Resources for Sociology Majors


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Applying to Graduate School

Choosing a School

The Application Process

Many undergraduate sociology majors pursue graduate training in sociology in preparation for academic and practice careers in the discipline. A master's degree or doctorate will be essential for higher education teaching and advanced research or applied careers. Others choose graduate work in other fields such as social work, education, public health, business administration, and urban planning, not to mention law, medicine, and divinity school.

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. While many PhD students receive fellowships or use private means to study full-time, some must work part-time to support themselves. Fortunately, teaching or research assistantships often form part of the learning experience in exchange for a stipend or a tuition waiver.

New graduate students usually begin with courses quite similar in content to their undergraduate courses, although the work is more demanding and sophisticated.

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.

Choosing 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 continue to 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. Some departments will be strong in your particular area of interest, and others will be weak.

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 homepages which allow you to get a snapshot of departments, their faculty, their curriculum, and their specialty areas.

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The Key Steps to Applying to Graduate School

1.  Match programs with your interests.
2.  Research particular scholars who you would like to work with.
3.  Consider the location and quality of the departments.
4.  Ask about the forms of financial support for graduate study at particular departments.

The Application Process

1.  Letters of Recommendation
    As professors with whom you have personal relationships if they would be willing to write letters for you.  These people should know you well, beyond just a name and a grade.  Try to cultivate relationships with faculty by going to office hours, reading their research, and asking detailed questions.  Show them that you have what it takes to succeed and that you are interested and willing to put in the effort to forge a relationship with them.  Good letters of recommendation are key pieces of your application, and strong letters can overcome certain other deficiencies in your application, such as low test scores.

2.  The Writing Sample
       Your writing sample should reflect your best writing, preferably in sociology or a related discipline.  This should be a serious piece of work and should be similar to a research paper.  Make sure to include information about the context in which the paper was originally written.  If your best piece of work is co-authored, send it, but also send a singly-authored sample as well.

3.  The Personal Statement
    Most undergraduates who write personal statements sound young and idealistic, which is not a bad thing.  However, most graduate committees know that you must be serious and committed if you are applying. They want to know that you understand the rigors that graduate training entails.  If you have had any prior research experience, you should mention this, and you should explain your interests in terms that are relevant to the discipline.  Mention specific faculty members that you would like to work with, if possible, but try not to make your interests too narrow, or the department might not think you are a good match for the department as a whole.  Make sure to have friends and a trusted faculty member edit your statement before you submit it - feedback from others is invaluable. 

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Information from Dr. John McCarthy of Penn State University and the American Sociological Association were consulted for this document.