1. INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS

Sarah Johnson works as a Branch Chief for the International Research Division (IRD) of the United States' Department of Foreign Relations. James Richards also works for the IRD as a research analyst within the office of research. While different in detail both Sarah and James have had education and career paths which have developed as a result of sensing and seizing opportunities. Neither of them suspected while in school that they would end up at IRD. IRD is a federal government agency charged with responsibility for producing and distributing data related to international relations. Among other things this agency oversees and produces public opinion survey research conducted in foreign countries. One purpose of these surveys is to provide information for U.S. foreign policy formation. Other responsibilities include administering foreign exchange programs, the development of traveling exhibits to communicate information about the U.S., and responsibility for programming such as Voice of America (radio programs broadcast from the United states to many parts of the world).

James' education and career path did not begin with sociology. His B.A. was in history, but did include some courses in sociology. Most importantly James studied the Russian language. After graduation he began a masters degree in an interdisciplinary Soviet Studies program. Here he was able to combine his growing interest in Russian language with a study of Soviet/Russian society. Sociology, both as a point of view and as a method of data collection and analysis were essential ingredients in constructing an adequate and accurate picture of Soviet life. The importance of this kind of study is best understood in light of the ongoing "Cold War" at that time. The simple fact is, any country's present and future is inextricably bound to the present and future of Russia. Therefore, it is imperative that one have a full understanding of Russian society.

After receiving his M.A., James decided to stay in graduate school and pursue the Ph.D. In this endeavor he built upon his foundation in Russian studies but decided to pursue his degree in sociology. For James the tools of sociology and the perspective of the sociologist were especially relevant to producing good information about America's "Cold War" enemy. In combination, James' ability to read and speak Russian and his skills in sociological methods and analysis produced an opportunity for travel and study in the Soviet Union. With funding from the International Research and Exchange board James conducted research on patterns of educational attainment in the USSR. Unique to this research was the need to somehow get around Soviet censors who were monitoring his work. Eventually James was able to access the dissertations of Russian scholars as a means of assessing educational attainment. According to James, this was the only way around the information restriction imposed by the censors.

After completion of the Ph.D. James spent about six years in teaching and post–doctoral research. During this time he made several research visits to Washington, D.C. While there he made it a point to make a number of contacts, thus expanding his personal network. His dream was to find a way to pursue his interests in Soviet Russia and employ his skills as a sociologist. One of his contacts had been with IRD, and in the early 1980's U.S.–Soviet relations were deteriorating. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were engaged in a sizable arms build–up. There was unrest in the U.S. and growing concern about nuclear holocaust. The movie "The Day After" was one of the most watched television programs of all time. The Star Wars defense plan was proposed and research on it begun. It was a time when "good" information was absolutely necessary. Policy was being formed which could shape our future for generations to come. In this environment James Richards began working for IRD as a research analyst.

Sarah Johnson's path to IRD was quite different. Her education was much more focused on sociology as her B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. were all earned in sociology. After receiving her M.A., Sarah took a job as a junior researcher for a public school district which was attempting to implement court– ordered desegregation. Her particular expertise was research methods and statistics, and she had a lot of experience with computers. The project was to evaluate the impact of desegregation, by focusing on student achievement, particularly the achievement of minorities. For this it became evident that she needed additional skills in statistics and methods and therefore began taking advanced course work in these areas. The research project required the employment of multiple methods of data collection, from survey questionnaires to document searches, to direct observations of children in buses as angry protestors threw stones. Sarah was getting a very up–close look at the need for, potential, and difficulty of research on domestic policy issues.

After the desegregation project Sarah returned to her special interest in medicine, and taught in a medical school. Courses there included medical ethics, history of medicine, and medical research. She also conducted medical research and involved medical students in research methods. According to Sarah, it is important that the medical community see the delivery of medical services as much more than biological variables. Included are social structure, economics, the organization of health care delivery systems, etc.

After teaching in medical school Sarah next followed a long– standing interest in foreign travel and went to Europe. While there she made contact with Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. Here her degree background in sociology, particularly methods, opened many doors. At this time the Cold War was still driving a wedge between Eastern and Western Europe as well as between the USSR and the U.S. Because of this it was important to try to understand how people in Eastern Europe perceived the situation, themselves, the West, the future generally and prospects for peace. Through the sponsorship of western radio programming a series of surveys were commissioned. The task was to "get a handle" on Eastern Europe at the grass–roots level. The problem was that grass– roots research was simply not possible prior to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. So, a research program was put together which sought to interview Eastern Europeans traveling to Western Europe for business or pleasure. To accomplish this, Eastern European immigrants to the West were hired to meet Eastern European visitors as they arrived in places like Vienna, Paris, etc. The immigrants would then offer to serve the travellers as hosts to the city and show them around, interpret, help them shop, find lodging, etc. These interactions provided the needed opportunity to discuss specific issues. In this way the project sought to get at the grass–roots level of perception and public opinion in the closed society of Eastern Europe. Sarah credits her sociological discipline for opening doors to this kind of research opportunity, and for providing within her a flexibility and adaptability to create productive research designs.

