The Guardian on careers for sociology majors

I’m not quite sure how this made it into The Guardian but here is an article titled “What to do with a degree in sociology.” Here is a good portion of their description:

One is the UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs with responsibility for overseeing emergency relief in disaster-hit areas, the other is a chart-topping singer-songwriter. But what Lady Amos and James Blunt have in common is that both are sociology graduates and have used the knowledge gained in their degrees to forge successful careers…

Sociology is the study of people and how we interact with one another…

Having a good understanding of human relationships can be a bonus in a range of careers, which is probably why sociology graduates can be found across all sectors including the media and arts.

Sociology graduates leave university with a broad range of transferable skills. These include being able to work to deadlines, make reasoned arguments and think creatively.Through doing presentations you will have learned how to present ideas orally and in writing, and developed strong research and IT skills. You will also be able to apply theoretical sociological perspectives to everyday life.

Perhaps not surprisingly, social and welfare professions were the most popular career choices for 2009 sociology graduates – typical jobs include social worker, counsellor and community development officer.

“As a discipline concerned with the study of people and society, it is not surprising that many graduates target people-focused careers such as social work, advice work, counselling, careers advice, youth work, housing and the probation service,” says Margaret Holbrough, a careers adviser at Graduate Prospects.

“Alternative careers can be found in educational, administrative or office-based roles such as teaching and lecturing, social research, human resources management, charity fundraising or within policymaking departments in local or central government.

“Understanding people within society can also be useful in careers such as market research, retail management, the police force and journalism.”

As with all graduates, a high proportion found work in the retail/catering and clerical/secretarial sectors, reflecting the need for many to take stop-gap jobs in the tough economic climate.

Starting with the coolness factor – you too can be a UN or music star! – probably doesn’t hurt. But once you get past the celebrity citations, this lacks excitement. While I would agree that sociology majors have a lot of “transferable skills,” this could also characterize students from a number of other majors. Indeed, a liberal arts college tries to give all of its students these sorts of skills: critical thinking, reasoning, and writing abilities.

Off the top of my head, here are a few things that could be added:

1. Sociology majors are uniquely trained in dealing with and understanding groups and interpersonal settings. While this is applicable to a lot of settings (particularly business), these skills are increasingly necessary in a globalized world where interpersonal interaction still matters and more cultures are interacting. While this major might easily lead into social service jobs, it also is necessary in many other jobs. As a second major, sociology is a great compliment to a lot of other options.

2. Sociology majors are taught to look for broad trends in patterns in society, moving away from anecdotal or individualistic explanations of social phenomena to data-driven descriptions and causal explanations. These data skills, taught in classes like statistics and research methods, should be helpful in a number of settings. Indeed, organizations today have a lot of data and information but often need skilled people to interpret this data. If we want future workers who can help us make sense of the world and not just keep the same old model going, sociology majors could just the people to look to.

3. Some of the comments at the end of this article belie some of the typical stereotypes of sociology majors: they have no “real skills.” Perhaps sociology needs a little imagination as a discipline: our majors could be at the forefront of society, not just working in important occupations that unfortunately are often undervalued as a society. What about using a “sociological imagination” in terms of careers? Could one be a sociological entrepreneur?

Utah legislator suggests sociology degree may be “degree to nowhere”

A legislator in Utah made some comments recently that sociology, along with several other disciplines, do not provide helpful degrees for some students:

Stephenson, who has a four-year degree and master’s from BYU, said colleges aren’t giving sociology, psychology and philosophy majors the real story.

“These colleges refuse to inform them,” Stephenson said. “They refuse to give them the data.”

Stephenson is clarifying to say he is not calling four-year degrees undesirable. Nonetheless, his message is already being met with opposition from his legislative counterparts.

“Clearly it sends the wrong message,” said Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake. “Basically, what we need to be saying is that these are all important and not to be pitting one against the other, because they all provide value.”

Romero pointed to sociology majors, which sometimes turn into lawyers and earn good paychecks.

“What’s most important is getting a liberal education, getting a well-rounded education and learning how to think,” he said.

Even some Republican colleagues are questioning the strength of Stephenson’s message. Tuesday, Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, told Stephenson he was overstating the lack of value in a college degree.

Stephenson appears to be finding support for his rationale in a new Harvard University report out Wednesday. It says the education system is failing a lot of students that need to be career-ready, not college-ready.

Stephenson is calling certain four-year degrees “degrees to nowhere” as he pushes for an increase in funding for applied technology colleges.

While Stephenson is pushing for more vocational training, it is interesting that he picks on sociology (along with psychology and philosophy). A few thoughts about this:

1. These degrees do lead to some jobs or career paths. For example, sociology can often feed into social work or work in the criminal justice field. But some of these ties are not as obvious as perhaps business, pre-law, or pre-med.

