According to the narrative, I am a waste of money.
According to the narrative, I will not get a job. And probably don’t deserve one.
I chose the wrong major, you see.
I am majoring in sociology, with a minor in business administration. You may notice that this is not engineering, computer science, nursing, applied mathematics, or finance
whoops, finance is no longer a smart major either. Some of you are already dusting off your hilarious “do you want fries with that?” and “underwater basketweaver” jokes, backed up as you are by admirable men like Randall Munroe and Richard Feynman. Most of you are honestly wondering what a “Sociologist” does, and boggling at the clear violation of hard-headed, realistic “common sense” that a social science major is. After all, “anthropology” and “sociology” (assuming they aren’t lumped together) make the top five worthless/least profitable/worst majors lists with depressing regularity. And if you’re not in college to make more money, what are you doing there?
We have this idea in America that there is A Job, and you choose A Major that sounds like A Job that you want. So finance majors become financiers, engineering majors become engineers, computer science majors become programmers. Under this model, any major that does not sound like A Job you can picture is, by definition, a bad major. After all, what’s an ‘Englisher’? Do they write or something? How many historians can there possibly be? Do drama majors become dramatists? What do liberal artists do all day, study liberals? The lack of a clear career direction, in the popular narrative, is the death knell for a major or field of study.
Let me tell you something: Not all computer science majors become programmers, and this does not make them failures. Not all art majors become professional painters, not all political science majors become politicians. Somehow, they make do. Perhaps the art major does commercial design instead, creating menus, signs, and websites that are readable and less offensive to the eye than one of my covers. The political science major starts selling insurance, her awareness and training allowing her to keep one step ahead of the seismic changes of Obamacare. The computer science major becomes a technical writer, and the worst humiliation they have to suffer is working alongside an English major on the job. They aren’t in A Job that their majors seem to lead to, but they apply what they learn to the jobs they find.
Which means that, for example, knowing how to assess the authenticity and value of text documents to the matter at hand (History) or how to compose a report, an analysis, or a manual in a lucid manner (English) or even how to describe and predict large groups of people (Sociology) could conceivably be useful on the job…even if the job doesn’t have a title like historian, sociologist, or English-er.
In sociology, I have learned how to do statistical analysis, how to find and use census and market data, how to avoid confirmation bias and correlation-causation errors, how to conduct interviews and surveys, and some of the known facts about how humans act in large groups. From other classes, because I am one of these heathens that uses the electives to broaden his knowledge rather than sneering at the system as a waste of time, I have learned to write grants and how the RFP and grant systems work, how to use geographic information system software and what the data can be used for, how to draft a contract, how to assemble an accounting system and understand what it tells me, how to conduct a marketing campaign, and how to construct an argument in formal logic. Over the course of my classes I’ve analyzed and defended opinions on such diverse topics as China’s ascendance and presumed hegemony (it won’t happen), the ebook market (it looks like my mother), and business ethics (not necessarily an oxymoron).
In short, I’ve learned how to describe and predict what people in groups will do. Anything involving large groups of people (such as voters, customers, clients, aid recipients…) is something I can make a critical difference in, for the benefit of the organization employing me. To this, I’ve added the ability to understand the different functions of a business, from product development to employee relations. Marketing consultants are hired (and paid well) to understand the customer base, using interviews, surveys, and statistical analysis, and then translate it into something the company can act on. They’re just not called ‘sociologists’ when they do it, though the techniques are nearly identical. Government programs and nonprofits employ whole swaths of people to ensure that they’re reaching the populations that the programs are intended for. These are called public relations people or outreach directors, not sociologists. As a business owner myself, I am very interested in who is buying my product and why.
And that’s not even getting into the leaps and bounds going on within the field, like this analysis that predicted the intensity and location of violence in Afghanistan, or Nate Silver’s election metrics, or the work of applied anthropologists everywhere. We are starting to understand what we do and why when we interact with other people in ways we never have before.
It’s been said that everything you learn in a technical major is outdated within five years. How quickly do you imagine businesses, governments, and NGOs are going to lose interest in studying, understanding, and communicating with their respective target populations?
So, go ahead. Tell me my major is worthless. Tell me it’s a waste of money and I should have studied something sensible, something that chases a job market bubble, like nursing or petroleum engineering. Tell all your absolutely hilarious soft science jokes.
Go ahead and try.