Social work doctorates: let’s share the knowledge

I am passionate about integrating research into practice in social work.

Research has the potential to transform social work practice if it is robust and relevant. It can help practitioners to be more effective; it can provide new knowledge to enrich social work practice; and it could suggest which interventions are most likely to lead to the best outcomes in different contexts.

But, as we know, research is not always disseminated very effectively. For example, I often hear complaints from community mental health teams that researchers come in, interview practitioners or service users, and leave without ever being seen again. This isn’t acceptable. Findings of studies should always be fed back to participants, however mundane or revolutionary they might be.

The transformation of social work practice by research is also hindered by practitioners having insufficient opportunities to either undertake research or read journals in which it is published. It is not part of our professional culture to set aside a bit of time each week for continuing professional development (CPD) or to undertake practice-based research (as it is in medicine, for example). The CPD requirements of registration with the General Social Care Council has provided a little time for this, but it is still not enough.

Some practitioners are able to undertake research as part of a post-qualifying programme, like our MSc Mental Health Social Work with Children & Adults. Many undertake interesting studies – like Janine Hudson’s national AMHP survey – and others are successful in getting their studies published. But few local authorities sponsor students on advanced level post-qualifying programmes leaving most practitioners to self-fund. 

Some practitioners undertake professional doctorates or PhDs to gain research training, but these are often self-funded. Without employer buy-in into higher degrees (either Masters or Doctorates), it is less likely that research findings are disseminated back into practice. The research becomes an adventure for the individual concerned, but it has limited impact on practice because of its disconnection with the world of social work.

The College of Social Work is planning a Community of Interest for workforce development and research. One way we can help to improve the dissemination of social work doctoral research – and to help maximise its impact on practice – is to make it available to practitioners in this forum.

As a starting point Jane Shears ( has offered to collate abstracts of social work doctoral research and compile a narrative. Therefore, if you are a social worker, have a doctorate and are interested in sharing its findings, please email Jane your PhD or professional doctorate thesis abstract and any publications which may have been come from your research. She would be most grateful if you could do this by 5th March 2012.

I’ve just sent her mine. If you are interested in reading my PhD thesis, here is the full version. For the potted version, here is the abstract:

Access to social capital and the course of depression: A prospective study

Depression is a significant clinical problem. Social factors such as poverty and unemployment, interpersonal difficulties, poor housing conditions and the absence of positive events are related to lower rates of recovery. Social capital, defined as resources embedded in social networks, may also be related to recovery. However, social capital research methodologies are in their infancy and little evidence of positive associations currently exists. This study extends our knowledge by validating a measure of individual social capital and testing the hypothesis that people with depression with access to more social capital will improve more over six months than those with less.

Focus groups, an expert panel and a series of field tests validated the Resource Generator-UK for use in the UK general population. This instrument is a measure of access to network resources across multiple domains. Item reduction and scaling using item response theory and standard psychometric testing demonstrated the instrument to be valid and reliable for the UK.

A prevalent cohort of people with depression was recruited from primary care (n=173) and followed up for 6 months (follow-up rate = 91.3%). Depression was measured using the Hospital Anxiety and Depression (HAD) scale alongside a large number of potential covariates. Multivariate analysis of covariance found that a univariate association between improvement in HAD scores and access to expert advice became non-significant. Baseline HAD scores, emotional support and level of education were predictors of change in depression scores in the multivariate model. When change in subjective quality of life was used as the outcome, a different model emerged in which an interaction of access to social capital and attachment style was significantly related to change in quality of life alongside multiple covariates. Results are discussed in the light of existing findings and recommendations are made for clinical practice and further research.

 My PhD was a small piece of social epidemiology – that is, it investigated the effect of social factors on the course of a health problem (depression). The measure of social capital that I developed in the study has been subsequently used in a number of studies including the evaluation of Time to Change phase two; the evaluation of the Capital Volunteering scheme; and the validation of a measure of social inclusion. The findings of my PhD have been used to inform the Connecting People Study, which is developing an intervention for social workers and social care workers to help people connect more effectively with the community in which they live.

If you have a social work doctorate, please share your knowledge today!


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