The Missing Master's Students

SAN FRANCISCO -- While much of the attention in graduate education focuses on doctoral programs, there are many more students in master's programs. At a time when more credentials are required for more and more jobs, and jobs are in short supply, more people are looking at enrolling.

August 11, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO -- While much of the attention in graduate education focuses on doctoral programs, there are many more students in master's programs. At a time when more credentials are required for more and more jobs, and jobs are in short supply, more people are looking at enrolling.

And -- especially important in these economically challenging times -- administrators tend to view master's programs as a source of funds, not a drain on them. All of that explains why, at a time that many universities are shrinking their doctoral programs, new master's programs are being created and existing programs are expanding.

To the dismay of leaders of the American Sociological Association, their master's programs have not grown with those of other fields. On Monday at the association's annual meeting here, data were released for the first time trying to analyze the discipline's master's programs and their students. The association has a special task force focused on the master's issue. The ASA is also promoting discussion of how master's programs have revived and of the tensions between doctoral and master's programs.

Generally, sociologists at departments that have devoted some attention to these issues reported that their master's programs were intellectually vibrant, strengthened the departments as a whole, and produced graduates who were landing good jobs. So even as officials bemoaned some of the evidence that their discipline is behind, there was some optimism that they can turn things around. And several said that their colleagues should be motivated to act now, given that a healthy master's program can be key to keeping or even adding faculty lines, rather than fighting off attempts to take them away.

In terms of understanding why sociologists are worried about their master's programs, consider the following statistics:

  • Between 1970 and 2006, the total number of master's degrees awarded per year increased by 159 percent across disciplines and fell 13 percent in sociology. (While the increase in sociology bachelor's and doctoral degrees during that time period also lagged academe as a whole, there were net increases for sociology at those levels.)
  • Among all graduate degrees, 90 percent are master's degrees, but the figure is only 78 percent in sociology.
  • Within social sciences disciplines, the ratio of bachelor's to master's students is: 2.9 to 1 for political science, 4.9 to 1 for psychology, 7.4 to 1 for economics, and 18.4 to 1 for sociology.

In discussing the sociology master's, educators here aren't talking about the degrees awarded en route to a doctorate or as a consolation prize for those deemed unlikely to finish a doctorate. Rather, they are talking about master's programs, variously called "applied" or "professional" or "clinical," that are designed as terminal degrees, to train students for jobs with nonprofit organizations, the government or business. In many cases, sociologists said, that master's degree puts students on a management track or a more serious research track than would be the case for someone with a bachelor's degree only. An undergraduate degree might land someone an entry-level job working in a homeless shelter, for example, while the master's might put someone on track to run one.

Roberta Spalter-Roth, head of the ASA's research division, presented results that show the differing orientations of traditional master's programs (oriented toward the doctorate) and those for non-academic careers. The findings, based on a survey of graduate directors, show some commonalities (such as a thesis requirement), but significant differences in the role of internships, online education, and other areas.

Applied Master's vs. Traditional Master's

Program Characteristics Applied Traditional
Master's thesis required 56.6% 58.3%
Internship required 33.3% 4.1%
Faculty members have non-academic professional experience 33.3% 24.5%
Majority of candidates received bachelor's from same department 40.4% 20.4%
Offers online master's courses 26.9% 2.0%

Another survey was conducted of students in the master's programs, who gave generally good grades to the programs in areas such as availability of faculty members outside class, ease of getting into courses, interacting with fellow students and so forth. But one area stood out for lack of satisfaction: the quality of career preparation, where only 12.2 percent of terminal master's students said that they were very satisfied, and 34.2 percent said that they were dissatisfied. As Spalter-Roth and others noted, such low grades for career preparation are a serious problem in master's programs that, after all, are designed to improve students' job prospects.

Spalter-Roth said that part of the problem is one of semantics, combined with the reality that many career services offices don't know as much as would be desirable about sociology. "When you have a master's in economics, people understand what economics means," she said. But the jobs that sociology master's students get don't have the word "sociology" in their titles. "You are a research analyst, a social scientist, a market researcher," she said.

Melissa Holtzman, graduate director in sociology at Ball State University, spoke about how master's programs could be revived -- with a strong emphasis on career preparation. In 2000, she said, Ball State administrators were questioning the value of its program, which generally had four or five students, many of whom never finished.

The department regrouped, and focused the master's program around research skills -- not for book publishing, but sociology skills that could be used in business or social service organizations. Research is stressed in promotional materials, in curricular requirements and in discussion of job possibilities, she said. An important part of the program, she said, is explaining to students why they need the various statistics, survey technique and theory courses.

One problem for sociology master's programs, she said, is that students who "fell in love with sociology" as undergraduates are stunned by "all the stats and research methods they have to learn." Ball State has a special "professionalization seminar" that focuses on linking that work with the issues that attracted students to sociology.

In terms of career prep, Holtzman said that the master's program has also created an "institutional research" certificate that some students get, based on work with the university's institutional research office to learn about that career path. And Holtzman said that she and fellow faculty members will periodically take time in courses to focus on careers. She said that after teaching some part of the sociology curriculum, she'll ask students to look for relevant jobs and write an appropriate cover letter. In this way, career issues are integrated and don't depend on a career office, she said.

Today, Ball State has about 20 master's students, they complete at high rates and land jobs "earning more than I do," Holtzman said. Many end up working as researchers for companies in the state. The department has also gone from 10 to 11 faculty lines since improving the master's program, she said. Holtzman stressed that what master's programs need is attention and some vision for their purpose -- but that departments can act if they want to. (The association reviews challenges of master's programs and highlights successful ones in a new booklet, "Thinking About the Master's Degree in Sociology." )

Ball State does not have a doctorate in sociology. Those departments that do may face other challenges. One audience member at Monday's session described himself as a supporter of adding master's options, although he works at a doctoral department. He said his program had de-emphasized master's programs, because of tensions and competition. In joint courses for traditional and applied students, some thought there was too much theory and others not enough.

But an additional problem may demonstrate why master's programs may be winners for departments. "The master's students were getting better job offers than the Ph.D.'s," he said. "And people were bailing out of the Ph.D. program."

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