociologists who work in almost exclusively White environments). Asking about team and organisational diversity is a good idea for anyone who wants to work in a healthy environment.
If you are a sociologist from a minority background, it’s especially useful to look into, or ask about, the organisation’s equity and diversity policies. See if they can put you in touch with another minority staff member from their organisation and ask them questions, so you can make an informed decision about the workplace culture before you apply.
I additionally look at organisational charts, to see if there are minorities in leadership roles. I look up my prospective team members and the type of work they produce, so I can feel more confident in applying for a job where I would feel welcome.
Consider your competition
Most people have never heard the word ‘sociology,’ so chances are that your prospective employer won’t immediately recognise how your skills fit their position. You are competing with graduates in economics, philosophy, psychology and other disciplines that have wider recognition in employers’ minds. So be sure you can clearly spell out why sociology is the ideal fit for the role. What are your strengths as a sociologist?
Let’s look at some generalist skills sociologists can bring to any job. Make sure that for each of these, you provide a specific example of your learning or training (in the case of people with undergraduate degrees) or from your thesis and other work (for those with postgraduate qualifications).
- Methodological rigour. We learn about ethics; we are trained in qualitative and qualitative research (of course, only say this if it’s true in your case); we understand how and why validity and reliability are important in evidence-based decision-making. Undergraduates, you can give an example of a useful academic paper you might have researched for an essay, focusing on how its methodological strengths link to the job. Postgrads, provide an example of the methodological expertise you have built up, whether it be surveys, interviews, literature reviews or statistical analysis.
- Understanding the impact of institutions. Sociologists identify and address how systems and patterns of collective behaviour can contribute inequality. Sociology equips us with theories, concepts and methods to gather data from specific groups to address the nexus between systemic patterns, group dynamics and individual social outcomes. Sociology also helps us think about how different segments of the population, or target audiences, might be influenced by social institutions like the media, education, politics and so on. What institutional dynamics might help solve the problems of the organisation you’re applying to?
- Theoretical grounding. Sociology can explain how personal troubles are linked to broader social issues. Our training is especially useful in addressing vulnerable and hard-to-reach groups (again, only mention this if you have specific experience in these cases). Applied sociologists ‘translate’ theory into practice to support service delivery, program development and evaluations, as well as enhancing policy-making. For example, I once went for a job with a social modelling team and yet I had no experience in this area; however, they specifically wanted social scientists. I talked about my PhD thesis on migrant women and the impact of racism on their sense of belonging and how this might feed into social models. During the interview, I was asked to talk about theorists or papers I admired and why. I got the job and worked there happily for five years
- Teamwork. Sociology has a big focus on collaborative problem-solving. Give examples from specific group presentations and projects you’ve collaborated on and specify your contribution. Address other experiences of working in teams, even if it’s in customer service, and talk about issues that may have come up and how you overcame them with empathy, active listening and even good humour.
- Communication skills. Oral, written and verbal skills might seem like a given, but they reason why they’re always mentioned in job ads is not for you to say ‘Yes, I have excellent communication skills.’ Employers want to know how you will use these on the job. Have you given presentations to different audiences, from group presentations at university, to academic conferences, to presentations at your local library or community group? Then give examples. What did you present and how might this experience help you on the job? (Hint: employers want to see that you can tailor your language and delivery to different stakeholders.)
Writing your cover letter
I’ve recruited for various applied sociology roles as a project and program manager and one of the consistent problems I find is that people do a poor job with their cover letters. You might overcome this issue with these pointers.
Address the selection criteria
- One paragraph is usually sufficient but be sure to demonstrate how you meet the criteria.
- Identify why your skills as a sociologist are the best fit for the job, or if you have limited paid work experience, show how your skills are translatable to the role. E.g. “My assignment about topic A involved project management skills in planning, data collection, time management and report writing. This is demonstrated in how I undertook interviews/delivered a literature review about this specific topic/applied ethnographic analysis about B and C.”
- Many candidates will repeat the words in the job ad but they fail to show why they are the best person for the job.
- So instead of saying: “I work well in teams,” say something like: “Throughout my sociological degree, I participated in various group projects, which demonstrate my ability to problem solve and work collaboratively on solutions. For example, when I was part of project A, my role was to carry out B and C. My contribution to the success of the project was D.”
- Answer the questions but don’t repeat yourself. Each selection criteria is an opportunity to convince the recruitment panel that your knowledge, experience and training will add value to their team.
- Pick your examples strategically – use different job experiences in different sections of your application. If your paid employment history is limited, focus on different examples from other work or assignments you’ve delivered.
- If there’s a question you are not familiar with, be sure to be honest; say something like: “While I have no direct experience in this criteria, a transferable skill is when I did X for Y role/assignment.” Or say, “My work history and training demonstrates I am able to swiftly learn new skills. For example, within three months of working in job Z, I was successfully running focus group interviews and setting up filing systems, demonstrating my ability to adopt new skills quickly.”
Hopefully these tips can get your application started. Good luck with your journey to a satisfying career as an applied sociologist!