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. Darrell Wheeler

Dr. Darrell Wheeler

Dean Darrell P. Wheeler, PhD, MSW, MPH
By: Catherine Kramer, LMSW, MPA at the University at Albany, SUNY

Dr. Darrell Wheeler is Dean of the School of Social Welfare and Vice Provost for Public Engagement at the University at Albany, SUNY. He is an active scholar with interests in health equity and specifically, the identification and exploration of individual and communal resiliency in HIV prevention and intervention among African American and Black gay, bisexual and transgender communities. He also is active in the professional community and is the former President of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Social Workers.

I asked Dean Wheeler to participate in the series because of his commitment to community engaged research, and the diverse set of experiences he has as a social work scholar and practitioner.

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

Dean Wheeler: Good question. My background is in community engaged outreach. I've worked at almost every level of social work practice imaginable, from mental health, hospital, community-based settings, to macro-policy settings.

Becoming a researcher was actually not my intent. I had no interest in doing research other than research relevant to providing content for practice. I became a researcher because circumstances in the early 1980s led me to have an interest in HIV education and prevention. Being involved at the really, early, early years of the epidemic kind of opened doors and pathways to being able to focus my study materials on that.

I went to medical school before I went to social work school, and then I have a public health degree. So, blending my passions for the biological as well as the behavioral sciences, again, gave me a platform and a venue to do some of the work that I do now.

Catherine: Can you say more about your experience with medical school?

Dean Wheeler: I was in a medical degree program for a year and really it was not a good fit for me. Back in the 1980s, the pathway to medicine was overly specialized. Today there's much more emphasis on general practice and the whole person. Back then it was really about disease specific and scientific medicine that was, in my estimation, de-contextualized from the whole person.

Probably if I were there today I would have had a different outcome. After a year of medical school, I joined the Air Force. After the military, that's when I ended up in social work school.

Catherine: What brought you to social work?

Dean Wheeler: In the military I was assigned to social work units. I was working in the mental health clinics. I was working in a mental health hospital. I ended up doing family and child advocacy work on the Air Force base and all the people around me were social workers.

I had done some of this work even before going to medical school as a community psychiatric outreach worker, it was kind of a natural fit.

When I was finishing my first year of the MSW program, I passed a bulletin board and saw one of those pull off cards that said, "Do you want a PhD in Social Work?" and on a whim I filled out the application and ended up in a PhD program.

I fought the inclination to become a researcher right up until the very, very ... I mean, when I say very end, I was working on my dissertation and thought I had a job lined up with the Federal government, which fell through and that's how I ended up in the academy.

Catherine: How do you reflect on that journey now and where you have ended up in your career?

Dean Wheeler: Elements of it I would recreate and do all over again because I think every step of the way, that took me further away from research, gave me a better understanding of the practice of social work, as opposed to the conduct of research on social work.

If you've followed my career, I've been the president of NASW. I've had a very fortunate career in funded research. I've had a very strong career in engaged scholarship. All of those things, I think, helped me to be a better social work researcher, as opposed to a researcher who studies social work.

Catherine: Who is a researcher who inspires you?

Dean Wheeler: All of my MSW and doctoral faculty inspired me to dig deep. People like Charlotte Dunmore, Eva Stewart, Dorothy Pearson, Barbara Shore, Martha Baum, Bogart Leashore, David Epperson and Roy Lubove. My doctoral training, inspired, challenged, or frustrated me to want to dig deep for questions that relate to practice.

Some of my contemporary colleagues, like Karina Walters in Washington, she really inspires me because of her work with indigenous communities. Her connectedness to her communities of origin are very inspiring to me, how she blends the work that she does.

Catherine: What is one word you would use to describe how you work?

Dean Wheeler: Integratively. I try to balance because I have multiple spheres of work. Administration, teaching, community engagement, pure research, work on manuscripts and publications.  It all has to integrate.

For me, I must be inspired by what I'm doing. I'm not the kind of researcher who finds great joy in sitting in a room with a computer and a bunch of numbers or data. There has to be critical questions, and those questions need to be connected to what the implications are for social work practice and outcomes of that practice for individuals and communities. How does practice inform this?

Integrating and finding ways to make sure that my research informs the way that I make administrative decisions, and conversely, what I understand of the context of the academy or the context of the world around us. How does that shape the questions, that then, I'm trying to explore within the data? How do I use the networks of individuals around me to facilitate the process of, at this point in my career, generating the next tier or cadre of investigators who are really going to produce a change?

What frustrates me the most about research is when research simply ends in the self-fulfilling and self-sanctifying statement that more research needs to be done. Again, drawing on my background in health and my limited time in medical school, if I were to say to a patient, who came in because they were facing stage four cancer, "Interesting, we need to research this cancer more." You need to do something about the cancer.

Action needs to be taken to ameliorate the situation in which the person finds him or herself and very often it's not about studying how the person accommodates or responds to the situation, but it's about being willing to risk taking on the challenges that have produced the situation.

Being of a particular age that I am, having watched live on TV, the deaths of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King. Living through all of that, watching the water hoses turned on young black and brown faces. It's kind of like, if that had been left to researchers, they would have been studying how and why people kept going out to march as opposed to being on the forefront of the marching. Those kinds of images really affect how I think about research in an applied field like social work.

Catherine: What are your techniques for collaborating with colleagues?

Dean Wheeler: I find the most effective technique is listening. Being a really good listener affords me the opportunity to ask critical questions, to integrate it into my own learning, not to formulate a priori, what I believe the solution should be, not to shut out things that make me uncomfortable in terms of challenging my views on certain things, but that listening, it's absolutely essential.

The second is being able to integrate that listening into thoughtful responses that are direct without being disembodied or unconnected to the possibility that what comes out of your mouth may not be well received by other audiences, but it needs to be said.

The third is being willing to take a risk. Being the lightening rod or the point of negative attention. This goes for business models that would highly suggest that anyone who is not willing to accept failure, is not destined for success. You have to be willing to take a risk. You have to be willing to fail. You have to be willing to be shown wrong.

You have to be willing to listen and to develop the capacity and skill and you have to be able to turn that listening into some kind of meaningful action.

Catherine: Listening to the techniques you just described, I’m wondering to what extent you think your training and work as a social worker influences how you approach your position now, and your work now.

Dean Wheeler: It's been indispensable and because I had pre-masters social work experience and post-masters experience, and I have tried to stay connected throughout, it's an evolution. Again, my mentors, mostly women, were instrumental in my doctoral training, had all worked in settlement houses and they talked firsthand about some of those experiences. That had a profound effect on me being a good social work researcher as I keep saying, different than being a researcher who studies social work.

I can usually tell a researcher who does not have the experience. In fact, maybe you and your colleagues will get a chuckle out of this. As a reviewer of dissertations, I had a notorious record. They knew when they got to their dissertation defense, he is going to ask you what relevance and meaning does your research have for social work, otherwise you should be getting your degree in some other field. And you better have a good answer.

Catherine: What advice do you offer social work doctoral students?

Dean Wheeler: Find those things that you are truly passionate about. I would hope that in an applied profession, people would find something about the humanity at the other end of what it is social work is supposed to do, to be passionate about.

Whatever the thing is, find something that you are passionate about and make that part of who you are as a professional so that your research is not something that is totally artificial to you, but something that is supportive and nurturing of your life course because no matter how smart you are as a scientist, we are all going to face the inevitability of death.

I think one of the horrible things that people get to, is that they don't have much to hold onto at the end of their career. If you're passionate about what you do, I believe you become fulfilled along the way and then you do not use this credential as a way of distancing yourself.

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