An Open Letter to Sociology Faculty

Matt Rafalow
6 min readAug 11, 2021

Many of us working outside of the academy have been truly affirmed by the displays of faculty support for pursuing non-academic careers during this year’s ASA meeting. Incidentally, we had been working on a writeup and guide (organized and led by Dr. Sam Jaroszewski) to help faculty help their students:

As sociologists pursuing research work outside of the university, we give newly minted graduates embarking on similar industry work a warning –prepare for hundreds of emails from students who want to learn how to get a job like yours, many of whom are feeling alone, worried about their job prospects and training, and don’t know who to talk to about it in their department. Often these students are not sure that they want to leave academic sociology, but they do at least want to be able to make an informed decision about what their career path options might look like.

Sociology faculty, we need your help. Sociologists are needed in and outside of the academy. Those of us in the industry have been providing mentorship but we can not keep up with the growth in interest. We need your partnership in empowering students in your department to learn about, and develop the skills and proficiencies required for, research jobs in industry settings.

These students, most of whom are in masters and doctoral programs around the world and are passionate about learning and developing their sociological skills, have myriad reasons to look beyond academic roles, yet many are afraid to ask their advisors about working outside of the university. These students believe in the power of sociological methods and theories and ideally want to maintain deep connections with the discipline whether or not they find themselves permanently employed in a college or university setting. We welcome sociologically trained colleagues onto our teams in industry research roles, but so often we struggle to hire sociologists because far fewer of them are applying to research roles than researchers from adjacent fields, such as psychology, political science or economics. Those who do apply may struggle to translate their relevant skills to the jobs for which they are applying with rigorous academic research experience, but a lack of context for the applied role.

We are receiving more requests than we can keep up with for introductory phone calls, job advice, resume reviews, practice interviews and job talks, and networking calls. We are proud of the students we have helped get jobs outside of the academy, or helped land an internship and then bring the skills they learned in the workplace back to their future faculty roles. But there are structural issues contributing to students’ lack of support while in graduate school to help them pivot to successful careers outside of sociology departments. As such, we’ve put together some concrete steps that our colleagues in academic departments can do to support their students’ career paths in a holistic way. We truly believe that sociologists in industry roles have an important role to play bringing that perspective into companies and we hope these recommendations can help faculty set their students up for success.

Make students feel safe to consider and learn about jobs outside of the academy. Many students tell us that their faculty will provide them with fewer opportunities or support if they knew they were considering non-academic jobs. Yet several pressing realities — the job market not least among them — necessitate that they take steps to prepare themselves for a range of career options. This leads them to network covertly, if at all. Signaling support within departments could go a long way in reducing stress and creating effective opportunities for students to learn. Many students who learn about non academic research jobs choose to remain in the academy, but for those who choose to leave, the absence of support and training puts them at a serious disadvantage when it comes to applying.

If you don’t know how to advise your students for non-academic jobs, ask for help. Consider bringing your university’s career services team in for a workshop, offering a faculty training, or inviting local companies to speak on what their researchers do. This would go a long way to destigmatize roles outside academia. Many of our fellow social science disciplines include this sort of professional development and exposure to their applied colleagues as a matter of course. A common line of questions we hear are around basic information: what does a researcher do outside of sociology departments? What are the skills in demand? One helpful way we find to answer this question for students is to walk through open job ads for different roles, and focus on the skills that are prioritized in the listings. Are these skills that your department helps students develop? If not, is it something you could invest in? Small acts like these can make a world of a difference to students.

Relatedly, invite social scientists working in industry to speak at your department — and encourage faculty to attend, too. So often, we talk to students who are eager to connect with us — but we want to work with faculty to develop department resources, too. We think this is not just more efficient, but it’s also a more localized approach that enables departments to develop the tools and practices that are most beneficial to their department. For example, demography departments may see benefits to developing a pipeline for research statisticians in government or private research groups; departments with a public policy emphasis can help students prepare for think tank research careers; and departments with a focus on technology studies can offer internship preparation workshops for technology companies.

Most research can be shared in non-academic settings — do this more and use it as an opportunity to train students in applied work. If, in your studies, you have identified applied ways of using your skills — whether it is in service of the populations you study, projects outside the scope of your day to day work, with community organizations or volunteer opportunities- consider demonstrating this to your students. Modeling how they can use what they have learned in ways that are both meaningful to them, impactful to the community or organization, and help them develop transferable skills and work in a new context can be incredibly valuable.

Internships are key. Help your students get them. Many sectors have research internships for graduate students, and supporting students early in their studies to get at least one summer of internship experience can give them crucial experience necessary to develop the skills a hiring committee will look for, while also giving them the opportunity to try out a role and see if it is work that is interesting to them. It’s very difficult to hire someone with a PhD in hand but with no existing research experience in that setting. An internship is a practical and effective way to solve this problem, because PhDs with internship experience can often hit the ground running in a senior role as a new hire. Our academic conferences could help with this too, offering how-to panels and recruiting opportunities for internships.

We know faculty already have a full plate and are often trying to do the best for their students with limited resources. But as former graduate students, we want to share the information that we wish we had access to during our own training and career preparation. We are rooting for the success and influence of sociologists in academic and industry non-academic roles. Partner with us to prepare the next generation of sociologists to be our peers and colleagues.


Samantha Jaroszewski, PhD (Etsy), Mary Beth Hunzaker, PhD (Twitter), Michael A. Miner, PhD (Facebook), Sarah A. Outland, PhD (GET Cities/SecondMuse), Matt Rafalow, PhD (Google), Ande Reisman, PhD (Adobe)

Photo by Edwin Andrade