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. Judy L. Postmus
By: Julia O'Connor, MSW, MPH, Doctoral Student, Rutgers University School of Social Work

Dr. Judy L. Postmus

Dr. Judy L. Postmus

Dr. Judy L. Postmus is a Professor and Associate Dean of Faculty Development and Strategic Initiatives at the School of Social Work, Rutgers University.  She is also the founder and former director of the Center on Violence Against Women & Children (VAWC). Her research is on physical, sexual, and economic victimization experiences of women with her most recent attention given to developing a Violence Against Women Research Consortium, funded by the National Institute of Justice (2016-MU-CX-K011). She has given many local, national, and international presentations on the impact of policies and interventions for survivors of violence.  Her work is strongly influenced from her 20 years as a practitioner and administrator.

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

Judy: My undergraduate degree is in nutrition. Prior to that, I was a double biology and chemistry major. I was going to do pre-med and go into medicine but, I decided not to. I started working with at-risk children and their families in Miami which is a predominantly low-income and African American community. I decided perhaps, I should have an MSW to know what I was doing and got my MSW from Barry University School of Social Work. That’s how I started my social work career. I worked in an agency for homeless and run away youth. I did direct services for three months and was handed a grant that was funded and was told “Start a new program! Hire everybody to get it going.” I worked my way up from social worker to associate director of the agency. Then, I left that agency and became the director of a domestic abuse shelter in Florida and then got into social work academia. So, between my MSW and going into the PhD program, that was eight years and probability six years pre-MSW that I was working.

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

Judy: Figure out a system that works in term of keeping track of all manuscripts because you’ll be working on a number of articles at one time. And they will all be at different phases from “I have an idea” to “I have an outline” to “I have a draft done” to “I have a finished product” to “it is being sent for review” to “a revise and resubmit”. At any one time, you could easily have 10-12 articles in the air. Some of them you are working on by yourself and some, as a team. So figuring out a system of keeping track of when things are due and how you are making progress and putting yourself on a system of deadlines. I started out using a Word table and would map out the weeks. I now use Wunderlist as a way to map out what I have to do by when. Academia is not “I’m going to work on one article until it is done and then work on another.” You are making your own deadlines and it easy to just put something aside until the break. Then the first break comes and you realize that things don’t get done. And then you set them aside again. No, you have to keep plugging away. It’s like being a social worker. If a client has a problem, you break it apart into manageable tasks. It’s the same thing with articles, always be working on them, or you will get to the end of the semester and will have not done any writing.

Julia: What are your techniques for collaborating with colleagues?

Judy: There are the joys and sorrows of collaborating with colleagues on writing. The joy is, for me, I don’t want to let my colleagues down. It helps with getting the work done. Versus, if I’m doing a solo piece, that always goes to the back burner. And having differing perspectives and bouncing ideas off each other about what works and what doesn’t work. Also, you instantly have someone else reading your work. Those are they joys of working together. And the sorrows are that not everyone participates fully and not everyone meets deadlines. Sometimes they fall off the grid. How do you keep them motivated? What do you do if they don’t meet deadlines? Someone might be sitting on a manuscript for months. How do I play the bad guy? Part of the challenge is to figure out who are really good collaborators? And once you find them, hang on to them because you know they will get things done quickly. The other thing to managing collaborations is that, if it cannot be done via email, hold phone calls. Say “come to the meeting and update us as to where you are.

Part of how you find collaborators is to see who is hungry. Who wants publications? People who are tenure track are often interested in getting publications. Whoever is the lead author has to take ownership of making it happen. Also, setting standards on what to include and how to write. Sometime people will review their coauthor and say “You could say this differently” or “I’m not sure what you mean here” or “What about if you do this another way?” In my head, I’m thinking “you are a coauthor, fix it! Don’t just say it like you are grading a paper. You are working with me.” I think setting ground rules for expectations on what do when you get a draft and when it gets ripped up by reviewers is helpful.

Julia: What is the best advice you’ve ever received related to doing research?

Judy: My mentors helped me see that you always, always, always start with the research question or the specific aim or the hypothesis. What is it that you’re trying to study? And then understand that for every problem or issue that you are looking at, those questions can be asked differently. There isn’t just one way to do research. I do not have to go in and do regression. Methods depend on the research questions. Those questions drive the methods. And those methods drive the analysis. I don’t think, “I’m going to do it this way. I’m going to do it qualitatively”. No, no, you start with what you want to know and ask a lot of different questions. That was instilled in me. There are so many different ways to study the topic or issue. There is not one right way.

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

Judy: A good dissertation is a done dissertation! Also, answer three questions regarding your dissertation: 1) “Am I passionate about the subject matter?” Because you are going to be in it for a long time. Not just doing the dissertation, not just afterward when you’re writing publications off of the data, but also, it is the foundation for your academic life. So, be passionate about the subject matter. Don’t just do something because you’ll get it done. 2) “Can you get articles out of it?” At least two or three.  Meaning that you are doing something to make a contribution to the field. And 3) “Is it feasible? Can you get it done in a timely fashion?” The last one I think really trips up doctoral students because they have grandiose ideas of what they can do, not realizing that the dissertation, and any research project, is the stepping stone to the next research project. You do not have to do it all at one time. I’ve been guilty of that when I first started out. I wanted to ask everything. I’ve learned since then! I know I don’t need to do that. It’s important to be clear and focused on: “Can I get this done? Do I have the funds to get this done? Is the timeline feasible? Is it going to drive me crazy in the end?” 

Also, don’t be afraid to ask for money. I’ve met lots of academics who have never written a grant proposal. And in my head, I’m like “How are you doing research?” Finally, find some really good collaborators in your field. Whether you are doing research together or writing together, it makes a huge difference. And a lot of time you’ll end up in school where you are the only one in your area and it becomes very lonely. If you’re alone at a school, do interdisciplinary work with someone else doing a different type of project or connect with others who are doing similar work at other universities. 

Julia: What are some projects or publications that you would like people to know about? What’s exciting to you right now.

Judy: I think some of the excitement right now is not to do with peer-reviewed publications but, with converting our knowledge of peer-reviewed publications and research projects into interesting and digestible information for the general public, policy makers, non-profits, and the government sector. Really pushing the boundaries of taking an article and turning it into an infographic. Can you submit a report to the state on a research project and have the executive summary be all infographics? I think really paying attention to how people digest information is super important because the public are not reading our articles. Some of this is figuring out how can you do this work without compromising writing. Thinking about not only what will the dissemination look like but, how can you actually do it? I would say get a student intern or talk to the school of communication and they might provide interns and work with them to create a template. This will also get you in the position of learning how to supervise, delegate and manage. Also, this will prepare you for when you get grant funding and are managing projects and people.