Study Social Science: PhD, Master's Degree & Online Class Info

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A master's degree or PhD in a social science field could lead to a variety of career options. Get the truth about requirements, courses and career options, and find out what you can do with your degree.
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Social Science Master's and PhDs: Degrees at a Glance

If you would enjoy an academic program that offers variety, challenge and the opportunity to either learn across many subject areas or concentrate on a specific interest, a master's degree or PhD in a social science subject could be a good fit. However, you should think about what career path you expect from such a degree and choose your courses accordingly.

Outside of academia, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that geography and anthropology fields should see strong employment growth from 2010-2020. Jobs for geographers are expected to increase much faster than average, at 35%. Anthropologists and archaeologists can look forward to a faster-than-average 21% increase in employment. However, other social science areas are showing average-to-slow growth during that period. Sociologists can expect an average 18% growth, while economists and political scientists could see slower-than-average growth, at 6% and 8% respectively, the BLS reported.

Master's Doctorate
Who is this Degree For? Individuals interested in teaching at the community or junior college level or working in specific social science fields in the private or public sector People who want to work as a professor at a university or for the federal government
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary) - Anthropologists and archaeologists ($56,000)*
- Geographer ($75,000)*
- Sociologist ($74,000)*
- Postsecondary anthropology and archeology teacher ($75,000)*
- Postsecondary geography teacher ($69,000)*
- Postsecondary political science teacher ($71,000)*
- Postsecondary sociology teacher ($66,000)*
- Political scientist ($104,000)*
Time to Completion 1-2 years full-time About 3 years (full-time) after the master's
Common Graduation Requirements - Roughly 7-10 graduate-level courses
- Master's thesis/research paper
- Comprehensive exams
Most (or all) of the master's degree requirements, plus:
- Roughly 6-9 more graduate-level courses
- PhD candidacy exam
- Comprehensive exam
- Dissertation
Prerequisites Bachelor's degree in a social science field Usually a master's degree in a social science field
Online Availability Fully online programs available None found at this time

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2011 figures).

Master's in Social Sciences

Social science master's degree programs allow you to choose from a variety of subject areas to focus your studies. Some examples of social science topics at this level include anthropology, economics, geography, political science or sociology. Many of these disciplines have different concentrations of study within a larger subject. For example, a student in a master's program for anthropology might be required to choose among such diverse concentrations as cultural heritage, archeology or biological anthropology, while a political science major might specialize in U.S. government or international relations. Some programs encourage you to complete an internship or fieldwork as part of the curriculum. Admission to most master's degree programs in a social science area requires you to have above-average undergraduate grades, normally a 3.0 GPA or higher.

Pros and Cons


  • You may be qualified to teach at a community or junior college*
  • Most master's programs allow you to select a thesis or non-thesis option, depending on your career goals
  • Common social science jobs (sociologist, geographer, anthropologist) generally require only a master's degree for entry*


  • You may be competing against PhDs for positions in crowded fields, such as sociology*
  • High-level academic jobs, such as full professorships at major universities, almost always require a PhD*
  • Postsecondary teaching jobs could be impacted by government budget cuts*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Common Courses and Requirements

Courses required in social science master's programs will vary depending on the area of study. Some social science fields, particularly economics, are mathematically-oriented and require courses in microeconomics, macroeconomics, economics theory and math for economists. Geography students explore concepts such as cartography, meteorology, environmental change and human geography. Many social science areas of study require you to take at least one statistics course, including fields such as political science that concentrate more heavily on written texts. Sociology students will often have available such diverse offerings as urban sociology and sociology of religion. In a social science master's degree program, you'll frequently have to complete a written thesis, although sometimes additional coursework and a comprehensive exam can be substituted.

Online Degree Options

You can find online master's degree programs in several social science fields, including anthropology, sociology and political science. These programs are available completely online, and courses usually are taught by the same faculty who teach on-campus courses. Some of these programs could require you to attend an on-campus orientation prior to beginning your studies.

Getting Ahead with this Degree

There are several ways you can personalize your master's degree to highlight your academic strengths and help future employers notice you. Try to concentrate on up-and-coming technologies within your discipline through elective courses, such as geographic information systems for social sciences, photogrammetry and global positioning systems. You could also pursue research projects that focus on emerging technologies or consider pursuing graduate certificates in areas like geospatial technology or science, technology and society in addition to your degree. In a writing-intensive field, such as sociology, make the most of your thesis. You might be able to get it published.

PhD in Social Science

Some students enter a PhD program after completing a master's degree, while others enroll in the program after finishing an undergraduate degree with the plan to simultaneously earn a master's degree and a PhD. Doctoral students in social science are often required to pass a candidacy exam. If you enroll in a social science PhD program, you'll probably be required to write a dissertation based on original research, and you'll have a committee of professors with whom you'll work very closely throughout the process. PhD students also may be required to pass a comprehensive exam, which may be written or oral.

Pros and Cons


  • You'll likely be qualified to teach at any level in a college or university*
  • Individuals who have earned PhDs should have the best opportunities for jobs in highly competitive fields like anthropology, sociology and political science*
  • You will be in a good position for federal government research jobs**


  • Applicants in fields experiencing growth, such as geography, can expect heavy competition*
  • Many of these fields hire only a small number of applicants for research positions (sociology, political science, geography)*
  • Universities may prefer to hire part-time faculty adjuncts rather than tenure-track professors*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **The Chronicle of Higher Education

Courses and Requirements

The coursework required in social science PhD programs will vary depending on the area of study. Some social science fields will require you to take additional statistics and research methodology courses as a PhD student. Even fields such as anthropology and political science that concentrate on written texts could incorporate statistics and math at the PhD level. Political science students may complete courses in foreign policy and international conflict, or they might study the political system of their own state. PhD students in geography may take courses in areas such as remote sensing or political geography.

Online Degree Options

Most schools don't offer PhD programs in social sciences through online studies. Instead, doctoral programs emphasize on-site attendance plus the ability to work and interact with faculty members as well as with other students in the program. Additionally, schools frequently offer perks to PhD students, such as office space, that can only be utilized by attending classes on campus.

Stand Out with this Degree

Don't blend in with the other social science PhDs after graduation. Check out a few of the suggestions below to help you move to the head of the class.

  • To stay current on advancing technologies in your field, you might consider pursuing elective courses or research opportunities available through your program. You might attend seminars that introduce new technologies, such as computational modeling or preference tests. You can also work with faculty in research areas like interactive technologies for children or communication technology studies.
  • Answer calls for papers that could result in publication in academic journals. If you hope to be a professor, especially in a crowded field, publication could give you an advantage. Another option is to seek out opportunities to present your research at conferences for your discipline.
  • Try to gain as much teaching experience as possible by applying for assistantships in your department. This also could help defray some of your expenses.