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Nature of the Work
Social scientists study all aspects of human societyfrom the optimal distribution
of goods and services to human behavior and relationships between groups. Their research
provides insights that help us understand the different ways in which individuals and
groups make decisions, exercise power, and respond to change. Through their studies and
analyses, social scientists suggest solutions to social, business, personal, governmental,
and environmental problems.
Research is a basic activity for many social scientists. They use various methods to assemble facts and construct theories. Applied research usually is designed to produce information that will enable people to make better decisions or manage their affairs more effectively. Interviews and surveys are widely used to collect facts, opinions, or other information. Information collection takes many forms, however, including living and working among the population being studied; field investigations, including the analysis of historical records and documents; experiments with human or animal subjects in a laboratory; the administration of standardized tests and questionnaires; and the preparation and interpretation of maps and computer graphics.
The following paragraphs discuss the major specialties in social science. Specialists in one field, however, often find that their research overlaps work being conducted in another discipline.
Anthropologists study the origin and the physical, social, and cultural development and behavior of humans. They may study the way of life, archaeological remains, language, or physical characteristics of people in various parts of the world. Some compare the customs, values, and social patterns of different cultures. Anthropologists generally concentrate in sociocultural anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, or biological-physical anthropology. Sociocultural anthropologists study the customs, cultures, and social lives of groups in settings that vary from nonindustrialized societies to modern urban centers. Archaeologists recover and examine material evidence, such as tools and pottery remaining from past human cultures, in order to determine the history, customs, and living habits of earlier civilizations. Linguistic anthropologists study the role of language in various cultures. Biological-physical anthropologists study the evolution of the human body, look for the earliest evidences of human life, and analyze how culture and biology influence one another. Most anthropologists specialize in one particular region of the world.
Economists study the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. Most economists are concerned with the practical applications of economic policy in a particular area, such as finance, labor, agriculture, transportation, energy, or health. Others develop theories to explain economic phenomena such as unemployment or inflation. Marketing research analysts study local, regional, national, or world market conditions to determine potential sales of a product or service. They analyze data on past sales and trends to develop forecasts, and conduct extensive market surveys to test their conclusions.
Geographers analyze distributions of physical and cultural phenomena on local, regional, continental, and global scales. Economic geographers study the distribution of resources and economic activities. Political geographers are concerned with the relationship of geography to political phenomena, while cultural geographers study the geography of cultural phenomena. Physical geographers study the variations in climates, vegetation, soil, and land forms, and their implications for human activity. Urban and transportation geographers study cities and metropolitan areas, while regional geographers study the physical, economic, political, and cultural characteristics of regions, ranging in size from a congressional district to entire continents. Medical geographers study health care delivery systems, epidemiology (the study of the causes and control of epidemics), and the effect of the environment on health. (Some occupational classification systems include geographers under physical scientists rather than social scientists.)
Historians research, analyze, and interpret the past. They use many sources of information in their research, including government and institutional records, newspapers and other periodicals, photographs, interviews, films, and unpublished manuscripts such as personal diaries and letters. Historians usually specialize in a specific country or region; in a particular time period; or in a particular field, such as social, intellectual, political, or diplomatic history. Biographers collect detailed information on individuals. Genealogists trace family histories. Other historians help study and preserve archival materials, artifacts, and historic buildings and sites.
Political scientists study the origin, development, and operation of political systems and public policy. They conduct research on a wide range of subjects such as relations between the United States and other countries, the institutions and political life of nations, the politics of small towns or a major metropolis, or the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court. Studying topics such as public opinion, political decisionmaking, ideology, and public policy, they analyze the structure and operation of governments as well as various political entities. Depending on the topic under study, a political scientist might conduct a public opinion survey, analyze election results, analyze public documents, or interview public officials.
Psychologists study human behavior and counsel or advise individuals or groups. Their research also assists business advertisers, politicians, and others interested in influencing or motivating people. While clinical psychology is the largest specialty, psychologists specialize in many other fields such as counseling, experimental, social, and industrial psychology.
