Career Q&A: Experiences as a Sociologist

Question from one of my Tumblr followers:

What have your experiences in the field of sociology been like? Where did you go to school, and what are you doing now? I appreciate any feedback you might give me; I’ve already found your blog to be super inspiring. Thank you 🙂

In answer to your questions:

What have your experiences in the field of sociology been like?

Sociology is my passion and my work experiences have been varied and wonderful! I worked as a research assistant and teacher at an Australian university while I was completing my PhD. I worked on lots of different projects and I would recommend you do the same (either as a volunteer or in a paid position) so you can work out what you are interested in.

With respect to my work as a researcher, I started off working as a Computer Assisted Telephone Interviewer (CATI). This is the type of work you would start off doing if you wanted to go into marketing/social marketing, but I actually worked for a research centre on a survey of ‘public good’ (what the public thought about the Australian government privatising all of our public utilities). I also worked on other projects for a Sociology Professor (on big businesses and biotechnology issues). At the same time, I taught various undergraduate subjects that helped me to strengthen how I communicated my own ideas and research. It was also a good way to become comfortable with being in front of audiences.

The year after I completed my PhD I worked as a sociology lecturer and as a research assistant for a Social Marketing Professor (on a project on public information campaigns for welfare recipients). I love teaching and I would encourage students to give it a go at least once, but ultimately I decided academia was not for me. It’s very tough on early career sociologists. It’s very competitive because most sociologists want to be academics and there aren’t many positions. Despite the fact that I’d already been teaching for four years, I was a new PhD graduate, and as such, I was competing with people with far longer postdoctoral experience. If you want to have an academic career, you can generally expect to work for at least a couple of years on temporary contracts and this wasn’t something that suited me.

I ended up deciding to do something completely different and so I applied for a tonne of jobs in many different fields where sociologists don’t usually work. I was pleasantly surprised that many industries are hungry for sociologists, so I had lots of places from which to choose.

In the end, I went into the Australian public service. I have worked as a researcher and analyst in government for the past six years. I found this work really fantastic and challenging. I worked in an interdisciplinary team, mostly with mathematicians, computer scientists, and natural scientists. It was tough but intellectually very rewarding. You get to have a direct impact on how social policies are generated which is fantastic, but it’s not always easy because I constantly had to ‘translate’ sociological ideas for policy workers and specialists from other areas who think about the world really differently. That was the hardest thing, but this is also the best part of the job, because it kept me on my toes.

Where did you go to school?

I went to Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia, which has a very small but highly dedicated sociology department. I did all of my undergraduate and postgraduate studies there. The intimate nature really suited me. It gave me the opportunity to get to know my lecturers and I had a good relationship with my thesis supervisors as I’d known them for years.

I would say that your way of thinking is probably the better way to go – it’s generally better to do your undergraduate and postgraduate stints in different universities. So your idea of transferring to another university is smart – it means you will have a broader network of colleagues which will be advantageous when you start looking for work. Small universities are good because the learning experience is more personal – but the downside is that there are less units to choose from. Larger universities will have lots of sociology courses you can take. It depends on the type of educational experience you want. Have a look at different sociology department websites because they will list all their courses and you can also have a look at their staff profiles. Read up on the published research of the lecturers in different universities because that might also give you an idea of where you’d like to study.

Another thing to note is that I did an undergraduate Bachelor of Arts degree with a double major in sociology and media. My media studies and the other elective subjects I took as an undergraduate (literature, statistics, psychology, philosophy) have ALL been useful in my career as a sociologist.

What are you doing now?

Ha! What a timely question – I actually quit my job not too long a go! I had moved to another city when I took up my government job and then I moved again temporarily last year for a six month secondment. I have been away from my home city for a really long time and I decided it was time for yet another career change. I still haven’t worked out what I want to do next, but I’m taking a much deserved break til I figure out my next move.

Hope all that helps! As you’re trying to decide whether sociology is for you and where you’d like to study, I would say be proactive like you have done here and read up on different sociology departments and get in touch with the department heads or with individual sociologists you think you might like to learn from. Have a look at the websites of the sociology organisations in whatever country you think you might like to live in. For example, The Australian Sociological Association, The British Soc Ass, The American Soc Ass, The Japan Sociological Society, etc. Also have a look around for scholarships because that might also impact on where you end up. Different countries have different schemes available, but you can also have a look on the grants page at The International Sociological Association website. Most scholarships are for Honours and PhD students, but occasionally there are opportunities for undergrads/sophomores.

If you have any other questions, don’t be shy and send them through!