Ph.D. 1980

I started out my undergraduate studies in International Relations at American University. For a number of reasons I ended up gravitating toward sociology during my last year of undergraduate studies at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). Then I was accepted into an MSW program. However, one summer day, a sociology professor who had taught me called me in. He thought I had an aptitude for sociology and offered an assistantship for the Master’s program. Before that I had no idea what a career in sociology meant. I will be forever grateful to him for encouraging me to enter a field which has been most fulfilling.

Upon completion of my Master’s degree, I decided I wanted a Ph.D. to prepare for a career in sociology and chose to come to UNC. I was thrilled to come here with Kirsten West, later to be joined by Jerry West, both of whom were close friends and who had been colleagues in the master’s program at VCU.

UNC Sociology was known for its robust training in statistical methods. As it turned out,
my fondest memories of the program are of the statistics courses. Passionate professors such as David Heise made statistics fun and motivating. I can still visualize all the arrows he drew on the blackboard. I also remember making a conscious decision not to pursue any one theoretical framework, although some professors so recommended. Nonetheless, my overall orientation was one of social psychology.

The birth of my daughter midway through the program slowed me down some and it took me five years to finish rather than four. I remember being a teaching assistant for DIck Udry and bringing my daughter in a front pack at the back of the class. Fortunately she was quiet and slept most of the time.

Most of us came to the UNC Sociology Department expecting to go into academia. I did. But for personal reasons I was limited to a job search in the Research Triangle area. So I knew I would have to consider a job outside of academia. David Heise, my advisor, said he could not provide advice on how to get a job outside of academia. I was on my own.

I started work just after handing in my dissertation draft. I was the first program evaluator for the Durham County Mental Health Center. There were no data bases and I had no experience in program evaluation. However, with a Ph.D., I navigated program evaluation by doing a lot of quick reading on the topic. While I was not able to fully “practice” my knowledge of advanced statistical methods, I gained first hand experience in creating surveys to help management identify program problems, in creating meaningful data bases, and incentivizing the need for accurate data.

During my five years at the Mental Health Center, I was involved in creating the NC Society of Applied Research and Evaluation. We held a number of meetings with researchers from various agencies in the area. It was there I met a researcher who was looking for someone to fill a position with the Federal Bureau of Prisons. While not a criminologist, I viewed this possibility as an adventure. I thought it would be an interesting experience for a year or two. I ended up staying over 20 years until I had to retire because of the hazardous duty requirement. I learned much about the intersection of criminal justice and mental health on a personal level as well as a professional level. In the end, I came to the conclusion that it was the training in research methods, data quality and statistics that were most important. A social psychology orientation was a sufficiently broad theoretical umbrella to focus on more specific topics such as mental health or criminal justice.

Fortunately, the Bureau of Prisons had comprehensive data sets and had an excellent research infrastructure with administrative support. I was able to carry out research projects which had practical implications for the agency but I was also able to publish in academic journals. I even had the opportunity to increase my statistical knowledge by attending several summer courses at the University of Michigan’s ICPSR. Procedures such as hierarchical linear modeling were not taught during my years in the Ph.D. program.

Funded in part through an interagency agreement with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, I directed the largest prison-based multi-site evaluation of a drug treatment program. It took me over 10 years from conception to issuance of the final 3-year follow up report. It was an exciting challenge because of the project’s complexity. It was truly a social psychological project where I was able to incorporate some psychological measures and qualitative data along with the vast amounts of quantitative data.

After I retired from the Bureau of Prisons I was uncertain as to what path I would follow. Because of my community involvement over the years, I was encouraged to run for office and I did successfully run for county commissioner. During the 8 years I served as county commissioner, I always thought of myself as an applied social scientist. I always wanted more data to help me make my decisions, more than is available. I now know that elected officials often have to make decisions with limited data which is costly to obtain. I did feel that training as a social science researcher was a benefit to elected office: I could try to anticipate unintended consequences and think about policy within a systems framework.

Now I am going into farming with my children. We have blueberries and are working on opening the first winery in Orange County (with fruits other than grapes). In addition, I remain involved in various community organizations.

In my heart and mind I will always be a sociologist.

I can be reached at bmpelissier@gmail.com or 919-616-5198.

Submitted January 2017