Theorising Social Work Research
Doctoral and advanced studies in social work 15th November 1999, Warwick
Plenary 1: The PhD Dr. Imogen Taylor, University of Bristol Is a PhD in social work the same as a PhD for social work?
This question is essentially addressing the purpose of a PhD. In my view the PhD demonstrates that the award holder has developed transferable skills. Specifically the ability to:
- carry out a substantial piece of research (which may follow a period of research methods training). I suggest that this skill is transferable and the discipline irrelevant.
- produce publishable research. Research is not research unless it is disseminated. Again I suggest that this skill is transferable and the discipline is irrelevant.
- make an original contribution to knowledge. Here, the discipline is relevant because the knowledge is either for or in social work. The latter depends on an agreed definition of the discipline. The former allows for a broader field where knowledge contributes to the development of social work theory or practice. However, in a postmodern society, I would argue that the crucial factor is the ability to make the contribution rather than the contribution itself.
- work and learn independently, be organised, essential skills for all disciplines.
What is special about a PhD by publication?
I have chosen to answer the question we have been asked to address (what is special about a PhD in or for social work) by relating it to the PhD by publication, the other topic I have been asked to address. In 1995 the UK Council for Graduate Education (UKCGE) undertook a study of the award of the degree by published work because of increasing interest in this route. They surveyed higher educational institutions in England, Wales and N. Ireland. 68% of institutions responded and of these 18 old and 24 new universities and 10 colleges offered a PhD based on published work. A further 8 said the matter was under consideration. Significantly the group not offering the award included London University and the University of Wales. From 1993-95, 72 PhDs were awarded by this route although the majority were from a small number of institutions (largest number from Cambridge).
A special feature of this route is that it is an attractive option to social workers who do not generally study full-time following graduation (majority of full-time PhD students are aged 21-26) yet in mid-career may be carrying out research, either from a university or practice base. Often a student in this position is registered for a part-time PhD which can take many years and present problems of ownership of data. The publication route may be a more attractive option if it is made known.
Typically eligibility is restricted to graduates of the institution and/or staff (qualifying period ranging from 1-5 years) The latter may be academic and in some institutions, academic related. The UKCGE make the point that eligibility restrictions may create the impression that the route is some form of privilege and perhaps even that it is less academically demanding than the traditional route.
Both routes require evidence of a substantive and original contribution to knowledge, and application of research methods. However, whereas a dissertation is an in-depth study of a single topic, published work may include different but related topics which contribute to social work knowledge. It is the latter feature and the availability of publications in the public domain which are significant for social work. Knowledge which is not accessible cannot be used by practitioners or service users.
In relation to the quantity of publications, typically there is an expectation of comparability between the thesis and publications. The UKCGE found that, with one exception, the number of publications is not specified and noted that lack of clarity probably results in an over estimate of the number of publications. I certainly felt tempted to select more rather than less publications, much like the student selecting evidence for a portfolio.
Multi-authorship is a challenging issue in a number of arenas including the RAE and promotions, particularly amongst women who are in the majority in social work education and practice and who are likely to value working collegially. For the publication route, the author must submit evidence of individual contributions. From early on, I knew I wanted to pursue the publication route and had clarified authorship with co-authors. I had also aimed for refereed publications and publication of a book with an established publishing house. This raises another issue not addressed by the UKCGE, that of publications which are not refereed. In social work many significant publications are policy documents, documents for service users etc which similarly have difficulty establishing RAE value and might be open to challenge if submitted for a PhD by publication.
Guidance and advice
The UKCGE recommend that there is a supervisor, mentor or adviser to guide the candidate on the selection of work, nature of the submission and preparation for the oral. They note that 21 out of 36 of the awarding institutions acknowledge the need for such a role, yet there is no code of practice and typically the role is left to the HoD. In my experience this was one of the least satisfactory aspects of the publication route. The HoD may be inappropriate for a range of reasons. In addition, if the role is not institutionalised it can feel like asking a favour of someone who is already overloaded, with a lack of clarity about what the role comprises. I sought and integrated feedback from my HoD and a peer about my critical commentary which accompanied the publications. I had initially registered for a PhD by the conventional route, believing that support from an adviser was essential. As I have developed my publications my confidence has increased. I would not recommend this route to someone who lacks confidence or support.
Nature of the submission
For me, the other problematic area was the lack of clarity about the nature of the submission which supports the published work, an area where the UKCGE found a huge variation between institutions. 23 institutions required a 2 stage submission process with the first stage being to establish a prima facie case (details of publications and a short statement re contribution to knowledge). Assessment at this stage may be solely by internal staff. The second or only stage may consist of compiled publications with or without analysis. Some old universities require publications alone, all new universities required a supportive analysis which might vary from requiring a statement or abstract to a critical appraisal. Word length for a supportive statement also varied considerably.
Bristol requires an 'introductory commentary outlining the coherence in terms of the subject matter of the published work' (Notes of Guidance to Candidates and Examiners). I had collected examples from predecessors whose commentaries ranged from 1- 8 pages in length and decided the best way to manage the uncertainty was to write a critical analysis of my work, highlighting developing themes and their significance in contributing to knowledge, providing the Examiners with what I thought they might want to know. With hindsight and the experience of the oral, I would recommend to others adding more detail about research methodology, omitted in most publications.
The UKCGE found that most institutions require a viva, all require at least 2 examiners, and some require both to be external, particularly for a member of staff. Bristol normally requires one internal and one external. Again I felt the absence of a supervisor and thought it was inappropriate to personally liaise with potential or actual advisers. I asked a colleague to act on my behalf. I also sought an internal adviser who came from another Dept. in the Faculty (Education) as I was concerned that being examined by colleagues from my own Dept. might be problematic.
Some institutions allow the award of the MPhil to emerge but Bristol does not allow this for the publication route. The PhD by publication is all or nothing with revisions not being possible to work already published. This reality makes the experience of the oral seem very final.
In conclusion, there should be comparable requirements across the various routes to the PhD. However, two significant features make the publication route special:
- it may more accessible than other routes to social work academics and practitioners, many of whom are at the mid-career point when they decide to pursue a PhD.
- research in social work should be accessible to practitioners as well as academics. Typically, publications are more accessible than a conventional dissertation.
UK Council for Graduate Education (1995) The award of the degree of PhD on the basis of published work in the UK. UKCGE: Cedar, University of Warwick.