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.


Mary Ellen Brown, PhD, MSW, MPA, LCSW
Assistant Professor at Arizona State University School of Social Work 
Area of research:
Equitable community development, social determinants of health and health disparities, community resiliency, participatory action research 

Mary Ellen Brown, PhD, MSW, MPA, LCSW

Mary Ellen Brown, PhD, MSW, MPA, LCSW

Mary-Ellen Brown is an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions at Arizona State University. Through varied experiences in Dr. Brown's academic and professional history, she has a robust background in research and evaluation, community health, positive youth development, and neighborhood planning and revitalization. Dr. Brown's scholarship is focused on the effects of poverty and violence as related to the resiliency, health and well-being of underserved communities, including Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, and urban Native American populations. 

Dr. Brown's areas of specialized research include examining social determinants of health embedded in components of equitable community development, community health, and systems that perpetuate poverty and community stress and trauma. This line of investigation includes a special emphasis on developing valid and reliable measures for determining the effectiveness of community-engaged prevention and intervention efforts in promoting positive health outcomes to combat minority health inequities and related risk factors.

Kimberly: One word that best describes how you work?

Mary-Ellen: Collaboratively

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

Mary-Ellen: I graduated with my undergraduate degree in psychology, with the goal of becoming an art therapist and working with children. It was this desire that drew me to pursue my MSW. However, once I started the MSW program I was blown away by all the many ways social workers impact people and communities, and was immediately drawn to our profession’s historical roots in the settlement house movement and our traditions of advocacy and empowerment. After nearly a decade in the field working with youth at risk of educational failure and their families in under-resourced communities, I knew I wanted to expand my ability to build community by studying neighborhood conditions in our most vulnerable communities and designing and testing community-level interventions. I became a social work researcher so I could be a scholar activist, to study social issues and develop actionable, innovative and evidence-based solutions alongside community members using community-based participatory research, and so that I could teach and help prepare future generations of social change agents.

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

Mary-Ellen: A typical day for me starts out before the sun is up, with coffee and quiet, working on my writing goals for the day – spending several hours on whichever new manuscript or revision is the current priority. Next I’ll work through my emails and then review my to-do list of research, teaching, or service-related tasks, and take care of the priority to-dos. The rest of the day usually consists of a few conference calls with colleagues at other universities or out of state community partners related to collaborative papers, upcoming presentations, or current research projects. I also typically have a few meetings with my project staff, students, and community partners – on campus and out in the community. These meetings are often related to planning for or progress on data collection and analysis, mentorship and student development, securing resources, or connecting with and strengthening relationships with community partners. I’ll wind down the day back at my computer, responding to emails, finishing tasks I was unable to complete earlier, and spending another few hours on current writing projects.  

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

Mary-Ellen: My best time-saving short cut as a social work researcher is collaboration, not working in a silo and thinking I need to do it all myself. I’ve always believed that when we align and leverage our strengths as researchers, within and across disciplines, we not only strengthen the rigor of the research but also more significantly impact communities. In my research I recruit graduate level students and other junior faculty members in social work to partner in my grant-funded projects, as well as more senior faculty members in social work and other disciplines within and outside of my university. When you integrate a variety of perspectives and expertise through transdisciplinary action research, the collective capacity allows you to do more with your scholarship than you could do alone– and to do so more efficiently and more effectively.  

Kimberly: What are your techniques for collaborating with colleagues? 

Mary-Ellen: Techniques for collaborating with colleagues include relationship-building, establishing a common agenda, and communication. You must build a relationship with colleagues in order to determine if you are compatible for collaboration. You don’t need to share the same opinions or ideas with your colleagues to effectively collaborate – in fact it is best if you do think differently – but you do need to ensure your personalities and working styles match well enough that you get along and would enjoy working together. Once I’ve identified a potential colleague to collaborate with we talk about our common scholarship goals  - to see where our research interests align and what kind of outcomes we would like to achieve together (e.g. dissemination through manuscripts, presentations, etc.), and set a common agenda based on these goals for the collaborative relationship. The other and most important technique for collaboration involves communication; once the relationship is established it is imperative to communicate regularly, effectively, and transparently. It is important to be up front with your colleagues about your strides and struggles with respect to your role in the work, in order to ensure everyone is on the same page, heading in the same direction, and you are able to help one another troubleshoot when necessary to keep the collaboration on track for success.

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

Mary-Ellen: I’m an obsessive organizer. I am a fan of colorful spreadsheets, sticky notes on mirrors, white boards, electronic calendars and to-do lists... I’m always looking for more effective ways to organize my work. 

