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‘Well how are you going to get a job with a degree like that?’

Social sciences seek to understand how people interact with each other, how society functions and how cultures develop

Any young person who has considered studying social and behavioural sciences is well accustomed to the usual reaction: raised eyebrows, head shaking and a question of “Well, how are you going to get a job with a degree like that?”

For those unfamiliar, behaviour and social sciences seek to understand the conduct of human beings and animals, singly and in groups, from birth to death.

It is something people come into contact with on a regular basis, whether talking about current affairs in the local pub or digesting the recent celebrity gossip and wondering why someone did what they did.

But what does the study of social sciences mean for those who undertake a degree in the field? It is largely done through a variety of subjects, including philosophy, anthropology and psychology.

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In UCD five distinct degrees come under the social sciences umbrella: social sciences; social policy and sociology; psychology; and bachelor in education with Irish or modern languages.

Elsewhere, Maynooth University offers a bachelor’s in social sciences, which required 320 Central Applications Office (CAO) points last year.

Throughout the programme, students learn to analyse contemporary social problems, issues and policy responses, related to poverty and social exclusion, drugs, criminal justice, housing, migration, ethnicity, disability, ageing and gender.

The degree is organised as a double big programme with the core subject of social policy and one of the following subjects: sociology, philosophy, history, anthropology, geography or economics. The core subject of social policy focuses on government and institutional policies concerned with human needs and welfare in the broadest sense, and how these needs are addressed.

The social sciences course in University College Cork (UCC) required 445 points last year. In the programme students study a variety of modules, including psychology, philosophy, sociology and economics, among others.

The University of Galway’s BA in social sciences required 347 points last year, and includes excellent opportunities for students.

There is an international field trip in second year, a significant workplace internship in third year, and dissertation or research project component in fourth year, giving students practical real-world experience and knowledge of working in areas of social scientific inquiry.

Some smaller colleges which may not have a big arts, humanities or social science department can still have particular strengths in one social science area or another.

The Dublin Business School (DBS) is one such example. While predominantly a business-focused institution, its BA in psychology and BA in social science are both popular choices for students.

They are also available in various technological universities. The South East Technological University (SETU) has a three-year social sciences degree that required 282 points last year, while a large majority of technological universities offer courses in social care.

Largely, most social science degrees require only the typical minimum entry requirement for university. However, depending on which course a student chooses, some have programme-specific entry requirements.

For example, to do the economics degree in UCD, students must have required a H5 in maths, while for the Irish or modern language degrees a minimum of O6 or H7 is required.

Skills

And so it is clear that these degrees equip students to analyse, research, and think critically about real-world problems and the policies that affect them. As a result, the notion that these degrees result in unemployment is simply not true.

The career options are incredibly varied, with social science graduates working in almost every field of work.

Rachel Farrell, associate dean of undergraduate social sciences at UCD, said people who study social sciences can go on to work in so many different areas of society.

“Broadly speaking and depending on the course subjects and interests of students, we have identified six sectors that our graduates work in: business and finance, non-governmental organisations [NGOs] or not-for-profits, public and Civil Service, technology, media and communications, education and research, and politics and policy,” she said.

Some of the roles encompassed by these sectors include economists, policymakers, activists, information managers, HR managers, journalists, statisticians, urban planners, librarians and social workers, among others.

Multinational corporations headquartered in Ireland such as Facebook, eBay and Google frequently seek to hire graduates with language skills, particularly in sales or technical customer-service roles. This means social science graduates are often highly sought after by these companies.

Adding to this, many big firms in Ireland are now running graduate programmes, which are an excellent route for those with social sciences degrees to get their foot in the door. These programmes have large potential for career growth and salary increases.

But just how popular are degrees in social sciences? Well, quite popular indeed, according to official statistics published annually.

The CAO in February published applicant data for 2024, which found a total of 5,041 people listed a degree in social and behavioural sciences as their first preference.

This was, however, down slightly on the 5,071 first preferences these courses received in the previous year.

According to statistics from the Higher Education Authority, social sciences has one of the lowest dropout rates when compared with other areas of study, though it increased slightly in the most recent tranche of data.

In the 2017-2018 academic year, 9 per cent of individuals in social sciences degrees, journalism or information did not progress through the course. This rose slightly to 10 per cent the following year, before dropping to 6 per cent in the 2019-2020 academic year.

However, in the 2021-2022 academic year the data showed 13 per cent of students in social sciences, journalism and information dropped out of the degree.

Due to the variety in career opportunities, it is difficult to ascertain what exactly social sciences graduates earn upon graduation, though many teaching in the sector say there are many positive job opportunities, across a variety of fields.

The degrees being so broad and open-ended is one of the biggest advantages of studying social sciences.

According to Ms Farrell, students develop a wide range of skills, including critical thinking, problem-solving, analysis and communication skills.

“These skills are not only relevant to specific career paths but are also highly transferable, allowing graduates to adapt to various professional environments and excel in diverse roles. Additionally, they gain experience in teamwork and independent research, further enhancing their ability to collaborate effectively and conduct rigorous investigations,” she said.

“The focus on research skills embedded throughout each degree ensures that students are equipped with the tools to contribute meaningfully to our understanding of societal issues, both in their chosen fields and beyond. ”

She added: “This experiential learning approach, combined with exposure to research methodologies, not only prepares students for their careers but also fosters a deeper understanding of our social world and cultivates a lifelong commitment to inquiry and discovery.”

As a result, social sciences are often an excellent choice for both students who know exactly what it is they want to do after graduation, and for those who don’t.

Key areas the courses cover

Since degrees in social sciences are so broad, it can often be confusing for prospective students to ascertain what it is exactly they will learn should they undertake one.

Of course, it depends on what type of course a student chooses, but by and large most institutions offering social science degrees cover the areas below.

1. Policy

What are the big issues affecting countries? What policy decisions have led the country to experience these issues? What policies could be implemented to resolve these challenges? These are all areas that are explored in the many social sciences degrees around the country.

2. Economics

This social science studies the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services. The subject focuses on how economies work. Those who specialise in economics have great career prospects, high earning potential and high-transferable skills.

3. Psychology

This is an area that helps students understand human behaviour and mental processes and allows you to better understand how we think, act and feel. To begin your career as a psychologist, however, a graduate degree is normally required.

4. Geography

A subject that students would be familiar with from their junior or Leaving Cert, geography at third level examines the Earth’s landscapes, environments and the relationships they have. Specialising in this area provides a comprehensive understanding of both natural occurrences and human activities and how the two interact.

5. Anthropology

This is the systematic study of humanity, with the goal of understanding our evolutionary origins and our distinctiveness as a species. They learn about diverse cultural practices and social institutions including religion, politics, the life course and many others.

Students can also study forensic anthropology, which applies skeletal analysis and archaeological techniques to solve criminal cases.

6. Analyse complex topics

It is not enough just to be able to list things, but social sciences is all about understanding the way in which the world works. These courses allow students to look at a topic and analyse it, allowing the individual to view areas in a very nuanced, well-rounded way.

7. Research

Due to the very theoretical nature of these degrees, students become very proficient at research. Reading through documents and papers, and comprehending the ideas presented allows them to acquire necessary research skills that are important in almost every field of work.

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