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Wondering if i should continue in the discipline


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Hi All. This post is mostly directed towards those who are already attending graduate school, or who otherwise have significant knowledge about sociology as a discipline. 


I just finished my first semester of the PhD at a top-10 program in sociology. Previously, I had exactly *no* background in the discipline.  I am a slightly "older" student coming from a public policy background, where I had started to build a promising career and was doing quite well in my profession. Leaving all that behind to go back to school was a very difficult decision. I decided to pursue the PhD so as to expand my future career options and to preclude an impending encounter with the proverbial glass ceiling.


In many ways, being in a sociology department has come as a big shock. Suddenly, I'm viewed as a beginner, a blank slate, a vessel waiting to be filled. I haven't yet encountered a professor who is at all interested in my professional background. It's as if our whole cohort is seen a fresh out of college eager-beaver Soc majors to be moulded into whatever image they want of us. Even when I go talk to potential advisors about research ideas, nobody seems to give a crap about my background or other areas of expertise. Faculty seem quite interested in the ideas themselves, but unconcerned with their context (except, of course when they point out, which they do often, that I am 'not being sociological enough'). I realize I am new at sociology, but I am not new to research. I have published articles and presented at several major conferences. I'm in this PhD program to learn (of course), but I'm also intent on building on my already extensive background. I may know little about sociology, but I am hardly a blank slate. And though my department has a reputation for intellectual congeniality, it's clear that I'm only going to be valued on the basis of how much I absorb exactly what they want to teach me.


I am benefitting from this PhD program, for sure. I'm becoming a better critical thinker and improving my communication skills. But above all that - I'm also getting the larger sense that this program isn't right for me. Given what I gave up to come here, and how far I have yet to climb to prove myself here, it may not be worth it.

It's been drilled into us from day 1 that we're all here to become professors at Top-10 sociology departments. Any other career goal is seen as a backup plan for those who have failed. As far as my professional goals are concerned, if I go into academia at all I intend to teach at a public policy school. I'm not yet convinced that a sociology department is a place I'd want to be. To achieve the gold standard of a TT job at a Top-10 sociology department, we are expected to devote 7-9 years of our lives to PhD training. We will follow all the rules. We will do exactly as they tell us. We will become sociologists.


As far as I can tell, all of the students in my department are eagerly doing just as they are told. In order to maintain my connections and credentials with my public policy field, I cannot step completely into line. My main issue, I think, is that I never wanted to "be a sociologist". Sure, I entered this program in good faith. I am eager to learn the tools of sociology. I am thrilled to be in an environment with so many intelligent, driven, and talented people. It's an absolute honor to have been admitted to this program in the first place. But I don't know that trying to stick it out for another 7-8 years will actually work out for me. It just doesn't seem worth it.


When I was deciding between this program and another in Public Policy, I was told by numerous faculty (potential advisors) that sociology would be a welcoming 'big tent' discipline. While still in the courtship stage, sociology was eager to sell itself as a framework from within which I could study anything. This department was 'the ideal base' from which I could build upon my interests and prior knowledge. For sure, when I got here I knew I'd have to learn the cannon and the methods of the discipline. But the department has so far proven to be much more keen on policing its boundaries than engaging with other disciplines. In particular, my end of semester evaluations have made it clear that I'm just not doing things "like a sociologist" enough. My professors gave me decent enough grades, but remarked on my research papers that I have a long way to go. 


I am a hard worker, and I knew that changing disciplines would not be easy. But now it's seeming like I need to balance the benefits of this program against my more deeply held interests and goals. Being honest with myself, I'm not sure if I can be the kind of scholar I want to be in a sociology department.


I haven't totally given up, but I'm certainly at a point of crisis. I don't have an official 'advisor' yet, though several professors in the department have approached me with open arms. I feel comfortable talking frankly with these individuals about my concerns. The larger issue, however, is that I don't think that I'm going to get the perspective I need from any of these folks. They're all very kind people, but they also committed long ago to life as an academic at a top-10 program. It's certainly a very niche perspective. And, as I alluded to earlier, none of them has any perspective on the world of public policy. 


