How I Work: Social Work Research Edition

How I Work: Social Work Research Edition is a new series of interviews the SSWR Doctoral Student Task Force will be sharing. This series and the questions have been inspired and adapted from Lifehacker's How I Work series (thank you Lifehacker!). We will be briefly interviewing individuals in the social work research arena about how they go about their work. We hope these interviews will give new insights to social work doctoral students and provide them a window into the lives of professors, researchers, deans, etc. We welcome recommendations of individuals to interview. Head over to the Facebook page to post your recommendations.


Dr. Loretta Pyles
By: Catherine Kramer, LMSW, MPA at the University at Albany, SUNY

 Dr. Loretta Pyles

Dr. Loretta Pyles

Dr. Loretta Pyles is a Professor at the School of Social Welfare at the University at Albany, SUNY. Her scholarship centers on the ways that individuals, organizations, and communities resist and respond to poverty, violence, and disasters in a policy context of neoliberal economic globalization and social welfare retrenchment. Dr. Pyles is the author of two new books, Healing Justice: Holistic Self-Care for Change Makers and Production of Disaster and Recovery in Post-Earthquake Haiti: Disaster Industrial Complex (with Dr. Juliana Svistova). 

I asked Dr. Pyles to participate in our new series because I learned from her that the process of getting a PhD is not just a professional or scholarly endeavor. It is also involves learning a great deal about yourself, who you are, and how you work.

Catherine: What is your background and how did you become a social work researcher?

Dr. Pyles: My first entree into social work was working in a domestic violence program back in 1995. I started out as a volunteer and got very engaged and ended up applying for a job, eventually becoming the Director of Fundraising and Community Affairs. I did everything from direct service to grant writing to community education and community building type work. I got burnt out from that eventually and found myself working at a State Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Coalition. It's a nonprofit that was supporting all the domestic violence and sexual assault programs in the state. My work focused on technical assistance to those programs, as well as policy work, specifically focused on welfare reform and family violence.

That was really when I decided to get my PhD.  I started my PhD in 2001 and finished in 2005, and throughout my PhD, I stayed focused on this intersection between violence against women and economic justice. That trajectory changed though after I got my first academic position at Tulane University in New Orleans right around the time Hurricane Katrina hit. I quickly became interested in community-based responses to disasters, and that's been a primary focus of my research, in addition to my work on community organizing and integrative/holistic social work and pedagogy.

Catherine: What is the one word that best describes how you work?

Dr. Pyles: I would say organically. When sitting down to write an article or a proposal, I just start writing. I do not do it in a linear way, and I think that's okay. I think a lot of people feel like you must prepare an outline, you must work in a very linear way. My mind does work linearly and an outline does emerge in my head, but I like the process of working on ideas as they arise. Working on a section here, and a section there, and just letting it sort of unfold. I learned early on that I do not want to discount my own intuition in the creative process, even though it is scholarly work, so I try to draw from that. I’ve never wanted to be straightjacketed by somebody’s else’s notion of what scholarship is.

Catherine: What does a typical work day look like for you?

Dr. Pyles: It depends on if I'm working at home or if I'm coming to campus. I try to work at home one or two days a week. I have a long commute, so it saves me time in terms of getting ready, as well as driving. Generally, for me, I do not jump right into work. I have to do some meditation and yoga and do the things I need to do to take care of myself. Then I will jump in. Usually by 8:00-8:30am I’ll start working when I’m at home, and when I'm on campus, usually by 9:00am. I’m also consistent about ending my work day by 5:00 and getting to bed early every night.

I will answer emails and respond to what needs to be responded to immediately, but I usually have some sort of key tasks for the day that I hope to accomplish. That could just be one bigger thing or three or four medium things.

I always take a decent lunch break. I try to get up and/or get away from my desk throughout the day. I cannot say I have always done that. It's something I've learned to do to help take care of myself and my body.  I set the computer aside and just take time to nourish myself.

Also, early on in my career, I mean even as a student but also as an early pre-tenure professor, I realized that I was going to have to write during the day, and I'm not always going to have big blocks of time for doing that. I learned early on that even if I just have an hour or so, that can be time for writing.

