7 STATE GOVERNMENT
Hal Jackson had an interest in teaching and pursued a rather straightforward academic path, earning B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees, all in sociology. His initial intent had been to teach, but his "love of the mountains" took him to a location where teaching jobs were scarce. However, during his studies Hal had emphasized and developed his research methods and quantitative skills, which he used in order to pursue employment in non–academic sociology.
Since teaching was not an immediate option, his first step was to look for "research" positions with governmental and quasi– governmental agencies. While in his Ph.D. program Hal had became familiar with a number of such agencies. "It is the case," according to Hal, "that agencies within government are always working on projects which require data gathering, analysis, and/or interpretation. If you are well–trained then you can stay quite busy."
The second step Hal took was to take a state test to qualify him as a "researcher." Together these two steps opened several doors. Hal reported that, "The degree in sociology was especially important in getting the attention of people who were hiring researchers. It opened numerous doors." However, having a degree was not enough. According to Hal, "you have to be able to produce. Ultimately, people are less interested in your degree than if you can do the job."
These job search efforts led Hal on a career "path" that would have been difficult to anticipate in its full detail. He was offered a job in criminology where he did monitoring and evaluation research on federally funded programs. Hal says that, "Nearly all federal programs have an evaluation mechanism built into them. The question is whether the program is really accomplishing its objectives. My state, and the governor in particular, were interested in violent offenders and appropriate state responses." For example, community corrections was developing at this time as an alternative to imprisonment. While good in theory, citizens and politicians wanted to know how effective community–based correction programs were. Hal became involved in all aspects of research on this problem, from the development of program measures (how to quantify the issues and define the problems), to data collection (interviews, survey construction and administration), data processing (interpretation of results), and the preparation of reports.
Hal's effective work on this crime treatment project led to a second project within the area of criminal justice. Due to rising prices the energy industry was beginning to exploit and develop western oil reserves, particularly shale oil One result of this was the growth of "boom towns." The idea of a boom town is that its development is sudden, and often without careful anticipation or study of its effects. One critical problem in boom towns is crime. Since people are rapidly moving into a boom town the social structure usually cannot develop fast enough to handle all issues and/or problems. City government, for example, may not be able to keep up with the need or demand for police protection.
Hal's second project was to collect data and publish ethnographic reports on the nature of boom towns and crime within them. This included not only descriptions of criminals and victims, but also the local community's reaction to crime. Such research has far–reaching effects. If widespread economic development is defined as "good" for the state then protection of that good would be essential. If boom town crime were not adequately addressed then the economic development represented by the boom towns themselves might be curtailed or even reversed. How could you get skilled people to move to a location where crime was known to be a problem? Hal's research problem was thus defined.
Eventually funding for the criminal justice projects began to run out and Hal moved into another sector of state government. This time he was working for the state auditor's office doing performance auditing. Networking was a key to getting this job, but networking was also a significant benefit of it. As a performance auditor Hal found himself meeting personally with most of the rest of the departments in state government. In state government agencies there are often multiple agendas and many competing, interests. There are the interests of those who seek some service, the interests of those who have lobbied effectively for providing that service, the interests of those who work within the agency, the interests of those who directly provide the service, and the interests of all those who would like to see the agency or service cut or curtailed because of tight money. What is important here, according to Hal, is that good data are produced so that sound judgements can be made. "Unfortunately," according to Hal, "there is simply a lot of poor research and bad data floating around." Poor research can lead to the funding of ineffective programs or perhaps, more critically, the termination of effective programs. Concludes Hal, "Methodological clarity is absolutely essential, and sociology is one discipline which can provide this."
One of the current trends in government is "restructing." "Because Hal had worked in several state agencies, and because his work, particularly as a performance auditor, had exposed him to many departments of state government and to many leaders in the state, he had become deeply informed on the workings of state agencies. He also had front–line evaluation experience, so he knew the critical questions to ask. His networking meant that he had formal and informal contacts throughout government. And finally, he knew how to do good research. Hal noted that, "Change is the watchword in restructing, and my background in sociology is perfect for understanding change. There are so many variables, and so many people with interests in what you do that you must be able to see the big picture. Restructing is impossible with a narrowly focussed point of view. Our objective," said Hal, "is to provide more and better services to our clients–– citizens of this state––with less money. Good information is absolutely essential if good decisions are to be made."
Hal's perspective on the value of sociology does not end with evaluation. He reported that, "Somehow we must be able to present to the public what we are trying to do. That takes excellent communication skills, both written and oral. Further, we must be able to work together. Only as teams can we accomplish our objectives." In other words, Hal must be versed in a variety of skills, all of which are fundamentally sociological. When asked to describe what he actually does in his work, Hal gave the following list: he plans, collects information, communicates, leads teams, helps manage through the decision process, acts as a catalyst, translates "bureaucratese" into words for the average citizen, lobbies, etc., etc. And, all this must be done in real time with real and immediate deadlines. Hal also noted that, "You have to be able to compose on the computer or you'll simply not get the work done." In all of these pursuits according the Hal, "The importance of one's network keeps surfacing as being paramount. The kinds of judgements people make about you when you are not around is essential to the success of your work."
Taken together it can be said that Hal has had a career. In fact Hal has, but not in a traditional sense of holding a job for twenty years. He has moved from a $25,000 per year agency researcher to a $65,000 per year state government manager with wide–ranging responsibilities. He also teaches part–time (his original goal) and earns an additional $9,000–$10,000 per year. So far Hal says he has "no regrets," and looks forward to the new challenges which will most certainly come his way. His choice to follow nonacademic pursuits has "opened up a whole new world" to him. For students following Hal's path, his career is quite encouraging. However, students must be proactive in their pursuit. They must be flexible and seek a variety of hands–on experiences. Hal's advice is for undergraduate students to, "take temporary jobs, do practicums and internships, and volunteer. See for yourself how your discipline applies."
Careers Page |