How my social work skills prepared me for a PhD

Stacey Stewart writes about how her social work skills prepared her for pursuing research

Photo: Drobot Dean/Fotolia

by Stacey Stewart

I recently wrote an article for Community Care that was shared widely online and amongst my own network. Many of my colleagues were surprised to learn that I had left social work in order to return to university to undertake a PhD. Many stated that they either wished they could do something similar, or they didn’t think they’d ever be able to return to university.

I reflected on this. I know a lot of people who would never consider returning to university, but it made me wonder whether social workers are encouraged to continue learning, or if, because they have trained in a specific profession, this is where they are expected to remain?

Social work research

When relating research to practice, some people say academics and researchers are too idealist to make a difference to real social work – that social workers don’t have time to read research as they are too overworked without adding extra in, or that the findings would work in a perfect world, but not the current climate of austerity and very limited funding.

There is also a stigma around social work research in the academic world; it is often more qualitative – who the people are, their feelings, what motivates them to make decisions and a lot of ‘why’ questions.

This is often not viewed as highly as quantitative work – such as surveys and questionnaires that provide facts and figures that are representative of the population. Even further, social work research is fairly new which means the foundation is still being built; it is not yet fully established.

I was a social worker who was uncomfortable with the practices that I was expected to undertake but being in the job and so exhausted by the work, I couldn’t find a better way to do things. I wasn’t happy to continue on, and so I considered the best way of encouraging change – petitions, protests, policy change… or a PhD.


My PhD looks at mothers’ experiences of child protection social work following an incident of domestic abuse. I have worked in domestic abuse services for women prior to, during and after my social work degree.

Not only did this mean I had a number of services who knew me personally that I could approach, but I also knew how they worked, who to approach and how to broach the issue with them.

Social workers have a whole network of contacts from food banks, to drug and alcohol services, to legal services and the home office. Whatever you’re interested in researching, you are likely to already have contacts in this area. This is important for a PhD, as access to participants is one of the main difficulties for many researchers. Not only do you have access, but you also have a real awareness of the issues.

Interview skills and listening techniques

You don’t need me to tell you that social workers have real listening and interview skills; you talk to people every day! Not only do you talk, but you also listen. You listen to people and what they are saying in order to understand them, so that you can actually make a difference to their lives, and that means you care. This is a topic you are going to be spending three years working on, and I think it’s really important for your motivation and drive to care about it.

For frontline child protection social workers, you are also potentially joint-trained to undertake interviews with the police regarding child abuse, which mean the interviews aren’t leading or biased.

Prioritisation and fast-paced working

When I started my PhD, I came from children’s services and with a high caseload. My first year was spent developing my research proposal, preparing to apply for ethical clearance, and reading. I had adapted to working quickly and efficiently, and so often I felt like I was wasting my time or not making the most of it.

This led me to developing reading matrices and making detailed notes of my thoughts like I would do case notes. As I am approaching the end of my PhD, it is these tasks that I am now thanking myself for, as I can quickly and succinctly review everything I have read and know which parts were relevant for my work.

At the end of the first year and in my second year of the PhD, I started my research. This included home visits around the country and an incredibly organised diary; all things social workers are used to managing.

In addition, I used court work skills to think in advance about deadlines and organise my diary so that tasks are completed on time – anyone who has completed court work will be very good at this.

I have been incredibly lucky that my PhD journey has been so positive and gone so smoothly, but I honestly credit this to the fact that social work prepared me for it. I wouldn’t have all the skills and ways of working that I do if it wasn’t necessary to adapt in such a busy, fast paced environment. I hope to have shared the message that you have more than enough skills, specialist knowledge and care to be able to do research the next time you think you couldn’t.

Stacey Stewart is a PHD researcher at Nottingham Trent University. She tweets @S_HStewart.

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One Response to How my social work skills prepared me for a PhD

  1. Katie January 24, 2019 at 12:28 pm #

    I’m glad it has been such a positive experience for you. I also wish to compete a PhD in a few years time and am exploring which topic I would like to pursue.
    I’d be interested in knowing whether you plan to return to practice now or continue in a researching role?