Sociologists study human society and social behavior by examining the groups and social institutions that people form, as well as various social, religious, political, and business organizations. They also study the behavior and interaction of groups, trace their origin and growth, and analyze the influence of group activities on individual members. They are concerned with the characteristics of social groups, organizations, and institutions; the ways individuals are affected by each other and by the groups to which they belong; and the effect of social traits such as sex, age, or race on a person's daily life. The results of sociological research aid educators, lawmakers, administrators, and others interested in resolving social problems and formulating public policy.
Most sociologists work in one or more specialties, such as social organization, stratification, and mobility; racial and ethnic relations; education; family; social psychology; urban, rural, political, and comparative sociology; sex roles and relations; demography; gerontology; criminology; or sociological practice.
Urban and regional planners develop comprehensive plans and programs for the use of land. Planners prepare for situations that are likely to develop as a result of population growth or social and economic change.
Most social scientists have regular hours. Generally working behind a desk, either
alone or in collaboration with other social scientists, they read and write research
reports. Many experience the pressures of writing and publishing articles, deadlines and
tight schedules, and sometimes they must work overtime, for which they generally are not
reimbursed. Social scientists often work as an integral part of a research team, where
good communications skills are important. Travel may be necessary to collect information
or attend meetings. Social scientists on foreign assignment must adjust to unfamiliar
cultures, climates, and languages.
Some social scientists do fieldwork. For example, anthropologists, archaeologists, and geographers often travel to remote areas, live among the people they study, learn their languages, and stay for long periods at the site of their investigations. They may work under rugged conditions, and their work may involve strenuous physical exertion.
Social scientists employed by colleges and universities generally have flexible work schedules, often dividing their time among teaching, research and writing, consulting, or administrative responsibilities.
Social scientists held about 263,000 jobs in 1996. Over half of these social scientists
are psychologists. Over one-quarter of all social scientistsoverwhelmingly
psychologistsare self-employed, involved in counseling, consulting, or research.
Salaried social scientists worked as researchers, administrators, and counselors for a wide range of employers, including Federal, State, and local governments, educational institutions, hospitals, research and testing services, and management and public relations firms. Other employers include social service agencies, international organizations, associations, museums, historical societies, and computer and data processing firms.
In addition, many individuals with training in a social science discipline teach in colleges and universities, and in secondary and elementary schools. (For more information, see the Handbook statements on college and university faculty, and kindergarten, elementary, and secondary school teachers.) The proportion of social scientists who teach varies by occupationfor example, the academic world generally is a more important source of jobs for graduates in history than for graduates in psychology.
Educational attainment of social scientists is among the highest of all occupations.
The Ph.D. or equivalent degree is a minimum requirement for most positions in colleges and
universities and is important for advancement to many top level nonacademic research and
administrative posts. Graduates with master's degrees in applied specialties generally
have better professional opportunities outside of colleges and universities, although the
situation varies by field. For example, job prospects for master's degree holders in urban
or regional planning are brighter than for master's degree holders in history. Graduates
with a master's degree in a social science qualify for teaching positions in junior
colleges. Bachelor's degree holders have limited opportunities and in most social science
occupations do not qualify for "professional" positions. The bachelor's degree
does, however, provide a suitable background for many different kinds of entry-level jobs,
such as research assistant, administrative aide, or management or sales trainee. With the
addition of sufficient education courses, social science graduates also can qualify for
teaching positions in secondary and elementary schools.
Training in statistics and mathematics is essential for many social scientists. Mathematical and quantitative research methods are increasingly used in economics, geography, political science, experimental psychology, and other fields. The ability to use computers for research purposes is mandatory in most disciplines.
Depending on their jobs, social scientists may need a wide range of personal characteristics. Because they constantly seek new information about people, things, and ideas, intellectual curiosity and creativity are fundamental personal traits. The ability to think logically and methodically is important to a political scientist comparing, for example, the merits of various forms of government. Similarly, the ability to analyze large amounts of data is important to an economist studying proposals to reduce Federal budget deficits. Objectivity, open-mindedness, and systematic work habits are important in all kinds of social science research. Perseverance is essential for an anthropologist, who might spend years accumulating artifacts from an ancient civilization. Emotional stability and sensitivity are vital to a psychologist working with mental patients. Excellent written and oral communication skills are essential for all these professionals.
