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Social Science Research Overview

  Social science researchers make up only 12% of the scientific research industry, but regardless of the relatively small size of their field, the work of social scientists greatly influences and explains human behavior. It provides relevant and timely explanations of and forecasts for the transfer and use of political power, the competitiveness of markets, and the institutions and patterns of social behavior in society; social science research often dictates the necessity for and nature of public policy. Through fields of study such as history, political science, economics, sociology, anthropology and psychology, social science researchers explain human behavior and social interaction on all levels.

  About 41% of social science researchers are employed by the government, mostly on the Federal level. Universities and think tanks generally employ the rest. Though the educational attainment of social scientists is among the highest of all occupations, this profile will focus on the support positions available to recent graduates at the undergraduate level.

What They Do:

  The work of social science researchers is highly influential. They suggest solutions to social, business, personal, governmental and environmental problems based upon their understanding of the how individuals, groups and institutions make decisions, exercise power and respond to change. Like other scientific researchers, social scientists spend their time collecting information through interviews, surveys and social experiments, and then drawing conclusions based on their analysis and interpretation of the data. Publishing and presenting the results of their work is a major function of social science research.

  Most social science research is conducted by researchers with master's degrees or PhDs, but support positions are available for those with bachelor’s degrees that allow recent graduates to develop research experience, assist in the publishing and presentation process, and also attend graduate school part-time. These are typically positions as social science research assistants, who assist scientists in the laboratory or with surveys, and perform publication activities, laboratory analysis, quality control, or data management under the direct supervision of a social scientist.

Social Science Research Specialties

  The fields of study in social science are diverse, and often overlapping. It is important to note that most non-entry level positions in social science research require master's degrees or doctorates. An overview of the different areas of research is below:

  • Anthropologists study the origin and the physical, social and cultural development and behavior of humans. Their work extends into further areas of specialization, including social, linguistic, biophysical, and physical anthropologists. They work closely with archaeologists and historians.
  • Economists study how society distributes resources – land, labor, raw materials and machinery – to produce goods and services, as well as analyzing economic data, monitoring economic trends and developing economic forecasts. They apply the laws of economics to health, education, agriculture, urban and regional economics, law, history and energy, making them among the most influential of social scientists. Economists serve as consultants for policy makers on areas such as energy costs, inflation, interest rates, exchange rates, business cycles, taxes and employment levels. Economists also perform economic analysis for the media, and many work for the government making and studying the effectiveness of economic policy. (For more information, see the Policy profile.)
  • Historians research, analyze and interpret the past, usually specializing in a country or region, and period of time. By studying the past, they draw conclusions that are useful for the decision makers of the present.
  • Political Scientists study the origin, development and operation of political systems and public policy, explaining and predicting the evolution of power within a system. They can work with think tanks as policy analysts, or with political campaigns, journalists and governments as political strategists. Their work often includes economic study and the effect of government policy on the economy. (For more information, see the Policy profile.)
  • Market and survey researchers gather information about what people think in order to help companies understand what types of products people want and at what price.1 They utilize psychology, economics and history to help companies market their products to the people most likely to buy them. Their research is both qualitative and quantitative, and is vital to decision makers in business. Because of the high levels of practical application of the work of market and survey researchers, many work as consultants or in-house with corporations.1 (For more information, see the Marketing and Advertising profiles.)
  • Psychologists study the human mind and human behavior, and typically work in either the clinical or research setting. Clinical psychologists, the largest area of psychological practitioners, provide mental health care in hospitals, clinics, schools and private practice; research psychologists investigate the physical, emotional or social aspects of human behavior. Their work is applied to all areas of society – health and human services, management, education, law and sports.
  • Sociologists study society and social behavior by examining the groups, cultures, organizations and social institutions people form, and how social influences affect people. Most work in highly specialized areas such as social organization, stratification and mobility, racial and ethnic relations, education, the family, social psychology, urban, rural, political and comparative sociology, gender relations, and criminology.

  Their work is often the basis of government policy and initiatives.

Social Science Research Breaking In

  Because it is a research field, social science requires high levels of educational attainment, at least a master's degree and more commonly a PhD. However, practical experience in the field is valuable before entering graduate school, and allows students to learn more about the area in which they decide to specialize.

What Employers Want:

  A bachelor's degree does not provide the qualifications necessary for most of the occupations above, but does qualify recent graduates for support roles such as research assistants, writer or market analyst. In order to secure those positions, previous research experience at the undergraduate level, statistical ability, and excellent oral and written communication skills are important. Internship experience with non-profit organizations, historical societies, government agencies and museums is also extremely helpful.

  Examples of research, writing and original thinking at the undergraduate level are often required as part of the application process. Previous experience as a research assistant is also recommended.

