COLLEGE COMPASS -- Occupational Overview

Social Scientists and Urban Planners

Nature of the Work

Social scientists study all aspects of human society from the distribution of goods and services to the beliefs of newly formed religious groups to modern mass transportation systems. Social science research provides insights that help us understand the different ways in which individuals and groups make decisions, exercise power, or respond to change. Through their studies and analyses, social scientists and urban planners assist educators, government officials, business leaders, and others in solving social, economic, and environmental problems.

Research is a basic activity for many social scientists. They use established or newly discovered methods to assemble facts and theory that contribute to human knowledge. Applied research usually is designed to produce information that will enable people to make better decisions or manage their affairs more effectively. Interviews and surveys are widely used to collect facts, opinions, or other information. Data collection takes many other forms, however, including living and working among the people studied; archaeological and other field investigations; the analysis of historical records and documents; experiments with human subjects or animals in a psychological laboratory; the administration of standardized tests and questionnaires; and the preparation and interpretation of maps and graphic materials.

Social sciences are interdisciplinary in nature. Specialists in one field often find that the research they are performing overlaps work that is being conducted in another social science discipline. Regardless of their field of specialization, social scientists are concerned with some aspect of society, culture, or personality.

Anthropologists study the origin and the physical, social, and cultural development and behavior of humans. They may study the way of life, remains, language, or physical characteristics of people in various parts of the world; they compare the customs, values, and social patterns of different cultures. Anthropologists generally concentrate in sociocultural anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, or biological-physical anthropology. Sociocultural anthropologists study the customs, cultures, and social lives of groups in a wide range of settings from nonindustrialized societies to modern urban cultures. Archaeologists engage in the systematic recovery and examination of material evidence, such as graves, buildings, tools, and pottery, remaining from past human life and culture, to determine the history, customs, and living habits of earlier civilizations. Linguistic anthropologists study the role of language in various cultures. Biological-physical anthropologists study the evolution of the human body and look for the earliest evidences of human life.

Economists study the production, distribution, and consumption of commodities and services. They may conduct surveys and analyze data to determine public preferences for these goods and services. Most economists are concerned with the practical applications of economic policy in a particular area, such as finance, labor, agriculture, transportation, energy, or health. Others develop theories to explain economic phenomena such as unemployment or inflation. Marketing research analysts research market conditions in localities, regions, the Nation, or the world to determine potential sales of a product or service; they examine and analyze data on past sales and trends to develop forecasts.

Geographers study the distribution of both physical and cultural phenomena on local, regional, continental, and global scales. Geographers specialize, as a rule. Economic geographers study the regional distribution of resources and economic activities. Political geographers are concerned with the relationship of geography to political phenomena local, national, and international. Physical geographers study the distribution of climates, vegetation, soil, and land forms. Urban and transportation geographers study cities and metropolitan areas, while regional geographers study the physical, climatic, economic, political, and cultural characteristics of regions, ranging in size from a congressional district, to a State, country, continent, or the entire world. Medical geographers study health care delivery systems, epidemiology, and the effect of the environment on health.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) a relatively new specialty combines computer graphics, artificial intelligence, and high-speed communication to store, retrieve, manipulate, analyze, and map geographic data. GIS is widely used in weather forecasting, emergency management, resource analysis and management, and other activities. (Some occupational classification systems include geographers under physical scientists rather than social scientists.)

Historians research and analyze the past. They use many sources of information during their research, including government and institutional records, newspapers and other periodicals, photographs, interviews, films, and unpublished manuscripts such as diaries and letters. Historians usually specialize in a specific country or region; in a particular time period; or in a particular field, such as social, intellectual, political, or diplomatic history. Biographers collect detailed information on individuals. Genealogists trace family histories. 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. They conduct research on a wide range of subjects such as relations between the United States and foreign countries, the beliefs and institutions of foreign nations, for example those in Asia and Africa, the politics of small towns or a major metropolis, or the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court. Studying topics such as public opinion, political decisionmaking, and ideology, they analyze the structure and operation of governments as well as informal political entities. Depending on the topic under study, a political scientist might conduct a public opinion survey, analyze election results, or analyze public documents.

Psychologists, who constitute over half of all social scientists, study human behavior and use their expertise to counsel or advise individuals or groups. Their research also assists business advertisers, politicians, and others interested in influencing or motivating people. While clinical psychology is the largest specialty, psychologists specialize in many other fields such as counseling, experimental, social, or industrial psychology.

Sociologists analyze the development, structure, and behavior of groups or social systems such as families, neighborhoods, or clubs. Sociologists may specialize in a particular field such as criminology, rural sociology, or medical sociology.

Urban and regional planners develop comprehensive plans and programs for the use of land for industrial and public sites. Planners prepare for situations that are likely to develop as a result of population growth or social and economic change.

Working Conditions

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 reports. Many experience the pressures of deadlines and tight schedules, and sometimes they must work overtime, for which they generally are not reimbursed. Social scientists often work as an integral part of a research team. Their routine may be interrupted frequently by telephone calls, letters to answer, special requests for information, meetings, or conferences. Travel may be necessary to collect information or attend meetings. Social scientists on foreign assignment must adjust to unfamiliar cultures and climates.

