How to Get a PhD in Sociology

If you’re fascinated by the study of social behavior and culture, you may be considering a PhD in sociology. A PhD in social science with a specialization in sociology can take your education to the highest level and prepare you for a new and exciting career. But PhD programs in sociology abound. How can you navigate through the possibilities to identify the best fit? Know what you’re looking for, and take the time to research.

When about to embark on your search for the right graduate sociology program, keep these steps firmly in mind:

  • Identify your goals
  • Research specializations, schools, and programs
  • Compile your materials
  • Apply to programs
  • Join the sociology community

The PhD in Sociology: An Overview

The study of social diversity and group behaviors has long been a subject of academic interest. In the last quarter of the 19th century, some professors of moral philosophy began incorporating sociological principles into their courses. By the turn of the century, sociology had started to become a distinct academic discipline.

Today, the number of people pursuing advanced degrees in sociology continues to grow. Data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that in 2006, 578 people received a doctorate in sociology, compared to 40 in 1930.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the subject matter, recipients of doctorate degrees in sociology are increasingly diverse. As of 2006, more than one-third of the people who received a doctorate in sociology were non-white. In 2007, nearly two-thirds of all doctoral recipients in sociology were women.

Like any other advanced degree, a doctorate in sociology is obtained through perseverance and commitment to the subject. The cornerstone of many campus-based and online PhD programs is a large-scale, independent research project. Depending on the amount of time it takes to finish your dissertation and whether you are entering the program with a master’s degree, a typical doctoral program takes four to seven years to complete.

For the Working Professional: An Online PhD in Sociology

An online PhD in sociology is becoming an increasingly available option. If you are a professional wishing to advance your education without relinquishing your career, you might want to explore an online doctorate degree.

Online degree programs tend to be geared toward working professionals seeking to apply current research and a deeper knowledge base to their work. Many online PhD programs combine faculty-guided research with online courses, and, sometimes, face-to-face residencies.

Campus-based and online PhD programs often differ in their philosophy and orientation. A campus-based PhD in sociology can prepare you to work as an academician, either as a teacher or researcher–or both. An online PhD in sociology, on the other hand, is usually a practitioner’s degree. Programs are generally designed to draw from and augment real-world professional experience. Students thus leave the programs with the expertise they need to occupy top-level positions in diverse fields such as human welfare, health care, criminal justice, business, or education.

Career Options for a PhD in Sociology

Jobs held by people holding a PhD in sociology are as diverse as the subject matter within the field. A survey of graduates with advanced degrees in sociology showed them occupying positions ranging from vice president of a management consulting firm to statistician with the U.S. Census Bureau. A PhD in sociology can prepare you to compete for positions in corporations, think tanks, research agencies, and human service organizations. Sociology professionals can work collaboratively or independently as contract researchers, organizational consultants, policy-makers, top administrators, or academicians.

Finding the Right PhD Program: The Research and Application Process

If you’ve decided to pursue a campus-based or online PhD in sociology, it’s time to start the process of identifying the programs that meet your needs.

Step 1: Identify Core Criteria for a PhD in Sociology

Depending on your situation and career goals, you can make decisions about some programs right off the bat. Start by considering your core criteria for a PhD in sociology, keeping the following items in mind.

  • Accreditation. Accreditation means a school has established a set of standards that meet criteria set by an authorizing body. Having this seal of approval lets employers know that your program has been fully vetted.
  • Online or on campus? If your career objective is to become a professor of sociology or a university-based researcher, a traditional on-campus program may be the right choice. If you’re a working professional and would like to build your expertise, or if you prefer a part-time program that accommodates your busy schedule, an online PhD in sociology may give you the flexibility and career development you need.
  • Location. Are you willing to move for a campus-based program? If not, you limit your options to schools within a particular geographic area or to online PhD programs.
  • Entry requirements. Some PhD programs require a master’s degree, while others do not. If you have only a bachelor’s degree, you’ll want to limit your search to a combined master’s/PhD in sociology–there are many to choose from.

Step 2: Assess Your Options for a PhD in Sociology

Now that you’ve established your baseline criteria, you’re ready to begin your research.

Survey the Field

Simply by browsing the Internet, you can find numerous sources of information about graduate schools in sociology. Use the following list to get started.

  • Accredited programs. The U.S. Department of Education maintains The Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs, searchable by school or accrediting agency. The Commission on Applied and Clinical Sociology also maintains a list of sociology programs that it has accredited.
  • Online directory sites. offers a wide range of information about graduate schools and programs. You can search degrees by level, degrees by subject, or degrees by school.
  • Rankings. Several sites rank graduate programs in sociology. U.S. News & World Report ranks more than 100 sociology graduate schools. The Social Psychology Network also ranks top sociology PhD programs, based on the Princeton Review’s “Gourman Report of Graduate Programs.”

Use the results of your search to keep a running list of PhD programs in sociology that meet your basic criteria.

Step 3: Narrow the Field of Campus-Based or Online PhD Programs

Now, it’s time to explore programs in depth using the results of your search. This is where you’ll collect and evaluate the details, so make sure you have plenty of ink for your printer (or plenty of pens).

