Sociology Jobs Plentiful, But Do They Match?

Overall supply of positions suggests new Ph.D.'s have options, but criminology appears more popular with hiring committees than with grad students.
June 23, 2008

New Ph.D.'s in sociology appear to have a healthy job market in which to land positions, based purely on the numbers. But an analysis released by the American Sociological Association also points to a potential mismatch in specialties, as hiring committees appear to be much more enamored of criminology than are sociology graduate students.

While some associations release annual reports on the availability of jobs in their field, the sociology group has not done so, so the report, "Too Many or Too Few Ph.D.'s?" offers the first data on the question in years. As other associations do in their disciplines, the sociologists prepared the study by comparing postings in the association's job bank with information on the supply of new Ph.D.'s. (While many jobs are not listed with association job banks, they are viewed as providing a general sense of the quantity and type of positions available, as many colleges routinely list positions there.)

The overall picture is quite positive. The association had listings in 2006 for 1,086 unique positions, 610 of them for assistant professors. During that same year, 562 Ph.D.'s were awarded in sociology. The report notes that not all of the posted positions in any year are filled by new Ph.D.'s or at all, but given that there are also postdoctoral positions, positions for which no rank is specified, and positions not included in the ASA job listings, the outlook is encouraging for new Ph.D. recipients.

Where things are slightly less certain is in the area of specialties. More than one third of the assistant professor positions did not specify a subfield. But the top subfield specified (nearly three times more than the runner up) was criminology/delinquency, and the sixth most popular subfield was a related one, law and society. The concern of those who prepared the report is that evidence suggests grad students are focused elsewhere. The report notes that grad students join sections of the association that reflect their scholarly interests, and that with the exception of race and ethnicity, the top specialties listed in job ads did not match the sections that are most popular with students. The most popular grad student areas, judged by section membership, are: sociology of culture, sex and gender; organizations, occupations and work; social movements, and race.

Here are the top fields specified for jobs as assistant professors:

Top 10 Specialties Specified in Assistant Professor Jobs Ads for Sociologists, 2006

Rank Field Number
1. Criminology/delinquency 86
2. Quantitative methods/statistics 29
3. Theory 21
4. (tie) Urban/community 19
4. (tie) Race and ethnicity 19
6. Law and society 15
7. Medical 13
8. Race, class and gender 12
9. (tie) Demography 11
9. (tie) Family 11
9. (tie) Social psychology 11

Jerry Jacobs, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of the report, said he wasn't surprised to see criminology on top of the list, but that "the number is striking." (The other author is Roberta Spalter-Roth of the association's research division.)

Jacobs said that the research alone couldn't determine whether the inconsistent match of specialty areas and student interests was troublesome. For instance, he said it wasn't clear whether the jobs listed were going to sociology Ph.D.'s or people coming out of criminal justice programs. While many sociology departments have criminologists, other criminology programs have split off, and Jacobs said that if those programs place students, there would be an impact on new sociology Ph.D.'s "and the job market wouldn't look nearly as good."

Further, he said that it is always hard to tell, when specialties are listed, how much a department will stick to them. In some searches, he said, the field is desirable to a department, but a candidate who is otherwise outstanding (but isn't in that area) may be considered and hired. In other cases, the specialty isn't viewed just as desirable, but essential. The data available for the study don't give a sense of the split between "might be nice," and "absolutely a prerequisite."

Christopher Uggen, chair of sociology (and a criminologist) at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, said he's not surprised by the demand for people who study crime. Uggen said that he defines himself as "a sociological criminologist" and sees criminology as a vital part of sociology, but that not everyone in the field has shared that view.

"There's always been a guardedness and sometimes an outright distrust of the field of criminology by some in sociology," he said. Some have seen criminologists as "instruments of state power" and others have said that the field was "too narrowly framed," he said. While some of that has changed, he said, "many fine departments don't have expertise in crime, law and deviance," Uggen said.

While the new data from the association aren't shocking to Uggen, he said that some in the field have talked about the interest in criminology as "a blip," and that this report should make them reconsider. "I think sociology loses criminology at its peril," he said.

Uggen said that the demand for more criminologists is logical, and that departments should embrace this when designing their offerings. He said that he saw both intellectual and practical reasons for the discipline to be adding slots in criminology and making sure that all sociologists have some exposure to the field.

The intellectual argument comes from the realities of so many Americans being behind bars. "With the scale of punishment in the United States, you can't understand the stratification system without understanding criminal justice. You can't understand racial inequality without understanding the criminal justice system," he said. As an example, Uggen said that a generation or so ago, a sociologist could have studied occupational mobility between fathers and sons, left out the incarcerated, and not worried about skewed results. Today, that would be impossible, he said, without "a huge sample selection problem," so the hiring of criminologists makes a lot of sense.

If any department chairs are unconvinced, Uggen has an argument that should win them over. Undergraduates flock to courses about crime, he said. "Undergraduate enrollment is the coin of the realm," Uggen said, and criminology courses produce the numbers with which a department chair can make "a much stronger claim to a faculty line."


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