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Careers: Graduate Study

Considering graduate study

Thinking about getting an advanced degree in sociology? This kind of degree is necessary for a career in academic sociology beyond the high school level. It is also important for many non-academic careers in applied and clinical sociology.

Applied and clinical sociology

Applied sociology is the use of the discipline with the specific intent of yielding practical applications for human behavior and organizations. Clinical sociology is the use of disciplinary knowledge to facilitate change. The primary difference between the two is that applied sociology tends to be evaluative (e.g., consulting work), and clinical sociology is dedicated to altering social relationships and behavior patterns (e.g., therapy) or to restructuring social institutions (e.g., urban planning).

Types of graduate degrees in sociology

There are two basic graduate degrees available in sociology: the master’s degree and the doctorate. The Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) is typically the highest degree awarded in sociology.

The master’s degree may be either a Master of Arts (M.A.) or Master of Science (M.S.), depending upon the school or the preference of either the department or, in some cases, the individual student. The master’s may take anywhere from one to three years, depending on the program, whether a thesis is required, and the speed of the student.

The doctorate requires at least four or five years of study beyond the bachelor’s and signifies competence for original research and scholarship as evidenced by the completion of a book-length research study called a “dissertation.” The master’s degree can be either a step toward the doctorate or an end in its own right. It generally signifies advanced knowledge of the field’s perspectives and methods, but does not necessarily indicate that any original research has been conducted.

Careers and degrees

There are some jobs and careers for which a master’s degree alone is adequate. A sociology M.A. or M.S. is sufficient for teaching at the secondary school or two-year college level, and for work with public agencies and private businesses. A Ph.D. is usually required for teaching and research at the university level and for high-level employment with good promotion prospects in non-academic research institutes, private industry, and government agencies.

Graduate school qualifications

Admission into graduate school is very competitive. The following factors are major considerations in graduate school acceptance:

Grades

Your cumulative grade point average will be one determinant of whether you are admitted to a graduate program in sociology. Many graduate schools put greater weight on your most recent work, recognizing it as a more valid indicator than your earlier semesters. As a very general guideline, GPA below 3.0 will hurt your chances for admission, and one above 3.5 will enhance chances of getting into the more competitive and prestigious programs.

Standardized Test Scores

Graduate schools emphasize these scores because they provide a common yardstick for comparing applicants from dissimilar undergraduate experiences. They recognize that grades are affected by the varying standards of colleges and professors. The following two tests are those most commonly required:

Graduate Record Exam – General
When you hear people refer to “the GRE,” it usually means this 3.5-hour test. Administered by the Educational Testing Service, it is much like the SAT and other tests you may have taken in the past. The GRE yields three scores—verbal, quantitative, and analytical. There are a number of study manuals on the market (some are in the departmental library and in the college bookstore) which are helpful in familiarizing you with the types of questions asked, but there are limits to how much you can improve your score on this test by using such materials.

Graduate Record Exam – Subject
This 2.5-hour GRE test measures your knowledge of a certain field, such as sociology. Some graduate schools are more interested in your general scores. The assumption is that if you have the intellectual ability as reflected in your general scores, the graduate program can teach you what you need to know about sociology. Surprisingly, one of the best ways to prepare for a subject GRE is to master a rigorous introductory textbook. Reviewing tests and notes from your sociology courses is also helpful.

You can get more information about the tests and how to register at the GRE Web site (www.gre.org). Although it is possible to take both the general and subject tests on the same day, it is advisable to take them on separate dates.

Research Experience

Because most doctoral programs are research-oriented, graduate schools favor applicants with research experience, particularly if that experience is substantiated by a formal presentation or publication. This can be difficult for an undergraduate to accomplish, so don’t be discouraged from applying if you can’t list any presentations or publications on your application. You can, however, seek to establish such a record by (a) taking recommended data analysis, statistics, or research design courses; (b) assist a faculty member on a research project; or (c) inquire about opportunities to make student presentations on scholarly panels.

Recommendation Letters

Most schools will ask for three or four letters from professors or work supervisors who know you. You should give your letter-writers the necessary forms, addressed and stamped envelopes, and adequate time to meet the deadline. Many schools now require recommenders to complete forms online..

Your Application

Many applications require a personal statement. It is useful to ask a faculty member to review your personal statement and give you feedback before you submit it. The statement is the one opportunity for you to “sell” yourself to the graduate program and to explain the other, more objective details of your application. Finally, keep in mind that you are being evaluated through your application, and every detail counts. Your application should be complete, neat, and submitted on or before the stated deadline. Admissions committees at some graduate programs will review applications as soon as they are received, so it may be possible to get a jump on the competition with an application submitted earlier.

Graduate school preparation timetable

Junior year, Fall and Spring

 • Research areas of interest, schools and graduate programs
 • Talk to advisors about application requirements
 • Register and prepare for appropriate admissions tests (GRE, MCAT, LSAT, etc.)
 • Investigate funding (financial aid) opportunities like fellowships, assistantships, etc.

Junior year, Summer

 • Take required admissions tests
 • Request application materials
 • Visit programs and schools of interests, if possible
 • Write a draft of your personal statement
 • Check on application deadlines and enrollment admissions policies

Senior year, Fall

 • Arrange for recommenders to write letters
 • Take (or re-take) graduate admissions tests if you haven't yet taken them
 • Send in completed applications

Senior year, Spring

 • Register for Graduate and Professional School Financial Aid Service (GAPSFAS), if required
 • Check with all your graduate programs before the application deadline to make sure your file is complete
 • Visit programs that accept you
 • Send a deposit to the school of your choice
 • Notify other programs that accepted you of your decision, so that they may admit students on their waiting lists
 • Send thank-you notes to your recommenders, telling them about your successes