Career Information


Social Scientists, Other 

Significant Points:

  • About half worked for Federal, State, and local governments, mostly for the Federal Government.
  • The educational attainment of social scientists is among the highest of all occupations.
  • Anthropologists and archaeologists will experience average growth, but slower-than-average employment growth is expected for geographers, historians, political scientists, and sociologists because they enjoy fewer opportunities outside of government and academic settings.
  • Competition for jobs will remain keen for all specialties because many of these social scientists compete for jobs with other workers, such as psychologists, statisticians, and market and survey researchers.

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Nature of the Work [About this section] [To Top]

The major social science occupations covered in this statement include anthropologists, archaeologists, geographers, historians, political scientists, and sociologists. (Economists, market and survey researchers, psychologists, and urban and regional planners are covered elsewhere.)

Social scientists study all aspects of society—from past events and achievements to human behavior and relationships among groups. Their research provides insights that help us understand 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 major activity of many social scientists, who use a variety of 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. Collecting information takes many forms, including interviews and questionnaires to gather demographic and opinion data; living and working among the population being studied; performing field investigations; analyzing historical records and documents; experimenting with human or animal subjects in a laboratory; and preparing and interpreting maps and computer graphics. The work of specialists in social science varies greatly, although specialists in one field may 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 examine 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 usually concentrate in sociocultural anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, or biophysical anthropology. Sociocultural anthropologists study the customs, cultures, and social lives of groups in settings that range from unindustrialized societies to modern urban centers. Linguistic anthropologists investigate the role of, and changes to, language over time in various cultures. Biophysical anthropologists research the evolution of the human body, look for the earliest evidences of human life, and analyze how culture and biology influence one another. Physical anthropologists examine human remains found at archaeological sites in order to understand population demographics and factors that affected these populations, such as nutrition and disease.

Archaeologists examine and recover material evidence, such as the ruins of buildings, tools, pottery, and other objects remaining from past human cultures in order to determine the chronology, history, customs, and living habits of earlier civilizations. Most anthropologists and archaeologists specialize in a particular region of the world.

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, whereas cultural geographers study the geography of cultural phenomena. Physical geographers examine variations in climate, vegetation, soil, and landforms 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 investigate health care delivery systems, epidemiology (the study of the causes and control of epidemics), and the effect of the environment on health. Most geographers use geographic information systems (GIS) technology to assist with their work. For example, they may use GIS to create computerized maps that can track information such as population growth, traffic patterns, environmental hazards, natural resources, and weather patterns, after which they use the information to advise governments on the development of houses, roads, or landfills.

Historians research, analyze, and interpret the past. They use many Sources of Additional 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 country or region, a particular period, or a particular field, such as social, intellectual, cultural, political, or diplomatic history. Biographers collect detailed information on individuals. 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, and the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court. Studying topics such as public opinion, political decision making, ideology, and public policy, they analyze the structure and operation of governments, as well as various political entities. Depending on the topic, a political scientist might conduct a public-opinion survey, analyze election results or public documents, or interview public officials.

Sociologists study society and social behavior by examining the groups and social institutions people form, as well as various social, religious, political, and business organizations. They also study the behavior of, and interaction among, groups, trace their origin and growth, and analyze the influence of group activities on individual members. Sociologists 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 gender, age, or race on a person's daily life. The results of sociological research aid educators, lawmakers, administrators, and others who are 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; the family; social psychology; urban, rural, political, and comparative sociology; gender relations; demography; gerontology; criminology; and sociological practice.

Working Conditions [About this section] [To Top]

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 articles or reports. Many experience the pressures of writing and publishing, as well as those associated with deadlines and tight schedules. Sometimes they must work overtime, for which they usually are not compensated. Social scientists often work as an integral part of a research team, among whose members 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 may 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 usually have flexible work schedules, often dividing their time among teaching, research, writing, consulting, and administrative responsibilities.

