Sociology B.A. & Beyond
When students consider going to graduate school they typically have three main questions:
- How do I get into a graduate school?
- What graduate programs are available?
- How will a graduate degree help me?
So, you’re thinking about applying to graduate school? First, let me tell you some reasons why you shouldn’t. It is a very expensive process. Doing it as cheaply as possible, with no Kaplan course, books, trips to check out potential schools, etc., will set you back at least $500. If you’re considering making a serious run at good schools, expect to pay many times more than this.
It is a very time consuming. Graduate admission deadlines for Ph.D. programs run from December to February of your senior year (master’s programs tend have later deadlines). In order to take the GRE, get your letters of recommendation, get transcripts from your schools, and decide which schools you’re applying to, you must begin by absolutely no later than the summer after your junior year. Again, if you’re serious about getting into a good school, the process is much more involved and you need to begin earlier.
Even if you get into a good graduate program you should understand that you’re signing up for years (1-3 for a master’s programs and 5-8 for a Ph.D. program) of intense work at low pay. No social life, living in poverty while friends from school get good jobs with good pay, and increasing debt are all to be contended with. Even if you get through the program (many students drop out of graduate programs) with an advanced degree, there’s no guarantee that you will get a job you want. If you’re interested in joining academia, a Ph.D. only gives you the chance to compete for a dwindling number of tenure track positions that many other recent graduates are also vying for. Even after lucking out and receiving a tenure track position at a decent university, you must slog through another 5-6 years struggling to get published in order to get tenure. Only then, after many lucky breaks and 12-15 years of your life spent in flux, do you gain the stable, middle-class life of a college professor.
As one of my favorite professors once told me, “Only go to graduate school if you have to.” Assuming you have to, let’s see how it’s done.
Congratulations! You’ve been accepted into your first choice graduate program. They’re funding you for 5 years and they’re even helping you find housing. How did you get to this point? Well, let’s work backwards and see just what admissions committees base their decisions upon.
When they receive your packet (although, it’s now more likely to be a combination of online information and a packet) they get five pieces of information.
- College GPA
- Graduate Record Exam (GRE) score
- Statement of Purpose
- Letters of Recommendation
- Writing Sample
Some schools may also request a curriculum vitae or a personal history but the five mentioned above are required by every school you’ll apply to and should be your primary concern. Because you attend a state university you aren’t going to have the automatic recognition of a Harvard graduate. You are fighting an uphill battle and every piece of your packet must be as solid as possible. Your goal is to provide the admissions committee with a complete picture of you as a serious student and potential scholar.
Graduate programs get between 100-400 applications each year and award admission to only 5-20 candidates depending on the size of the program. Actually going over every piece of each application would be impractical (the writing samples alone amount to several thousand pages) so admissions committees look for ways to reduce their workload, cutting unqualified candidates using the easiest measures. Of the five pieces of information the schools receive, three involve writing and two are easy-to-comprehend numbers. Because these are the easiest to look through, admissions committees will often make their first cut based upon these measures. So, let’s start there.
There are some things you should keep in mind. While your overall GPA is important, schools will often emphasize either your last two years or classes that are in your major. Also, remember that you’re going to be applying during your senior year. You likely won’t have any grades from your senior year on the transcripts you sent to them. If you were hoping to have those grades offset some bad grades you received earlier you’re out of luck.
Obviously GPA is important. Most graduate programs have cutoffs around 3.0, but those they admit typically have much higher scores. If your undergraduate record is solid and you’re anticipating heading into your senior year with a 3.8, move on and focus on another part of your packet. If, however, you have some blemishes on your record, there are some things you can do.
First, get A’s in your remaining classes. It sounds obvious but that’s the best way to improve your GPA. Second, apply for academic renewal. You can use this to eliminate classes on your record that hurt you. However, it does eliminate the units that go along with the grades so if you need them to graduate it may not be helpful. Lastly, if your GPA still isn’t where you want it to be, consider taking more classes to bring it up. Just remember that they should be classes in your major.
The GRE is a standardized test similar to the SAT. It is scored from 200-1,600 and there are three parts: math, verbal, and writing. The test has many detractors but it, along with your GPA, will determine whether you get past the first cut. How important is your GRE score? I have a friend who graduated from UCI (a good school with a good sociology program) with a 3.89 GPA, great letters of recommendation from well-known professors, an interesting project that she had developed during an independent study program, but a GRE score of 1,130. She applied to six Ph.D. programs and didn’t get into one.
So that’s the bad news. The good news is that the GRE is a manageable test if you put in some effort. There are many prep classes and books. The classes will set you back a least a $1,000 whereas books will run you about $50. Are the classes worth it? If you have the money it might be a good idea but I think there’s a better way to go about preparing.
