Are Applied Ph.D.s a Wise Move?

Felicia B. LeClere considers the pros and cons -- for institutions and for grad students thinking about their careers.

January 28, 2013

I recently had dinner with old friends who worked with me at one of the many research shops on my résumé. They both went on to finish Ph.D. programs and now teach at good midlevel state universities that are working hard to retain their graduate programs. One of the institutions has an applied master’s degree in social science and the other has a functioning Ph.D. program that provides sociology professors for regional small colleges, but is being undercut by a waning interest in academic careers. Prospective students are not blind or stupid. They understand that the market malaise that has beset the humanities for years has found its way to the social sciences on the back of state budget cuts and parental concerns about "marketable" majors. What are the midlevel M.A. and Ph.D. programs to do?

I think the M.A. question is reasonably straightforward. For years now M.A. programs have diversified into explicitly providing skills, particularly in quantitative data collection and analysis. Prestigious universities have also gotten on this bandwagon. The organization where I work frequently hires students from these programs to build out our junior-level staff. The more challenging issue involves the applied Ph.D. My old friends’ questions boiled down to these three: 1) Can a university distinguish itself by offering an applied Ph.D.? 2) Wouldn’t the curriculum simply reproduce an applied statistics degree? and 3) Do you really need a Ph.D. to succeed in an applied environment in the social sciences?  

The first question is whether an applied Ph.D. program in the social sciences would serve a sociology department well. Under most standard academic metrics, the answer is no. If the goals are to improve the departmental ranking, attract better faculty members, get the attention of your dean or president, or bring in more grant money, the placement of Ph.D. students and their subsequent academic careers is a vital metric. Frankly, two former well-published students placed at universities better than your own are worth 10 placed even at the most prestigious applied environments. The reality is institutions try to reproduce themselves and want their offspring to be better, faster, and smarter. The only way an applied Ph.D. program may benefit a department directly is to attract more and better students. Like their undergraduate brethren, Ph.D. students are looking broadly at placement records and have become more realistic about the value of their degrees.   

The second question about the content of a truly applied Ph.D. program in sociology is an interesting one and provides me with more hopeful territory. My bias lies clearly in a rigorous quantitative program because that is where the market for applied sociologists exists. I think the idea that it would simply be a curriculum with more statistics courses, which even in the best programs tend to be taught with canned data and examples, is wrong. I recently reviewed a new curriculum for an undergraduate major in business analytics, which struck me as impossible for undergraduates but a perfect template for an applied Ph.D. program in what I think of as social analytics. It included a series of sequential courses in survey research, GIS, data types and sources, data management, statistics, statistical programming, data mining, application courses in specific areas and a practicum. This is where those brilliant analysts who designed the Obama field campaign would be trained in the future. Clearly, this type of program would require applicants with great quantitative skills who would have to be lured away from more lucrative careers in actuarial science, engineering, and biostatistics.

Could a midlevel sociology program field this type of curriculum and attract the type of students who could succeed at it? That is truly an open question and would require substantial cooperation among university departments, strategic hires, and the patience to wait for the program to succeed. Given that it would likely do little to enhance the standing of the department in the field, one wonders whether any university dean or provost would take the risk and make the needed investments.

I am now left with only one opportunity to support the idea of making Ph.D. programs more amenable to applied careers, and that is question three. Will a social science Ph.D. make you more successful in the world of applied social science? Here the answer is an unequivocal yes if you are the Ph.D. occupying the job but a less-than-enthusiastic yes if you are hiring a new Ph.D. for the job. The rigors of a Ph.D. program that require you to think, do research, and write independently prepare you well for the chaos and uncertainty that often comes with applied research, where the questions can be both  pragmatic and challenging. A rigorous knowledge of human behavior is essential, particularly when collecting and handling data. Data do not speak for themselves, they come through the mouths of people who understand their context. Unfortunately, however, until a new awareness of what is required in applied research filters into Ph.D. programs, hiring those Ph.D.s into applied settings can be risky.

I come away discouraged from this thought exercise laid out by my friends at an otherwise-lovely meal. Perhaps as universities transform themselves under pressure from their students and market forces, the barriers to successful applied Ph.D. programs in the social sciences will disappear. I suspect, however, because of the enormous current demands for skilled analysts and research staff, business schools and programs in information science will fill these gaps readily and quickly. In fact, they already are.


Felicia B. LeClere is a senior fellow with NORC at the University of Chicago, where she works as research coordinator on multiple projects. She has 20 years of experience in survey design and practice, with particular interest in data dissemination and the support of scientific research through the development of scientific infrastructure.


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