Training, Other Qualifications,
and Advancement
[About this section] [To Top]

The educational attainment of social scientists is among the highest of all occupations. The Ph.D. or an 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 usually have better opportunities outside of colleges and universities, although the situation varies by field. Graduates with a master's degree in a social science may qualify for teaching positions in community 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 increasingly are being used in geography, political science, and other fields. The ability to utilize computers for research purposes is mandatory in most disciplines. Most geographers—and increasing numbers of archaeologists— also will need to be familiar with GIS technology.

Many social science students find that internships or field experience is beneficial. Numerous local museums, historical societies, government agencies, and other organizations offer internships or volunteer research opportunities. Archaeological field schools instruct future anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians in how to excavate, record, and interpret historical sites.

Depending on their jobs, social scientists may need a wide range of personal characteristics. Intellectual curiosity and creativity are fundamental personal traits, because social scientists constantly seek new information about people, things, and ideas. The ability to think logically and methodically is important to a political scientist comparing, for example, the merits of various forms of government. Objectivity, having an open mind, and systematic work habits are important in all kinds of social science research. Perseverance is essential for an anthropologist, who might have to spend years studying artifacts from an ancient civilization before making a final analysis and interpretation. Excellent written and oral communication skills also are necessary for all these professionals.

Employment [About this section] [To Top]

Social scientists held about 18,000 jobs in 2004. Many worked as researchers, administrators, and counselors for a wide range of employers. About half worked for Federal, State, and local governments, mostly in the Federal Government. Other employers included scientific research and development services; management, scientific, and technical consulting services; business, professional, labor, political, and similar organizations; and architectural, engineering, and related firms.

Many individuals with training in a social science discipline teach in colleges and universities and in secondary and elementary schools. (For more information, see teachers—postsecondary and teachers—preschool, kindergarten, elementary, middle, and secondary elsewhere in the Handbook.) The proportion of social scientists who teach varies by specialty: for example, the academic world usually is a more important source of jobs for graduates in history than for graduates in most other social science fields.

Job Outlook [About this section] [To Top]

Overall employment of social scientists is expected to grow more slowly than average for all occupations through 2014. However, projected growth rates vary by specialty. Anthropologists and archaeologists will experience average employment growth. Employment of geographers, historians, political scientists, and sociologists will grow more slowly than average, mainly because these workers enjoy fewer opportunities outside of government and academic settings.

Competition will remain keen for social science positions. Many jobs in policy, research, or marketing for which social scientists qualify are not advertised exclusively as social scientist positions. Because of the wide range of skills and knowledge possessed by the social scientists discussed in this Handbook statement, many compete for jobs with other workers, such as market and survey researchers, psychologists, engineers, urban and regional planners>, and statisticians.

A few social scientists will find opportunities as university faculty, although competition for these jobs also will remain keen. Usually, there are more graduates than available faculty positions, although retirements among faculty are expected to rise in the next few years. The growing importance and popularity of social science subjects in secondary schools is strengthening the demand for social science teachers at that level.

Anthropologists and archaeologists will see the majority of their employment growth in the management, scientific, and technical consulting services industry. Anthropologists who work as consultants often apply anthropological knowledge and methods to problems ranging from economic development issues to forensics. Also, as construction projects increase, archaeologists will be needed to perform preliminary excavations in order to preserve historical sites and artifacts.

Geographers will have opportunities to utilize their skills to advise government, real estate developers, utilities, and telecommunications firms on where to build new roads, buildings, power plants, and cable lines. Geographers also will advise on environmental matters, such as where to build a landfill or preserve wetland habitats. Geographers with a background in GIS will find numerous job opportunities applying GIS technology in nontraditional areas, such as emergency assistance, where GIS can track locations of ambulances, police, and fire rescue units and their proximity to the emergency. Workers in these jobs may not necessarily be called 'geographers', but instead may be referred to by a different title, such as 'GIS analyst' or 'GIS specialist.' GIS technology also will be utilized in areas of growing importance, such as homeland security and defense.

