Is There Good Work to be Done with a Master's in Applied Sociology?
Since we began Applied Worldwide in October of 2019, we regularly receive questions related to career prospects with a degree in sociology. In fact, one of the reasons we began this enterprise was because “what can I do with a degree in sociology,” is such a common question amongst students.
We recently received an inquiry via email and thought that we would publish a response, in hopes that our assessment might be valuable to others considering their professional goals in sociology. A portion of the email reads:
“I just graduated with a BS in Sociology. I’ve been reading your website and I’m very interested in Applied Sociology. When I was reading your profiles page, I noticed that all but two or three had PhDs, I was wondering if in your experience there’s good work to be done with just a master's in Applied Sociology? I can do a master's while still working and save about four years, so if I don’t plan to go into academia it seems like a great option, but I don’t want to shoot myself in the foot either.”
For context, our profiles page houses profiles of various applied and clinical sociologists. You can explore our profiles here. In this article I want discuss a few points related to the question above:
Is there good work to be done with ‘just’ a master's in Applied Sociology,
What is the difference between a master's and a PhD graduate program,
What is some general advice for pursuing a meaningful career in sociology?
Is there work to be done?
The short answer to the question of, “is there work to be done in sociology,” is absolutely yes. Whether it is with a bachelor’s degree, a master's or a doctorate, sociological skills and knowledge are becoming more and more valuable. Society is changing before our eyes, which leaves organizations in a position to need the application of sociological knowledge. Take the following examples:
Businesses are being pressured to update their sexual harassment policies in large because of women coming forward with horrendous stories of abuse in the workplace. As unfortunate a circumstance this might be, it provides an opportunity for sociologists to help modify workplace policies.
The criminal justice system is facing pressure to provide more equitable treatment. This has largely become visible to the public eye as a result of activist organizations and movements, but, again, this provides an opportunity for sociologists to work with organizations to improve the treatment of minority groups in the criminal justice system.
Hospitals and the medical industry have been facing pressure to improve treatment and access to services for those who may not be able to afford proper care. Once again, this is a terrible situation for many people, but it does leave opportunity for sociologists.
I could probably continue listing the problems faced by society, the organizations and industries that are facing adaptation, and how sociologists can contribute to these changes, but the main point here is that as society changes, organizations will need to adapt, and this will provide opportunity for sociologists.
So while the short answer is “yes, there is good work to be done with a degree in sociology,” the extended answer shows some complications. One demonstration I like to use is to show search engine results for the question, “What can I do with my Sociology degree?”, and compare it to the same results for psychology.
You can see the comparative lists above. On one search result you will find a list of potential careers with a degree in psychology, and on the other a list of potential careers in sociology. The real problem I see in this demonstration is that not a single potential career with a degree in sociology is called a ‘sociologist.’ If you view the list for psychology, you will notice that nearly all of them are listed as therapist, counselor, or psychologist. When there is an easily accessible list of potential careers someone can simply choose one they are interested in and pursue a degree in counseling or industrial psychology. In sociology, we are more likely to have to choose an industry to pursue rather than a specific job title.
What level of degree do I need?
The question I am responding to asks about whether they should choose a master's degree or a PhD, but it is worth it to talk a little about the bachelor's degree as well.
Generally speaking, a bachelor's degree in any subject matter is designed to prepare students to fill a role. In sociology, these roles can be diverse. People with sociology degrees might be hired as police officers, human resource employees, or for sales and marketing. Sociology offers value to each of these positions, but you will be expected to fill the role as it is designed and you will likely be referred to by the position title. In other words, you are not necessarily being hired as a ‘sociologist.' Rather, the organization believed your experience with sociology would be useful in fulfilling their organizational goals.
For those who want to pursue a career where they are explicitly ‘doing’ sociology or where they are actually referred to as a sociologist, a graduate degree will be helpful, but I want to differentiate between master's programs and PhD programs.
Master's programs seem to offer one of two forms of value. Some of these programs offer value in training students how to become occupational sociologists, and some of these programs provide preparation for PhD programs. It is worth it to look into what students do after they graduate with their master's degree before applying to any program. If a majority of the master's students of a program tend to continue into a PhD program, then the department probably specializes in training students how to prepare for academia. If the program is placing graduates in occupational positions, then it likely has more of a specialty in applied sociology.
