Choosing Applied Sociology

After working in the policy world in Massachusetts for many years, going back to graduate school in Sociology felt like going to a candy store in the country* every day, where I could read interesting books, have stimulating conversations, learn how to do research, and then write about it.  I admired my professors, and I was kind of amazed that their job was to take me seriously and support my development as a scholar. Later, while I was working on my dissertation, I got a job teaching part-time in a local university while a full-time professor went out on leave. It was challenging; it was fun; and it was an incredible opportunity to experiment with pedagogy. I learned that I loved teaching, and over the next two years, got hired to teach a wide range of sociology classes – about families, sex and gender, feminism, work, and women and leadership – at several other Boston universities. 

But the more I learned about the full-time tenure-track teaching world, the more I realized it was just not my thing. First off, I couldn’t imagine “starting over” again at the bottom of the career ladder, with what could be six grueling years of slogging towards tenure. Nor could I imagine the idea of a job for life – the promise of tenure – working with the same folks for the next few decades (apologies to my mythical could-have-been colleagues!). Call me fickle, but I enjoyed changing jobs every few years, having new and varied challenges, and working with a diverse array of people. 

Learning on the job
By luck, while I was taking research methods classes, I was offered a small consulting job to evaluate the impact of a well-established training program on its activist participants. Here was an opportunity to put my newfound knowledge to use.  Except that no one was teaching how to evaluate social programs in sociology graduate programs!  I did have some experience with “program evaluation”. When I was directing a statewide child care project that was federally funded, some guy was hired by the state to evaluate my program. He met with me once at the beginning of the project, and at the end, he wrote a glowing report.

Every so often, I wondered if he’d be back. In the end, he really had no basis upon which to evaluate the strengths and challenges the project was facing – and believe me, there were plenty. But I wasn’t going to complain if he was phoning it in!

Since I had no idea how to evaluate a program, I hired someone who did, and for the next few years, she trained me and my sociologist friend, Claire, in how to use research skills to evaluate social programs. I never intended to continue doing this “applied” work for the next 20 years, but that is essentially what has happened. When I first started, I wasn’t very good at it, and I thought it was boring. But a couple decades later, I have learned a whole lot about how to do it well, and (luckily) find this work fascinating.

Making a choice to be an applied sociologist
The choice to be an “applied sociologist” is not a rejection or devaluation of academic sociology. It is a choice that is, in part, a function of economic imperatives – a tight job market, especially if you don’t want to move – but also a choice to make a different kind of difference. To impact the social world through organizations that are impacting people:  through service, through organizing, and through education and advocacy, in the areas of public health, education, urban planning, climate change, arts and arts education and many more.

I have learned that it makes me happy to use the research and writing skills I learned in graduate school as a tool to help promote social change, through the vehicle of strengthening nonprofit organizations and improving philanthropic decision-making. Once considered the stepchild of the field, applied sociology is now gaining prominence, but largely because the economy has not produced the plethora of academic sociology jobs once predicted.

“Close to a perfect match”
In a 2013 article in Inside Higher Ed, Roberta Spalter-Roth, from the American Sociological Association, commented that “In sociology, there is close to a perfect match between available jobs and new Ph.D.s” ( But this is only if you factor in the many government, nonprofit and research analyst jobs out there that require the skills and sociological perspectives learned in graduate school. Spalter-Roth notes that these jobs often pay more than university teaching positions, but graduates rarely know about them and professors may even discourage their students from entering these professions.

This year, my applied sociology friends and I agree that the “applied route” seems to be gaining some traction, with increased interest from universities and professional associations. A number of us have been on a (minor) speaking circuit, talking to graduate students at the request of sociology departments about choosing applied sociology as a career. And this year, the Sociology Department of a major research university, Boston College, hired me to teach a course on Evaluation Research.  (Kudos to BC Sociology for recognizing the importance of this avenue for sociologists-in-training!) 

Panel at Sociologists for Women in Society: Choosing Applied Sociology (sponsored by the Career Development Committee)

Given this increased interest, and what I believe is a need for sociologists to promote the health and well-being of organizations and communities using research and sociological principles, I organized a panel on this topic at an annual meeting of my favorite national feminist sociology organization, Sociologists for Women in Society.

The panel included three distinguished applied sociologists from the DC area, where the meeting was held, who presented about why they chose this route of practice, what they do and for what populations, and how they incorporate sociological principles into their work, framed by a race, class, gender lens.

The speakers, all based in DC, included Tekisha Everette, a lobbyist for the American Diabetes Association; Andrea Robles, a research analyst at the Corporation for National and Community Service; and Chantal Hailey, who ran evaluation projects at the national Urban Institute and elsewhere, and is currently a sociology doctoral student at NYU. One other panelist, Rita Stephens, was not able to make it because of a blasted snowstorm, but she would have rounded out the panel very nicely as she works at the State Department. The three women spoke to a standing and sitting room only crowd at the meeting, followed by numerous informal conversations, attesting to the fact that there is a hunger for this kind of work.