After several years Sarah returned to the U.S. to look for new challenges. While in Washington, D.C. she became aware that the IRD was in need of experienced researchers for Eastern Europe. In particular there was focus on Eastern European media and how study of it can be revealing of a society's inner workings, and the values and perceptions of its people. Her decision was to accept a position as a Branch Chief within IRD, managing a team of social scientists as they research a variety of foreign policy related issues.

Now at IRD James Richards and Sarah are colleagues who focus their education, skills, and experience on research designed to increase our understanding of formerly closed societies in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Public opinion research is the primary focus, although other emphases focus on the role of media in these societies. For example, newspapers and radio and television broadcasts are monitored, and content analyses are conducted so as to determine the slant and directions of public information. The public opinion surveys directly question average people regarding their opinions of foreign countries (in particular the U.S.), what they believe is problematic about our international relations, what do they think about new political and economic structures, do they understand democratic electoral processes, etc.

It is Sarah's job, as Branch Chief, to oversee the work of agency researchers as they study Eastern Europe. This means that she works on setting research agendas, including where and what will be studied. She assigns work to researchers with various specialties. And, she must "stay on top" of the research process in order to insure task completion as well as the integrity of the data. In a real sense, Sarah is managing other social scientists which she says, "can be quite a challenge." The work requires a lot of skill and creativity which does not lend itself well to strict work guidelines. Most difficult, she says, is "boiling information down to one paragraph or one page." She needs to be able to pass on meaningful information in the most efficient manner. Reports often find their way to the State Department, and even the White House. There is simply no time to read a richly detailed fifty–page report. Therefore, clear and concise writing skills are absolutely important. Thus, Sarah is responsible for overseeing research projects from their inception to their culmination.

James is involved in the actual details of doing public opinion surveys. He must match the issues with a methodology of data collection. This means among other things, questionnaire construction. However, it also means more than a mere technical exercise. James must be sensitive to local populations, cultures, issues and interests. Toward this end James often travels to the countries where such work is being carried out. His Russian language capabilities are most helpful in this regard. Further, he negotiates with local research firms who are in the best position to actually carry out the data collection. Here James is combining cross– cultural capabilities with basic sociological skills in order to produce the desired data. Upon completion of this phase of the research James must then begin statistical and analytical processing of the data. In other words, he must determine what the real findings of the public opinion surveys are and what they mean.

In the work of both James and Sarah there is great dependence upon traditional sociological skills and insights. The skills focus on research methods, statistics, and writing. The insights help in understanding issues and research results with implications for policy. In addition, there is a special need for flexibility and creativity. If you cannot get information one way then you must design some other way. You must continuously access your personal networks in order to achieve your objective. You need an understanding of the interplay of macro–trends and micro–experiences. For all of these sociology, according to both James and Sarah, is "excellent preparation."

As their careers have progressed, James and Sarah have evidenced a common experience without sharing all the same details. One came to sociology late in his academic career, the other has been a sociologist from the start. One has worked primarily in one or two organizational settings while the other has been in many different settings. While one had a deep and long–term academic interest in Eastern Europe, the other became interested only after several other interests had been pursued. The point is, James and Sarah have come to be colleagues by circuitous rather than direct routes. When asked about this and its implication for undergraduate students thinking about their careers, James offered the following advice: "Follow your interests, meet interesting people, and see what happens." Sarah advises, "You need to be ready to take advantage of opportunities when they are presented." The further point is, neither James or Sarah specifically intended to end up at IRD. But what they did intend was to seek and seize opportunities.

This ability to scope out opportunities and be flexible enough to take advantage of them has produced not only interesting career paths, but also a comfortable standard of living. James now earns in the $55,000 to $59,000 annual salary range. Entry–level researchers, depending on degrees and experience can expect salaries from the mid–$20,000's to the low $30,000's. Sarah's experience is more varied and so is her income history. While working on the desegregation project she earned in the low to mid–$30,000's (this was over ten years ago). Her work in Europe earned $100,000 plus. Now her salary is in the mid–$60,000's. To achieve James and Sarah's level of work responsibility and income requires preparation, especially education. In their cases, sociology has certainly advanced their personal experiences and professional careers.



Careers Page | SocSite Home