mastering sociology

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:

  1. 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;
  2. Students who receive some kind of promotion or pay for holding a Master’s degree; and
  3. 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.

8 thoughts on “mastering sociology”

  1. Sociology is the most methodologically diverse of the social sciences, so given that there are MA programs that focus on cultivating research skills, one could see that as a nice fit. Would be an even stronger fit if the discipline-at-large increases its ratio of methodologists:methods.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There is a HUGE market for people who can analyze quantitative data and explain what the results mean. (This was the conclusion of some market research we commissioned; I’m not just making this up.) There is also a market for people who can collect, analyze, and report on qualitative information. It is true that the business school or policy school label is what people first think about, but we do teach marketable skills. The problem is also to inform ourselves about those markets so that we can give useful advice to people who want to use those skills for things other than being sociologists. Our alumni with business backgrounds also say that they think a sociology degree teaches a kind of systemic thinking about how things connect in society that is often very useful and different from what other disciplines offer.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I think there are a ton of places in private industry that sociological theory are applicable to, but industry still thinks sociology is communist summer camp, and our attitude about them isn’t often better. That mismatch is probably strongest in finance.

    MA programs might more easily start with feeding management consulting (orgs), marketing (culture), and price-making vs. price taking industries like art and law (econ soc).

    Incidentally, if more people would go sell their skills on the private market as Ph.D.s, it would compete up our academic salaries (and their private industry salaries) in the long run.

    All sociology Ph.D. students have lots of experience with meetings (seminars), leading meetings (teaching), presenting, translating information, global organizational/social functional analysis, strategy, group conflict, analyzing changes in tastes and values, and so on.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I concur with @grahamalam. When I speak to my friends about sociology, the immediate impression they have is that we are all (a) marxist or (b) sociological research is akin to cultural studies, that is we analyze south park, movies etc. I even remember telling someone that I run statistical model and they look at me incredulously and ask, why would sociologists care about data?

    We should do a better job at marketing our skills because as all the previous commenters have mentioned, sociologists have a diverse skill sets.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks, all! All of these suggestions make sense and will be really helpful. I think that it will definitely help us shape our thinking as we move forward with our program here.


  6. My university offers MAs mostly on the way to the PhD (with occasional exceptions), but there is steady pressure from administration to increase MA enrollment as MAs pay their own way. We aren’t very excited about the prospect of simply admitting more MA students into what is basically a program to train PhD sociologists, but there has been some talk about the possibility of creating an applied MA with a quantitative focus, presumably targeted at folks working in and around state government. This has basically been just talk so far, but the comments here suggest that such a move might not be totally irresponsible, which is interesting and useful to know.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. We are basically in the same boat regarding MAs — and being in D.C. we can target people in and around the federal government. I, like you, am thinking that this makes a little bit more sense than I originally thought.

      Liked by 2 people

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