ATLANTA -- Sociologists love their surveys, and they apply them to their discipline as well, even when the results might be a little unsettling. Consider the statistic that set off some soul-searching here at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association: of those who graduated with a major in sociology in 2005, 70 percent were satisfied with their major when they were seniors. By 2009, asked whether they were satisfied with their major after having been in the world of work or graduate school for a few years, only 40 percent were satisfied.
That's quite a drop -- and not the kind of statistic that sociologists would necessarily like freshmen (or their parents) to hear when they are thinking about subjects in which to major. As sociologists here were quick to note, some of the drop could be attributable to the seriously inopportune timing of those who graduated in 2005. Hitting the great economic downturn just a few years out of college could easily lead many (whatever their major) to wonder if they were on the right path and had been well prepared.
But the data presented here suggested a problem that goes beyond the current downturn. Generally, sociology graduates give their programs very high marks with regard to what they learned and to the quality of teaching. Generally, they give very low marks to their programs for career (or graduate school) preparation. And graduating seniors tend to say that they learned the least about the skills they perceive may help them the most when it comes to getting jobs.
The issue is important, speakers here said, in part because they want graduates to be well launched into their careers. But the scholars were also frank that they wanted to be sure the major continued to be popular (the number of new bachelor's degrees in the field increased 139 percent from 1985 to 2007) and that they didn't want to be seen as letting students down on the job market. And at the same time, scholars said that they were proud of their intellectual traditions and didn't want to sacrifice them.
“Our whole idea here is that you are not going to change your job to being the career counselor. You aren’t going to change the sociology major -- students love the sociology major," said Roberta Spalter-Roth, head of the ASA's research division. "But we want to think about things that you can do to launch students without changing our primary mission and purpose as sociologists."
The data on satisfaction at graduation show the nature of the problem. On a range of key questions -- overall satisfaction, access to faculty, and quality of teaching -- the majors give programs high marks. (Generally, undergraduate colleges did the best, but the programs across sectors were finding percentages from the high 60s to low 80s saying that they were pleased.) On career advising and graduate school advising, not even 20 percent of students were satisfied -- in any sector.
There was also something of a mismatch between the skills students picked up and the skills they saw helping them find jobs. For instance, using statistical software only just made the list of the top eight skills sociology majors said that they learned (and not even half said they learned that skill). But that was at the top of the list when the association asked about sociology skills graduates listed on their résumés.
So what to do?
The association has just released a resource guide  for departments on helping their students get ready for jobs. The guide and the discussion about it here dealt with a mix of packaging vs. curricular change -- and speakers stressed that these changes did not involve watering down the curriculum.
For instance, Mary Senter of Central Michigan -- who, along with Spalter-Roth and Nicole Van Vooren of the ASA, prepared the guide for departments -- noted that these days, many businesses and nonprofit groups highly value graduates who are skilled at working with diverse populations. Sociology departments all teach courses about racial, ethnic, class, gender and other differences, she noted, but they don't necessarily coach graduates in the language with which the business world tends to describe those topics, with phrases such as "cultural competence."
Similarly, several sociologists during the discussion here talked about assigning students to write résumés and to discuss how the various skills they were learning could be translated. Senter suggested that departments should have discussions in which they look at the materials produced by their recent graduates and think of the "collective résumé" of their program. "What do you want your graduating students to look like? Do they look like that?" she asked.
Departments can boost both skills and C.V. material by organizing research conferences at which undergraduates can present their work, and awards can be given out, she said.
At the same time, she said that departments could consider curricular changes. Many sociologists say that they want their undergraduates to have internships in local communities, but many of these faculty members' departments don't require that. "If you think your students should have internships, you can require them," Senter said.
Further, she noted that many students report that their statistical and research skills serve them well. But many departments let them postpone methods courses in which they actually learn statistics until senior year, minimizing the chances that they'll do advanced work. Senter suggested that departments might want to persuade students earlier to take the courses that -- upon graduation -- they seem to think are among the most helpful.