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. Rita Seabrook

Dr. Rita Seabrook

Rita Seabrook, PhD
By Julia O'Connor, MSW, MPH, Doctoral Candidate at Rutgers University School of Social Work

Rita Seabrook is a postdoctoral associate at the Center on Violence Against Women and Children in the Rutgers University School of Social Work. She completed her PhD in Psychology and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan in 2017. Her research interests include masculinity, all-male organizations such as fraternities, and sexual violence.

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

Rita: My background is in psychology and statistics, that’s what I majored in during college. I knew I liked research because my undergrad advisor did research on gender, anxiety, and sexual violence. I was really interested in it. So I did an honors project in college and then asked my advisor ‘what should I do next’. And they were like ‘get a PhD!’ But I wanted to get a couple years of research experience. I worked at Mass General Hospital in a clinical setting and I realized it was not the type of work I wanted to spend my life doing. So, then I did my PhD in psychology and women’s studies. It’s a joint PhD program. It’s one of only two programs in the country that are actually a joint. A lot of places have certificates. But this is a degree is in psychology and women’ studies.

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

Rita: One of my undergrad professors, Sarah Murnen, was the person who got me interested in my topic. I study masculinity and sexual violence and specifically masculinity in all-male setting like fraternities. And it was her class that exposed me to the idea of toxic masculinity. She is the reason that I went to grad school pretty much. She is also a very prolific researcher. She is an awesome teacher and a good mentor. She gave me a couple opportunities to do publications with her which was great because I was able to be an author even though I had never done that before. That took a lot of mentorship on her part. But also she is inspiring as a researcher. She told me once that she is not a perfectionist. She writes, gets it on paper and will fix it later. And I try to think of that because especially in academia where you have to be so motivated and nothing is really ever perfect, it is easy to just think “what is the point of starting? It will never be exactly right” or “a reviewer will hate it”. She seems to take a day and produces a paper and yes, it has flaws but it is easier to fix it once you start. I’m not always good at doing that but it is good advice. 

Julia: What is your best time-saving short cut in your role as a social work researcher?

Rita: I have three. So one is, and I’m really bad at doing this, but one semester when I was teaching and trying to do my prospectus [dissertation proposal] at the same time, I blocked my schedule so that two hours once a week was time to grade and I had to finish it in two hours. That worked really well. Otherwise you could spend forever [grading]. And then I did the same thing for writing. Tuesday morning I write. I have to write and that is the only thing I do. I did that for a whole semester and it was the best thing to preserve time. Otherwise, stuff leaks into other aspects. The second one is, whenever you are doing any kind of analysis-I only do quantitative, but I think this applies to qualitative too-is to document very clearly what you are doing and why. Because you will forget and then you will come to it in a month and ask ‘why did I do that?’ The third one, is for literature reviews. My advisor taught me this, I have an excel sheet with a column for author, year, sample, type of study (e.g., experimental), independent variable, dependent variable and finding. If I’m doing a paper, every article that I come across that I think is going to be relevant, I put into that table. You really only have to read the abstract, the methods, and a little bit of the results to fill that out. And if it is a paper that is particularly relevant, you can go back and read the entire thing. When I am writing, I can have that table up next to my Word document as I write. I can know exactly what points to make and who cite right away. It is so much easier.

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

Rita: Writing. I don’t like to write but if I can start, if I can just get myself to start, then it always goes fine. But starting it truly the hardest part. I know I’m not going to write for the whole day and I know I am most productive in the morning. So I write from 9 to whenever I eat lunch and then I can spend the rest of the data analyzing data which it what I love to do.  So that a reward for doing the thing I dislike. 

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

Rita: I like to run and actually that is helpful because I am usually training for some kind of race. But I’m not a fast runner so I’m training for some kind of distance goal. And that is so helpful because I can go to work and accomplish zero tasks related to research and I can at least be like ‘well, I ran six miles so I got that’. So that is my number one thing. Also snuggling with dog is really helpful. And my cats are fine too.

Julia: What is the best advice you’ve ever received from another researcher or someone in the field?

Rita: One of them is, ‘the best dissertation is a done dissertation’. And also ‘your dissertation should not be the best thing you ever write’ because, that means you’ve peaked and the rest of your career is downhill. So don’t expect it to be this amazing masterpiece necessarily. That is great advice.

Julia: What are your techniques for collaborating with colleagues?

Rita: Number one, some people you just cannot work with. Sometimes your styles just do not mesh and knowing that is good. You can absolutely love your colleague and love their company but not like working with them. I think there is nothing wrong with that. And being honest about that is really smart. But, for the ones you do like working with, use each other’s strengths. So for example, I love to analyze data and some people do not. So why not give me that task [analyzing data]? And someone who loves to write can do the writing part. I think that is smart. Also, I’m a little bit of control freak so some of the papers that I collaborate on might feel messy because I’m not in control. But they [the papers] have always come together in a nice way. So just being about to sit with the fact that I am not in control of them and it is not going to destroy you. Also, I get sometimes intimated by academic celebrities but in the grand scheme of things, they are not actually celebrities so it is oaky to talk to them.  

Julia: What advice would you offer to social work doctoral students or doctoral students in general?

Rita: Well, something I wish I had thought about when I started my program, was what I wanted to get out of it and also what I wanted to do afterward. So for example, at least where I was, you are expected to go into an academic career, that is what you are being trained for and that is what your advisor has done. Of course, that is what they know how to train you in. But, if I had realized sooner that [academia] might not be what I wanted, I could have taken courses at the university that would have better prepared me for research jobs at a think tank or other things. It’s not too early to think about alternatives and also what do you want to learn versus what you can just squeak by on. So for example, I do not care that much about theory so, I didn’t invest a lot of time in my theory class but I wish I had taken that extra time and invested it in a survey development class. It [the doctoral program] is a professional development opportunity so you don’t want to let that go to waste. 

Julia: Anything else you want to tell me or other doctoral students who might be interested in what you have to say?

Rita: I think, if you can you should do many informational interviews. Which if you haven’t heard of those before, there are very common; it is just where you interview someone and ask them about their job. They are pretty informal. I’m not kidding, I have probably done thirty at this point. People are always happy to talk about themselves. It is a great way to figure out if you actually want this career, how to market yourself towards that career, and things you haven’t thought about. It is the best. It is usually 30 minutes and is so easy. I dislike networking so, that is the only thing kind of network thing I’ll do.