Careers in Sociology

What is sociology?

Sociology is the study of social life, social change, and the social causes and consequences of human behavior. Sociologists investigate the structure of groups, organizations, and societies, and how people interact within these contexts. Since all human behavior is social, the subject matter of sociology ranges from the intimate family to the hostile mob; from organized crime to religious cults; from the divisions of race, gender and social class to the shared beliefs of a common culture; and from the sociology of work to the sociology of sports. In fact, few fields have such broad scope and relevance for research, theory, and application of knowledge.

What can you do with a BA in sociology?

The undergraduate degree provides a strong liberal arts preparation for entry level positions throughout the business, social service, and government worlds. Employers look for people with the skills that an undergraduate education in sociology provides.

Since its subject matter is intrinsically fascinating, sociology offers valuable preparation for careers in journalism, politics, public relations, business, or public administration--fields that involve investigative skills and working with diverse groups.

Many students choose sociology because they see it as a broad liberal arts base for professions such as law, education, medicine, social work, and counseling. Sociology provides a rich fund of knowledge that directly pertains to each of these fields.

The following list of possibilities is only illustrative--many other paths may be open to you. Employment sectors include:

  • social services--in rehabilitation, case management, group work with youth or the elderly, recreation, or administration
  • community work--in fund-raising for social service organizations, nonprofits, child-care or community development agencies, or environmental groups
  • corrections--in probation, parole, or other criminal justice work
  • business--in advertising, marketing and consumer research, insurance, real estate, personnel work, human resources, training, or sales
  • college settings--in admissions, alumni relations, or placement offices
  • health services--in family planning, substance abuse, rehabilitation counseling, health planning, hospital admissions, and insurance companies
  • publishing, journalism, and public relations--in writing, research, and editing
  • government services--in federal, state, and local government jobs in such areas as transportation, housing, agriculture, and labor
  • teaching--in elementary and secondary schools, in conjunction with appropriate teacher certification.

Is graduate school always necessary for a career in sociology?

No. Some advantages accrue to entering the work force with a BA. Employers are often willing to train BA graduates in the specific skills and knowledge required for their workplace, so you could begin a good career by rising through the ranks. Many organizations might also invest in additional education or training for promising employees.

If you are interested in graduate school in sociology, obtaining work experience before applying to graduate school might improve your chances of acceptance and make further education more meaningful. An entry level job might also help you sharpen your interests and decide future directions--continuing to climb the career ladder, changing fields, or furthering your education.

What specific skills do sociology majors learn?

When the American Sociological Association surveyed sociology majors who are employed outside academic settings to reflect on their education, they value most highly their undergraduate courses in social research methods, statistics, and computer skills. These courses help make BA undergraduates marketable, especially in today's highly technical and data-oriented work environment. In addition, sociology majors develop analytical skills and the ability to understand issues within a "macro" or social structural perspective. Learning the process of critical thinking and how to bring evidence to bear in support of an argument is extremely important in a fast-changing job market.

Consequently, as a sociology BA, you have a competitive advantage in today's information society. The solid base you receive in understanding social change--as well as in research design, data analysis, statistics, theory, and sociological concepts--enables you to compete for support positions (such as program, administrative, or research assistant) in research, policy analysis, program evaluation, and countless other social science endeavors.

The well-educated sociology BA graduate acquires a sense of history, other cultures and times; the interconnectedness of social life; and different frameworks of thought. He or she is proficient at gathering information and putting it into perspective. Sociological training helps students bring breadth and depth of understanding to the workplace. A sociology graduate learns to think abstractly, formulate problems, ask appropriate questions, search for answers, analyze situations and data, organize material, write well, and make oral presentations that help others develop insight and make decisions.

What is the future of sociology?

The future is bright for sociology. The twenty-first century may be the most exciting and critical period in the field's history. People increasingly realize that we must renew attempts to understand, ameliorate, and solve problems in the United States and around the world--problems that affect individuals, like drug abuse, domestic abuse, and poverty, and problems that affect societies, like unemployment, ethnic conflict, and environmental pollution. Some of the best employment prospects may be in policy research and administration, in clinical and applied sociological practice, as well as in the traditional areas of teaching and basic research. And sociologists will increasingly reach across disciplinary lines to work with genetic scientists, cognitive scientists, network scientists, human ecologists, and others, to understand social life better, and work to resolve questions and solve complex problems more effectively.

The demand for college professors may increase as "baby boom" faculty increasingly approach retirement. Internationalization of both higher education and the profession of sociology will also lead to new opportunities inside academia and in applied settings. There are increasing opportunities in what Jeremy Rifkin calls "the third sector," the careers serving a post-industrial economy. Sociology is ideal preparation, both in its general liberal arts underpinning, as well as in the skills sociology hones particularly well: the ability to take in the big picture, the ability to bring multiple sources of information and data to bear on a problem, the ability to take the role of the other, and the ability to communicate to different audiences. All this makes for an optimistic employment picture for sociology graduates.

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Julie Phillips

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Jeffrey Dowd