The Undergraduate Sociology Degree’s Real-World Application
by Jay Matchett, ASA Academic and Professional Affairs Program
The transition for young adults from institutions of higher education into the labor force can often be a daunting and confusing time filled with social (and economic) pressures. This is why, as the economy faces a downturn, helping undergraduates realize the merits of their degree is even more important.
These social pressures usually do not start near or after graduation. Questions of employability, practicality, and marketability are often the first types of questions an undergraduate asks before deciding on a major. For most college students, picking a major is not just a question of academic interest, but economic as well. Students (and parents) want to know that there is a "future" to be had by majoring in a particular subject. Departments can help to allay these worries by helping students to define their skills-sets and encouraging them to go beyond the classroom.
Contrary to what many believe, there is not a "one-to-one" relationship between academic majors and careers. One does not necessarily need a degree in business administration or marketing to land a successful career in the corporate world. On the contrary, a degree in sociology provides an excellent springboard for entering the world of business, industry, and organizations. The sociological perspective is invaluable for working in today’s multiethnic and multinational business environment (see The Sociology Major as Preparation for Careers in Business and Organizations at www.asanet.org).
In most departments, sociology majors are encouraged to go beyond the confines of the classroom. They are pushed to consider their role in society, and their responsibilities to make the world a better place.
Approximately 30,000 newly minted sociology majors will graduate this spring. In addition to enduring the usual post-graduation jitters, this year’s graduates will also have to contend with a rapidly deteriorating job market, soaring debt, and unparalleled economic uncertainty. As a result, stressing the value of a sociology degree in the labor market is particularly pressing.
According to Pathways to Job Satisfaction: What Happened to the Class of 2005?, published by the ASA Research Department, the most cited reason graduating seniors gave for majoring in sociology was because of the discipline’s "interesting concepts." Additionally, more than a third of respondents thought it could help them better "understand their lives." Despite the fact that a degree in sociology can provide one of the most transferable skill sets an individual can have, less than one-fourth of graduating seniors majored in sociology because they thought it would prepare them for the job they wanted or for graduate or professional schools. The lure of the sociology major may not be the promise of a particular career, but what students graduate with is a distinctive and transferable skill-set. The challenge, though, for departments concerned with assisting their students in the job search, is helping them to conceptualize their sociological skills within the context of employment and professional development (more on this will appear in a future issue of Footnotes).
Conceptualizing the sociology major as distinct "skill-set," rather than a body of knowledge may be helpful for students, especially as they transition to the labor force. Unlike a vocational degree that trains an individual for a particular career, sociology majors must actively define their skill-set in a manner appropriate for the position sought.
Sociology’s Marketable or Transferable Skills?
According to ASA’s research, by the time they graduate sociology seniors have learned to develop evidence-based arguments, think abstractly, write effectively, formulate empirically testable questions, understand and perform statistical analysis, comprehend group dynamics and processes, and develop analytical skills, particularly the ability to locate issues within a larger "macro" perspective (see Pathways to Job Satisfaction at www.asanet.org/galleries/default-file/ASA_Pathways.pdf). Regardless of the job graduates seek, students must learn to effectively communicate those skills. Majors who reported communicating their sociological skills to potential employers were more likely to use them on the job than those who learned such skills but did not communicate their skill-set.
The research and applied skill sets acquired through a sociology degree, with its applied and theoretical skills, is a winning asset in the labor market. According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) report How Should Colleges Assess and Improve College Learning, "When it comes to the assessment practices that employers trust to indicate a graduate’s level of knowledge and potential to succeed in the job world, employers dismiss tests of general content knowledge in favor of assessments of real-world and applied-learning approaches…. [These] include evaluations of supervised internships, community-based projects, and comprehensive senior projects." Seventy-nine percent of business executives interviewed for the AAC&U report responded that an "advanced comprehensive senior project, such as a thesis, demonstrating student’s depth of knowledge in major and problem-solving, writing, and analytic reasoning skills," was very effective (46%) or fairly effective. More important to these executive were real-world projects, such as internships, which 69% reported were very effective.
Sociology seniors, equipped with the sociological imagination, are in a position to be more aware of their social context, as well as able to effectively navigate within it. This social competency, which is merely the application of sociological knowledge to an individual situation, is extremely useful. In fact, it is this very ability that C. Wright Mills saw as part of the very promise of sociology.
The BA and Beyond
Students need to be aware of what they have to offer in the workforce before they graduate, especially since a majority of sociology graduates transition into the workforce rather than immediately attend graduate school (see ASA Research Department’s What Are They Doing with a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology?). Career advising in the classroom is therefore important. As the data presented in ASA’s Pathways to Job Satisfaction indicate, less than one quarter of majors reported being satisfied with the career advising they received as undergraduates. This is easily corrected. Given the findings presented in ASA research, developing career and post-graduate advising that stresses the effective communication of the sociological skill-set is one way departments could help their graduates as they weather this economic downturn.
For more resources to help students navigate the sociology major and assist them in their career search, see the Students page at www.asanet.org.