Professional photograph of sociologist Megan Nanney, PhD

Megan Nanney, PhD: Equal Opportunity and Diversity Research

Editorial Note:

This profile of Megan Nanney, PhD is brought to you through a partnership between Applied Worldwide and Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS). Thank you to SWS and all those who made valuable contributions to the Profiles in Applied & Clinical Sociology series.

This profile is presented as part of a larger project with the intentions of: 1) providing students with examples of applied sociology, 2) providing market value to sociological skills and services, and 3) promoting the work of individual sociological practitioners and organizations. Learn more about Sociologists for Women in Society at socwomen.org.

Megan Nanney, PhD

Dr. Megan Nanney holds a PhD in Sociology from Virginia Tech with a concentration and certificate in Women’s and Gender Studies; an MS also in Sociology from Virginia Tech; and BA degrees in Sociology and the Study of Women and Gender from Smith College.

Dr. Nanney is the Equal Opportunity and Diversity Research Associate at East Carolina University (ECU), wherein they use their training in social science research and project management skills, in addition to subject matter expertise in diversity, equity, and inclusion, to advance DEI projects and goals within education and the workplace. In this role, they are responsible for engaging in strategic planning with senior leadership with a specific focus on transforming institutional policies and practices to ensure they are inclusive and affirming of individuals across a variety of identities.

Additionally, Dr. Nanney manages and interprets ECU’s diversity and equity data, including the annual Equal Employment Opportunity Plan and three campus climate surveys, and report findings with senior staff, faculty, special interest groups, and other stakeholders for ongoing evaluation and programming.

When we asked Dr. Nanney about establishing their career in applied sociology, they told us:

I pursued a Sociology degree in college because of its drive to ask why things are the way they are, and how to challenge that normality to improve life chances and circumstances. Early on, I got the opportunity at the recommendation of one of my sociology professors to work in my college’s Institutional Research and Educational Assessment office. It was there, working under two applied sociologists, where I learned how I can use my sociological theory and research training to create actionable, data-driven change within institutions.

In particular, a lot of my work in that office focused on questions of diversity and inclusion, the tensions between an institution’s perception, messaging, and reality of diversity and inclusion (often based on numbers), and the lived experiences of students on campus (a more qualitative assessment). This experience led me to pursue my PhD in sociology to advance my skills and knowledge in how to grapple with these tensions and use my training to use for the betterment of my communities.

I continued to pursue community-based opportunities whenever possible, from consulting with Campaign for Southern Equality to leading an evaluation project of a local community garden project for youth of color and to collaborating with my research participants in the publication process. For me, that has always been the importance and value of being a sociologist—how we can apply our skills and theory, not just for knowledge’s sake that’s weighted down with paywalls and jargon, but to create better worlds through action.

Continue reading below for the full profile on Dr. Megan Nanney’s applied sociology work! You can connect further with Dr. Nanney on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Applied Sociology with Megan Nanney, PhD

To begin, can you briefly describe the work you do as an applied or clinical sociologist?

Outside of ECU, I also work as a research consultant with the Campaign for Southern Equality’s Southern Equality Research and Policy Center. In this role, I work with center staff, an interdisciplinary team of researchers and consultants, and community collaborators on large-scale survey projects aimed at developing evidence-based interventions to improve the life chances of queer and trans people in underserved areas such as the Southern LGBTQ Health Survey.

Finally, I am currently working on establishing an organization called Trans@HWCs. Stemming out of my own academic research, Trans@HWCs will be the first trans-led national organization dedicated to and by transgender students at historically gendered colleges. As I found in my research, as women’s colleges begin to openly welcome transgender students–who may or may not identify as women–there is either a lack of information about resources available to support them or those resources available (if any) are largely inadequate. Working with a team of transgender and non-binary students and alumni, this organization will allow for community building, education, and collaborative justice work across institutions.

What services do you offer and who are your clientele?

In addition to my consultation with the Campaign for Southern Equality, I offer policy and resource consulting, workshops, and guest speaking opportunities on topics related to transgender and non-binary populations, particularly with a specialization in historically gendered colleges. I have worked with institutions such as Hollins University, Smith College, and Mount Holyoke College in advancing DEI efforts around trans and non-binary students.

How do you use sociological research methods in practice?

Sociological research is at the core of my current position. Because sociological methods give us the tools to systematically study the goings on of our everyday lives, these tools allow me to go beyond merely reporting the numbers of people on campus by various demographics, to tell a story with the data and create actionable solutions. This then moves the conversation from the individual level where students, faculty, and staff are seen as a problem that needs to be managed within the institution, to seeing how these group patterns are a result of structural issues.

How do you use sociological theory in practice?

As I always teach my students, a theory is a lens through which we examine the world. In my daily responsibilities, I use sociological theory to contextualize the specific patterns and experiences I find in data in a broader body of literature that considers the societal, cultural, and structural mechanisms, policies, and processes that the specifics are grounded within.

Lessons for Future Practitioners

What types of courses should undergraduate students take in preparation for a career similar to yours?

Research methods! It is my research methods class (an introduction to statistics style class) that led me to my first foray into applied sociology. But I also recommend taking both quantitative and qualitative methods–only then can you begin to capture the full picture.

What types of courses should graduate students take in preparation for a career similar to yours?

I benefit strongly from the courses on the sociology of education, social stratification, pedagogy, and policy courses that I took. While I am a staff member within a university, the background expertise that I have gained in understanding systems of inequality within educational institutions, how to teach, and how policy is formed + works allows me to go from just analyzing data to strategically planning how those data are contextualized and what possible solutions are feasible.

What types of experiences should undergraduate students seek in preparation for a career similar to yours?

If you have the opportunity to take an internship or volunteer with a non-profit or local community organization, especially if you can work on grants or evaluation work in these groups, do it! Research with a sociology faculty member or presenting at a conference is also great practice.

What types of experiences should graduate students seek in preparation for a career similar to yours?

I truly believe that I benefited from seeking consulting and volunteer work outside of my academic research. These experiences allowed me to understand how research can be used within communities–what unique needs practitioners have, how to communicate academic language in a more accessible manner, and how to better collaborate. I also recommend getting as much practice with writing reports and giving presentations. Most often my final products are a PowerPoint given to groups from 5 people to 210. Make sure you’re comfortable presenting research in an accessible manner. Finally, network, network, network!

More generally, what are the best outlets to learn more about the work you do as an applied or clinical sociologist?

While there is no specific organization for my specific career (my position, is in fact, rare within higher education), I recommend looking at a number of associations that are related to my areas of work. These include the Association for Institutional Research, American Educational Research Association, National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, Association of American Colleges + Universities, and the National Center for Institutional Diversity.

What skills or experiences do organizations look for when hiring employees like you?

There are a number of opportunities for sociologists within higher education, broadly, beyond the professoriate. DEI or institutional research offices are a great location for those interested in using social science research training, especially (but not limited to) for those with quantitative expertise. My institution is growing rapidly and is always looking for qualified candidates who have both the hard skills of research as well as the conceptual knowledge of education + inequality.