Some social scientists do fieldwork. For example, anthropologists, archaeologists, and geographers often must travel to remote areas, live among the people they study, and stay for long periods at the site of their investigations. They may work under primitive conditions, and their work may involve strenuous physical exertion.

Social scientists employed by colleges and universities generally have flexible work schedules, often dividing their time among teaching, research, consulting, or administrative responsibilities.


Social scientists held about 258,000 jobs in 1992. Over half of all social scientists are psychologists. About one-third of all social scientists overwhelmingly psychologists are self-employed, involved in counseling, consulting, or research.

Salaried social scientists worked for a wide range of employers. Nearly 4 out of 10 worked for Federal, State, and local governments; 3 out of 10 worked in health, research, and management services firms; and 2 out of 10 worked in educational institutions, as researchers, administrators, and counselors. Other employers include social service agencies, international organizations, associations, museums, historical societies, computer and data processing firms, and business firms.

In addition, many persons with training in a social science discipline teach in colleges and universities, and in secondary and elementary schools. (For more information, see the Handbook statements on college and university faculty, and kindergarten, elementary, and secondary school teachers.) The proportion of social scientists who teach varies by occupation for example, the academic world generally is a more important source of jobs for graduates in sociology than for graduates in psychology.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Educational attainment of social scientists is among the highest of all occupations. The Ph.D. or 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 generally have better professional opportunities outside of colleges and universities, although the situation varies by field. For example, job prospects for master's degree holders in urban or regional planning are brighter than for master's degree holders in history. Graduates with a master's degree in a social science discipline qualify for teaching positions in junior 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 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 other quantitative research methods are increasingly used in economics, geography, political science, experimental psychology, and other fields. The ability to use computers for research purposes is mandatory in most disciplines.

Depending on their jobs, social scientists and urban planners may need a wide range of personal characteristics. Because they constantly seek new information about people, things, and ideas, intellectual curiosity and creativity are fundamental personal traits. The ability to think logically and methodically is important to a political scientist comparing the merits of various forms of government. The ability to analyze data is important to an economist studying proposals to reduce Federal budget deficits. Objectivity, openmindedness, and systematic work habits are important in all kinds of social science research. Perseverance is essential for an anthropologist, who might spend years accumulating artifacts from an ancient civilization. Emotional stability and sensitivity are vital to a clinical psychologist working with mental patients. Written and oral communication skills are essential to all these workers.

Job Outlook

Employment of social scientists is expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2005, spurred by rising concern over the environment, crime, communicable disease, mental illness, the growing elderly and homeless populations, the increasingly competitive global economy, and a wide range of other issues. Psychologists, the largest social science occupation, is expected to grow much faster than average. Economists and marketing research analysts, urban and regional planners, and all other social scientists combined, including anthropologists, geographers, historians, political scientists, and sociologists, should experience average growth. Most job openings, however, will result from the need to replace social scientists who transfer to other occupations or stop working altogether.

Prospects are best for those with advanced degrees, and generally are better in disciplines such as economics, psychology, and urban and regional planning, which offer many opportunities in nonacademic settings. However, graduates in all social science fields are expected to find enhanced job opportunities in applied fields due to the excellent research, communication, and quantitative skills they develop in school. Government agencies, health and social service organizations, marketing, research and consulting firms, and a wide range of businesses seek social science graduates.

Social scientists currently face stiff competition for academic positions. However, competition may ease in the future due to a wave of retirements expected among college and university faculty. The growing importance and popularity of social science subjects in secondary schools is strengthening the demand for social science teachers at this level as well.

Other considerations that affect employment opportunities in these occupations include specific skills and technical expertise, desired work setting, salary requirements, and geographic mobility. In addition, experience acquired through internships can prove invaluable later in obtaining a full-time position in a social science field.


Median annual earnings of all social scientists were about $36,700 in 1992. The middle 50 percent earned between $24,700 and $51,300 annually. The lowest 10 percent earned under $17,800, while the highest 10 percent earned over $68,700.

According to a 1993 survey by the College Placement Council, people with a bachelor's degree in a social science field received starting offers averaging about $19,000 a year in 1993, those with a master's degree in a social science field received starting offers averaging about $28,400 a year in 1993, and the average salary offer for doctoral social scientists was $30,000.

In the Federal Government, social scientists with a bachelor's degree and no experience could start at $18,300 or $22,700 a year in 1993, depending on their college records. Those with a master's degree could start at $27,800, and those having a Ph.D. degree could begin at $33,600, while some individuals with experience and an advanced degree could start at $40,300. The average salary of all social scientists working for the Federal Government in nonsupervisory, supervisory, and managerial positions was about $43,000 in 1993.

Social scientists entering careers in higher education may receive benefits such as summer research money, computer access, student research assistants, and secretarial support.

Related Occupations

A number of fields that require training and personal qualities similar to those of the various social science fields are covered elsewhere in the Handbook. These include lawyers, statisticians, mathematicians, computer programmers, computer scientists and systems analysts, reporters and correspondents, social workers, religious workers, college and university faculty, and counselors.

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Reprinted with Permission of U. S. Department of Labor

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