Getting the most from your sociology (or other liberal arts) degree

“What is sociology? What are you going to do with that once you're finished your degree?”

These are questions that any sociology student—and students in many disciplinary areas—will have to answer for friends, family, other students, over the course of completing an undergraduate degree (and in some cases, a master's or doctoral degree). Most importantly though, students will want to have good answers to these questions for themselves. Knowing how to articulate the discipline one studies and the skills one develops during such study is crucial for planning and navigating a career once university studentship has ended.

After years of speaking with high school students, undergraduate students, graduate students, and parents I have come to realize that what incites the question “what will you do with that degree” is that most undergraduate degrees do not lead to a well defined career path with a specific job title. The exceptions that can be found at most universities are accounting, nursing, engineering, and social work. I might have included law, medicine, and teaching in that list, but in Canada those are typically post degree certifications that require students to have already earned a degree. So the advice I offer here will be relevant to students wishing to apply to such programs or graduate school because knowing what you have learned and the skills you have developed in your first degree will help you write better applications for your secondary degrees.

The modern world is largely defined by groups of people that more or less systematically engage with one another—and facilitating technologies—to create organizations in order to achieve particular ends. For example, a business is an organization that uses human and technological resources to generate value and wealth; a government is an organization that uses policies and law to regulate and further organize people. Organizations need information and want people who are effective at gathering it and making it useful for decision making by understanding and interpreting the information.

As you complete courses toward a sociology degree you learn about people, how they organize, the products of their organization (e.g., culture, knowledge, gizmos), and the consequences of these (e.g., crime, inequality, poverty, wealth). If you take social research methods, social theory, and statistics courses, you will not only be an adept information gatherer, but also be effective at contextualizing and interpreting that data. Being thoughtful about the courses you take and the assignments you complete toward earning a sociology degree—including the electives you take in the other social sciences, humanities, and sciences—will help you get the most out of your degree and help you understand the value you can bring to a potential employer. I recently created an undergraduate skills tracking CV template that can help you think about your education so that you can more effectively talk about it, write about it in a resume, and to help you do well at a job interview.

Much of the substantive knowledge and practical skills you develop during an undergraduate degree can also help you be more effective at day to day decision making in your own life. For example, a doctor may want to recommend a treatment for you or one of your children. This will almost certainly prompt you to ask about the risks involved. If you understand statistics—the primary tool of analysis for many sciences, including medicine—you can inquire about whether the risks are relative or absolute (you want to know about absolute risk not relative risk, which is based on instances of an event such as a bad outcome occurring in comparison between two groups and which can make it seem like the risks of a bad outcome are much higher in the population than they truly are). Liberal arts also can help you better understand your relationships with other people, such as a friend or spouse. For example, imagine an argument with a spouse. If you are thoughtful about such interactions you will often realize that what seems like an interpersonal problem (e.g. getting angry with one another) is often a situational problem (e.g., the economy tanked, your spouse got laid off from work and is dealing with stress with that situation, but is inadvertently attributing the stress to you not doing the dishes). By taking a moment to think about your interaction and using your understanding of people you can contextualize problems that arise, try to work with your spouse to repair the relationship, and hopefully be reflective to avoid similar unnecessary confrontations in the future.

So what is sociology and what are you going to do with that degree once you're done?

Sociology is the study of understanding people and the effects of what they do.The world is full of people working, playing, inventing, generating value, distributing wealth (and poverty), and generally just trying to figure out what the heck to do with their lives. Employers are seeking people who can hit the ground running once they've been hired, learn quickly and effectively about their new organization and their duties, be willing to adapt and learn as requirements change. Employers also seek individuals who can gather information toward solving problems, and who can communicate effectively while working independently or with others. An undergraduate sociology degree—and many liberal arts degrees—offer opportunities to build all of those skills and more, but you have to be willing to take advantage of those opportunities and be thoughtful about them so that you know how to articulate your abilities to yourself, potential employers, and have an idea of how you will use your growing skill set to solve problems across different settings.

Example of a Simple Problem That Arises at Work

Sometimes a problem is as simple as using an email program that you have never worked with in the past to create an email list so that your organization can contact multiple stakeholders and update them on the status of a project. An employer would not be impressed by someone who takes hours to complete such a task, or who is knocking on a manger's door to ask how to do it. Instead, the thoughtful and skillful employee might break the situation into smaller problems and figure out how to solve each piece:

Question – on what time line does my manager need this completed? Who needs to be included on the list?
Answer – my manager is assigning this to me right now at our team meeting, I can ask for all of the information I need right now at this meeting. I will let her know that I don't have experience with the program, but that I'll figure it out with little effort.

Question – how do I use the program, where can I get information to get this done?
Answer – I can do an Internet search to find a tutorial and make a test list to be sure I did it correctly.

Question – who are all the stakeholders that need to be included in the list? Who has that information?
Answer – my manager forgot to send me the list of stakeholders, but mentioned that Janice in accounting has the list. I'll contact Janice directly and get the list and then use what I have learned to create the mail list in the email program.

Completion – The list is working and I sent out our first message, none of the emails bounced back, I emailed Janice in Accounting to thank her for the information she provided, and carbon copy the email to my manager so that she is aware the task is complete.