Now that I have a couple of weeks off to reconsider my trajectory, what would you suggest I do? 



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Interdisciplinarity is a sham. There is no umbrella discipline, and every social science sells itself as if a training in its core of first principles allows one to study virtually any human phenomena. Every discipline accrues fashions of analysis and topics which, for otherwise arbitrary, socially constructed, and relativistic reasons get labeled "analytically meaningful." Out of that process comes a lot of insight and constructive thought. And also a good deal of pandering, repetition, and dogma. It is what it is. Personally I think dogma is a good thing -- it forces someone who wants to say something new to amass an enormous body of evidence to do so (that thought isn't original to me, but I forget who to cite).

People who do successfully traverse disciplinary boundaries have to do so over some sort of established bridge, and even when making some headway end up stepping on tons of toes anyway and usually draw incredible criticism from the main stream. On my reading, anyone going this route has to develop core competency in established methods and intuitions in their home discipline, and amend from there. Practically speaking, that means going through the first and second year gauntlet.

I don't think you're going to get a great deal of credit among potential academic advisors, even in a Policy PhD program, for your professional experience. Your prior research, however remarkable, was not done in an academic setting, and to most academics is thus merely fancy sounding Man In the Street pontificating. Intellectual pretense is unfortunate, but a reality, even if you showed up at a Policy PhD program with your papers.

I would give it another semester before you do anything, and definitely try and take the free masters if you can get through quals, if your primary objective is to get back to private research.

Edited by econosocio
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It's true that most schools - regardless of their reputation and ranking - don't quite understand the concept of interdisciplinary studies. I was educated in a highly interdisciplinary school and it comes as a shock to me when I see top-ranking schools "closing the boundaries" of their disciplines. Quite obviously, these schools have a long way to go.


Anyway, I feel it would't be viable for you to go all the way through the end of the PhD program. Perhaps it's more advisable to complete your Masters with hard work and a good GPA, with a dissertation attempting to use concepts of Public Policy into a Sociological topic.


If you don't want to become a professor, you can do without a PhD and perhaps use those years getting work experience in Public Policy if that's where your heart is.


But I would say definitely get a good Masters from here. And write a dissertation from where you can get some research papers later with some revisions if you have the chance.


Sometimes it happens that candidates who are not interested in PhD research in a particular discipline get interested after a couple of semesters and produce a very good PhD in the end. Keep this in mind and wait till the end of your Masters to see how you feel about going further.


For the time being, work hard on your masters the way your Professors want it and see if you want to stay after Masters, or if you want to go.

Edited by Seeking
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Personally I think dogma is a good thing -- it forces someone who wants to say something new to amass an enormous body of evidence to do so (that thought isn't original to me, but I forget who to cite).


This needs to be qualified. Dogma is a bad thing when it significantly hinders receptiveness to findings based on quality data while, concurrently, making us too receptive to agreeable findings based on lower-quality data.


I assume you were taking this point as a given, but I think it's worth repeating.


I remember having a talk once with a sociologist about the developmental effects of early childhood education. She seemed all too eager to embrace the findings of the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian projects (positive effect with minimal fade out; N=a few dozens) while ignoring findings from Head Start and the Infant Health and Development Program (negligible positive effects and high fade out; N=many hundreds).


As we all know, skewed science has public consequences: http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2012/10/19/163256866/episode-411-why-preschool-can-save-the-world

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Interdisciplinarity is a sham.




I'm sorry to say that sociology seems to have not made the cut :(


The Social Science Ph.D. Program at Caltech offers the opportunity for highly motivated and quantitatively-oriented students to pursue interdisciplinary research in areas common to anthropology, economics, political science, history, law, and public policy. The program is based on the belief that a wide variety of social phenomena are best understood as the consequence of intelligent decisions by individuals pursuing their own ends, that such decisions can be modeled, and that conclusions concerning social events should be based on observable and measurable parameters of those theories. Graduates of the program have been eagerly sought and have found positions in leading departments of economics, political science, and law as well as in government and industry.