There are several factors you should consider.

1. Specializations

As a doctoral student, you can work toward becoming a specialist within the discipline of sociology. Each program differs in the specializations it offers; faculty research interests usually guide a program’s areas of study. Be certain that your top PhD programs offer specializations that match your own interests.

Specializations for graduate studies in sociology include:

  • Criminology
  • Demography
  • Development
  • Education
  • Ethnicity and race
  • Family
  • Gender
  • Immigration
  • Labor
  • Organizations
  • Political sociology
  • Quantitative methods
  • Sexuality
  • Social history
  • Social movements
  • Stratification and class
  • Urban studies

2. Quality of the Program

When evaluating PhD programs in sociology, keep these seven quality measures in mind:

  • Faculty. Do faculty members have doctorate degrees from reputable universities or significant relevant work experience? What is the student/faculty ratio?
  • History. Does the program have a solid track record? If it is new, does it have quality faculty to guide it and seem comparable to other programs?
  • Reputation. Pay less attention to official rankings than to what other sociologists think about the school. Be sure to talk to faculty members and graduate students in sociology to get informed opinions.
  • Philosophy and orientation of the program. Does the program’s orientation (for example, research versus practitioner) match your own career objectives?
  • Graduation rate. When you begin the long path toward a doctorate, you’ll want the support and guidance you need to complete your degree. A program with a low graduation rate should raise a red flag.
  • Academic requirements. The more stringent the academic requirements, the higher-caliber student the program attracts.
  • Placement of graduates. Are graduates teaching at top universities? Are they applying their expertise as sociologists to their professions?

3. Program Costs

Funding a doctorate degree in sociology takes careful financial planning. Fortunately, financial aid options are available in the form of fellowships, teaching assistantships, and student loans. Find out what kind of financial aid each program can offer.

4. Admission Requirements

Can you get in? Some doctorate programs in sociology require you to have a master’s degree and a minimum GPA. Make sure you can meet admission requirements–and if you have any doubt, contact a faculty member or an admissions representative directly.

5. School Resources

Will the school’s library facilities support your research? Does the campus offer special facilities for graduate students? What other resources exist for graduate students in sociology, such as student publications or networks?

Where to Get Information

You may be surprised by the level of detail you can gather from individual schools’ Web sites. Explore sites in depth, and make a note of any information that’s missing or questions you have about the program. Then, take the time to call the school. Generally, faculty and staff will be happy to provide information to prospective students.

When you’ve completed your online research, visit campuses and talk to faculty and students in the sociology programs you are considering–whether for a campus-based or an online PhD in sociology. You may spend several years working toward your degree, so be certain that your top programs offer an environment that facilitates your learning and research in a positive way.

Step 4: Get Ready to Apply to a PhD in Sociology Program

At this stage, you’ve completed your research, and you have a list of programs to which you’d like to apply. Be sure to give yourself plenty of time for the application process–a hastily written statement of purpose or incomplete application materials could lead the review committee to reject your application.

Carefully review each school’s application requirements, and gather your information. Common requirements include:

  • Transcripts. Many schools enable you to order these online, which can save you time.
  • Prerequisite courses and degrees. If you’re entering a campus-based or online doctorate degree program with a master’s degree, you may need to send appropriate documentation.
  • Letters of recommendation. An academic-track degree program may require letters from people who can attest to your ability to perform independent research and scholarship in the field. A practitioner’s degree program may be more likely to accept letters from work references.
  • Qualifying exams. Many doctorate degree programs require the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Make sure that you take it with sufficient time for the test results to be processed and mailed to your school. International students are usually required to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam in addition to the GRE.
  • Application fees. Make sure you have cash in the bank for application fees. They can add up.
  • Other requirements. Some top schools offering a doctorate in sociology require evidence of original research or samples of academic writing.

Step 5: Connect with Other Sociology Professionals

You can get ahead of the game if you enter your campus-based or online doctorate degree program with a sense of who’s who in the field of sociology. Keep current in your field by:

  • Subscribing to sociology-related publications
  • Joining professional organizations and associations–there are many to choose from
  • Attending academic conferences

Step 6: Envision Your Future as an Expert Sociologist

Whether you aspire to teach at a prestigious university, become an independent consultant, or lead an organization, you’ll get the most out of your doctorate in sociology if you keep your career objectives firmly in mind. Obtaining a doctorate in sociology requires initiative and commitment–but the end result should be worth the effort. You’ll be joining an elite group of scholars who have reached the ultimate educational achievement: a doctorate.


  • American Sociological Association, Doctorate Recipients by Race/Ethnicity in Selected Disciplines, 1977-2006
  • American Sociological Association, Prospects for the MA/PhD Sociology Graduate
  • American Sociological Association, Sociology Doctorates Awarded Since 1930
  • Florida State University, PhD Program in Sociology
  • Georgia State University Department of Sociology, Graduate Programs
  • Must University, PhD Degree in Sociology
  • Rogers State University, Why Study Sociology?
  • A Brief History of the Emergence of Sociology as an Academic Teaching Enterprise in the U.S., by William Norris
  • University of California, Berkeley, Graduate Study in Sociology
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