Faculty Profile: Marissa Thompson

Marissa Thompson, Assistant Professor of Sociology, spoke with us about her research and her path to Columbia.

Can you speak a bit about how your background and upbringing influenced your early career interests?

I thought for a long time that I wanted to be an engineering professor. My dad is an engineering professor and, growing up, I was always excited about physics, chemistry, and math. While I was an undergraduate student at Penn majoring in engineering, I also became interested in studying diversity, equity, and inclusion programs for students in STEM majors. I felt that there were a lot of ways that I could have an impact on access to these fields, which is why I became interested in studying the sociology of education.    

In addition, what solidified my interest in sociology was the first sociology course that I took in college. I could see reflections of my own life and educational experiences in the readings, lectures, and discussions. I felt like I was able to understand my place in the world, the privileges that I had been afforded, and the inequality that I experienced as an undergraduate student. It was so eye-opening.

Photo of Marissa Thompson wearing a black shirt

I had never taken a class in the social sciences before, but I was able to come in straight from my chemical engineering curriculum and still engage with the course content. I appreciated how accessible the course was, and I think sociology courses can (and should) be accessible to students from different disciplines.

I know how important students’ first introductory courses can be, and I'm hoping that I can be that professor for someone else—that I might teach a course that sparks an interest in sociology in a student for the first time. Even if students are coming to my courses from another discipline, I want them to see how sociology can inform the ways that they think about the world and their place in it. I’m so grateful to my undergrad sociology professors, and I’m hoping that I can pay it forward for my students.

Later, while I was in graduate school, my interest in equity in engineering developed into a broader interest in educational inequality. I had quite a windy path to get to sociology from engineering, but my experiences as an undergraduate student led me to apply to graduate programs in the sociology of education.

How would you frame your specific interests within the field of sociology?                             

My research interests broadly are in the sociology of education, and particularly understanding inequality in educational outcomes over the life course. For example, I study how students navigate educational systems and try to understand where and how they are turned off certain educational pathways. I also study instances where higher education institutions could do more to promote equity and inclusion. Finally, I’m also interested in patterns of school segregation and achievement gaps, so several of my current research projects investigate racial and socioeconomic inequality in access to educational goods.

One study in particular looks at how parents think about school segregation when they're making school choices for their children, and what that can tell us about how patterns of segregation develop and are maintained. In another line of work, which was inspired by my time as an engineering student, I study major selection and how students navigate higher education institutions. For example, I study how students are siloed into different fields by the administration, by their own interest, or by their peers. I’m also interested in understanding the ramifications of these patterns of inequality on labor market inequality. I’m curious not only about understanding these patterns, but also in policy implications—how understanding these patterns can help us to hopefully do better moving forward.

"Even if students are coming in from another discipline, I want them to see how sociology can inform the ways that they think about the world and their place in it."

Most of my work uses large national data sets of existing administrative data. For example, I’m part of a team of authors using data from the Stanford Education Data Archive, which includes test score data on nearly every public school district in the country, to study changing achievement gaps and patterns of segregation over time. I also often collect my own data, mostly through survey experiments. For example, in the segregation study that I mentioned earlier, my co-author and I surveyed thousands of parents using an online survey platform to ask them about their experiences with and preferences regarding school segregation.

Are there any implications for your work with the move from Michigan to New York, and what might that present as opportunities for you?

I think New York City is an incredibly important place to study educational inequality and school segregation, so that was one reason that I was particularly excited to be joining the Faculty at Columbia. I’m interested in continuing to survey parents about segregation, schools, and inequality, and I’d also like to begin interviewing parents directly to learn more about how they make decisions for their children.

Do you see your goal more as bringing light to problems or in presenting potential solutions?

I see myself in between those two goals. My training background is in policy analysis, where the goal is to look at the efficacy of different policies in expanding opportunities for students, as well as any heterogeneity in the effects of different policies. Ultimately, though, I do want to create a meaningful change in the lives of the people that I’m studying. In addition, I think that shedding light on these issues can bring us a little bit closer to policy solutions.

"I study how students move through our educational systems and try to understand where and how they are turned off certain educational pathways."

What courses are you teaching?

I’m teaching Sociology of Education and a workshop on wealth and inequality.

What are you looking forward to professionally or personally?

I'm especially excited to teach. I’ve been planning out my courses for next year and have been thinking about what I want to be able to convey to the students, what I want to discuss with them, what I want to learn from them about their experiences, and what I'm hoping to contribute to my department. I had some opportunities to TA in graduate school, and the idea of having my own course that I'm able to direct from start to finish is something that I’m really looking forward to.