Research Interests

Education, stratification, social class, gender, race/class/gender, family, civic engagement/ volunteering, social psychology, social justice, teaching and learning, mixed methods (qualitative and statistics)

Dissertation Project

  • Research questions: How do students choose their college majors? How does this process reproduce inequality by race, class, and gender? 
  • Design: Longitudinal surveys (n=1,1,00) and in-depth interviews (n=50) with first-year college students at UNC-Chapel Hill 
  • Major findings: 
    • Student orientations to choosing a major differ by race, class, and gender and these orientations change over time as students learn new schemas for choosing a major (i.e. based on career, intellectual interests, or match with student skillset)
    • Students often get stuck in ill-fitting majors because ​they feel compelled to choose a major before they have much (correct) knowledge about what that major means and entails
    • Students feel uncertainty during parts of the major choosing process, and these times of uncertainty are critical junctures for inequality reproduction 

Other Research Projects

  • Gillis, Alanna, and Laura M. Krull. Forthcoming. “‘I was there for the free food’: Accidental Religious and Cultural Conversions in College.” Sociological Forum 34(4). [PDF]

    • Research question: How do some college students come to have secular or religious conversions in college? ​

    • Major finding: Religious and non-religious conversions follow a similar process that is shaped by the structure of residential campuses and student social characteristics. Unlike past research that finds people in more marginalized positions are more likely to undergo conversions, we find that disadvantaged economic positions prevent students from being as likely to experience a conversion because these students are not as integrated into campus social networks and because they must long hours during the semester.

  • Perrin, Andrew and Alanna Gillis. 2019. “How College Makes Citizens: Independent Effects of Higher Education on Political Engagement.” Socius 5:1-16. [Link and PDF]

    • Research question: ​Does college increase political participation after graduation after robustly accounting for selection effects into college? If so, how?

    • Major finding: College does have independent effects on political participation after college graduation, beyond selection effects. The primary mechanism through which this occurs is social science coursework and smaller significant effects with humanities coursework and high-impact experiences such as service-learning courses.

  • Gillis, Alanna. Forthcoming. “Identity Exploration or Labor Market Reaction: Social Class Differences in College Student Participation in Peace Corps, Teach for America, and Other Service Programs.” Qualitative Sociology [Link and PDF]

    • Research question: ​Why do college students aspire to participate in service programs after graduation? 

    • Major finding: Social class background and current financial security shaped orientations to participation, challenging emerging adulthood theory that assumes prioritization of identity development during this life stage.

  • Nilsen, Ryan, Alanna Gillis, Bryant Hutson, and Lynn Blanchard. “From Reflection to Resumes: Alumni Perceptions of a Multi-Term Public Service Program’s Connection to Career.”

    • Research question: What do alumni of a public service program ​believe are important components and what do they believe should change? 

    • Major finding: Despite career not being a primary goal of the program, alumni believe the program needs to be more proactive with career development. Women in particular expressed this desire, challenging typical gendered findings about career and service. 

2010 - present

2010 - present

Future Research Agenda

I have two major future research projects. First, I will examine trajectories through college and then transitions out of college. After intensively analyzing the first-year of college, I seek to understand how cumulative advantage and disadvantage occur on the basis of race, class, and gender. I will annually interview the same 50 students from my dissertation project enabling me to use longitudinal data to understand the social process that shape academic, social, and post-graduate outcomes. 

Second, I will use administrative data from several different kinds of colleges to examine major change processes quantitatively. By examining information such as student demographics, courses taken, initial majors, and new majors, I will be able to analyze why and when students leave fields of study for other fields of study. Among other questions, I will examine whether the “leaky pipeline” is a unique phenomenon in STEM fields or whether major turnover occurs in similar ways across all fields. Additionally, by using data from multiple colleges, I will be able to analyze the role of institutional policies in shaping major outcomes and turnover. I plan to write articles for Sociology of Education, The Journal of Higher Education, Gender & Society, among others. This quantitative project will further our understanding of inequality in college majors by race, class, and gender.

© Alanna Gillis