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Indeed, it can, which is why the unabashed social advocacy in many social sciences scares the shit out of me. Logical positivism can go too far -- where you get a situation like that in economics where scholars can't face that the work de facto implies normative and ethical conclusions. But having little to none of it creates a situation like that in development policy research, where people refuse to accept that foreign aid has done more to prop up dictators and promote centrally planned economies that keep people without lights and starving, than it has to help the poor -- though giving it without paying any attention to its results sure makes the occident feel warm. Ignorance is like Christmas every day.

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I'm sorry to say that sociology seems to have not made the cut :(

Caltech's department isn't interdisciplinary and is precisely an example of how stupid of a label "interdisciplinary" is. Caltech's program, just like decision sciences programs, merely apply the theories of games and optimization to non-traditional topics outside of economics. The only thing going on at Caltech is some positive political theory (read -- mathematical political theory), and economics. Most students who apply to Caltech also apply to a range of economics programs as well. Unless you want to do economic experiments, write agent-level decision theory, work on formal models of voting, or other established mathematical tracks in poly sci or econ, Caltech's program is not for you. And there are a lot of these programs everywhere. Business schools talk about interdisciplinarity. I spoke with several business PhDs at Wharton and Fuqua -- these "interdisciplinarians" are just as focused on writing cool models and getting them published in the American Economic Review as anyone else in economics is.

Interdisciplinary studies like those at Great Books programs are truly interdisciplinary. And every once and a while you find someone like Herbert Simon or John von Neuman who can have huge impacts on computer science and economics simultaneously. Or Elinor Ostrom, influencing political scientists, sociologists, and economists at the same time.

Otherwise interdisciplinarity is an administrative buzz word meant to make campuses sound progressive, and is nearly meaningless.

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To give some advice to @NotMyParty -- coming from someone in graduate school, I think everyone at one point in their first semester has their fair share of a panic attack, and wonders if the program/fit/discipline/life trajectory is the right or wrong one.  The hard part of course in a phD program is the length.. and the intimidation from not being able to see the 7-9 year end point.


Some suggestions or thoughts - how are your friends/cohort in the program?  Do you feel that you can be frank and open with them about your concerns, or do you feel that you are in some ways competing with them (either for funding) or they are much younger and don't relate well?  If anything, your cohort and friends you build on campus will be what gets you through the hard times.  Even stupid things, like silly inside jokes about professors and things that happen in class go along way to building morale.  In some ways, what you are doing here on the forum is great -- reaching out to other students in the same situation -- but you should also be doing this with a few close friends in the program who can help build a support network.


Do you have program regret because of a hard decision from last spring?  One terrible thing that happens in the first year is the whole "what if" mentality - what if chose that other program I was deciding between.  This mentality is awful.  After you make a decision, try not to look back.  At least do your best..  since this will only heighten any insecurities.


In regards to the discussion on interdisciplinary stuff - its very much possible and done really well by certain individuals still, so I wouldn't give up on it.  The ones who succeed at it, manage to find their own support systems either with other departments and fields, or through mentors who share a similar trajectory.  Of course, that path isn't as easy as the traditional sociology one -- but you got into a top 10 sociology phd program, so taking on new challenges shouldn't be too hard ;)  Seriously though, if a top 10 program admitted you, don't discount that vote of approval.  You already have a very strong record of accomplishment, and even if right now things are tough, there are ways to do your public policy stuff, get through sociology, and succeed in what YOU want to do.  

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In regards to the discussion on interdisciplinary stuff - its very much possible and done really well by certain individuals still, so I wouldn't give up on it.  


Oh yeah, for sure.  I didn't mean to say it's impossible.  It's just that, I find that most people who don't have a strong interdisciplinary reading, or strong mentors and colleagues actually traversing the boundaries, have an unbelievably naive few of how interdisciplinarity actually works.  Unfortunately most of those people, are most people (and especially undergraduates and administrators).


I am ALL FOR good interdisciplinarity, and think we should have much, much more of it.  

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  • 2 weeks later...

Quick note: interdisciplinarity is one of those things (like teaching) that is talked about but not really incentivized for most people.  I can pull it off, but in my unprivileged position as a graduate student, I always have to be carefully positioned as "a sociologist in conversation with political scientists", rather than "a scholar", because I ultimately want a job in a sociology department.


