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?

Microsoft is a place where sociologists could work

Sociology majors are always wondering what kinds of jobs they might have in the future. I ran across an article that mentioned a talk by “Mark Smith, Research Sociologist at Microsoft.” With a little Google searching, I found an excerpt from a 2003 interview with Smith who describes how he ended up at Microsoft:

How did a guy like you get to work for a company like Microsoft?
I’m a sociologist. I’ve now been at Microsoft Research about four-and-a-half years. Microsoft has a few social and cognitive psychologists, but I’m the only sociologist.

Which means what, exactly, in the context of technology employment?
A sociologist studies the attributes of relationships and the group of relationships that add up to a collective or a community. As a technology group, our mandate is to both explore and to build tools to study the phenomenon that we could call online community. We sociologists don’t like to use the term “community,” particularly–we like to refer to them as social cyberspaces…

So why exactly does Microsoft need a resident sociologist?
Microsoft has a big investment in online communities, and has not had until recently many tools to enhance that investment. What Microsoft wants around communities is what every enterprise does, which is a peer-support, knowledge-management application. And that means that if you go into Usenet, you’ll find 3,000 Microsoft public newsgroups, with 1.5 million people posting 10 million messages. And that’s 2002–and it’s going to more than double this year, because it more than doubled in ’01. We don’t see traffic flagging at all.

Trained sociologists could be very useful to businesses and organizations who want to conduct their own research and see how potential customers or clients operate in the world. I remember reading an article years ago about Microsoft employing anthropologists who would live with (or spend extended periods of time with) families in order to see how the different family members would use the computer and Windows.

What would it take for more sociologists to convince organizations they can help add to their bottom line or help them reach their goals? Or what might it take for businesses or organizations to start seeking out more sociologists?