Karen Sternheimer teaches in the sociology department at the University of Southern California. Her research focuses primarily on moral panics, youth, and popular culture, and she is editor of the Everyday Sociology Reader (W. W. Norton, 2020). Her commentary has been published in the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, and the San Jose Mercury News. This article was originally posted on Norton’s Everyday Sociology Blog, where you can get a sociological take on current events with today’s sociologists.
One of the questions students ask me most frequently is what they can do with a sociology degree. My answer: it is a useful degree only if you plan on working with people. Or working alone but with clients. In other words, a sociology degree provides a lot of useful applications for any career.
Any degree provides a skill set, and often the skill sets you develop within one major overlap quite a bit with others. Rather than thinking of a degree as training for a specific career (i.e. being a sociology major is for people who want to be sociologists), a degree helps you fine-tune your unique skills and interests for a career, which will likely evolve quite a bit over time. According to a 2021 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people born between 1957 and 1964 held on average 12.4 jobs in their working life.
Where your career will lead is often a mystery, whose solution you probably won’t be able to predict far in advance. As I discussed in this post a decade ago, your interest in a subject should guide what major you choose. The career application is the next step to consider.
Let’s apply sociology to several career options. This comprehensive infographic shows how sociological concepts connect with a very wide range of jobs. Which sociology classes have you taken (or hope to take) that are most interesting to you? Take a look at the larger circles on the infographic and check out the jobs described in the smaller connecting circles.
Maybe you are already considering some job interests. Which large circles are those jobs connected with? The large circles can help point you to courses you might consider taking that will be particularly relevant to your career interests. You can also independently read a sociological text on that subject or peruse research that looks interesting in that area. (Your Introduction to Sociology book will have a long list of references for each chapter, and these can get you started reading more.)
I occasionally hear back from students years later and learn a little about their career trajectories. Some have gotten involved in politics after being part of advocacy organizations hoping to create social change (one of my former students ran for mayor of a large metropolitan area!). Others have become organizers registering people to vote and advocating for particular causes.
Sometimes students come to my classes with a clear path in mind (law school, medical school are some top choices), only to find once they are there it is not quite right for them. One former student became an attorney and noticed the vast inequities within the high-powered law firm he worked for and decided to specialize in human resource management in the legal profession. His skills in observing and identifying various forms of inequality were sharpened within his sociology courses, but he didn’t know how he would be using them until many years later.
You might start off focusing on one of the job circles, and later find yourself gravitating towards another as your interests and your career evolve. In graduate school days, I thought I would eventually focus on research only, working either at a think tank or in private industry. As a graduate student teaching assistant, I graded hundreds of blue book essays and knew I never wanted to do that again. I was a research assistant for several years in graduate school and figured that I would take that path.
And yet I started teaching right after graduate school (but never had students write essays in blue books), and I teach research methods. While I have done quite a bit of research over the years, my interest in teaching emerged after graduate school and has evolved ever since.
Your career will likely evolve too. Finding your interests and sharpening your vast array of tools are important first steps that you can take within your sociology major.
Looking for additional career resources for your students? Download a copy of our careers in sociology poster here, where students can explore potential pathways for their careers, or request the recording from our “What Can I Do with a Sociology Degree?” workshop, where current and former sociology majors shared how they use their sociological imaginations in their jobs, internships, and further study.