Saturday, 1 June 2013

Career planning for sociology PhD students

The Social Research Hub and I recently had a Twitter exchange about whether sociology and social research PhD studentships should be accompanied by some kind of career planning. Since that day, I have read yet more despairing tweets about the fate of people who have completed PhDs in sociology and do not find a place to fit into the workforce.

So I said that I would write a bit about the research training that we have been doing in the ESRC International Centre for Life Course Studies in Health

Our wish to set up a Centre was strongly motivated by the very opposite problem to that of which twitter-writers have been complaining. Over at least 10 years, members of our research group had been struggling to find people to work with us on projects investigating health, wellbeing and resilience over the life course. The possibilities to do this are increasing at an exponential rate due to the maturing of Britain's birth cohort studies and other longitudinal studies such as the British Household Panel Study, and the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. More recently, large amounts of funding have been awarded for a new, enormous panel study similar to BHPS but 4 times the size, and for a brand new birth cohort study which will also produce a very large amount of data. Anyone who wants to find out how to acquire these data has only to go to

So here are all these data, but where are the people trained in sociology who can use them? For some reason, the tradition of data analysis was lost from sociology between the time when I studied for my BA and the time I returned to academic work in medical sociology. So much so that many people would not regard me as a medical sociologist at all but as a 'social epidemiologist'. But I never believed that to understand the social determinants of health and wellbeing you needed to be an epidemiologist. What you needed was a research group where people knew their stuff in (a) sociology (b) social history (c) human biology (d) developmental psychology and (e) statistics. What you are doing is puting togther the ways in which people develop and change over their lives in terms that can only be understood with a knowledge of (a) to (d), formulated into ideas that will be tested using (e).

ICLS training does not aim to make people bigger experts in the separate disciplines than they already need to be to get a good Masters degree. But learning how to pull together evidence from different spheres and use it to formulate and test the relatively complex hypotheses you need in lifecourse studies is a very transferable skill! In  way it is quite the opposite to some of the very arcane, specific topics often followed in PhDs, both in the sciences and the social sciences. Because many of our topics are policy relevant ("Does the divorce of your parents make a difference to your mental health once you are adult?" "Is it bad for children if their mothers have paid employment?" "Does the kind of job you worked in make a difference to how healthy and independent you can remain in your older years?""What is the effect on your mental wellbeing of losing your job?") ICLS PhD candidates also get thrown in the deep end in this respect. One of the many great things about them, which also reflects some other Twitter-exchanges I have been having recently, is that they are natural communicators. By the time I was getting told by my funders that I needed to do 'public engagement' I had become far too much of a nerd. But our students just took to relating to non-academic partners in our enterprise like ducks to water. What THIS in turn means is that they begin their careers being (a) in demand for their knowledge of what to do with a complex data set (b) used to explaining their results in clear language (c) knowing some people outside academe who will be likely to keep them in close touch with what non-academics actually want to know about.

Now, if this sounds like a load of off-putting statistical stuff, all I can say is that the first crop of ICLS PhDs came with a wide range of statistical understanding, many with very little indeed. I myself never even took the Maths "O" level (that is how old I am) and got into data analysis due to the enthusiasm and persistence of colleagues over my working life. Learning what to do with a data set is not a matter of mathematics at all. It is a bit like learning to drive a car (I never learned that either).

But what IS a problem is that there do not seem to be many sociology degrees that might be relevant to the training we give. Many sociology degrees do not seem to deal with, for example, social structure, family change, social institutions. It is hard to find anyone teaching basic Weber, Durkheim, Marx, Bourdieu, etc. Or, more up to date topics relevant to contemporary social change, but from a sociological perspective looking at institutions, identity etc. I am sure that many sociologists looking at what emerges from the large longitudinal data sets at present would be able to think of other questions, other angles. That is badly needed.

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