During college Karen Jensen took only one undergraduate course in sociology. Her major was biology and she took the sociology course because, "I needed an `A'! I wasn't much interested in the social sciences. I saw my future in medicine, as a nurse." After graduation Karen took a job as a nurse in a hospital and worked there for the next six to seven years. Within the structures of the hospital she reached the level of Unit Manager on the EMT floor. Her work was primarily administration, with responsibility for primary care nurses, supplies, equipment, etc. "In this position I became very much aware of the importance of organizational issues as they impacted our efforts to deliver health care. You see, a hospital can be its own society. It is very hierarchical with doctors and nurses occupying well defined roles. There is also a lot of cross–disciplinary interaction. Because of this people in hospitals sometimes have difficulty relating. This creates very interesting organizational dynamics."
It is clear that Karen was no longer working strictly within the confines of her nursing degree. As with so many of today's careers, Karen's on–the–job experiences had given her responsibilities which she had not anticipated. The lesson here is that one should anticipate, and not be surprised by such developments.
As Karen's career developed her administrative responsibilities increased. If she was to continue in this direction she felt the need for additional education. Her first choice was industrial/organizational psychology. However, as she explored other possibilities she found in organizational sociology a "helpful understanding, or framing, of the issues at work." She also found a discipline which was highly flexible. She noted that, "There are so many directions you can go and subspecialities which you can study." Within sociology Karen found opportunities to study research methods, statistics and computer applications. Topically, Karen studied formal organizational theory, management, organization and power, and medical sociology. She was also introduced to a variety of social issues, such as cultural diversity.
The flexibility and variety within sociology meant that Karen could follow her interests and design her own degree path. She reported that, "At times this freedom could be a bit overwhelming. You have to take hold of the discipline, and of yourself, in order to bring closure to open–ended programs. But the multiple advantages outweigh this disadvantage." One specific advantage was the opportunity to apply the discipline to her work in the hospital which she stayed involved with for the first part of her M.A. studies. Karen culminated her M.A. with a thesis on the changing role of nurses. As a nurse and sociologist Karen was in a unique position to study this topic. Obviously this is a topic of some significance given that we all encounter health care through a nurse. Their role is critical, and it is to our advantage to better understand how the work of the nurse is constructed. The result of this was an M.A. in the sociology of organization, work, and occupation, with a subspeciality in medical sociology.
For Karen the graduate school experience was sometimes awkward. She had been employed full–time for a number of years before returning to school, and the transition produced some role confusion. "At work," she said, "I was a unit manager. In school I was somewhat of an adolescent. I wanted to continue on for the Ph.D., but I was also ready to go back to work. So, I began looking for research positions in the paper and tech journals, and I put the word out to my friends that I was looking. Over the years I had developed an extensive network of contacts, and I hoped that this might turn something up." The network did turn something up, but it was an opportunity wholly unanticipated. "A friend of mine used to work for the Military Department of Research (MDR), and she helped arrange an interview. Now you must understand that working for the military would have been the last choice on my list. I knew nothing about the military, and my impressions were not all that favorable."
There was a job at MDR, originally written as a research psychologist, but re–written for a research sociologist. The emphasis within the job description was on the skills of the discipline of sociology––the methods, the processing of data, the manipulation of statistics. Little or no emphasis was given to the perspectives sociology offers. What Karen brought with her was a high degree of skill in producing and managing data, programming experience in SPSS (Statistical Package for the Social Sciences), a facility in writing, and a demonstrated ability to learn. She noted that, "The ability to learn is perhaps the most important variable in this job. Once on the job the necessary learning curve is very steep. You have to be able to pick up on what is happening. You have to be able to adjust."
What is especially interesting is that Karen did not have to demonstrate a foreknowledge of military matters to be of service and to contribute effectively. The discipline of sociology supported her in two ways: in the technical skills, which are universally applicable, and her sociological perspective which helps her to adapt. "I use my sociology both on projects to which I am assigned and as a way of conducting myself within the organization. While I am still a bit uncomfortable with military culture––for example, all the acronym talk––I am nonetheless always observing it and adapting to it. I am also contributing to it within my own sphere of influence."
A major project in which Karen has been involved has focused on the military family. In what ways do military families influence the functioning of military personnel? In what ways does the military affect the families of military personnel? How does the family respond to critical events, like Desert Storm? In pursuit of answers to these and related questions, Karen has spent a lot of time constructing and administering surveys, conducting interviews, processing the data produced, and writing up findings. Ultimately this research produces recommendations, and it is here that Karen sees real contributions in her work.
Karen wants undergraduates studying sociology to know that in applied work, like her's, "There is always an agenda with which you are working. There is no academic vacuum for research. We are constantly being asked to find the answers to some questions." This is her job. But she says, "We also have to find out what the real question behind the initial question is." For example, "Our agenda item in the military research into family is the `prospect to re–enlist' of military personnel. Taking better care of military families may produce a more durable and consistent military force."
After working for a year or so at MDR Karen was able to complete her Ph.D. in sociology. She is pleased with the way things have turned out. "There are a lot of opportunities and I believe that what I do really makes a difference." Karen has also answered the concerns of her mother who said she "did not see a future in sociology," and often confused it with social work. Karen now earns an annual income of $40,000 – $50,000. Entry level positions, with advanced degrees pay at $30,000 – $40,000. According to Karen, "I make a comfortable living, and I have a lot of work freedom. More importantly, I enjoy what I am doing."
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