What purpose does a terminal MA in sociology serve and what purpose should a terminal MA in sociology serve?
These questions have come to my mind after spending three years in a department with a terminal masters program (and no Ph.D. program). To partially answer the first question, I can say that there seem to be three kinds of students who enter our program:
- Students who want to pursue a Ph.D. program and either don’t have the credentials to be accepted currently or don’t feel like they have the credentials to be accepted;
- Students who receive some kind of promotion or pay for holding a Master’s degree; and
- Students how liked undergrad and want to continue in school with a vague idea that they want to do non-academic research (e.g., in think-tanks) who might also be, possibly, maybe-in-the-future, considering a Ph.D. program.
For the first group, the terminal MA seems to serve a defined goal. The information to make the decision is "knowable," though I am not sure how many follow solid advice not to enter Ph.D. programs. The second group probably makes the most sense since everything is on the table. The benefits seem clear for those in the second category since one could evaluate what one would pay in tuition or student loans against the expected future return in increased salary.
It is the third group which concerns me.
I am not sure what purpose an MA in sociology would help one do after graduating. It seems that if one wants to work for a quantitatively driven think tank a Master’s in Public Policy might be more appropriate for social or economic research or a Master’s in Public Health or Epidemiology for public health. If one wants to work with organizations to improve the condition of people in society, it seems that Masters of Social Work would be more recognized by future employers. I suppose that there are some positions for which a M.A. in sociology might uniquely qualify someone for a job, like a qualitative researcher or conducting focus groups for corporations (though I might question the degree to which one needs a general M.A. to do that).
In other words, other than general edification or following one’s interests, I do not see much practical payoff to an M.A. in sociology unless one is going to pursue a Ph.D. (and even that seems like it might be a poor investment). I am not opposed to general edification and think it extremely valuable in an undergraduate curriculum. But presumably a Masters is a professional degree and I am unsure what "profession" one masters with an M.A. in sociology.
That leads to the second question: what purpose should a terminal MA in sociology serve?
Are we missing opportunities as a discipline to define a field of mastery that could provide socially productive benefits? It seems that our range of inquiry and methods would offer something unique to non-profits, governments, and the for-profit sector.
As discussions about master’s programs have continued at my university, it seems like sociology is uniquely positioned to teach methods in a way that would be valuable for professionals. Among other things, the financial crisis revealed the problem of relying too heavily on "quants," knowing the limits of quantitative research and value of qualitative research might have provided early detection of problems in people’s lives. Put that way, it’s not hard to see how an investor might profit off of mixed-method research and it would be difficult to think of somewhere besides a sociology department where people could get all of that.
It seems somewhat unethical to continue running a program that may or may not help students who graduate earn enough to make the two-year (or more) investment in tuition and lost opportunity costs. But, I also don’t want to be paternalistic and assume that I know best what students should want. So I am interested in ideas about what an MA in sociology should provide and if an MA in sociology makes sense.