January 24, 2009

How Great is being a Sociologist?

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

I think I have a pretty good job. I get to think about, talk about, and write about sociology every day. As high as my job satisfaction is, I was pleasantly surprised to see a Wall Street Journal article listing the best and worst jobs. Sociologist came in at number eight, just j0439422behind Mathematician, Actuary, Statistician, Biologist, Software Engineer, Computer Systems Analyst and Historian. Other top jobs include Industrial Designer, Accountant, Economist, Philosopher, and Physicist.

What makes being a sociologist so great? Like the other best jobs listed, sociologists’ thoughts and ideas are valued; many people in the best jobs work at universities, where we have a good deal of autonomy and respect. One great thing about what I do is that I feel like I am using my skills and talents each day, and the work is never dull or mundane. I get to read new books all the time—often for free—and then talk about them with other j0365652people who are interested in  the same topics.

The best jobs are also somewhat stable, relatively shielded from the highs and lows of the economy. My income doesn’t fluctuate wildly from year to year, and though few people ever get rich doing what I do, I have good benefits and a lot of time off. I work from home several days a week and can structure my time as I like on those days.

It’s not unusual for people to ask me how I decided to become a sociologist; did I always know this is what I wanted to do? I typically provide the quick version of the answer: I took a sociology class as an undergraduate because it fit in my schedule and I needed a social science class and liked it. In truth, the process was not so clear. I did stumble onto sociology by accident when the class I really wanted to take in the psychology department was closed. But when I initially decided to go on to graduate school I studied psychology—in part because of a list that indicated “psychologist” was a growing profession that paid well.

I didn’t even consider sociology at first because I never heard of anyone becoming a sociologist. When I was in high school, classmates talked of being doctors, lawyers, teachers, and psychologists, but never sociologists. So I figured the odds of getting a job were higher if I was a psychologist, and that was the deciding factor. I was struggling to pay j0439407 my bills as a recent college grad, and having a good paying job was my central motivation.

When I took the GRE subject test in psychology, I saw a woman given the sociology subject test and felt pangs of jealousy. I guess that was a sign. After earning a master’s degree in psychology, I realized that sociology was my true love and applied for a Ph.D. program. Looking back I’d have to say that sociology found me rather than the other way around. Despite all attempts at other careers, the siren song of sociology kept calling me.

Note that the better-known careers my high school classmates and I thought about did not make the Wall Street Journal’s top twenty. I suspect that these jobs carry with them high expectations: for doctors and lawyers in particular, a big paycheck and social status are often presumed. Their pathways are clear-cut too. How many people know (or are told) from an early age that they will be going to law school or medical school only to find that once they are there it is not for them? One acquaintance is still practicing law despite discovering more than a decade ago that he doesn’t enjoy it; he thinks that law is “all he is trained to do” and that he has no other options.

Feeling trapped is the antithesis of job satisfaction. Social psychologists have documented how feelings of autonomy at work contribute to self-esteem, and typically sociologists define middle-class status in part based on how much autonomy one has in their job. I have had several jobs with little autonomy: as a receptionist I had to ask for permission to use the bathroom, and at a corporate job I was expected to work very long days and could not go home until a supervisor said I could. I didn’t know if I would be off at 7 pm or 1 am, even if I got in at 9 am every day. I felt like a prisoner in my own life and became very unhappy and eventually experienced physical symptoms from the stress of hating my job and feeling out of control.

Jobs that are dangerous cause stress too. Among the Wall Street Journal’s worst jobs include Lumberjack, Taxi Driver, and Roofer. While individuals who do this work might enjoy it—the article quotes a very happy lumberjack—these kinds of jobs are often seasonal and can be repetitive. Taxi drivers are at risk for robbery on a regular basis as well. Some of the other occupations on the low end of the list, like Dairy Farmer and Construction Worker, require a great deal of physical labor. These jobs might not pay very well either, and people in these occupations may feel that they have few other options for employment.

The best occupations require a great deal of education, and while they offer financial stability they typically do not by any means guarantee wealth. Perhaps the most important common element of the Journal’s top jobs is that they all offer the satisfaction of using our minds rather than focusing only on amassing wealth or power. How do you think people’s occupational aspirations would change if they were encouraged first to focus on what they loved to do? How do economic realities often interfere with this idealistic notion?

