How Great is being a Sociologist?
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 behind 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 people 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 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?