Graduate School in Sociology

Why go to graduate school?

A master's degree or doctorate will be essential for higher education teaching and advanced research or applied careers. The Doctorate in Philosophy (PhD) is the highest degree awarded in sociology. The Master's degree may be either an MA (Master of Arts) or an MS (Master of Science). The master's degree, which takes from one to three years, can either be a step toward the PhD or an end in itself. It generally signifies sophisticated knowledge of the field's perspectives and methods, but does not usually indicate that any original research has been conducted. In some cases a master’s thesis is not required or may be replaced by a practicum or other applied experience. For those seeking to enter the applied world of research and program management, a master's degree in sociology may be excellent preparation. The PhD requires at least six years of study beyond the BA and signifies competence for original research and scholarship as evidenced by the completion of a significant research study called a "dissertation." This degree prepares individuals for careers in academic and applied settings.

For many positions within public agencies and the private sector, a master's degree suffices. For community college teaching, a master's degree may be acceptable, but a doctorate opens more doors. Teaching and research at the university level and high-level employment with good promotion prospects in non-academic research institutes, think tanks, private industry, and government agencies usually require a PhD. Most graduate schools that offer the PhD also offer a master's degree as part of the program. However, some universities offer the master's only, and a few are exclusively devoted to the PhD.

What are the requirements in graduate school?

Graduate courses typically focus on basic theoretical issues, a wide range of research methods, and statistics. Many entering PhD students who did not major in sociology as undergraduates will find this work new to them. A year or so of courses usually culminates in an examination or major paper, and perhaps the awarding of an MA or MS.

Training then shifts to doing sociology and more interactive learning. Lecture courses give way to seminars as advanced students begin to conduct individual research in developing areas of specialization. At this point, the student is typically ready for some type of qualifying examination for the doctorate.

The final PhD requirement, the dissertation, must be an original piece of scholarship. It can take many forms and be relatively brief or very long. The dissertation should make a substantial contribution to existing scientific knowledge. Most departments require a formal proposal that must be approved by a faculty committee. This same committee often presides over the student's oral defense of the dissertation once it is completed, a ritual that marks the end of the student's training and the beginning of a career as an autonomous scholar.

How do you choose a graduate school?

Over 250 universities in the U.S. offer PhDs and/or master's degrees. Universities differ greatly in their strengths and weaknesses, the nature and structure of their curriculum, costs, faculty specializations, and special programs and opportunities for students.

Some graduate programs specialize in preparing students for applied careers in business, government, or social service. They may feature student internships in agency offices rather than traditional teaching or research assistantships. Others emphasize preparation for the professorial life. Departments differ on requirements regarding language proficiency and statistical skills; whether they require a Master's degree en route to the PhD; and, if so, whether a Master's thesis is required or course work alone is sufficient. Most departments will be strongest in a small number of areas of interest.

The ASA publishes the Guide to Graduate Departments of Sociology, which contains critical information on degrees awarded, rosters of individual faculty and their interests, special programs, tuition and fees, the availability of fellowships and assistantships, deadlines for applications, and the names, addresses, and telephone numbers to contact for further information and application forms. College libraries should have a copy of the Guide. One can also be ordered directly from the ASA.

Consult with others as you develop a list of schools to which you want to apply. Undergraduate sociology teachers who know your strengths, weaknesses, and special interests may be able to guide you through this complex process toward a realistic choice. Most sociology teachers have friends and colleagues in various departments around the country (or otherwise know the strengths of different departments). Even if they do not know anyone personally in a particular department, they should be able to help you make an informed decision. Also, make sure that you are exploring several options. Many departments have webpages which allow you to get a snapshot of departments, their faculty, their curriculum, and their specialty areas.

How do you apply to graduate school?

The four most important components of your application are:

Transcript. Grades are important, with nearly all programs requiring at least a 3.0 gpa, and some of the more competitive programs rarely taking students with less than a 3.75 gpa. In addition to your gpa, the admissions committee is also interested in the types of courses that you have taken. The more sociology courses the better, although almost any liberal arts background is good training for graduate school in sociology.

