September 2018 | Edited November 2019
"What does someone do with a degree in sociology?," "Does someone need a PhD to become a sociologist?," "How do people make money with a degree in sociology?"
Sociology professors constantly confront variations of these questions. Likewise, students of sociology have long told stories of rationalizing their degrees to extended family at holidays. Even as I have reflected on my own experiences, I recall coming to inaccurate conclusions about studying sociology.
For instance, somewhere along the way, I began to believe that the word "sociologist" was directly related to "having a PhD." I also recall believing that if a sociologist did not earn a tenure-track position at a university, that the only alternatives were working for private research firms or policy institutions.
I have always viewed myself as innovative, creative, and a problem-solver. I received the clearest vision of what "academic" sociology was when I spent three years in a PhD granting program. The "go find a dataset and conduct research from behind a computer screen" style of sociology did not suit my skillset. It seemed the "problem" professionals were trying solve was "how to get published," rather than how to make society better.
Frankly, I prefer to leave the problem of academic publication to someone else. As a sociologist, I see more pressing issues and I do not believe I am alone. I see a young generation of sociologists who are motivated to put their creative minds to the task of solving all of societies most looming problems.
The obstacle I see is that sociology is not seen as marketable as economics or psychology. While not-for-profit organizations and enterprises are noble and in some cases necessary, the lack of profitable social ventures will continue to funnel sociologists into academic jobs, thus reducing the number sociologists free to solve problems beyond how to publish.
This brings me to "sociology consulting." I use the term sociology consulting simply to create a frame for independent, useful, and profitable application of sociology. It is estimated that by 2020, 40% of the workforce will be working as independent contractors or freelancers in the gig economy. With the rapid advancement in technology and the increasing complexity of social research, the skills obtained by sociologists are in demand.
Thinking about the demand for sociological skills, I set out to find out what practicing sociologists had to say about how sociologists are currently trained.
"There are careers in applied sociology and we need to be filling these positions and, in fact, we need to be creating these positions."
One practitioner told me,
"Applied sociology is seemingly viewed as a threat to research or in opposition to academic work. This is untrue. There are careers in applied sociology and we need to be filling these positions and, in fact, we need to be creating these positions. In order for that movement to occur, we must first move away from thinking of applied sociology as a threat. We need to have conversations. We must discuss the meaning of applied sociology and must participate. Additionally, we must educate our students and graduate students about applied sociology and how to become a part of the movement."
There is a lot to unpack in this quote. The most notable piece is the idea of applied sociology being a threat to academic work, which is significant because "academic" programs are those that offer PhD's and other advanced degrees. The second notable piece to this quote is the idea of sociologists needing to create their own positions. This makes sociology sound entrepreneurial, a place for the innovative, creative, and problem-solving minded. All said and done, this consultant was suggesting that there is a market for sociology consulting but that formal training is lacking in preparing professionals for these positions.
Applied sociologists have a unique set of skills to contribute to policy decisions, inform organizational structure, and assist organizations in remaining relevant in a changing and diverse workforce, but these skills have been devalued overtime.
One interview participant states,
"I don't know why sociologists are afraid of making money. What happens is sociologists do work for free because they feel obligated to work with non-profits and organizations that do not have the means to pay a worthy salary. This will continue to devalue the discipline and lessen its worth to industry leaders."
This elicits the point I made earlier about sociology not having a clear path to market value. Sociology holds value, we just have to put more sociologists on the mission of solving how to market our skills in such a way that is profitable and not exploitative to those who are vulnerable. In other words we need to expand sociology into other domains, a point that was iterated by this sociology consultant.
"We have to take sociology to the world, they will not come to us. We need to focus in our PhD programs on learning the intricacies of sociology but also learn to advance sociological knowledge into other domains and this process needs to be taken proactively."
Taking Sociology to the World
We intend on sharing explicit case examples of sociology consulting in the future, but for now I would like to introduce two simple ways of demonstrating sociology consulting to those who have never thought about sociology in this manner before.
First let's think about human resource consulting. HR deals with a variety of social issues. Whether it is workplace sexual harassment policies or hiring practices, I would prefer to have a sociological voice in those discussions. In this example we might think of the consultant using sociological theories to solve problems.
Second, consider strategy or management consulting. Good organizational leaders are constantly looking for ways to engage with people. Organizations need to systematically analyze the experiences of patients, congregants, consumers, constituents, or members in order to provide better or more inclusive service. Sociologists know how to collect and analyze this information. Here you might consider the consultant using sociological methods to solve problems.
Of course if we look at specific case studies, sociology consultants will surely use a wide variety of theoretical and methodological skills in their work. The point is that these are valuable skills.
Training for Sociology Consultants
Finally, I want to leave some thoughts about what sociology students and graduate student can do to make themselves more marketable for future consulting.
Branding. One of the first elements of becoming a private sociologist is marketing yourself to potential clients. This means that you need to organize all of your skills into a simple package, otherwise known as a brand. This is why I believe self-audit is such a valuable exercise in professional development. We have to know our skills and strengths in order to be able to sell them. I recall in graduate school being told to "not waste my time" on blogging, but personal writing can be a terrific tool for self-audit and branding.
Networking. Practicing sociologists should never separate or divide themselves from academic sociologists. The two create a dynamic relationship according to Lester Ward. We should be meeting as many other professionals as possible, particularly while we are in graduate school and constantly being introduced to new people.
Education. While I do not believe that a person has to have a graduate degree to apply sociology to other domains, credentials help with legitimation when seeking a clientele. With that said, it would be a mistake to think that you will get the same training and preparation in any graduate program. Applied sociology programs exist and if sociology consulting is appealing, then they are worth seeking. The skills learned in PhD programs are valuable to consultants.
Course Work. Through all of my conversations with practitioners, it became apparent that theory and methods courses are important. The purpose of taking these courses in excess is not to further rationalize specialization, but to build a repertoire of skills. It was also suggested that students should consider taking courses in business for additional knowledge into consulting careers.
Publication. I return to the issue of publishing academic work. Through my conversations with consultants, I asked a lot of questions about publication since it is the central goal of academic sociology. The bottom line is that when a sociologist makes a significant finding they are ethically obliged to publish. Aside from that, publishing in academic journals might give a consultant legitimacy, particularly if the work is directly related to the service offered. Aside from those reasons, it turns out sociology consultants consistently agree that publication is not as central to career success as it is for those pursuing academic careers.