Historians, political scientists, and sociologists will find jobs in policy or research. Historians may find opportunities with historic preservation societies as public interest in preserving and restoring historical sites increases. Political scientists will be able to utilize their knowledge of political institutions to further the interests of nonprofit, political lobbying, and social organizations. Sociologists may find work conducting policy research for consulting firms and nonprofit organizations, and their knowledge of society and social behavior may be used by a variety of companies in product development, marketing, and advertising. Job growth will be very slow in the Federal Government, a key employer of social scientists.

Earnings [About this section] [More salary/earnings info] [To Top]

In May 2004, anthropologists and archaeologists had median annual earnings of $43,890; geographers, $58,970; historians, $44,490; political scientists, $86,750; and sociologists, $57,870.

In the Federal Government, social scientists with a bachelor's degree and no experience could start at a yearly salary of $24,677 or $30,567 in 2005, depending on their college records. Those with a master's degree could start at $37,390, and those with a Ph.D. degree could begin at $45,239, while some individuals with experience and an advanced degree could start at $54,221. Beginning salaries were slightly higher in selected areas of the country where the prevailing local pay level was higher.

According to a salary survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, bachelor's degree candidates in other social sciences received starting offers averaging $31,621 a year in 2005.

[Please note that the earnings and salary data listed here is usually from government sources and may be dated, so please make adjustments accordingly. If you would like to access current salary data for literally thousands of occupations, access our Salary Wizard.]



Related Occupations [About this section] [To Top]

Social scientists' duties and training outlined in this statement are similar to those of other occupations covered elsewhere in the Handbook, including other social science occupations: economists, market and survey researchers, psychologists, and urban and regional planners. Many social scientists conduct surveys, study social problems, teach, and work in museums, performing tasks similar to those of statisticians; counselors; social workers; teachers—postsecondary; teachers—preschool, kindergarten, elementary, middle, and secondary; and archivists, curators, and museum technicians.

Political scientists are concerned with the function of government, including the legal system, as are lawyers; paralegals and legal assistants; and judges, magistrates, and other judicial workers. Many political scientists analyze and report on current events, much as do news analysts, reporters, and correspondents.

Along with conservation scientists and foresters, atmospheric scientists, and environmental scientists and hydrologists, geographers are concerned with the earth's environment and natural resources. Geographers also use GIS computer technology to make maps. Other occupations with similar duties are surveyors, cartographers, photogrammetrists, and surveying technicians; computer systems analysts; and computer scientists and database administrators.

Sources of Additional Information [About this section] [To Top]

Detailed information about economists, market and survey researchers, psychologists, and urban and regional planners is presented elsewhere.

For information about careers in anthropology, contact:

  • American Anthropological Association, 2200 Wilson Blvd., Suite 600, Arlington, VA 22201. Internet: http://www.aaanet.org

For information about careers in archaeology, contact:

  • Society for American Archaeology, 900 2nd St. N.E., Suite 12, Washington, DC 20002-3560. Internet: http://www.saa.org
  • Archaeological Institute of America, 656 Beacon St., 6th Floor, Boston, MA 02215-2006. Internet: http://www.archaeological.org

For information about careers in geography, contact:

  • Association of American Geographers, 1710 16th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20009-3198. Internet: http://www.aag.org

Information on careers for historians is available from:

For information about careers in political science, contact:

  • American Political Science Association, 1527 New Hampshire Ave. N.W., Washington, DC 20036-1206. Internet: http://www.apsanet.org
  • National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration, 1120 G St. N.W., Suite 730, Washington, DC 20005-3869. Internet: http://www.naspaa.org

Information about careers in sociology is available from:

  • American Sociological Association, 1307 New York Ave. N.W., Suite 700, Washington, DC 20005-4712. Internet: http://www.asanet.org

*Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Used by permission.




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