Test Scores. Most graduate programs require the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), a standardized test that is similar in many ways to the familiar SAT. Should you study for this exam? Some students show improved scores after taking a preparation course for the GRE. It may be worth the time and money to take one of these courses, and at the very least, you should go through the practice booklets that can be found in many easily-available preparation guides.

Letters of Recommendation. Most graduate programs require three letters of recommendation. This is why research courses, field work, seminars and other small, advanced courses are important—it puts you in an environment where you can become known. If you have done exceptionally well in a course, it may be worth stopping by to have a chat with the faculty member to see if a letter of recommendation might be arranged. In addition, research, fieldwork, or practical internships insure that at least one or two faculty members are familiar with your ideas, your reliability, and your ability to work in the field.

When you ask a faculty member for a recommendation, bring along a copy of your transcript, a list of programs to which you may be applying and a draft of your personal statement. Ideally you might obtain two letters from sociology professors and one letter from a faculty member in another department. Some students solicit a letter of recommendation from outside the university (e.g., from a long-term employer) in addition to the basic three letters of recommendation. Finally, bring a stamped, addressed envelope for each school to which you are applying.

Personal Statement. Going to graduate school is a major decision, and the admissions committees want to be sure that you have a genuine interest in their program and a commitment to see it through to completion. Your personal statement should reflect your enthusiasm, your capabilities, and your interest in the field. Ask a faculty member or two to read a draft of your personal statement. You may also get some valuable guidance from Career Services.

First, the personal statement explains why the applicant is interested in graduate school. What got you interested in sociology, what are your career goals, and how motivated and passionate are you about the field. Second, it is used to evaluate how well the applicant's interests correspond to the interests of the program to which the applicant is applying. Are your interests and goals consistent with what that graduate program can provide for you? Third, it is used to assess the applicant's writing ability. Do you write in a coherent, organized, and succinct fashion? Fourth, the personal statement is used to differentiate applicants who have similar academic records.

When you consider the time required to fill out an application and the $50 (or more) application fee, you will want to limit your applications to some reasonable number. Most students apply to at least 6 schools. Obtain application materials from school websites. A good rule of thumb is to apply to a few schools that are a bit too competitive for you (stretch schools), to a fair number of schools that offer good programs that you have a reasonable expectation of getting into, and to a few schools that you may have to settle for (safety schools). 

Can you afford to go to graduate school?

Yes. Many Ph.D. programs offer tuition remission to full-time students and provide teaching assistantships, research assistantships, or fellowships to most students they admit. These sources usually allow you to devote full time to your studies and pay for your room and board. Obviously, you should investigate the specific financial support packages available at each of the departments you are considering.

How long does graduate school last?

You should plan on seven years or more to obtain the Ph.D., although a small minority of students may finish in as few as four years. In addition, students who have a research or academic career in mind often obtain a post-doctoral fellowship and spend a year or two beyond the Ph.D. conducting research in collaboration with a senior specialist in their field. Alternatively, they may accept temporary or ‘visiting’ teaching positions for one to three years, before moving on to a tenure-track position. Once you get beyond your bachelor’s degree, you are already in the professional world of sociology and doing the work that you have chosen as a career. The time spent in graduate school is not much different than starting at the bottom and working your way up in the corporate world.

Do you really want to go through with this?

This is the most important question you must answer for yourself. For many, there is no choice—it is something that their interest compels them to do! You may not have quite that clear a calling, but you should definitely have enthusiasm and commitment. Without it, you will find graduate school to be tedious and unrewarding. If you need some additional input, talk to your teaching assistants, faculty members, and others to help you reach a decision.

What is the schedule for applying to graduate school?

Spring of the year before you apply

Summer before the year you apply
Fall of the year in which you are applying
Spring of the year in which you have submitted all your applications