why get a sociology phd?

As you well know, I think the PhD program is a terrible choice for most students. Quite simply, the PhD program is risky (only 50% completion rate), costly (5+ years), and many disciplines have poor job prospects (e.g., most of the humanities, many biological sciences and many social sciences). Furthermore, a lot of students think it is a credential that is needed for non-academic jobs, which is not generally true.

But still, maybe you weren’t phased by the “don’t go to grad school speech.” Maybe you really have a passion for teaching, or interpreting Foucault. Or maybe you simply don’t care about the negatives associated with academic careers. I welcome you to academia. I pity you as well.

So, then, what sort of PhD should you get? Here’s an argument for the sociology Ph.D.:

  • Low barrier to entry – you just need a solid academic record, not extended training in math, foreign language, or other rare skills.
  • You learn solid research skills like survey design, regression models, and interview technique that have non-academic labor market value.
  • You can study a wide range of topics and do so almost immediately. No need to engage in endless post-docs.
  • Policy relevance.
  • Decent academic job prospects compared to most other fields. The sociology market is tight, but soc PhDs frequently get jobs in lots of other programs like education, business, policy, social work, and occasionally in adjacent areas like American studies, ethnic studies, political science, and anthropology.
  • Broadly defined topic – if you have a real passion for a topic that is genuinely social in some way, you can probably find a way to write a dissertation on it.

The one big downside is that sociology programs adhere to the humanities model of long time to PhD. There is no need for this. If you focus on a dissertation topic early on, choose your dissertation chair wisely, and insist on getting published at least once, there is no need for your degree to take longer than 4 or 5 years.

Fine Prose for Sensitive Souls: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

Written by fabiorojas

November 4, 2013 at 12:01 am

12 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Fabio, what is the completion rate at your department? And more importantly, do you inform admittees of it when they come to visit?



    November 4, 2013 at 6:53 am

  2. As a recent-ish grad I agree with most of these reasons, but please, please don’t tell people they should get a PhD in Sociology because there will be academic jobs for them. That’s just being part of the problem, not the solution.


    Yes, but...

    November 4, 2013 at 1:04 pm

  3. Pretendous: 50% and yes I tell them.

    Yes: read the 1st paragraph. Also, if you are a regular reader, I am not the person who exagerrates job prospects. Actually, I am usually accused of being overly pessimistic. This post is about prospects relative to most ither programs.

    Liked by 1 person


    November 4, 2013 at 1:24 pm

  4. I don’t encourage students to apply for PhD programs unless they really have passion and talent for the subject matter. However, I do wish more sociology programs would see the value of employment other than tenure track jobs in academia. Sociologists’ training in qualitative and quantitative research methods, field experience, and research on major social/global issues makes them relatively employable for a variety of work, including government (local and national), foreign policy, international development, philanthropy and non-profits, market research, and some sectors of the high tech industry. I think our discipline should take more advantage of this and work to develop the non-academic job market for sociologists. Ultimately, I think it would be good for the discipline, as it would give us better connections to the “real world” and it might help to raise academic salaries if candidates had other job options.



    November 4, 2013 at 6:36 pm

  5. Seems to me that most employers hiring PhDs or the like are looking to hire people that have been trained specifically for the job they have to fill, not someone who could do that job within a month or two. Seems to me that jack-of-all trades social scientist has much less appeal in reality than you might think… E.g., why are social science PhDs necessarily any better candidates for many policy jobs than all those MPAs looking for similar positions but without the same salary requirements. Unfortunately, I don’t really see it…



    November 4, 2013 at 7:29 pm

  6. PostDoc, that’s correct, but there’s a nontrivial number of jobs that require skills that Soc PhDs already have – marketing, surveying, policy analysis, etc.


    Fabio Rojas

    November 4, 2013 at 7:47 pm

  7. And PostDoc, you might be surprised at how many social science PhDs (Anthro, Soc, Poli Sci, etc.) there are working outside academia in the fields I mentioned. We just don’t hear that much about them from within the discipline.



    November 4, 2013 at 9:44 pm

  8. Reblogged this on Undergraduate Research Blog and commented:
    Graduate school is a bad idea … but when?



    November 5, 2013 at 12:40 am

  9. Too many people jump into Phd’s without thinking about it. They become so convinced of their need for a Phd that they ignore any information which might conflict with their views.

    It is important that people like you paint an accurate picture for those considering undertaking the immense commitment required by a Phd. From conversing with friends who have gone through the process, I know that there can be a great deal of stress and strain, and if you are not committed, you will find it difficult to complete.

    You make excellent points about Sociology. These are the types of issues which potential students should be considering before signing on the dotted line. They need to do more than just read a glossy brochure or a few pages on a website.



    November 5, 2013 at 3:58 pm

  10. “Too many people jump into Phd’s without thinking about it.”

    And the intense efforts of faculty and university administrators to sell PhD programs to prospective students do not do anything to help the situation.



    November 6, 2013 at 10:43 am

  11. I would be interested in knowing what actual policy makers (not professional sociologists) think of the “policy relevance” of sociology…and how it compares to that of political scientists and/or economists…this is an empirical question…



    November 7, 2013 at 1:04 pm

  12. As a professional sociologist working as a program evaluator of primarly education, mental health, and human services programs, I have been asked the question of how to translate a Sociology Ph.D. into a nonacademic job. I usually tell them that there are probably two avenues one might pursue to land nonacademic jobs with a Ph.D. in Sociology. The first is to use Ph.D training to take various research design, methods (both qualitative and quantitative) and statistical courses. And to become well versed in them. This would give you marektable skills that can be applied across a number of different fields in various sectors. The second avenue would be to focus on a substantive area, working primarily on specializing and becoming well-versed in the policy debates of the area (urban, environmental sustainability, health, etc). And producing research and adding the debates in those substantive areas.

    To PostDoc123’s point, there is no automatic reason why any one Ph.D. is a better candidate than any one MPA. There are certainly plenty of MPA’s who have the skills and talent to outperform plenty of Ph.Ds in policy-relevant jobs. But training in a Ph.D program does require more credits, and therefore potentially allows someone more time to acquire a wider variety of methodological skills and also an opportunity to work with people to hone those skills (or when policy-relevant to become more aware of the issues). The higher-level expectations (ideally this is true) associated with writing a dissertation could also be a good signal to an employer that you are competent and can successfully complete a larger-scale independent project. All of these, when done correctly should differentiate the average Ph.D. from the average MPA student in the nonacademic market.

    The final thing I would say to people pursuing a Ph.D. for nonacademic jobs. Get out and intern and work in the fields you might be interested in. There are a whole set of skills that you need to acquire in a professional environment that are not typically learned by working in an academic environment. Team work, managing client relationships, setting and meeting someone else’s deadlines, etc.

    As for policy makers conceptions of the “policy relevance of sociology,” I think that’s a fair question posed by Hector. It is directly related to the fact that Sociology as a discipline is quite broad. So it’s up to each individual to choose the correct course and acquire the appropriate skills in order to signal their specific relevance to the policy debates.

    Liked by 1 person

    Scott Dolan

    November 8, 2013 at 5:00 pm

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: