Every single time I tell people that I’m going to graduate school to study Sociology, I invariably get these two questions (and anyone whose major isn’t Education, Law, Medicine or Engineering already knows what those two questions are going to be):

1.) But what exactly does that mean?

2.) Oh. So what can you do with a degree in that?

I understand why people ask these questions. You don’t get a lot of Sociologists at Career Day, and despite the borderline-obsessive study of potential majors that I conducted before entering college, the discipline itself isn’t something I became familiar with until I had exhausted pretty much every other major that remotely interested me. (Which I will address in a minute.)

But, given that I’m hopefully going to be spending at least the next six to seven years studying, teaching, and researching the subject (this is, assuming that I don’t jump off the higher education bandwagon and pursue a teaching career at the secondary level), I figured it would be a good idea to do a post about Sociology, what it is, what you can do with it, and why I love it. I will probably then proceed to print off several copies of this post, and hand them out whenever anyone asks me these questions in the future. Because I’m lazy.

First, a background.

This is a little embarrassing for me to admit, but I changed my major every single semester I was in college. Thank God that my International Baccalaureate credits brought me into college as a junior, otherwise I would still be flailing around in my undergraduate degree. I can’t remember in what order I declared, undeclared, and re-declared myself, but I do know that, in the three and-a-half years I spent in college, I was a Political Science, History, Anthropology, Religious Studies, International Studies, and Interdisciplinary Social Science major (I finally graduated with the last degree, and a minor in History).

I just wasn’t satisfied with any of the disciplines I studied. I loved all of them, but each was lacking something that I very dearly wanted to make a part of my academic pursuits, and it was frustrating to think that I might just have to settle for “the least disappointing” major.

So one day, while I was scrolling through the list of majors that my university offered, I decided to investigate Sociology. I really had no idea what the subject was about, but it sounded mildly intriguing, and so to the Sociology Department website I went. I liked what I saw, so I did a little more research online.

And then “a little more research” turned into “reading everything I could find on the subject”.

By the time I had signed up for my Intro to Sociology course, I was already convinced this was the subject for me.

Which leads me to answer the first question: what is Sociology?

Sociology is, very basically, the study of society. To quote the University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill, “At its most basic, sociology is an attempt to understand and explain the way that individuals and groups interact within a society.”

Sociology is kind of like a sister discipline to Psychology. Whereas Psychology looks at the way physiology, drugs, and other stimuli affect human behavior, Sociology looks at the way human behavior, from something as small as a friendship to something as big as the course of a nation’s history, is determined by the way human beings interact with themselves and the world.

Or, to quote everyone’s favorite social theorist, Karl Marx: humans “‘make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.”

Or, to quote my all-time favorite poem: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man/ is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

Implicit in the study of Sociology (and most social sciences) is the idea that “free will” is far less free than many people would like to believe, and that even something as intimate as our personal worldview or the mate we choose is strongly influenced by social forces beyond our control (think- your gender identity, your race and its social status in the culture in which you were born, the education level and income of your parents, the religious community in which you are brought up, etc). Having a sociological imagination is a crucial part of understanding these almost-imperceptible social contexts, but that’s a subject for a different post.

Basically, Sociologists use a variety of research methods to study the ways in which society shapes human behavior, and vice-versa. We might study, for example, the way Evangelical Christians tend to vote on certain issues, the effect that a parent’s socioeconomic status has on the marital choices of their child, or whether the Recession has affected the choices high school seniors have had to make when it comes to higher education.

Being that any and every aspect of society is studied under Sociology, it’s understandably a broad field. You have Sociologists who study sports, medicine, social networks, pets, religion, gender and sexuality, class conflict, family structures, history, immigration, race and ethnicity, political movements, food and dining, education, etc., and pretty much every possible combination of those subjects. (I am most interested in the intersection of religion, history, and gender/sexuality, but give me just about any topic in Sociology and I’ll eat it up.)

So… what can you do with Sociology, besides whip up macchiatos and chai lattes?

Well, actually, a lot.

Employers in all industries have a strong appetite for the research skills that you develop after taking several graduate level statistics and various research methodology courses. I’m also told that the private sector is interested in hiring people who have made it their business to understand how and why people behave the way they do.

But should your interests lie elsewhere- as mine currently do- there is also good news for you. There are many research institutions/think tanks that specialize in fields tangential to Sociology, if you’d prefer to publish more than teach. And the government always needs social scientists to help guide its policies, so that’s an option, too. Best of all for me, out of all the social science disciplines, Sociology PhDs are looking at some of the best job prospects in academia. This was encouraging, as I briefly thought about getting a PhD in History, until I realized how dismally low the employment rate was for doctorates in the field.

Thankfully, the odds are good that at the end of my graduate education, some university somewhere will be willing to hire me to educate young minds about things like racism, sexism, the role of religion in a postmodern society, and how to be more empathetic people.

So in case you were wondering what the heck I’m doing with all of that taxpayer money that’s going towards my public university fellowships and stipends, there you have it. 🙂