Researching social work


Yesterday I had the privilege of attending a workshop aimed at social work doctoral students and early career researchers. Now, however young I look (and I’m sure those who know me will testify), I don’t think I could describe myself as ‘early career’ anything but I am undertaking a Professional Doctorate in Social Work (part time, of course – alongside my full time job).

Despite feeling desperately under-qualified in doing this, I signed up for the workshop unsure what to expect and wondering how obvious it would be to the other participants that I felt completely in awe of them and that I was felt like a bit of a fraud even being there. Imposter syndrome has struck me with great intent over the last academic year!

However, the energy and motivation in that room gave me so much pride in the profession of social work. The group was very mixed across age, background and geography. Some were in the final stages of their PhDs. There were a fair number of Prof Doc students studying part time alongside their jobs. Some recently started. Some who were new to academic posts. We were all studying, writing about, teaching and/or practicing social work.

Like most groups of social workers assembled, experience and work covered all aspects of the profession – child protection, family support, mental health, older people, support for carers, public sector and voluntary sector, ‘traditional’ statutory social work and various less ‘obvious’ roles. The thing that struck me was despite having such different experiences as social workers and social work researchers, the core meaning of social work and what it is shone through.

It was almost an epiphany that I experienced towards the end of a day filled with energy, enthusiasm and enjoyment. I realised that this proved to me that the profession is so much more when it is inclusive of all types of social work. When we don’t ‘divide’ into specialist areas of practice to talk about the profession and what it means. I was talking to a participant who was focusing on a very different area of social work than me, working in children and families and in that conversation, made fundamental links that would not have happened if I had been at an event for people studying or researching into work with older people or dementia because I saw the golden ‘social work strand’ that ran through all the wild variety of topics, interest and experiences that we had.

I hope to write more about my thoughts and ideas as a social work researcher (feels a bit weird writing that as I don’t really see myself that way but moving into my second year of doctoral studies, so I can’t avoid it forever!). I have thought about how much I need to ‘own’ this writing, moving on from anonymity. Especially if I want to grow academically. It is likely to be a branch or pathway I will have to choose at some point.

Now I’m reflecting on how invigorating it was to be in a room with social workers and finding the commonality of values that made us find our way into this profession is more precious than attempts by government projects to compartmentalise and divide us into niche areas of practice.

Fast track and rushing to practice in specialist fields where training is seen as a means to be practice-ready as soon as possible rather than a space to learn the fundamentals of the profession from a broad base from which specialist knowledge may grow will change the face of the profession. Finding future social work researchers who will grow expertise and a knowledge base for the profession, depends on a broad base of understanding and time to grow, with strong university education supporting students to both learn and to reflect on their learning. If this is not recognised, social work risks becoming a function, rather than a broad profession. My fear is that social work is almost turning into ‘social work tasks’ as local authorities struggle with an austerity programme which has decimated them. We need, as a profession and as academics and researchers within the profession, to be clear that WE own social work and can define it, rather than government agencies. It has to be more than a sum of the roles that social workers complete. Social work is across all age groups, it is all-encompassing, it is statutory, it is voluntary sector, it is where social workers locate themselves to practice in ways that extend and affect others. It needs to retain an independence and subversive element that challenges structures and institutions we work with and within.

I saw and have seen what social work can do and where we can take it. There is much hope for the future but we need support as well from those who lead or purport to lead the profession to stand up for a unified profession and those who will be and do expand the knowledge base for that profession.

Thanks to Dr Lisa Morriss of Birmingham University for organising the event and to Dr Helen Kara for her inspiring and motivating facilitation.

Today I go back to work with more enthusiasm and energy to make a positive difference and hurtle into the next academic year feeling excited about where learning to research can take me.


Written by

Social worker. Mostly mental health

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