More deeply, at OP, many people in program (myself included) did not have a background in sociology, myself included.  The first year for a lot of us was learning "What the hell did we join on to?"  And it's hard.  For many people I've talked to in a wide variety of disciplines, the first semester of graduate school is a hard time, and a lonely one especially. 


Your professional background will begin to matter as you can tie it into more substantive, sociological projects.  And it takes time before you can present your ideas "sociologically".  No one cared much about my religious studies background (which was an academic background, even) until I could bring the insights in to the language of the discipline.  I remember I was in a political science class, and I just quoted a comment by one of my favorite religious studies scholars, and the professor stopped me and was like, "Are you writing about that?  Please write about that, that sounds fascinating." So now I'm working on a paper transfering that (humanistic) discourse in sociological (slash social science-y) one.  Once you can do that, people will be much more interested in your ideas, I promise.  And once you have good ideas (i.e. ideas that you can communicate in the right language), professors will treat you differently.  Get through the year.  I learned in my first year that all the ideas I had before aren't doable or won't be rewarded, but I was beginning to move forward.  I ended my second year with a lot nascent paper idea that I was excited about and that I think will be publishable (and I even have specific ideas of where to publish all of them).


One piece of advice that we got the very first week was from a junior faculty member: "If you have any career goal other than teaching at an R1 research university, don't tell us.  We want to help you, we want to make you succeed, but we are interested in social reproduction.  We obviously think we have made the best choices and want you to make the same choices.  I'm not saying that you can't have other career goals, I'm saying don't tell us if you do.  You can tell your colleagues if you know them well, but don't tell us because we want to make little versions of ourselves, and if you tell us, you won't necessarily get the attention you deserve.  I wish it wasn't this way, but it is."  I know a half a dozen people in the department who don't necessarily want to be in an R1 sociology department.  Some people want different departments (area studies, film studies, business school, public policy, law school), some people want different careers entirely (political opinion research, journalism, film making).  That's fine, and they will by and large succeed, I think, but they won't get support from the faculty advisers for those careers until the faculty advisers know them well.  For the different departments, they have generally sought out a person already in those departments who has shown them the ropes.  For different careers, these people tend to be very driven and have figured out this stuff on their own.  This is possible to do, at least in sociology department, and it's probably relatively easy to do from a sociology department compared to most other sorts of departments.  It's not encouraged, though, but don't let that make you feel like it's super-heavily discouraged. 


What I suggest, basically, is to stick with the program, learn sociology for a year.  First semester is hard for everyone--even if the classes aren't hard, emotionally it can just be draining.  You're way more isolated with your thoughts than is normal.  It can make you feel totally crazy and that's totally the most common thing in the world.  See if there are peers you can talk to outloud about this so you don't feel so crazy.  You are probably spending way to much time alone with your thoughts and that's totally typical of a first semester. Pick a supportive person as an adviser when you have to, maybe one that has had students go on "non-traditional" career paths.  Failing that, pick someone who is just supportive period (often middle-aged women, but by no means exclusively.  In general, younger faculty who are still trying to prove themselves may be less receptive to other career paths). Then, in your second year (and if you jump ship, you're going to want to do it after a masters so might as well stick it out for now), see if you can find someone in another school at your university (social work, public policy, whatever) who is 1) "academically rigorous" enough to please people in your department 2) close enough interest to you to mentor you in how to get to where you want to be.  Failing that, see if you can develop a relationship with someone at one of those other school.  Go to sociological conferences...and also go to your other conferences, too.  Read both kinds of journals.  You will probably find the most support in your department if you are able to position yourself (at least for now) as "a sociologist who is interested in policy".  For example, just tell everyone you're "VERY interested in 'public sociology'" even if you mean "I'm interested in public policy, I guess from a sociological perspective, or something".  Just speak to your professors in a language they understand, because, let's be real, you are the one expected to translate for them, they're not expected to translate for you.  When you write papers, write what you want, but be willing to throw them a "sociological" bone or two to keep them happy.  People do this a lot, actually, but the onus is on you to code-switch and learn how to navigate the various systems. 

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