New sociology grad student research agenda: Pros and cons

Last year I wrote some advice for students in our program, which came down to: Broaden yourself. In this follow-up I offer some advice about how to move from the statement of purpose into a graduate program, which might also help you pick a program (which many students are doing right now).

My advice will be: If you have to choose between a graduate program that specializes in the narrow field you want, versus one that you prefer for other (important) reasons, all else equal, go with the second one. For example, I’d rather have a great relationship with a faculty and change what I work on than have a crummy relationship with a faculty that focuses exactly on my topic coming in. In fact, that’s what I did do, and I’m glad I did.

To get into grad school in sociology, students write an essay about their research intentions. These are all over the map — offering both fascinating insights and maddening banalities, pure idealism and pure BS. But when it comes to what students plan to study, student mostly stick to (a) what you already care about; (b) what you already know about, and; (c) what pertains to your own life experience.

Based on my experiences with students, and evaluating maybe a thousand applications, I draw these examples from a common sociology applicant profile: socially progressive students who want to do good works, with a good portion from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds.

1. Researching something you already care deeply about

For example, you want to help stop rape, gender oppression, global warming, or racism; or you want to help the powerless organize, help children improve their educational prospects, or improve the efficiency of non-profit groups.

Pros: You are motivated to work on it, to make a positive social contribution. So you will work hard at it. You are smart and have already learned a lot, so you probably picked something that is very important.

Cons: Yours passion may blind you to other things that matter as much or more. In the moral grand scheme of things, what are the odds you chose the most important thing in the world? Locking yourself in now might prevent you from finding an even more important or rewarding issue or subject matter to embrace.

2. Researching something you already know a lot about

You have probably read a lot and learned a lot. You are already beginning to specialize. You have invested time and energy, and devoted memory capacity to these subjects.

Pros: You get a head start on your topic. The first literature review you write is already within your reach. You have already identified sub-topics to study, which is one of the hardest things to do in graduate school.

Cons: Limiting yourself to what you already care about might retard the development of your self-confidence by scaring you away from new topics. You might end up engaging intellectually and socially with others working on the same topics, to the exclusion of exciting new areas and people. You risk building your future research agenda up from a foundation you started when you really knew very little compared with what you will learn even in the next year or two. You overestimated the relative value of what you’ve already learned.

3. Researching something close to your own experience

This is sometimes dismissed as “mesearch” (see the review and discussion by Tom Medvetz here). The impulse to study the situation from which you emerged seems healthy and reasonable, especially for graduate students starting out. The privileged faculty member asks without compunction: “Why not study something completely different?” But the loyalties to family and friends, and the twisted emotional knot of human suffering, don’t allow such easy dismissals by the young student using social science and self-understanding to light the pathway out of a troubled personal or familial past.

Pros: It has all the pros of the first two elements: what you care about and what you know. It matters to you and to your family — who, wondering why you’re not using your hard work and smarts to get a degree in law or medicine, might be pacified by the argument that this will allow you to give back to your community.

Cons: It’s intellectually, professionally, and morally limiting. Intellectually: the power you build by learning new things is greater than that which you achieve from what you already know. Professionally: the connections you build and the knowledge you acquire outside your immediate interests expands your opportunities. Morally: whatever you have experienced, or those around you have experienced, someone has it worse, or there is a bigger problem to face; why not help them, or address that problem instead? These are questions you need to consider.

What does snow look like?

A sociologist starting out is like an amateur photographer, or should be. So many different ways to look at things! With a camera, a roll of film (ha), and enough time, an excitable amateur photographer can work on any subject and turn up enough fascinating angles and quirky compositions to bore even the most supportive group of Facebook friends. Look at these pictures of snow I took this season!





What I want new grad students to have is that sense of confidence, and wonder, that says, “I can make interesting and important research and teaching out of anything important in society.” If all goes well, you will learn much more than you know now, about things you never considered before, and you will develop the skills and perspective necessary to turn those new things into new knowledge that contributes something valuable to humanity. But for that to happen you have to trust your future self. I hope you’ll try.

6 thoughts on “New sociology grad student research agenda: Pros and cons

  1. I cannot agree with you more. I entered grad school with a firm idea what I wanna do and how I wanna do it. However, I kept an open mind and my interests have changed dramatically. Also I’m learning new techniques (stats, GIS) which, in my previous life, I wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot-pole


  2. I agree with most of your points, except this one: “whatever you have experienced, or those around you have experienced, someone has it worse…”

    By this logic, there is only one person in the world who we should study. That person has it “the worst” of anyone, and we should all study them and their plight, ignoring others. It’s a very weak argument and I think you could make your moral objection much stronger.


  3. I was hoping for some truth in advertising, and hope your advice will be:

    “There is little or no chance of obtaining a paying job as faculty or in business or government once you graduate with a PhD in sociology. Unless you commit yourself to a life of penury as adjunct faculty traveling school to school, and decide to avoid all hopes of marriage or relationship, please do not enter a graduate sociology program”


  4. Vijay, You are all too right at the moment. It is up to us old farts and the young folks PARENTS to push for change: encourage people to be willing to pay taxes to support education at all levels, especially higher education, so that universities can expand w/o paying only adjuncts to teach, but by hiring real qualified professors to replace the retirees and to teach the courses, and guide grad students through their research.


  5. Sociology programs train people to do lots of things, even when our programs are ostensibly aimed at training everyone for R1 tenure-track jobs. Our UMD graduates teach at different colleges, work at private research organizations, and staff US and well as international government agencies. I’m not promising anyone a tenure-track R1 job — all I promise is a chance to learn a lot and get a job you couldn’t otherwise have gotten.


    1. I will bite; are you talking about the ph.D program or the undergraduate program; the UMD sociology department says that 1/3rd of their college graduates got a job in sociology; 1/3rd went to grad school; 1/3rd were looking or switched careers.

      A similar detail regarding graduate school outcome is not readily available.


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