August 22, 2022

Applying Sociology: Career Pathways to Consider

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

What to do with your degree in sociology? Students and graduates often ask this question, and it has many answers.

I recently wrote about how core concepts in sociology can help guide your career path, and how your career interests can guide your course path through the sociology major. I’ve discussed the tools your degree helps you build, how sociology can aid in an already chosen, non-academic career path, and how think tanks could be a great option for putting research skills to use.

Many sociologists with doctorates also pursue careers outside of academia. Footnotes—a magazine published by the American Sociological Association (ASA)—recently included essays written by sociologists with non-academic careers. The 2022 annual ASA meeting featured a Sociology in Practice Settings Symposium as well as sessions including “Exploring and Using Research Methods in Practice Settings” and “Applied Research with the Federal Government.”

You don’t necessarily need a doctorate to pursue similar jobs if they sound interesting to you. Here are some of the sociologists' careers:
  1. Tech Industry Research

Michael A. Miner describes how his work for Facebook (now Meta) began with an invitation for a summer internship. In his current position:

I lead quantitative research on Instagram’s Ranking Team, which broadly focuses on understanding and measuring how people’s attitudes, beliefs, or stated needs are shaped and how they relate to their actions or behaviors over time. I identify ways to build more equity, integrity, and trust in rankings and algorithms in consultation with partner disciplines, such as engineering and data science. With one foot inside and another outside of the academy, I aim to build stronger and more valuable relationships between these two worlds.

A typical researcher in the tech industry helps teams create, clarify, and test hypotheses. They also streamline communication of findings to expert and lay audiences, often leading to larger and more widespread impact from their research.

He explains some of the most rewarding aspects of his work: 

Location and salary were large among them. The benefits industry offered far outweighed those available through potential academic appointments. A particular draw was the ability to choose where to live, rather than having to be willing to move anywhere for the job. To me, it also felt like my research could have a wide and immediate impact. Seeing my recommendation sections quickly materialize into positive changes was professionally gratifying. So too was the ability to work across multiple disciplines in a collaborative and supportive culture.

Matt Rafalow is Research Manager of New Experiences on YouTube, and like Miner, he began his career with a summer internship at Yahoo!Labs, which taught him how to work with non-social scientists on research projects. He helped found TechnoSoc, an online community for sociologists looking to work in tech that is a useful resource if you are interested in learning more.

  1. Financial Planning

Ervin (Maliq) Matthew writes about how financial planning became a career where he could directly impact the lives of underserved communities. Likewise, one of my former students opened a tax preparation business after earning his degree in sociology, and helps low-income clients utilize resources they might not know about, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).

Matthew explains that his understanding of the history of abuses the financial industry in minoritized communities, along with training in demography, helps him connect with clients in ways others might not be able to. He notes:

My approach to work is mission-based and is informed by an awareness of how socioeconomic inequality matters for life chances, both of its own accord and in interaction with other personal attributes….as well as an awareness of how opportunities to translate income into wealth play a role in exacerbating said inequality.

In some cases, Matthew challenges “adverse decisions” from underwriters to potentially help clients get loans or insurance after being denied. His knowledge of the patterns of discrimination are particularly useful for serving and advocating for clients of color. As he details, helping clients with their finances has direct, real-world implications for creating social change:

As someone for whom social stratification and social mobility matter deeply—both in my personal story and as my research specializations—I welcomed a new opportunity to marry sociological perspectives that I had gained over the course of my academic career with new tools that could directly influence the outcomes I care about.

  1. Government Agencies

Christopher Steven Marcum, Assistant Director for Open Science and Data Policy, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, explains how his work impacts public policies at the federal level. He has held many positions, including one at the National Institutes of Health, utilizing his quantitative training and applying this to his interest in health during the pandemic. He notes:

Sociology provides a valuable framework from which many careers in government science and policy can be built. In my own work, sociological thinking and imagination, research methodology expertise, compassion for the diversity of human experience across the life course, and a deep understanding of inequality are all strengths of the discipline that I rely upon to guide my science policy perspective and influence my decision-making process.

Similarly, Sidra Montgomery discusses how research insights can help military leaders with gender integration within the recruitment and training process through conducting qualitative research:

Understanding recruit training is impossible without attending to the social in a significant way. Developing effective policy recommendations requires an attentiveness to what people do (and what they don’t do); why they do it; how people shaped what has been done; and what meanings are produced, shared, and sacred in this process. Policies without consideration for the people operationalizing the policy and those impacted by the policy (in this example, drill instructors and recruits, respectively) will, ultimately, succumb to failure. Sociology attends to that which cannot be ignored: the people, their relationships, social nuances, and cultural habits.

She also describes how other projects she has worked on contribute to policy decisions:

I provide research support for the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, one of the longest standing U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) federal advisory committees, which provides annual recommendations to the Secretary of Defense on the recruitment, retention, employment, integration, well-being, and treatment of service women. I conduct research for the Naval Health Research Center, identifying risk and protective factors for military spouses and families using longitudinal data from the Millennium Cohort Family Study. I am also engaged with research and policy work for the DoD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.

Many other social scientists work on research that informs public policy, as Nelson Lim, RAND Corporation Senior Social Scientist describes:   “My clients vary in size and mission, ranging from the U.S. Department of Defense to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and from federal and local law enforcement agencies to fire departments.” Henry H. Brownstein worked both in academia and within state and federal-level criminal justice agencies, as well as private research organizations within his career.

These are just a few examples of careers for people with sociology training. Other sociologists wrote in Footnotes about working in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion roles and in academic administration. Hopefully these stories will inspire you to think about how you might use your sociology degree to find work that is meaningful to you.


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