I had to put in the rare appearance at work this weekend, taking notes during a workgroup meeting made up of my boss and handful of sociology faculty members. They were writing a proposal for funding grants to continue a study on graduate students in the discipline that we began this year.
I’m not a sociologist and rather haphazardly entered the field of data analysis (a reluctance to take some scary quantitative methods courses in grad school). On the one hand, I like where I work. Because so many of people coming from our discipline go to work in academia, and almost entirely in teaching positions, we do a significant amount of research on higher education, both from the standpoint of the students and the institution.
There was a point during the meeting when the group began discussing post-graduation careers of their alumni. A lot of sociology majors and graduates were going to work in social work positions. Others, in criminology fields. My boss was frustrated by that, since it looked as though sociology programs were training students who were just winding up in other fields. I thought about that and meekly raised my hand to ask what, aside from teaching and research, their students wound up doing, though I should have articulated better that, aside from teaching and research, what would you specifically label a sociology job? I couldn’t think of anything. Neither could they.
At our meeting last year, a graduate student came up to us and asked how we got our jobs, my coworker and I. I almost laughed upon hearing this, because I basically searched wants ads for anything related to the skills I had until I found a job. I thought to myself, you don’t really think we entered the search term ‘sociology’ and it brought up a bunch of related positions? Who would even mention it in an advertisement except to maybe say… must have a degree in, or be interested in. Because otherwise, how do you define sociology as something marketable? Something deliverable?
I’m a sociologist, one might say.
So what does that mean?
Sociology, like every other liberal arts field is in a lot of trouble because, what is the use anymore? How many books can you publish on inequality? Undergrads and graduates are more vocationally-minded with the kind of academic programs they’re expecting, and we a lot of restructuring in the department to reflect that. Criminology and social work may have once been the progeny of sociology, but they have grown into independent departments, themselves generating far more students then their originating discipline, with criminology perhaps being the most popular. It’s simple – the outcomes are clear. You know where you can start looking, where you can start going before you even finish the program.
In a survey we once did on academic freedom, someone wrote in the comments section that sociology is a dead discipline and I’m very much inclined to support that position. Teaching positions really are where a lot of sociologists wind up, or at least we can say this for now, because the number of Master’s degrees being awarded is starting to outnumber the PhD. And with the way departments are going, especially in liberal arts and especially with funding, I’m not certain why many people would want to go into teaching.
It seems to circular – obtaining a degree to teach courses that eventually, just encourage more people to become teachers. We’ve heard that a lot from PhDs in the discipline – that their advisers frown upon the suggestion that they’d want to do something other than teach. Sociology could very well be a victim of its own stubbornness in that regard. Although, there are programs that have tried to adapt, jumping on the bandwagon to develop “professional” and “applied” programs that really do teach some kind of practical skills like training in proposal writing and research methodology (especially using statistical software packages) and I wonder if in time, we’ll see a big shift from academia to research/management-based occupations among the up and coming sociologists.
I even have a difficult time describing my own graduate degree. A man walking his dog once stopped me on my way from my apartment to my car to strike up a conversation. He noticed I had Florida plates and said that he and his wife were from there, but that they were in town visiting his daughter for her wedding. Eventually, he asked what brought me to DC. I got my Master’s here, I told him, and he asked me what in. I told him. He made a puzzled face and I tried to explain the gist of it, although our program was so broad, that was even hard to do. And soon, it led to the routine follow-up question: “What can you do with that?”
Thank god I did find something to do with it. I’m just going to start telling people it was a business degree.