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Comments

Funny, people laugh at me when I say I enjoy what I do, even though it is not my dream job, it does provide me with the flexibility to pursue my true passion, writing. I am also a sociologist by training, but decided I needed to travel the world and live in another country before I went back to school. My return to academia is inevitable, but for the moment I will focus on my writing and my "day" job in IT.
On to the questions you pose. Like you point out there are more factors involved when someone makes a career choice then just financial considerations. Too many fellow students in my uni were in a certain area of study because it would lead to a career. I was in school because I generally enjoyed my studies - I didn't quite care where it would lead me. I just liked the writing and research aspect. At any rate the looks I got when I said I loved school were met with amazement.
If people were encouraged to work in a field they loved I would guess we would have a happier workforce. I suppose the ideal would see work equal to a hobby or volunteer work. Not that I am advocating people working for free, but work in my mind should not feel like work at all. After all if we have to spend 40 or so hours a week a job, we should have the right to love what we do and get more out of it then just money. But because of financial reasons or pressures from family, friends, society - we are forced into professions/jobs we deplore for the most part.
There are two parts to the financial argument in my mind, first being the motivation to earn, but also lack of finances could land you in a job which you deplore, such as the born to be sociologist who has to work in a steal mill to help with the bills and can't afford school. So we need to relinquish not only the drive for money and power, but also the barriers which hinder people from pursuing their love, whether it is writing or solving computing problems - then perhaps as Maslow suggests we can self-actualize.
Besides the financial considerations involved we can also suggest a more fundamental problem, peer/societal pressure. Because if I understood the question right you are talking about personal financial motives. Just like my peers at university who laughed at the suggestion of me running off to Europe to write (I am the one laughing now) - their laugh was not solely financially motivated- there was the underlying norm of what one should do with ones life. There is that idea of a noble career. There is a hierarchy of careers, but the hierarchy depends on your background and where you grew up. For my extended family a noble career for a women was a nurse/teacher/wife, this idea was proven when my family praised my 22 year old cousin who just had her second child, while I was struggling to pay my tuition at 23. One path to live is not better than the next.
Though when we actually sit back and think about it for a money we begin to see we have very little choice in what we do. Even the drive for wealth is very rooted in the values of many societies around the world. Why we celebrate, for example, Bill Gates more than then other individuals is beyond me. Our motives for work are just the beginning of a very big pattern emerging in the world today. We have lost our values, our communities - before perhaps work was hard, but we worked for what we needed, now we work to participate in a consumerist society. One which will not let us pursue our passion for we must have the next new ipod and car. Anyways, nice blog,,, Sarah

I find these lists interesting because they seem to indicate that certain qualities are inherently undesirable in a profession, end of story. For example, physical labour.

Also, I have to question the following:

"Like the other best jobs listed, sociologists’ thoughts and ideas are valued; many people in the best jobs work at universities, where we have a good deal of autonomy and respect."

Really? We don't have client confidentiality, like psychiatrists. Our work is either looked at as statistics or non-scientific anthropological excursions. I disagree that we are highly valued. Perhaps in the academy, but sociology's public front has been woefully lacking over the past century.

Hi,

I'm intrigued by the work of sociologists, and so was immediately drawn to this post--could one of the authors possibly do a follow-up to talk a bit more about the work of sociologists? As one considering the field, I would love to hear more generally about the work of sociologists, but also specifically about some of the ways sociologists are asked to apply their expertise (e.g., in advising companies, policy, etc.). On a related note, it would be neat to know what percentage of sociologists are employed in academia versus other types of work.

Many thanks, this is such a welcome concept for a blog,

Brendan

Hi Brendan,

I don't have any numbers on me, but here are some general impressions from someone who is about to finish his undergraduate degree and is going for a doctoral in the Fall.

A lot of people major in sociology -- those who stay on past the undergrad system are the ones who will usually stay in academia. Otherwise, you can probably get work in a think tank, survey company, possibly human resources, government, and so forth.

I don't want to poison the well, but sociologists haven't always have the best "street cred" in public policy. A lot of papers are only read by other academics -- it's a trap that's easy to fall into. As I noted earlier, we don't have the kind of confidentiality afforded to professionals like psychologists. That means if you're doing research on people who are breaking the law, you could be called upon in court to reveal their identities.

It's not all bad though. Sociology is a very interesting and extremely diverse discipline, which makes it much less rigid than social sciences like economics. The price of such diversity is that, unlike economists, we don't really have a "united front" and we aren't valued as advisors in the same way as other social scientists.

I hope I haven't dissuaded you from the job. Sociology is, as I said, a very broad field which allows the pursuit of innumerable interests -- but if you're looking for prestige or a policy role, it might be hard to achieve outside the academy.

Cheers,

Matt

I love sociology but sometimes I fear a full time job as a sociologist doesn't really pay much. I live in southamerica and I know for a fact that there are other jobs in which I can make more money. Of course I feel kinda frustrated and hate to be outside the academia, but I think I will try to remain working outside the academia but the part of it through some independent publications and some part-time sociologist jobs I hope I can get.

Sincere regards. Sociology rocks.

Hey Matt,

Thanks for the word back, it's helpful to have thoughts from somebody who has some experience. I know i've got to take more time in the next few months, before considering applying places in the Fall, to seriously evaluate what i would like to do as an end game, and sort of work backwards from there to what i would need to know via a degree to do those things.