What They Hire Undergraduates to Do:

  Typical job titles for recent graduates include Research Assistant, Research Specialist, Research Associate, Research Analyst, Social Research Assistant, Project Manager, Survey Analyst, or Project Coordinator. Responsibilities vary according to the size and scope of the organization or project; entry-level research associates typically conduct secondary research, analyze complex issues, draft short-to-mid-length briefs, research and write grant proposals, network, and provide technical and administrative support for more senior researchers and fellows.

  These positions are ideal for recent graduates considering a career in social science or applying to graduate school; others use these positions to develop expertise in an area of study and gain co-writing credits in order to market their skills in another area of employment or as a candidate for entrance to law or business school.

Social Science Research Alumni

Mitchell Ginsburg- Senior International Economist, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, International Studies and Economics, Class of 1990

  1. How did you get interested in your field? Was it your original goal when you started at Hopkins? - My original goal when arriving at Hopkins was to be in the foreign service. After my internship at the United States Information Agency, I began to think twice about wanting to be in the foreign service and decided it might be worthwhile to have more economics to complement my international studies background. I found the international trade and other international economic courses interesting.
  2. What was your career path? How did you get to where you are today? - By the time I graduated from Hopkins, my main interest was development. I went to grad school in urban systems and policy planning with an emphasis on developing countries. I then came to Washington and got what was supposed to be a summer employment position with the U.S. government until I started a Ph.D. program in the fall but was extended for 4 years while I was in my Ph.D. program. I then switched government agencies, from the FDIC to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, working as an economist on the producer price index. I then switched to the United States International Trade Commission working on anti-dumping and countervailing duty investigations. After being at the USITC for a year, I was given the opportunity to do a detail assignment in the Economic Affairs Office at the Office of the United States Trade Representative. After the year, I returned back to the USITC for 5 months before getting a permanent position at the Trade representative.

Debra Lo- Foreign Service Officer, US Department of State, International Studies, Class of 1990

  1. Describe what you do and how you got started in your current career. - I am a diplomat when overseas, a civil servant when serving in Washington and elsewhere in the U.S. I joined the Foreign Service in 2003 during Sec Powell’s initiative to hire a whole new generation of officers. Before that, I was working in the financial industry for some nine years. It had always been my dream to join the Foreign Service although I never thought I would make it when I was a fresh grad. In addition, I am a naturalized citizen although I am a fourth generation on my mother’s side. There aren’t many of us in the Foreign Service still although we are now emphasizing language skills as a strong asset.
  2. What is most rewarding about your job and/ or industry? What is most challenging? - Most rewarding: Doing some good. Making a difference. Actually being a part of progress. Doing something actually for the betterment of the world (although not always but never intentionally.) The variety of jobs. Living overseas. Experiencing cultures all over the world. The fun of being a diplomat. Most challenging: bureaucracy, bureaucracy, and more bureaucracy. The rigidity of the system. Oh, and being uprooted at others’ calls, and being put in place to build roots by someone else.
  3. Is your career the same or different from what you had envisioned your career would be when you started at Hopkins as an undergraduate? How is it similar and/or different? - Very different. I never thought I would get into the Foreign Service. I thought I wanted the securities/finance industry then ended up going to grad school. I then wanted very much to do non-profit after grad school and they did not want me. So I ended up joining the very for-profit financial firm which very much wanted me. And for the longest time, I tried to do something nobler but it took me nine years to finally get there.
  4. What advice do you have for a Hopkins student entering your career field / industry? - Keep trying. Don’t give up. I know many people who took the FS test several times before getting in. It is being at the right time at the right place. This is bureaucracy. When they need to hire, they do not care whether the applicants are mediocre or brilliant apples, as long as they got on the list. When they do not need to hire, you can be the most brilliant of all and they still would not hire you because they do not need you.

Additional Alumni Profiles

    Networking with alumni and other professionals who work in these fields can help you learn very specific information about a career field. Use Johns Hopkins Connect to contact alumni to ask for their advice. You may also find professional contacts through professional associations, faculty, friends and family.

    If you would like to talk about how your search is going, we invite you to make an appointment with a Career Counselor by calling 410-516-8056.

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Social Science Research Resources


Industry /Professional Organizations and Industry Sites


  Networking with professionals who work in this field can help you learn very specific information about a career field. Professional contacts through professional associations, faculty, friends and family can be very helpful. You may also explore career opportunities by talking with employers at career fairs, and company presentations.

  Internships - research positions and summer employment are highly effective ways for you to try out a field, gain experience and skills and make professional contacts.

Social Science Research Related

  If you would like to talk about how your search is going, we invite you to make an appointment with a Career Counselor by calling 410-516-8056.