Let’s consider the test a little more closely. Because the GRE is a general test and most majors require little to no math, the GRE only tests basic math concepts. These are things you learned in 9th grade! Because you’ve probably forgotten most of the math you learned back then, it’s important to brush up on the fundamentals. The writing section is in two parts and asks you to make an argument based upon a statement they provide and evaluate an argument based upon a paragraph. This part tests your basic writing and critical thinking skills. These can be learned outside the class and, as someone who took the Kaplan course, identical information is in the books you can buy for a fraction of the cost. Finally, we have the verbal section that tests your reading comprehension and vocabulary. This is the most difficult section to prepare for because it’s just so vast. Do you know the definition of upbraid, fulminate, castigate, or lambaste? Unless you’re some sort of crossword savant, I’d doubt it. These are exactly the type of obscure knowledge the GRE tests.
How do you prepare for something like this? GRE word lists are useful but I found that the most helpful thing was simply to read as much scholarly work as I could. I was amazed how many words I didn’t know and would always just pass by without realizing it. When you see the words you used to skip over, write them down and look them up later. Doing this for a year was a huge help. Seeing them in context over and over again really dug them into my brain.
Truly, the most important thing is working with other people. If you know other people preparing for the GRE setting a date every week to study will help you out more than any Kaplan course. Doing the work they recommend in the books, correcting each other’s work, and helping discover answers to problems will be a great benefit to you. Just remember to keep going! It sometimes seems like a hopeless and never ending process but just make a schedule to practice and stay on it.
Statement of Purpose
After making it past the first culling process, the admissions committee is likely to read your statement of purpose. This is a 2-3 page document briefly detailing your academic career, interests, plan of study, and goals. This is not a contract. You may write that your primary interest is political sociology and after you arrive you decide to study gender. The most important thing to know about the statement of purpose is that this document should sell you! Every piece of information in the statement should scream out to the admissions committee, “I belong at your school!”
At this point you’ve made it past the first cut but you still have a ways to go. Again, the admissions committee is looking for a reason to reject you so that they have fewer writing samples and letters of recommendation to read. The biggest mistake you can make here is showing a lack of knowledge about their school. If you tell them your primary interest is political sociology and they don’t have any professors that specialize in political soc, they will immediately discard your application. Another mistake is poor writing. Up to now they’ve only seen you in numeric terms. This is their first introduction to the “real” you. Misspelled words, grammatical errors, and a writing style that is too casual, gives them all the reason they need to assume you’re not mature enough for graduate school.
So what should you write? Write about your preparation for graduate school. Your whole life should seem like one giant build up to gaining admission into their school. Everything you write should have the purpose of making you seem serious and scholarly. Have you won awards at school? Mention them. Been on the president’s list? Write about it. Helped a professor? Put that in, too. All of these demonstrate your focus. You also need to show that your interests align with their program. If you’ve done your homework (we’ll talk about exactly what this means a little later) then you’ve chosen a program that fits well with your interests. Look up professors in their department and mention by name those with whom you’d like to work. This lets them know that you are knowledgeable about their program and, because you’ve mentioned particular professors, they can already see where you’re going to fit within their program.
Letters of Recommendation
If you’ve made it this far you’re doing great. The letters of recommendations are used to show the opinions of professors about your ability to be a professional academic. Most schools require three letters and all of them should come from professors, preferably those in tenure track positions and, best of all, full professors. What your boss/minister/mom has to say about you doesn’t count for much compared to a letter from someone who can accurately judge if you have what it takes to get through a graduate program and go on to make important intellectual contributions.
The thing to remember about getting good letters is that professors can only write what they know. If you got an A in your modern theory class but never said a word in class your professor is likely to forget you the moment you leave. The next piece of advice is probably the most important thing you can do to increase your odds of getting into graduate school: Go to your professor’s office hours. Just to make it clear, let me write it again with more enthusiasm: Go to your professor’s office hours! This is most clearly an aid to getting good letters of recommendation but the benefits go far beyond that.
Going to a state school, we have some disadvantages in the competition to get into graduate school. However, one very important benefit we have is direct access to professors. In most “good schools” undergraduates only see their professors during class and must direct all of their questions to teaching assistants. A teaching assistant I know told me his professor said to him, “The TA’s job is to keep the undergrads away from me.” At Long Beach the situation is very different. Not having graduate program is an incredible boon for undergraduates. Professors are eager to work with bright, interested students and most of the one’s I’ve met will bend over backwards for you if you put in effort. Ultimately, though, you must make the first move.