In my next couple of blog posts, I will allow these amazing women’s words speak for themselves. I hope that their words stimulate a dialogue about the value of and choice to pursue sociology outside of the academy. Based on the remarkable response at this meeting and in classrooms where I talk about applied sociology, my sense is that sociologists want to know about alternatives to working within academia. The words of these speakers inspired me and I hope they inspire you.

                  “I was interested in doing applied work that could lead to positive social   
                  change. Somehow, it seemed like I wanted to be part of making the world
                  a better place.”
                                                         Sociologist, Andrea Robles
                                                         Corporation for National and Community Service
Check out this excellent blog post by Dr Zuleyka Zevallos, Research and Social Media Consultant with Social Science Insights in Australia, called What is Applied Sociology?, published in Sociology at Work:  Working for Social Change:

*Brandeis University, which is actually in the suburb of Waltham, Massachusetts, but looked like the country to this city girl!

Finding the right match…

As a devoted and slightly over-the-top ice cream addict, I approach summer with unbridled glee as I visit my favorite outdoor ice cream haunts.  (Hint: I reveal my favorite ice cream parlour at the end of this blog post.)

While I could – and do with friends – wax eloquent about the virtues of the ice cream cone, I will re-direct my focus to the topic of finding and working with an evaluation researcher. Wait!  There is one key similarity!  If you’re running a program and you are required to – or choose to – work with an evaluator, it’s all about finding the right match… Just like with most people and their ice cream; you have to find the right flavor for you.  If you don’t eat nuts, you wouldn’t be happy with pecan ice cream, right?  If you adore ice cream, you may be less thrilled about frozen yoghurt. OK, so maybe the analogy ends there…

But in the midst of this hot, steamy summer, when I am not satiating my ice cream cravings, I’ve been having some interesting conversations with colleagues about the important things organizations should consider when selecting and working with an evaluator. To that end, thank you to my colleagues at Arbor Consulting Partners and my virtual evaluator colleagues (see below for names).

For me, the bottom line for selecting and working successfully with an evaluator is that it’s really about developing a working relationship between two parties. An evaluator brings a set of skills and a “third eye” to this venture with the purpose of helping an organization grow and thrive, and the client brings organizational knowledge and insights, as well as access to information and people that can further the evaluation process. Finding the right match is key…

There are a few things to think about:

– How do organizations find an evaluator?
– What skills should organizations look for in an evaluator?
– What should organizations tell potential evaluators about their needs?

Where to find an evaluator?  There are a number of sources out there, beginning with friends and colleagues who may have worked with an evaluator. But there are other great resources (thanks to Belle Brett) such as vendor lists kept by state departments; the American Evaluation Association’s (AEA) “find an evaluator” function on its website (; statewide evaluation associations; department chairs of evaluation programs at various colleges and universities; and resource databases kept by private foundations (W. K. Kellogg Foundation,

What skills should organizations look for in an evaluation?  Organizational leaders should look for someone they could trust, someone who listens well and can think intelligently about the program’s goals and the extent to which it’s designed to achieve those goals. Cultural sensitivity and competency may be an important factor in the potential evaluator. Organizational leaders should ask potential evaluators about their approach to working with clients and the kinds of evaluation they have done. They should get references and writing samples from a range of clients whose work is similar or relevant.

What should organizations tell potential evaluators about their needs?  Organizational leaders should tell potential evaluators what their budget is and when the project will begin. If organizations are in the process of developing a proposal, they can invite the evaluator to get involved right at the beginning. The relationship can begin right away, and evaluators can help conceptualize a new program, ensuring that the program and evaluation research designs fit the needs of the organization and are acceptable to funders.

I welcome your comments and other ideas about finding the right match!

THANKS:  Thank you to my colleagues whose ideas are reflected in this blog:  Madeleine Taylor at Arbor Consulting Partners, Belle Brett of Brett Consulting Group, Steve Gill from Consultant for Human Performance Improvement, Marty Henry at Henry Consulting, LLC, Marilyn Hwalik of SPEC Associates, Geri Lynn Peak, Dr.PH of Two Gems Consulting Services, Sheri Scott of Scott Consulting Partners, LLC, Jan Upton from Institutional Research Consultants, Ltd., and Susan Wolfe of Susan Wolfe and Associates, LLC.

And finally:  What’s my favorite ice cream parlour?  How about 3?

Boston:  Kimball Farms in Carlisle Massachusetts
Pittsburgh: Bruster’s 
Los Angeles:  Lake Street Creamery

Any others you want to suggest?