Practitioner research shouldn’t stop just because you’ve qualified

Carrying out research alongside frontline social work allows you to use practice experience to shape meaningful change, says Rachel Sempija

By Rachel Sempija, social worker and PhD student, Durham
We’ve all been there. That time of year when the students in the team are sending emails or leaving post-it notes anywhere they might be seen, asking for participants for their dissertation.

For many, it’s the final requirement before they can qualify and start making the difference they hoped to when they got onto their social work course.

Eyes might have been rolled remembering ethics committees, literature reviews or the thought of the write up. For me, though, research should not stop once that dissertation is handed in.

‘We are powerfully placed’

As social workers, we are powerfully placed at the heart of many issues in society that are contentious, complex and challenging. The tensions embodied in our discipline day-to-day reflect some of the difficult decisions we make when faced with complicated and sometimes competing needs and rights.

These decisions are often made with skill and insight (rather than by the crystal ball I half-expected on graduation and the allocation of a caseload) but we still tend to be subject to sweeping changes to our practice at short notice, via top-down policy initiatives or in response to media reports.

Voicing experience

Things are getting better since Munro’s reviews. In Durham, the meetings we have with our principal social worker have been a new opportunity to share the experience of being on the frontline. Organisational cultures have the potential to be more open and listening.

But we have a long way to go before research – and practitioner-researcher in particular – is embraced. Other disciplines such as clinical psychology (with the scientist-practitioner model a core part of training) seem to do this much better.

Facilitating change from the bottom up

If we want social workers to be viewed as credible, well-trained practitioners then I think research is a key part of the journey to facilitating healthier change from the bottom up. The more we hear the voices of those experiencing services and of those delivering them, the better positioned we are to shape meaningful change hand-in-hand.

I think I was luckier than most. My final year placement in (what was then) a child in need team became a permanent role after I graduated and I was able to stay with a well-established team headed by a strong, nurturing manager.

Whilst our team meetings invariably covered the statistical outputs from county hall and we prided ourselves on largely being “in the green” for assessment timescales, my manager supported me when I was thinking about my PhD.

‘Ok, as long as it doesn’t interfere’

There were challenges. As I worked through the ASYE (the first year it was trialled), my PhD was discussed as “being ok as long as it did not interfere with anything”. Maybe there was suspicion that semi-independent research might blow a whistle no-one wanted to hear, I don’t know.

But for the young people and the families I worked with, understanding their story from their point of view was something that was often difficult to translate into the assessments we had to complete.

Relating our experience with confidence and clarity

Our new post-Munro assessments offer us the potential to capture this more powerfully. Practitioner-research also gives us the chance to speak with confidence and clarity when we relate the wealth of our experience to reflect on the complexity of the world we are part of, in order to make it better than it was before.

Funding is an issue. My PhD is self-funded and done part-time alongside my full-time post. It means lots of compromise financially, but it’s something I feel passionate about. It’s how I’m Standing Up for Social Work.

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