If sociology is your true passion, and it better be for the amount of work you’re planning on putting in, you should have lots of questions. Your classes should spark new thoughts or make you mad or confuse you. Save those thoughts and bring them up with the professor when you can get some one-on-one time. Letting the professor see your face is one way to improve your chances of receiving good letters of recommendation. It also allows you to follow up on class discussion. This will help improve your GPA. Perhaps most importantly, connecting with a professor will open you up to new things. While you won’t connect with every professor you come into contact with, the ones you do will help clarify your interests, recommend books, provide helpful information on the graduate admissions process, and maybe let you work on a project with them.
This is the only chance you get to show the admissions committee the student you are and scholar you can become. What is a writing sample? It’s a research paper, typically 15-40 pages in length that showcases your interests and ability to write in a professional style. This may seem overwhelming at first but there’s a very practical way to ensure a solid piece of writing.
I mentioned this in the GRE section but reading scholarly works on your own is one of the most beneficial things you can do to prepare for graduate school. In addition to expanding your vocabulary, reading book after book in sociology and other academic disciplines helps you delineate your specific interests and it helps you understand how academic arguments are crafted. Your ability to reason and your writing skill will both improve dramatically. You are going to do truckloads of reading once you get into a grad program anyway so you may as well get used to it. Along with visiting your professor’s office hours, this is one of the most important things you can do.
Let’s say you’re doing that. Now what? As you probably noticed, it’s a very long paper. You may go through your entire undergraduate program without ever writing a paper over 15 pages. Even if you do it may be of poor quality or not pertain to a subject that interests you. So what do you do? This is where visiting your professors pays off. Talk to a professor you feel connected with and that does work in a field you’re interested in about doing a directed studies course. It is an amazing experience where you’ll get to do in-depth research about a subject you love while forming a relationship with a professor and earning three credits. Basically, you spend one entire semester working on a research paper. At the beginning of the semester you and the professor work out the reading list, a schedule, and decide what the final product will be. If your professor knows that you’re planning on using your paper as a writing sample for a grad school application they can guide you and make sure the paper reaches professional standards. While, ultimately the pressure falls on you to write the paper, a directed studies class will allow you the guided freedom to write a really terrific paper without delaying your graduation date.
Some final notes on the writing sample: If you’re interested in social psychology, craft a writing sample that investigates social psychology. If your interests are more towards gender, write about gender. Remember, through the five pieces of information in your packet you have to create an image of yourself that the admissions committee will instantly recognize as somebody that belongs in their department.
Now that we’ve seen what makes a solid application let’s take a look at some other things important to the process.
Choosing a School
Early in the process you’re going to want to start selecting schools. There are over 120 schools in the US currently offering doctoral programs. How do you choose? There are many factors that go into selecting a graduate program- funding, location, specialization, faculty you’d like to work with, rankings, difficulty gaining admittance, etc. Of these, I have heard from many sources that funding and specialization are the two most important factors to a successful graduate school experience. Nearly all of this information is going to be online so get used to trolling the internet gathering data. Besides the internet, another useful wellspring of information is all those professors you’ve been getting to know. They may have gone to a school you’re thinking about, or taught there, or have friends that teach there. The sociological community is small and this sort of networking can be very helpful. Even if they aren’t personally connected with a school you’d like to attend, they’re still likely to know faculty there or the general tenor of the department.
Once you have a list (15-20) of potential schools you should begin to narrow it down. Is there only one professor in the department that studies what you’re interested in? What if they leave? Can you see yourself living in that area for the next 7 years? Is the funding they offer enough to live on? How much debt are you willing to accumulate? After this process, you should have a list of 6-10 schools. Keep in mind that every school charges $50-$100 for an application so the more schools you apply to, the more money you’re spending.
The best time to start preparing for graduate school is NOW! Expanding your vocabulary, getting a decent writing sample, and improving your GPA are long processes and the earlier you begin the better.
Let’s say that you are applying for a Ph.D. program that begins Fall, 2010. In this case, the applications are going to be due Winter, 09. You’ll need copies of your transcripts (final GPA) and your GRE by Fall, 09 in order to make their deadline. This means you’ll need to begin your preparation during your junior year, Spring 2009! Begin as soon as possible and keep all five packet items in mind as you work toward your goal.
This is the official Graduate Record Exam website. It’s full of helpful tips, information on making appointments, and practice items. Explore.
Kaplan test preparation services are renowned. I didn’t find it that helpful but if you learn well in a classroom atmosphere then you may want to consider it.
This is another well known GRE preparation service. It’s a bit less expensive than Kaplan.