Even with a master's degree in sociology, you may still end up working a job designed by an organization which may not be titled ‘sociologist.’ You may be more likely to qualify for leadership positions or management, but you still will likely work under a title such as human resource manager, or research director. I did a second domain analysis of the technology industry to demonstrate some of the position titles where companies were hiring sociology graduates.
A PhD in sociology is useful. Work such as conducting research for hospitals or clinics will most likely require a PhD. Research director positions will probably be held by someone with a PhD. It is said that a PhD program is designed to teach "research," but many PhD programs are designed to not only conduct research, but also produce knowledge. This emphasis on production of knowledge is why graduate students have to contribute to theory or "fill a gap in the literature" with their dissertations. While contributing to theory might be valuable to a non-academic career, research methods are the more versatile skill that can be learned in a PhD program. You will be exposed to various research methods in a master's program, but the dissertation process will provide a different level of practice and knowledge that is useful and often necessary for research leadership positions.
Advice for pursuing careers in sociology
One of the problems we face with applied sociology today is career paths are not as clear as they are in other disciplines. Many sociologists who end up in fruitful careers either serendipitously fell into those roles or they had an entire career in academia before they began their applied careers. This is why our profiles tend to be skewed to examples of professionals with PhDs. This trend is slowly changing, but for people who know they do not intend on going into academic positions, career trajectories are still difficult to map. I have three main suggestions for helping people who are in this planning phase of their education: 1) self-audit, 2) domain analysis, and 3) find mentorship.
As I have demonstrated, careers in sociology are not clearly identified. This can be a hindrance for people who want to have a clear trajectory into a career aspiration, but it can also be somewhat of a blessing because it forces us to really analyze who we are, what we excel at, and how those skills can be occupationally useful. This is why I constantly urge students and others to conduct regular self-audit. Self-audit simply means do an assessment of yourself. What experiences do you have? What skills do you have? What are your values? Your goals? In order to pursue a fruitful career where we are happy to go to work on a regular basis, we need to freely consider what our ideal work environment looks like and how we can best contribute to a team.
I know it is not specifically sociology, but one resource that I have found useful is a book by Anthropologist Sherylyn Briller called, Designing an Anthropology Career: Professional Development Exercises. It is a workbook designed to help people assess their own skills and experiences and identify how to best pursue a career that suits their goals.
Second Domain Analysis
A second domain analysis is a means of learning about the occupational market in which someone wants to join. In essence, sociology would be your first domain—a domain in which we should all have knowledge once we complete our degree—but we want to know about the second domain in which we are attempting to apply our sociology. This might include criminal justice, human resources, the medical industry, or journalism. Nonetheless, whatever industry or domain that we have chosen as a good fit for our skills, we need to scan job postings and/or academic literature about these industries so that we can find occupational roles that we are willing to fill. This could include finding a job title that we might want to fill or it could be finding a problem commonly faced by these organizations in which we might offer our services as consultants.
Once you have assessed yourself and you have assessed the industry in which you would like to work, it is important to find mentorship. In some graduate programs, you may find faculty with experience in the career trajectory in which you are pursuing, but you also may not. Often times at universities sociology faculty have completed a fairly traditional career trajectory from college, to graduate school, to university professorship. While these folks may have knowledge that can be of value, they may not be the best source of specific career advice. You should find some form of mentorship from outside of academic circles, which will likely mean investing resources into networking. You can contact organizations and ask if they have sociologists working for them. An alternative and perhaps simpler means of networking is to get involved in professional organizations dedicated to applied sociology. In the US one of the best communities is the Association for Applied and Clinical Sociology. I strongly suggest attending the annual conference and networking with folks to find a network that can provide more specific career advice.
In summary, there is good work to be done with any degree in sociology. The path to professional sociologist is at times ambiguous so it will likely take some planning. This is why it is important to conduct a thorough self-audit to find out what your skills are, and then conduct a thorough second domain analysis to find out how your skills can be valuable to an industry. Some industries such as medicine may require a PhD, to fulfill the role you are trying to fill, others may only require a masters.
My final note to anyone who is considering graduate school in sociology, regardless if it is a master's or a PhD program, is to take as many research methods courses as possible. Research methods are tools that can be offered as a service, so learn as much as possible.