2. It would be interesting to see the data to which Stephenson refers. Does this data say these majors can’t find work? Does it say that they earn less over a lifetime compared to some other majors? Do these majors have more student loans or debt after college? Does it say they have less meaningful jobs? Just curious.

3.  The skills of knowing how to interact with other cultures and people from different backgrounds seems valuable. See David Brooks’ argument about the difficulty of working with people.

4. The legislator Romero tries to defend these degrees but makes two interesting points of his own:

4a. The idea that these degrees and the skills developed in earning the degree have value even if it is not monetary value is a broader comment about society. If social workers, for example, are important and needed, shouldn’t the profession be better paying and more prestigious? Pay does not necessarily equate with social prestige or value.

4b. Romero then suggests that sociology can be fine if it is paired with a law degree. So the only way sociology is valuable is when paired with a prestigious and higher-earning degree?

5. The way this story is presented, the argument breaks down along party lines: the Republican thinks these degrees are not as worthwhile, the Democrat tries to defend them. Can we simply say that Stephenson thinks these degrees are not worth much because they support or promote values he disagrees with?

Why veterinary medicine is a female dominated field

Sociologists have long been interested in why certain career fields are dominated by men or women. A recent article in Social Forces examines why veterinary medicine is dominated by women:

More women than men are applying for veterinary school—making up as much as 80 percent of applicants at some schools. That’s not because men are avoiding perceived lower wages in veterinary medicine, says one researcher. It’s because male applicants are avoiding fields filled with women.

That’s the conclusion of Anne Lincoln, an assistant sociology professor at Southern Methodist University, whose study of the changing face of veterinary medicine is the first to look at gender in college applications from 1975 to 1995. Lincoln used decades of surveys and application information shared by the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges in her recently published study, “The Shifting Supply of Men and Women to Occupations: Feminization in Veterinary Education,” in the journal Social Forces.

In addition to men’s “preemptive flight” from female-dominated colleges, Lincoln also attributes veterinary medicine’s gender shift to women’s higher graduation rates from college as well as the landmark 1972 federal amendment that prohibited discrimination by gender in college applications. Women have been enrolling in college in greater numbers since 1972, according to Lincoln.

I would like to hear more about this argument and the idea of “preemptive flight”: so men who are interested in veterinary medicine go to class or the department, see it is dominated by women, and then choose another field. How did this happen in the first place in this particular field – was there an important tipping point? What fields do the men who wanted to go into this field then go into because of the surplus of women in veterinary medicine?

It is also interesting that Lincoln suggests the trends in this field are likely to occur several decades down the road in the fields of law and medicine. If this idea of “preemptive flight” is pervasive in any field dominated by women, what happens when there are fewer and fewer careers where men can flee to?

The airplane conversations of mental health professionals vs. sociologists

According to this New York Times article, people who work in mental health professions are much more likely to hear about the personal lives of their seatmates:

Pity the traveling mental health professional. While many travelers find strangers reveal information they might not in other contexts, psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers say they must negotiate a range of interpersonal, ethical and legal issues as they travel.

So while these professionals look for ways to not reveal too much about their jobs so they are not inundated with the personal lives of others, one professional suggests saying that he is a sociologist takes care of the issue:

Niranjan S. Karnik, a psychiatrist and sociologist who teaches at the University of Chicago, said he often told seatmates, “ ‘I’m a sociologist.’ That’s an effective conversation-ender.”

I would like to hear more about this. Is this because the seatmate doesn’t know what a sociologist is or does? Or is it because people perceive it to be a boring or uninteresting profession?

Modern careers more amenable to women?

Hanna Rosin writes in the July/August 2010 issue of The Atlantic about the rise of women in many career fields and the consequences for society. Rosin argues that in addition to women holding “a majority of the nation’s jobs,” dominating higher education, and having a majority in 13 of the 15 job categories predicted to grow the most in the next ten years, more and more jobs today seem suited to women and men have not yet adapted:

The postindustrial economy is indifferent to men’s size and strength. The attributes that are most valuable today—social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus—are, at a minimum, not predominantly male. In fact, the opposite may be true.

The list of growing jobs is heavy on nurturing professions, in which women, ironically, seem to benefit from old stereotypes and habits.

Some of this has been more visible lately with the effects of the recent economic trouble, dubbed by some a “man-cession” or “he-pression” due to a disproportionate loss of jobs in male-dominated fields. The loss of manufacturing and manual labor jobs in the last five decades has been severe and men, unlike women, have not yet jumped on the higher education bandwagon.