US News and World Report publishes the definitive graduate program ranking. Some words of warning- The programs are lumped together regardless of their specialization so Berkeley, which is always ranked very high, may not do work you’re interested in. Also, the programs are evaluated as a whole despite the fact that some schools are very strong in particular areas while weak in others. Take information gathered from these rankings with a grain of salt.
Has more specific but much older ranking information. Also contains many interesting and helpful articles on getting into and surviving graduate school.
This is a no-brainer but I’m just mentioning it to remind you to look up the school sites. Most schools’ sites contain a wealth of information about specializations, funding, and other items of interest.
Frequently Asked Questions
What do all the letters mean?
- M.P.H. (Master of Public Health)
- M.A. (Master of Arts)
- M.S. (Master of Science)
- Dr.P.H. (Doctor of Public Health)
- D.P.A. (Doctor of Public Administration)
- Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy)
- Psy. D. (Doctor of Psychology)
- J.D. (Juris Doctor)
- M.S.W. (Master of Social Work)
Do I have to get my graduate degree in the same discipline as my undergraduate degree?
Absolutely not! In fact, many graduate programs encourage applicants from other disciplines. This website provides information on some of the related fields that sociologists go into. There are many more possibilities for someone with a Sociology B.A. but, make sure you read the admissions requirements for any graduate program before applying.
Do I have to get my Master’s Degree before going into a Ph.D. program?
While most academic Ph.D. programs will admit students with a Bachelor’s degree and award a Master’s degree en route to the Ph.D., some programs do require a Master’s Degree. Be sure to check the requirements for each program you plan to apply to.
What should I look for in a graduate program?
Obviously, the prestige of the university is an important consideration in choosing a graduate program, but, ideally, you would want to find a program that provides the best fit of your personal and professional goals. That usually means getting as much information as you can about the programs and faculty of universities that interest you. A good place to start is their web site.
Here are some universities in the Los Angeles/Orange County area that offer Master’s or Ph.D. degrees (Links to Graduate Division of each school). Graduate programs are listed aphabetically by school and by discipline:
- State and Local Graduate Programs (Alphabetical Listing)
- State and Local Graduate Programs (Discipline Listing)
Have you ever thought of getting a graduate or professional degree after your B.A.? Have you ever wondered how you would go about getting information on the different possibilities, finding a program that matches your interests and career goals, and preparing a successful application? If you have ever considered the possibility of graduate school, either in sociology or a related field, I invite you to explore the advice and links contained in this section.
While you explore your post-B.A. graduate and professional school opportunities think about the following:
Twenty years ago, there was really only one career in sociology. To be a sociologist was to be a professor in an academic setting. Today, although teaching remains the dominant activity among the 15,000 professional sociologists in the United States, other forms of employment are gaining in both numbers and significance.
Sociologists are employed as researchers, administrators and consultants by private organizations and government agencies at federal, state and local levels. Those sociologist who become researchers and consultants may be involved in such areas as community development, urban planning, health care delivery, criminological research, planning social welfare programs, and various aspects of program evaluation. Others with computer and methodological skills may become statisticians or affiliates of various research institutes (working, for example, with the Census Bureau, a public opinion institute, or federal agencies planning health and education programs).
Yet there are reasons to study sociology even if you do not intend to become a sociologist. The subject matter of sociology holds considerable interest for its own sake. Sociology provides many distinctive ways of looking at the world so as to generate new ideas and assess the old. Thus, sociology offers valuable preparation for a variety of careers and is a popular major for students planning futures in such professions as law, business, education, medicine, and city planning…not to mention social work, politics, and public administration. (Taken from the Loyola University Chicago, Dept of Sociology website)
And remember that it is never too early to begin thinking about and preparing for the next step. The more you know about your options for a future career path, the more meaningful the time you spend here getting your B.A. will be. There are many things you can do along the road to your B.A. to open doors to opportunities afterwards. These include searching out opportunities to hone your research skills, polishing your reading, writing, vocabulary, and oral presentation tools, getting involved in on campus and off campus group activities that provide opportunities to learn leadership skills, and taking on service projects on your campus and in the larger community. All of these will make your degree more valuable when you graduate and increase the choices you have available to you over your lifetime.
Among the best ways to begin preparing for graduate school or a professional career in sociology while you are a major in sociology here at CSULB are through participation in the McNair Scholars Program or one of the internships offered in our sociology curriculum. Check out these excellent opportunities for advanced training in sociology.
If you do decide to continue your sociological training beyond the B.A. degree, the American Sociological Association provides a good summary of the options available to you. Similarly, a recent survey of Doctoral students provides some very useful and detailed information on the kinds of questions you should consider when deciding whether graduate school is the right choice for you. And, finally, here is a recent list of top graduate programs in sociology, along with contact links. See what they have to offer.