Theorising Social Work Research
Doctoral and advanced studies in social work 15th November 1999, Warwick
Collaborative Studentships: The Inside View Perlita Harris, Audrey Mullender and Pam Hodgkins
- The most obvious advantage is easier access to service users. Although this still has to be negotiated with individual practitioners, to a great extent management consent is already there because negotiations by the academic supervisor with the agency supervisor and agency trustees have already taken place.
- Access to agency documentation, social work practitioners and managers/trustees of the agency are all also easily available.
- The collaborative studentship goes some way towards bridging the gap between academia and social work practice. It has allowed the student, as a recent social work practitioner, to become involved in research regarding social work practice and social work service provision.
- The student is able to share thinking about the research process with social work practitioner and service user audiences.
- As a post adoption service user and post adoption social work practitioner herself, the research student has an opportunity to draw upon both her service user insight and her social work experience to influence the direction of her research.
- The time-limited student bursary provides a structure and timescale for the PhD.
- The agency and academic supervisors had already identified a broad range of research questions (in order to secure the funding and advertise the studentship) which may be unrealistic for a PhD student to address.
- Because these are pre-set questions, the research has not had a user-led or user-controlled origin. It reflects the agenda of the agency rather than of a diverse range of service users. The challenge is then to develop ways of including service users and their organisations in the research process.
- It is also a challenge for a collaborative student to 'own' her own research, when it may not feel quite hers to own (because it started life without her).
- Revisions to the original research question and research design must be negotiated with and agreed by the different stakeholders.
- The agency and the University may have different agendas, one focusing on the research report and the other on the research report and thesis.
- The agency, being in the voluntary sector and hence having insecure funding, needs to look to its continuity of existence and the future stability of its service provision. It could be awkward if the research were to reveal less positive aspects of its functioning or adverse user views.
- The University has a vested interest in the collaborative research venture progressing well because this is part of a broader partnership approach to doing research.
- These last two points could add up to resistance in both the agency and the University against acknowledging any negative findings.
- As a Black woman, the student finds herself in a predominantly white agency and academic department. This adds political isolation to the obvious isolation of being a research student. There is a lack of contact with other Black British researchers. In the agency, the student may at times be seen as a Black resource, rather than strictly within her role as a research student.
- A small voluntary agency may find it hard to accommodate and resource an extra person, e.g. with access to 'phones.
- There may be different levels of commitment to the research between staff members in the agency. This can result in 'gatekeeping', for example if a practitioner thinks it would be 'too much' to access service users in person for their views regarding both the survey and the interviews. This could impact on the research design and on levels of user involvement.
The academic supervisor's perspective
Collaborating with an agency:
- enabled the academic department to release central university funding and thus to afford to create a studentship with three-way funding (agency/Warwick Graduate School/Department of Social Policy and Social Work through income generated resources);
- built on a range of pre-existing links between the agency and the Department and thus placed the studentship on a firm foundation;
- ensured a theoretical 'fit' in certain key areas between the agency where research access is taking place and the academic supervision (e.g. concerning the importance of post adoption services, the position of birth relatives in legislation and policy, the importance of user views being heard);
- created an opportunity for a student that would not otherwise have been available, either financially or in terms of access;
- enabled a strong field to be attracted and an excellent student to be selected - someone who already has relevant personal and professional experience which gives her the depth of understanding and maturity of outlook to tackle a challenging topic in a testing context where there are inevitable tensions between the different parties' interests and needs;
- made the whole approach to supervision much more focused, even though the student has inevitably moved the project in her own direction to some extent;
- ensured a close fit between the supervisor's own research interests and the PhD topic - more along the lines of PhDs in the sciences than in the social sciences where students more typically come with their own ideas;
- smoothed access for the research;
- placed the student in a setting, in the agency, where she has access to expertise, to Government and other documentation relevant to her topic, and to all the current debates on policy, media coverage, politicisation of adoption, new research findings, and so on.
Additional challenges have included:
- accepting the focus the agency wanted to fund, rather than an angle that might have been the academic supervisor's own first choice;
- helping the student to 'own' and refocus her own project, within the overall focus the agency had selected;
- being clear about what is needed for a PhD, when both the student and the agency have strong views about their own interests and the scope of research they would favour;
- recruiting a mature and strong-minded student who makes clear demands of her supervisors;
- supervising jointly, although a long-standing professional relationship has provided a strong basis for this;
- worrying that that professional relationship could be threatened if the studentship were to go wrong in any way;
- wanting the agency to feel it is getting 'value for money' from the studentship, yet without limiting or jeopardising the student's research;
- managing the finances for the studentship, as opposed to an ESRC-type relationship where the Department has no dealings with the bursary. This is made more difficult by the fact that neither the income nor the expenditure fits into a routine mould, so people from finance continually ring to ask questions about it.
The agency supervisor's perspective
Advantages of having the studentship
- Having the student around has made the team think about things that may well simply have passed into custom and practice.
- Three-way supervision sessions have also raised issues that a small agency might not normally have cause to question.
- It has led to a wider range of data being collected about service users than was available before.
- It should help to raise the profile of post-adoption services generally.
- There is also a hope that it will demonstrate the advantages of an independent agency providing this service.
- The research report will assist in evaluating services and will provide evidence to feed into future funding applications.
- Where staff have had impressions from practice about certain key issues, or have received ad hoc feedback about them, this project will be able to take a more measured view and produce usable data about them.
- The agency's standard registration form has been changed (in order to gather baseline demographic data) and some staff have questioned the need for so much information to be gathered about every service user.
- Some staff find it difficult to ask some of the resulting questions over the telephone (e.g. about ethnicity).
- The agency supervisor knew of the student before, in her earlier professional role, but other staff, who did not, may have found it harder to accept her as part of the team.
- Joint supervision has created a certain amount of extra work, though it does not feel onerous.