Catherine: How do you maximize those small time blocks?

Dr. Pyles: Some people talk about breaking tasks down, say into 10 component parts or whatever. Sometimes a bigger job will naturally lend itself to breaking it down that way, other times, again, I'm working organically. I'm going to open the document and see where I am that day and see what happens. That's just how I work. Looking for low hanging fruit that is there. For example, I have not caught up with my references lately, let me clean up these references or I need to read a couple of articles on this topic, so that I can flush out this section, let me do that.

I used to feel like whatever I did was not enough. I did not finish it, so I was not productive enough in a given writing session. But, I have learned to take small pleasures in what I did accomplish. It feels good to have cleaned up those references or to have flushed out that section. To just take pleasure in the small gains each day, that’s really powerful.

Catherine: How do you recharge or take care of yourself outside of work?

Dr. Pyles: I try to set the work aside and get away from email and that sort of thing. A clear division between my personal life, and professional life. I'm not always perfect with that but I try. Like I was saying, yoga and meditation. I try to get away and do meditation retreats, that really helps me. I'll completely unplug for like seven to ten days where I'm not checking it at all, and I'm not taking in any new data. I think we are such an information, data-driven society and there is so much stimulation. I think the stimulation gets really exhausting, so I try to take a break from it. I live out in the country so when I’m working from home, I have the great pleasure of being able to go walk in my own woods. During the day that can be really helpful, just to take a little 20-minute walk in the woods with the dog. I’ve also just recently gotten into disc golf so when the weather is nice I like to get out and play.

Catherine: What is the best piece of advice you've ever received?

Dr. Pyles: This came from a mentor of mine named Ed Canda, and he is a faculty at the University of Kansas. There was a point during my PhD program where I was unsure if social work was really the path for me in terms of my scholarly endeavors. My whole life I have tended to think that it must be better somewhere else or there must be something else out there.

He said, "You’ve got to land somewhere." When I heard that, it seemed like wise words and it ended up being very helpful to me, something I have come back to when I find myself searching for something else. I can do the work that I'm called to do in social work. Yes, it's not perfect but in some other discipline it's not going to be perfect either, nothing is going to be perfect. That was helpful to me and landing here in this profession, I've been able to build a body of work and make a modest impact by just staying put and doing it.

There is an old saying, if you are trying to dig a well for water, you are not going to find it if you dig only a few inches and then move somewhere else, constantly searching. You have to stay put in one place and dig deep. The rewards, i.e. the water, will come.

Catherine: What projects have you been working on?

Dr. Pyles: Two major publications I have coming out in the next month. One is a book with a former PhD student, Juliana Svistova, it's called, Production of Disaster and Recovery and Post-Earthquake Haiti: Disaster Industrial Complex. It is part of the Routledge Humanitarian Studies Series. We conducted research extensively over several years using critical discourse analysis of media, policy documents and NGO documents related to the recovery of Haiti earthquakes. It's our final coup de grâce with that work, and we are excited about it seeing the light of day. Some of the theorizing that we're doing in that work, we think is innovative, having interdisciplinary impacts in development and humanitarian circles, as well as in social work, geography, planning, Haitian-Caribbean studies, and others.

The other book is called, Healing Justice: Holistic Self-Care for Change Makers, coming out from Oxford University Press. This book frames self-care as a social justice issue and contextualizes self-care in light of oppression, trauma, social welfare retrenchment, digital capitalism, and neoliberalism. I view it as an active resistance to these larger forces. It offers significant analysis in that regard, but also lots of actual practical skill building using the whole self – body, mind, spirit, the natural world, and community – for self-care. I'm also a meditation and yoga teacher, so that piece figures prominently in it. I think it is an exciting offering. I heard from my social work students for many years that faculty tell them that they should do self-care, but no one ever teaches them how to do it or really models it. It is my offering to students and practitioners – social workers, activists, change makers and caregivers. It is intended to be a crossover book bridging scholarship and practice, and hopefully serving as a resource that can be of support, and accessible to everybody.

Catherine: Thank you so much for speaking with me and sharing with the SSWR Doctoral Student Task Force.