Candidates seeking positions as social scientists can expect to encounter keen
competition in many areas of social science. Many social science graduates, however, will
find good employment opportunities in areas outside social science, often in jobs that are
related to social science where their research, communication, and quantitative skills can
be put to good use.
Prospects are best for those with advanced degrees, and generally are better in disciplines such as economics and psychology, which offer more opportunities in nonacademic settings. Government agencies, health and social service organizations, marketing, research and consulting firms, and a wide range of businesses seek social science graduates, although often in jobs with titles unrelated to their academic discipline. Social scientists will face stiff competition for academic positions. However, the growing importance and popularity of social science subjects in secondary schools is strengthening the demand for social science teachers at this level.
Overall employment of social scientists is expected to grow more slowly than the average for all occupations through the year 2006. The largest social science occupation, psychologists, is expected to grow more slowly than the average, although some growth is expected due to public concern for the development of human resources, including the growing elderly population and children in school. Employment of economists and marketing research analysts is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2006. Opportunities for economists should be best in private industry, especially in research, testing, and consulting firms, as more companies contract out for economic research. Demand for marketing research analysts should be strong due to an increasingly competitive global economy. Employment of urban and regional planners is expected to grow more slowly than the average for all occupations through the year 2006 because many work for local governments that will experience tight budget constraints in the years to come. Other social scientists, including sociologists, anthropologists, geographers, historians, and political scientists should experience slower than average growth.
Median annual earnings of all social scientists were about $35,000 in 1996. The middle 50 percent earned between $24,400 and $47,800 annually. The lowest 10 percent earned under $18,000, while the highest 10 percent earned over $67,700.
According to a 1997 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, people with a bachelor's degree in a social science field received starting offers averaging about $25,000 a year.
In the Federal Government, social scientists with a bachelor's degree and no experience could start at $19,500 or $24,200 a year in 1997, depending on their college records. Those with a master's degree could start at $29,600, and those having a Ph.D. degree could begin at $35,800, while some individuals with experience and an advanced degree could start at $42,900. Beginning salaries were slightly higher in selected areas of the country where the prevailing local pay level was higher. The average salary of social scientists working for the Federal Government was $48,190 in early 1997; in geography was $47,850; in history was $55,750; in sociology was $64,720; and in archeology was $43,450.
A number of fields that require training and personal qualities similar to those of the various social science fields are covered elsewhere in the Handbook. These include lawyers; statisticians; mathematicians; computer programmers; computer scientists, computer engineers, and systems analysts; reporters and correspondents; social workers; college and university faculty; and counselors.
More detailed information about economists and marketing research analysts, psychologists, and urban and regional planners is presented in the Handbook statements that follow this introductory statement.
For information about careers in anthropology, contact:
The American Anthropological Association, 4350 N. Fairfax Dr., Suite 640, Arlington, VA 22203.
For information about careers in archaeology, contact:
Society for American Archaeology, 900 2nd St. NE., Suite 12, Washington, DC 20002.
Archaeological Institute of America, 656 Beacon St., Boston, MA 02215.
For information about careers in geography, contact:
Association of American Geographers, 1710 16th St. NW., Washington, DC 20009.
Information on careers for historians is available from:
American Historical Association, 400 A St. SE., Washington, DC 20003.
Organization of American Historians, 112 North Bryan St., Bloomington, IN 47408.
American Association for State and Local History, 530 Church St., 6th Floor, Nashville, TN 37219.
For information about careers in political science, contact:
American Political Science Association, 1527 New Hampshire Ave. NW., Washington, DC 20036.
National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration, 1120 G St. NW., Suite 730, Washington, DC 20005.
Information about careers in sociology is available from:
American Sociological Association, 1722 N St. NW., Washington, DC 20036-2981.
For information about careers in demography, contact:
Population Association of America, 721 Ellsworth Dr., Suite 303 Silver Spring, MD 20910.
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