From the Director of Graduate Studies: Beyond Academia (by Philip Cohen)


In last year’s letter I recommended broadening yourself, supplementing your specialization with a wide variety of knowledge, and pursuing in-depth study of topics other than your own. But what about broadening yourself beyond academia?

Students might be surprised to hear that there is wide support among faculty for the diversity of career goals and outcomes that our students pursue – this doesn’t always come across. Personally, I am happy and proud to see the students with whom I have worked use their graduate training in sociology to build successful careers, contribute to the common good, and live fulfilling lives (or at least one or two of those) – regardless of their industrial or occupational destination.

As a department, we want to build a program in which students can thrive, emerging prepared for any of the things you can do with PhD in sociology. And yet, there are three strong reasons why today’s faculty members orient their teaching and training efforts toward students who are aiming for tenure-track academic jobs, especially at research universities. First, the ability to place graduates in such jobs is a primary metric – along with academic publications – by which our department’s prestige (and our personal reputations) within the discipline of sociology and on our campus is established. It is cold comfort for the majority of students to know that our department, if we want to be considered successful at placing students in tenure-track jobs, could do pretty well by placing a minority of students in such jobs. That’s academia.

Second, just because our faculty comprises the very best analysts of social life in the world doesn’t imply that we’re also top-notch experts when it comes to understanding the dynamics right under our noses. We have our biases and preconceptions, our blinders and misapprehensions. Usually, I have found, faculty seek to replicate for their students the graduate school experience that they had (or wish they had had). That makes perfect sense, because for most of us, we have the kind of job we wanted when we were in grad school, so it seems to have worked. As a result, we think we’re doing students a favor by orienting everything toward tenure-track, research-oriented jobs.

And of course we have students who themselves are geared for academic jobs, and they push in that direction as well – which is absolutely appropriate. Getting a PhD from a research university is pretty much the only way to get a job on the faculty of such an institution, so a place like this is where you go if that’s the career you want, and you can reasonably expect to receive the training necessary for pursuing that goal. If we don’t train people for these careers, no one will.

In 2006 the American Sociological Association surveyed more than 600 employed PhD sociologists working outside of the professoriate (there is a PowerPoint document with the results here). Most of the respondents worked in the fields of health, education, statistics, or demography; a third worked in the public sector (as do many of our graduates). The responses to that survey are relevant for our department today.

Although they were well prepared for many aspects of their jobs, there were several areas where the non-academic sociologists reported feeling under-trained: policy analysis, visual presentation, grant writing, and program evaluation.

For improving graduate education, the number one recommendation was to increase information about non-academic careers and reduce snobbery toward such work.

These are good goals for us. Expanding training in these areas, and improving our positive communication about careers outside academia, would help our students regardless of their career direction.


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