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.

Steven Schinke, Ph.D., MSW
By: Sara Terrana, MA, MSW, Doctoral Candidate at UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, Department of Social Welfare

Dr. Steven Schinke

Dr. Steven Schinke

Professor Schinke is the D'Elbert and Selma Keenan Professor of Social Work at Columbia School of Social Work (CSSW) and he is the Senior Director of CSSW's Online Campus. Professor Schinke works in the field of health behavior among adolescents, particularly youths from disadvantaged backgrounds. Specifically, he analyzes risk factors associated with various adverse health behaviors and develops and tests prevention programs to reduce those risk factors and promote healthier lives. I got to know Professor Schinke through teaching in the online program at CSSW. I wanted to interview him as he is a wealth of knowledge!

Sara: One word that best describes how you work?

Dr. Schinke: Management.This is what I do to set priorities, complete my ‘to do' list and work with colleagues and members of my group. 

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

Dr. Schinke: For my 2nd year MSW field placement at UW-Madison, I had the privilege of working with Sheldon Rose who was finishing a book on group work with children. I did some fact- and reference-checking for the book and greatly enjoyed the experience. When thinking of post-grad plans, doctoral studies seemed logical. 



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

Dr. Schinke: I start with my priority item, which might be a manuscript, grant application, class preparation, or a report. Long ago, I learned to prioritize high-yield tasks, even if, or perhaps especially, if they are difficult or challenging. When I need a break, I'll answer emails, return calls, and do lower priority items, returning as quickly as I can to the higher priority item. All of this is interspersed with things I can't control like meetings, conference calls, and video conferences. 

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

Dr. Schinke: When I was just starting out in Seattle, I had the good fortune to take a time management seminar. The instructor fanned out different denominations of paper money as if they were playing cards: $1, $5, $10, $20, $50, $100. He approached an attendee in the front row and asked the person to select his preferred bill. Of course, the guy pulls out the $100 bill. So, the instructor moves along the row, repeats the exercise, and everybody picked the $100 bill. Then the instructor told us to imagine sitting at our desks. In front of us, we have a high-yield strategic plan that is due in 3 months, a performance appraisal due in a month, a marketing progress report due in 2 weeks, and little slips of paper that say "Call your dentist.", "Schedule the car for a checkup.", and "Make an appointment with the vet for Rusty's annual exam." The instructor then asked various attendees which item they would choose to handle first. When people said that they would call the dentist and handle the other items on the slips of paper, the instructor asked them to give the dollar-denominated value of completing those tasks. Quickly, we recognized that whereas the small items were worth perhaps $1 to $20, the big items (strategic plan, etc.) were worth $50 to $100. Worse yet, once we take care of the $1, $5, and $10 items, we may be tired and ready for lunch. The $50 and $100 are still sitting there, untouched. That time-management seminar was the best early career investment I could have made. Give priority to high-yield activities.

Sara: Like our dissertations.

Dr. Schinke: Exactly. 

Sara: What are your techniques for collaborating with colleagues? 

Dr. Schinke: Being open to new ideas and maintaining my curiosity. The best projects I've ever done came from other people. Curiosity is a precious gift. If you don't have it, nurture it. If you are naturally curious, sustain that gift and never lose it. 

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

Dr. Schinke: I just have a yellow pad with my ‘To Do' list. 

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

Dr. Schinke: More than any other activity, I enjoy spending time with my wife, Mary. Everything we do together is an adventure, regardless of how routine or mundane. Every day I also take a 5-mile walk, often with Mary, and always with my Bichon Frise, Charlotte. 

Sara: Who is a researcher (in social work or another field) who inspires you? Why?

Dr. Schinke: Nabila El-Bassel. Nabila does it all. She writes beautiful grant applications and brilliant papers with cutting-edge data that appear in the best journals. Nabila travels extensively to manage her global portfolio of studies. She collaborates with top investigators in the fields of medicine, public health, and other disciplines. She sits on national advisory panels at NIH and other bodies. Nabila is a dedicated mentor, a wonderful colleague, a gifted teacher, and an effective and respected administrator. Clearly, Nabila received excellent mentoring from Rob Schilling when he was on our faculty and was first Nabila's doctoral advisor and later her research partner. 

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

Dr. Schinke: Ask yourself: "Is this the best use of my time right now?" 

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

Dr. Schinke: Manage your time. That's your most precious resource. If you spend it in on the highest-yield activity, you will be richly rewarded. Find a mentor or mentors who you trust and who want you to succeed. I had a fantastic mentor in Jim Whittaker when I was in Seattle. Jim is largely responsible for all successes I enjoyed in my entry years. Develop a focused research program on a topic that has funding potential. Don't follow your dream if it is unprofitable. Be curious and available for new opportunities. Return calls from headhunters. Interview even when you aren't looking for a job. You never know. 

Sara: As you're talking I am thinking about managing my own time as I struggle a lot with teaching and responding to student emails and inquiries and not prioritizing that over my dissertation and research. A lot of times I feel I get this instant gratification from the students. 

Dr. Schinke: Students are always a priority. They are paying you to teach them. When people pay me, they have my full attention. You also must prioritize your research and writing. And you have or will have committee, curricular, and administrative duties. The sad reality is that you will put in a lot of hours to handle everything. A few years ago, I read a piece in the Harvard Business Review entitled: "No, You Can't Have it All." I recall a quote in the article that someone's mother told him that went something like this: "You can have everything you want in life; just not all at once." 

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

Dr. Schinke: I am working with Traci Schwinn who is involved with developing substance abuse prevention programs for LGBTQ youth. These kids are at extremely high risk for substance use. Many have not come out to anyone, including themselves. So as a coping mechanism, they are self-medicating. Traci did a superb pilot study that is published in the Journal of Adolescent Health. She now has an R01 under review at NIDA for a 5-year RCT to definitively test her intervention program. Traci's work is an excellent model for RCTs, for prevention research, and for theory-driven, empirically based investigations. I am extremely proud to be a minor participant in this work. 

Link to paper

Sara: Well thank you, Professor Schinke, for taking time out of your day to speak with me, and a big thank you on behalf of the SSWR Doctoral Student Task Force.