My current system involves a combination of things: First, I keep a separate folder for each month of the year in Dropbox. For every task that involves a firm or self-imposed deadline I save a document related to that task in the folder of the month it is due with the date of the deadline in the title of the saved document. This could be for funding or fellowship opportunities, conference abstracts, manuscripts, article reviews for journals, grading deadlines, service commitments, research-related tasks, etc. At the end of each month I review the folder for the month ahead and use my whiteboard to map out the critical tasks and their related deadlines, and keep this visible near my desk. At this time I also place a reminder in my Outlook calendar of each key deadline for that month on the date it is due. 

Next, I review my whiteboard each week, usually on Sundays, and use the electronic to-do list on my phone to create daily lists of the work to be done for the upcoming week in order to complete each task. Oftentimes I will also block out times on my Outlook calendar for the week ahead so I can realistically set goals for what I can complete that week in light of my other commitments for the week (meetings, teaching, travel, etc). Also, In my calendar I color-code my teaching, research, writing, service, and self-care related activities so that I can look back each month and assess whether I am spending too much (or not enough) time in any one area and make adjustments accordingly.

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

Mary-Ellen: My least favorite research-related work is completing paperwork and forms (e.g. travel expense forms, grant reporting forms, IRB forms, etc.). I recognize that these are necessary and important tasks, but I’d rather be spending my time facilitating a focus group, creating or conducting a survey, analyzing data, or out in the community meeting with residents and other community partners. I manage the paperwork by reminding myself that these tasks are important for transparency and accountability in research, and when appropriate I share the responsibility for completing these tasks with other project staff and colleagues. I’m also a big believer in rewards as motivation, so if I have an especially daunting or time-consuming paperwork task to complete, I incentivize it by planning a reward for myself when it is completed. 

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

Mary-Ellen: I recharge by spending time with my family and my dogs. I have several hobbies, including painting and jewelry making, and I make time for those hobbies regularly. I also practice meditation and journaling. When I started my own doctoral program I was an avid runner and I practiced yoga regularly; I’m currently working on getting back into these activities because physical exercise is so important to promoting positive mental health and wellbeing. 

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

Mary-Ellen: I have so many academic heroes that have inspired me over the years. One that I would like to highlight for those interested in neighborhood-level research is Dr. Mary Ohmer, in the School of Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh. She is a pioneer of the Consensus Organizing framework, which has been an inspiration for me since my studies many years ago on community organizing. Her recent book on Measures for Community and Neighborhood Researchis a fantastic resource for exploring methodological issues and identifying useful measures for neighborhood and community scholarship. (Ohmer, M.L., Coulton, C., Freedman, D., Sobeck, J. & Booth, J. (2019). Measures for Community and Neighborhood Research.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.). 

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

Mary-Ellen: The best advice I’ve ever received was from my mother, who once told me “You can do everything that you want to do, you just can’t do it all at the same time.” I have to remind myself of this message frequently. 

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

Mary-Ellen: In addition to the above, the advice I’d offer social work students is to practice lots of self-care and to enjoy graduate school. Doctoral studies are generally intense pressure cookers, whether you are in the coursework or the dissertation phase. Between the pressure to perform and to become the expert in your given area, it is easy to get overwhelmed with stress and to neglect your mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Be intentional with your self-care regimen; block off time regularly in your calendar to practice self-care and treat it as you would any other important appointment. Enjoy your time in the doctoral program, and spend time with your peers in your cohort outside of class and studying. Reach out and talk to someone if you are struggling and in need of support. And finally, if you are experiencing imposter syndrome, just know that everybody else experiences that at some time or another too.

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

Mary-Ellen: Right now I am the PI on three federally funded initiatives, two in Arizona and one in Louisiana. These are US DOJ Innovations in Community Based Crime Reduction and US HUD Choice Neighborhoods initiatives, which are concerned with comprehensive, place-based, community-driven transformation. Our transdisciplinary, cross-university research team is working alongside residents and other community partners using community-engaged, action research frameworks to assess social drivers of crime and social determinants of health and health inequities in order to develop and test a continuum of community-driven solutions over the next three years. For social work scholars interested in engaging community partners in research designs I suggest reading my recent publication with co-author Dr. Katie Stalker, titled “Assess Connect Transform In Our Neighborhood: A framework for engaging community partners in community-based participatory research designs” in the Action Research Journal (Advance online publication. doi:10.1177/1476750318789484). Here is a link to a blog about this article.