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. Lauren Willner
By: Sara Terrana, MA, MSW, doctoral student at UCLA – Luskin School of Public Affairs, Department of Social Welfare

Dr. Lauren Willner

Dr. Lauren Willner

Dr. Lauren Willner is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at California State University at Northridge (CSUN). Her research focuses on the nonprofit sector, specifically social justice and social change organizations. Currently though, Dr. Willner is collecting data for a rapid response research project on arming teachers in the classroom as a strategy for preventing gun violence in schools. She is conducting a national survey investigating teachers’ opinions on this subject. All current and former preschool through higher education teachers/professors, regardless of one’s perspective on the issue, are eligible to participate in the study.

I interviewed Dr. Willner for our series because she is a recent graduate of UCLA’s doctoral program in Social Welfare (’17), she is balancing teaching, a family, and doing some very relevant research so I thought she would provide a unique perspective to this new series. 

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

Dr. Willner: I have a BA in Feminist Studies and my MSW in macro practice with a focus on nonprofit leadership and administration. I worked in a number of nonprofits prior to pursuing my Ph.D. I became a social work researcher because I had "big" questions about social work practice and organizations that I couldn't answer solely through field-based practice. I was always more of a "big picture" thinker, and it made sense that I pursue a career in research, so I could try to attack some of the more systemic questions I have about the ways Social Justice and Human Service Organizations function in relation to social change. My practice and research has always been heavily informed by Critical Theory and doing research that had practical implications, like social welfare research, felt like a perfect way to use theory to inform practice in meaningful ways.

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

Dr. Willner: Frenetically.

Sara: What does a typical workday look like for you?

Dr. Willner: There is no typical day, which is something I am trying to come to terms with as a new faculty member. Every week looks different, and I am starting to give up on trying to make my job into the "typical" 9-5, it just isn't working! I am becoming more at ease with the variance in my schedule, and simply taking each week as it comes. Some weeks are more teaching focused, others are more research focused, and some weeks I strike a nice balance. I typically spend at least three days/week in my campus office. Two days/week I work from home.

Sara: What is your best time-saving shortcut in your role as a social work researcher?

Dr. Willner: I am working on designating certain times during the day to email and closing it down when I am writing or doing other tasks. Email seems to be the most distracting for me, and it’s hard to not write someone back as soon as the notification comes in. It can suck up a ton of time though, and it works against my productivity during the day.

Sara: What are your techniques for collaborating with colleagues?

Dr. Willner: I am working on developing tools and strategies for doing this. I am finding it’s really easy to say, “Hey, let’s write that paper together, or submit to that conference together” and then never do it. I am working on following up with colleagues when we have an idea, and getting time scheduled, even if it’s 20 minutes, to talk about our ideas. Making a plan for getting the project done and setting deadlines with each other is proving effective. I also love being able to use google.docs to collaborate and keep things in order, it’s a great tool.

Sara: How do you keep track of what you need to get done?

Dr. Willner: WUNDERLIST! It’s saving me right now, it’s on all of my devices and computers (of which I probably have too many), and I have finally figured out a way to organize my weekly and longer-term to-do lists in ways that make sense for me. I can’t recommend it enough!

Sara: What is your least favorite work and how do you deal with it?

Dr. Willner: I really don’t like grading papers. I like reading what my students write, and learning about their ideas, but for some reason it feels like the most tedious task of all. It also takes up so much time that it winds up feeling very overwhelming. I am trying to schedule grading days into my schedule after assignments are turned in, and I am actively working on not saving it for the last minute. When I do, it delays giving the papers back, which isn’t fair to students.

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

Dr. Willner: I don’t do very much these days other than working out when I have time. I spend time with my family, which includes a three-year-old, so I am not sure how much “recharging” actually happens, but we still have fun!

Sara: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

Dr. Willner: It's not really advice as much as it was a piece of wisdom that has been really, really helpful. During my first year in my Ph.D. program, a professor assigned Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers for us to read. We didn't understand why we were reading it, but we had a conversation about how it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. I had no idea at that time, or even throughout the time I was getting my degree, how important this idea would become. Every time I felt like I wasn't making progress, or suffered from imposter syndrome, I would remember Gladwell and take a breath. Before I hit the 10,000-ish hours, I didn’t quite believe this whole idea to be true. But, after working so hard for so long, and finally graduating and getting a job, I realized that at some point, a shift had occurred. Somewhere along the line, doing research and being a scholar had started to feel like second nature. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still hard, and I still suffer from imposter syndrome! But, I have much more confidence in my abilities to do good work, in my skills as a qualitative researcher, and in my goals of making a difference through my research. I realized this shift had occurred during my last year as a student, when I was juggling the job market, collecting and analyzing dissertation data, and a toddler. This was also about the time that I had put in my 10,000 or so hours. It was an incredible realization to have, and I would encourage everyone to remember that getting a Ph.D. and being a good researcher is really, really hard! You don't become good at it overnight, it takes an enormous amount of work and perseverance. But there is a threshold between not really knowing what you are doing (or feeling like you don't know what you're doing!) and becoming competent. You may not know at the time when you cross over the dividing line, but eventually, you do. And it's amazing when you realize you are on the other side!

Sara: What advice would you offer to social work doctoral students?

Dr. Willner: Try, at all costs, to be confident in who you are and who want to be as a researcher/academic/teacher/practitioner or whatever else you want to be! There are A LOT of naysayers, tune them out as best as possible, and do you. And find the people who support you in being who you want to be. Get rid of the rest.

Sara: What are some projects or publications that you would like people to know about?

Dr. Willner: I am working on a research project in response to the national debate around gun control. I am currently collecting survey data on arming teachers as a strategy for preventing gun violence in schools.

My goal in collecting this data is to produce findings that will more intentionally infuse the voice of teachers into this debate. All current and former Preschool through Higher Education teachers/professors, regardless of one’s perspective on the issue, are eligible to participate in the study.

Here is a link to the survey: https://csunsbs.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_a9jNbHtDDiAsCb3

TAs are also eligible to participate, so even if you haven’t taught your own classes yet, please feel free to answer the survey if you’ve been a TA. I also encourage you to share the link widely, with your personal and professional networks!

Sara: Wow, that is some very interesting and relevant research. Thank you very much from all of us at the SSWR Doctoral Student Task Force for taking the time to contribute to our new series!