We caught up with Drew Dalton, Senior Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Sunderland, to find out why social sciences are a great area to study at degree level.
What do you teach and what's your academic background?
“I’m a Senior Lecturer on our unique MSc Inequality and Society course which looks at the major causes of inequalities in our world. Our students examine inequality through a vast array of lenses such as gender, age, mental health, and sexuality.
“I’m a sociologist by trade. I worked for 16 years in the charity sector – I managed charities, groups, and took part in research and campaigns for charities, so I’ve done quite a bit, as well as teaching! I’ve always had charity work and teaching in schools, colleges, and now a university.
Why should students study social science and what do you enjoy most about the subject?
“It's ace! The study of social sciences is so important as they make you think differently about the world you live in. Whether you’re looking at crime, society, health, community, or culture, social sciences make you more critical. They make you see the world in a different light; how it operates and how it works. I think part of that is identities and how we form them, or thinking about global issues and understanding why some of these things happen.
“For example, I was giving a lecture on genocide and how globalisation impacts on it. So you can go from studying genocide one day, to the sociology of the family the next, and do prison work on another day – it’s varied, and I think that’s the best thing about the discipline of social sciences. It gives you a taste of everything and you can specialise in something that interests you.
"Obviously, social sciences is also a subject that makes you employable. But, to me, it also changes you personally. We know that you want to come to university and get a good job out of it, and we’re very good at doing that for our students. But I also think you change so dramatically between the ages of 18 and 22, and the course helps you understand some of those processes and why they take place.
What skills does studying for a social science degree give you, and how can they help students in their careers?
“First of all, you end up being a trained social researcher. A lot of people forget that! You come out with your social science degree, but also with your training in quantitative and qualitative methods. This helps you to understand statistical research as well as face-to-face interview research, and face the problems that come with it.
“We teach critical thinking skills, but we also offer that kind of worldly wisdom because we understand societies. I think we manage to fire people up without them realising sometimes! Some of our students have set up an amnesty international human rights group and one of my students is doing a fashion show for HIV, then we have another who’s setting up a food bank. It makes people more humanitarian, and I think that’s a massive part of it. A lot of people enrol onto a social sciences course wanting to change the world, but they don’t know how. We get them to think about how to do it – we don’t push them – we get them to think about it by offering them options.
What kind of careers can social sciences students look forward to after graduating?
“That’s a question we always get! Our social science graduates go into such a mix of job areas. We get the ‘change the worldies’ – those who want to affect the world in some way and go into third sector organisations like Oxfam and Red Cross, or even set up their own charities!
Quite a lot of students, especially those who study Criminology, go into the police force, or the criminal justice system and probation, as they're interested in crime and justice. We’ve got students studying Health and Social Care who go into health-related careers such as within the NHS, nursing, or mental health. We’ve got Social Work and Community and Youth Work students who go into those sectors and want to make a difference in their communities. Teaching or working with children is also very common, particularly with our Childhood Studies graduates. So it’s varied!
What kind of opportunities are there for students whilst they're studying?
“Tonnes! We go a bit above and beyond I think – I get a bit carried away! We offer support for students seeking work placements and research projects. We’ve got strong links with local employers including the NHS, and Durham and Northumbria Police – our Criminology academics are responsible for founding and running our Local Appropriate Adult Scheme. A lot of students have self-initiated their own things, like the fashion show and the food bank. But we do a lot of stuff around volunteering because I'm an ex-volunteer manager, so I promote volunteering a lot and the benefits of doing it. Some of our students have even taken part in volunteering experiences internationally, in Kenya and Nepal.
“We’ve also got a really lively social group. If you're studying one of our Social Science courses, we go out of our way to offer things away from the classroom because I think studying this subject is all about going out into the social world and seeing it. We've seen exhibitions in London on slavery – modern day and historical – and we went to the Jewish museum and saw the Holocaust exhibitions to see what happens when societies become too controlling and isolate certain members.
“We have a lot of guest speakers too. We’ve had someone come in from Gay Advice Darlington to talk about transphobic crime and what it’s like to be trans. Someone came in from Freedom from Torture, Amnesty International, and someone from Changing Lives to talk about sex work – how it operates and the changing nature of sex work and human trafficking.
Why is the University of Sunderland a great place to study social sciences?
“Sunderland is a great place to come to university because it’s a home which offers a lot of support. We go above and beyond in terms of things I wish I had when I was at university!
“We’ve got a set of lively courses within the School of Social Sciences. There's also the Centre for Applied Social Sciences where students can come and get involved with free public talks – the last one was on Jack the Ripper. We offer loads of extra training and courses that the students can go on. I just think we’re a great department with a lot to offer!
What resources and facilities do students studying social sciences have access to?
“We offer them a lot of specialist equipment. Students undertaking their research have to be able to use special software, so although we don’t have labs (our research is done in the real world!) we offer computer software programmes. A lot of the facilities come through CASS (Centre of Applied Social Sciences). We also have links with research departments at other universities that allow students to use a variety of facilities.
What positive advice would you give to students thinking about studying social sciences?
“Be open-minded and be prepared to have your world totally changed. The things that you take for granted have to be explored as to why you take those things for granted. For example, I was teaching about love and marriage and the concept of romantic love. It was really interesting because students had this perception that we’ve always had this option available to us that we could marry who we wanted when we wanted. But actually, if you lived about 170 years ago you would’ve had an arranged marriage – we practised arranged marriage for about 800 years in the UK. So the concept of romantic love and marrying someone for that reason is relatively new. It’s common sense things that we take for granted, and once we scratch beneath the surface, we get a lot more depth. I think it’s being prepared to have your mind opened a little bit and becoming a researcher, getting used to research, and how it operates.
“Be prepared to get passionate! People sometimes come in not knowing who they are or where their place is in the world and what that fire in their belly is! Some of them come out and decide to help refugees for example, or students become passionate about different causes and quite politicised, and I think that’s what we do very well as a subject."
Published: 12 December 2022