Each year, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) recognizes an outstanding fellow from its Predoctoral Interdisciplinary Research Training Programs in the Education Sciences for academic accomplishments and contributions to education research. The 2021 awardee, Marissa Thompson, completed her PhD at Stanford University and worked as a postdoctoral fellow with the Education Policy Initiative at University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy. This summer, she joins Columbia University as an assistant professor of sociology. Her work focuses on the relationship between education and socioeconomic and racial inequality over the course of life.
Recently, we caught up with Dr. Thompson and asked her to discuss her research on educational inequality and her experiences as a scholar.
How did you become interested in a career in education research?
For a long time, I thought that I wanted to become an engineering professor. I majored in chemical and biomolecular engineering in college and planned to pursue a doctoral degree in engineering after I graduated. Though I was excited about my undergraduate research projects, I was also passionate about diversity and inclusion in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. This led me to spend my free time in college working on programs within the School of Engineering that promoted more equitable access to these majors. At the same time, I began taking some courses outside of the engineering program, which led me to a series of introductory sociology electives and inspired me to think about a career in the social sciences.
My interests in educational inequality stemmed in part from my own experiences and challenges as a Black woman in the sciences, but also from the experiences of my classmates who had to overcome barriers to access these fields. I wanted to have a more direct impact on the policies and programs that help to mitigate racial and socioeconomic inequality in education, which led me to apply for graduate programs in sociology of education.
What inspired you to focus your research on understanding the role of education in shaping inequality?
I began my graduate studies with the goal of focusing more narrowly on access and persistence in STEM fields, but this quickly developed into a broader interest in educational inequality. I was fortunate to work on several projects with advisors and mentors that motivated my interests in educational inequality over the life course—from studying racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps in public school districts across the country to studying how processes of major choice can lead to increased gender segregation across fields. My work seeks to understand how a variety of sources—including structural inequality, policy changes, and individual preferences—are related to disparities in access to quality educational experiences. My goal as a researcher is to understand how patterns of inequality emerge as well as to research the efficacy of policies that might mitigate social inequality. In doing so, I hope to have an impact on reducing educational disparities for future generations.
What do you see as the greatest research needs or recommendations to improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities of students and families?
I think one of the most important ways that we can improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities of students and families is to involve a more diverse group of voices in the research process. This includes creating more opportunities for researchers from different backgrounds who may ask questions that are uniquely informed by their own experiences or the experiences of their communities. In addition, I also believe that, as researchers, we have a responsibility to speak to the communities that are affected by the policies and patterns that we influence.
What advice would you give to emerging scholars that are pursuing a career in education research?
My first piece of advice would be to find mentors and peers in graduate school who can support you. I have benefitted tremendously from the encouragement of my support system, and I have learned so much from my mentors and peers along the way. I would also encourage students from outside of the traditional social sciences to consider research in education. As an undergraduate engineering major, I was initially afraid to take a leap and change disciplines for graduate school, but in retrospect, I’m so glad that I did. At the time, I worried that my skillset and training in a different discipline would be a disadvantage, but I believe that my interdisciplinary background and unique perspective have helped me to grow my research agenda in ways that would not have been possible otherwise.
This blog was produced by Bennett Lunn (Bennett.Lunn@ed.gov), Truman-Albright Fellow. It is part of an Inside IES Research blog series showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice.