Theorising Social Work Research
Doctoral and advanced studies in social work 15th November 1999, Warwick
Doctoral Study in an Advanced Post Vicky White, Department of Social Policy and Social Work, University of Warwick
My brief is to provide a short contribution to the seminar focusing on the experience of undertaking a PhD whilst in an academic post.
I have been a part-time doctoral student in the Department of Social Policy and Social Work for four years, during which I have been researching women social workers' experiences of practice in statutory settings. I am employed as a half-time Lecturer in Social Work in the same Department. As for any other part-time doctoral student, there are advantages and disadvantages in combining a doctorate with other work, but my specific experience relates to being a student and a worker in the same institution. My experience of this dual status as an 'insider/outsider' has been a positive one, in the main.
One of the main advantages of being an insider has been that I have gained entry easily to a number of areas. Other PhD students might have found it more difficult to secure access to these areas. For example, my insider position provided information about possible participants in my case study of women social workers in three Social Services Departments. It enabled me to locate women social workers who were interested in participating in the research, via my involvement in the provision of a Practice Teaching Award Programme. This then made a useful link for my PhD between Social Work Education and Training and the statutory context which was the focus of my research.
Working in a university department also gave me easy access to relevant texts and documentary material, particularly from CCETSW and from the Practice Teaching Consortium, which was the site of my case study.
The main disadvantage of having dual status in relation to undertaking the fieldwork for my project was that I was probably not as probing in my role as a researcher as an outsider would have been, particularly in relation to practitioners' use of social work terminology and the meanings they attached to it. This was due to my background knowledge of, and involvement in, the organisational cultures of the three Social Services Departments.
With regard to my dual status within an academic department, I would highlight four disadvantages:
- Not belonging to the doctoral student group. I think it is problematic for academic staff who are undertaking PhDs to try and belong to the student peer group. Instead, support comes from my immediate supervisor and departmental colleagues.
- Employment in a university department exerts enormous pressure to complete the PhD within four years!
- Tensions between my job and the PhD. My half-time job often spills over into the other half of the week, which is supposed to be reserved for the PhD.
- PhDs are a low priority on the academic work agenda. The pressure is to research and publish on a shorter time-scale than that encompassed by undertaking a PhD.
Despite these disadvantages, I would not seek to dissuade academic staff from undertaking a doctorate in social work. At the end of the day, for me the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.