Thanks again for the thoughts back, and all the best as you (and Pablo and others here) look at what they may do with sociology!

Brendan

hey I'm currentley taking an online class on sociology and I find it very intresting. I think sociology is more of a "harder" science the psychology because it deals with a group of people.If people were encouraged to work in a field they loved I would guess we would have a happier workforce.

I think it is interesting that Sociology is ranked #8. I’ve worked with sociologists and for sociologists for the past two and a half years. I also hope to start my graduate studies in sociology this fall (I’m still waiting to see if I got into any of the programs I applied to). I wanted to get someone’s opinion regarding some of the issues I’ve observed for the past couple of years here at work.

1. Academic Sociologists Vs. Practicing Sociologists. Why is it that practicing sociologists are seen by most academics as "lesser" sociologists? It's almost like choosing a career in practicing/public sociology ends up being one's professional suicide, at least when it comes to how other sociologists perceive you.

2. Similarly, what is up with everyone having to publish? Whatever happened to teaching? I come from a liberal arts schools where funding for research is limited (or nonexistent). I’ve had some of the best teachers one could ever ask for, however, they will never get any recognition from their so called “peers” because they haven’t published enough. And on top of that, the peer review/publishing process is one of the most bureaucratic and exclusive processes I’ve seen in my life. If you do not know the right people, and if you’re not writing about the right subjects, you will never get published. I imagine the same kind of bureaucracy exists when applying to grants, applying for jobs, and even applying to graduate programs. Since my areas of interests are not necessarily the most popular right now, I fear that my career will suffer negatively because of this.

3. Finally, American Sociologists vs. “Rest of the world” sociologists. A similar thing happens to people who chose to study outside the US (with a few exceptions, like Canada, some schools in the UK and very few schools in other parts of the world). If sociology is to be considered a science by the rest of the scientific community, then shouldn’t we work towards a more “global” discipline? Of course there’s a few exception to this ridiculous dynamic, but it’s usually for senior sociologists (i.e. Manuel Castells, originally from Spain).

I could keep going. Like I said, my job has given my some interesting insights into the world of sociology. You can look at the methodology for the ranking here: http://www.careercast.com/jobs/content/JobsRated_10BestJobs
Please note that one of several reasons sociologist rank high is that they "seldom face deadlines". Now is that really true??

I very much agree with this post. I think people need to find the right job for them, the one that will make them happy and one that they actually enjoy doing. If you end up in a career that you can't stand, of course you are going to hate your job and be miserable. To be really successful in life I believe you need to do what truly makes you happy. When deciding in a career look at all aspects of the job not only the salary. Choose a job that will make you happy, even if it isn't the highest paying job. Parents are always telling their children to go out and get a well paying job, and that leads many people to get a job that they don't really enjoy. For example my parents are always telling me to get a successful and well paying job, however the job that I really want to do probably isn't the best paying job, but it would make me happy if I fulfill my dream. I think people need to go out and do what they want and they will be successful in different ways.

Thank you for an informative and instructional article. On the other hand I came across an outrageous article mocking and attacking sociologists and social workers at: http://www.helium.com/items/1610566-why-prison-inmate-rehabilitation-is-not-succeeding

This person should be condemned in the strongest terms!

Thanks, being a sociolgist interesting, however its hard to become a good and respectful sociolgist. For example a proffesor at University or College sounds good, but the chance for becomming a proffessor is 10%.


This was an informative, interesting and reassuring read. The comments are interesting, as well.

I am currently an undergraduate honours sociology student in Canada. I am on the path to becoming a sociologist and perhaps even a university professor. Although, I struggle between the seemingly dichotomous worlds of applied vs. "armchair" or academic sociology.

Sociologists are often not in the limelight and many people reside in the dark regarding sociology's application in terms of careers, et cetera. Sociology is relevant and important. Why are sociologists not valued more? How do sociologists become more involved in significant public discussions?

Thank you for this post. I look forward to exploring this site more!

Rachelle

im an aspiring sociologist, so thank you so much for telling about your knowledge and insight. its refreshing to hear an insiders view.

sincerely yours,
CM

That was great to read! I am 19 years old, from Montreal, and I love to learn about human behavior ! I used to be afraid of getting into sociology by fear to not get a job (and also because people underestimated this subject by telling me that it is useless), but now I clearly want to become a sociologist! The society is so fascinating, yet so complex. Every human being belongs to several groups, and each group can unconsciously affect the behaviour of one. By understanding patterns within society, we can improve and change so much! I will apply in McGill and do Sociology as a major!

I really loved this blog. I also feel that sociology chose me.
It was a realization that I could experience after 10 years away of my own homeland and several international experiences. My will to improve and understand our society fascinates me. I'm currently studying it and haven't felt this fulfilled in years. Now, finally I feel I found my career to be passion :)

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