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.

By: Candra Skrzypek, LMSW, doctoral student at University at Buffalo School of Social Work

Dr. Melanie Sage

Dr. Melanie Sage

Dr. Melanie Sage is an Assistant Professor at the University of Buffalo University at Buffalo School of Social Work. Her research areas include the use of technology in social work education and practice, the intersections of technology and child welfare, family engagement in child welfare and child welfare practice with indigenous families. As a national leader at the intersection of technology and social work, Dr. Sage provides regular training for social work practitioners and educators in the ethical and effective use of technology and social media, serves as Chair of the board of husITa (a national non-profit that promotes the ethical and effective use of technology in human services) and is a co-chair of the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare Grand Challenge, Harnessing Technology for Social Good.

I interviewed Dr. Melanie Sage for our series because she recently co-authored a book that is relevant for any doctoral student who wishes to use technology in the classroom. As a first-generation college student, I was also eager to hear about Dr. Sage’s experiences as she also identifies as a first-generation scholar. Prior to coming to the University at Buffalo, Dr. Sage worked for six years at University of North Dakota, where she was the BSW program director, and she has ten years of direct practice experience. Dr. Sage was able to offer a down-to-earth perspective on scholarship, applied research, persistency, and kindness.

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

Dr. Sage: My mom was as child welfare worker and I thought that was really interesting, so that was my first goal. So I got my BSW and MSW and always loved being in school. Even in my MSW program, most my friends were like, “I’ll never be in school again!” and I thought “Oh, maybe…” I went to California to practice in child welfare and was a IV-E student and got a stipend to go back and do child welfare work. And work was hard, and turnover was high, and I saw that that made a big impact on families—the loss of workers. Or the workers who, for their own survival, decided they couldn’t do child welfare work anymore. The supervisors made a big difference on how they were doing in the field.

So my first ambition was that I wanted to make an impact on this problem and better support workers and agencies, and I wanted to teach. I was training new workers in the child welfare agency and I liked it. Portland seemed like it was a good place to live and I didn’t know much about what a researcher was at the time, or how doctoral programs were ranked, but I thought it was a way to become a better social worker. As a first generation PhD student, I didn’t really know anyone who went to college or have anyone to talk to about getting a PhD. I had always gone to regional schools. But I was persistent. I only applied to Portland and when I got there, I found out that getting a PhD was about research. So I worked at a research institute for a while as a PhD student, and it was more “ivory tower” than the work I hoped to do, and had a breakdown thinking the PhD track was a mistake for me.

I ended up connecting with the director of the Child Welfare Research Center. We went out for coffee and I cried and cried, and she said there was “applied research” and that I could do that if I wanted to. And that’s when I realized that doing stats and writing publications could be part of the holistic thing of doing research while also contributing to work that makes the world a better place. 

I got my first academic job and realized I really love research- I could be independent but also collaborative, and manage projects, elicit supports, bring in money to serve community solutions, and it is really creative work- to find a problem to be solved, consider possibilities, figure out the best ways to measure what’s going well and what’s not. It’s pretty exciting, really. And hard sometimes, dealing with real-world problems and trying to make a difference, especially when the going is slow or interventions don’t work in the way you hoped. But still, research is fun!

Right now I am really interested in the ways that technology can improve the lives of foster youth. Specifically, I’m interested in ways that tech can support healthy relationships, what it means to have a healthy online relationship, and how supportive adults can help youth navigate online relationships in positive ways, as allies.

Candra: What is one word that best describes how you work?

Dr. Sage: “For impact”—which is technically two words, but I would fight for that. When I’m working, I always think about, “How will this make a difference for somebody? How does this inform practice?”  I get bored with my work, or tired, when I’m doing something that I don’t feel like is doing good for somebody besides me. I think sometimes I’ve accidentally done things that sounds like a smart idea like, “A lot of people will cite this thing,” and it doesn’t make me as happy because it isn’t useful. That’s why I focus a lot on applied research. I call it being a “pracademic.” Improving practice will always be the reason I’m an academic.

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

Dr. Sage: I’ve been here [in Buffalo] for two years. The first year was a lot of settling in. I shifted my research agenda and had to spend a lot of time connecting with people, reading, and doing some outreach. I just finished a book that took quite a bit of time. 

I’m not good with traditional hours—I’m a bit of a night owl. I work best around 2pm or so, so I do things like email or errands in morning and start work around 10am. I schedule thing that need a lot of attention, like meetings or writing time, around 2 or 3. I still haven’t developed a great writing schedule! I binge write… I will go to a coffee shop for hours. But some things that help are accountability (working with others) and setting deadlines with other people. I have always been a little service heavy—part of it is it is a reflection of my values, part of it is being excited about things and saying “yes” to everything that sounds fun (and that’s a lot of things), and part of it is not being able to say “no.” So I do a lot of guest speaking or things that take away from scholarship and I have to watch for that in my work. I am working toward better focus. 

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

Dr. Sage: I live by Google Calendar and sync it to my phone and my Outlook. And I have a bullet journal, so I have all my projects just on paper. I’m a big techy person, but this is my best way to keep my act together. Also, I don’t do too much alone. If you are stuck on thinking on something—talk with someone else. It’s stupid to try to sit around and try to figure it out on your own when you’re surrounded by so many smart people. I really enjoy collaborations and that took me a while to figure out because I’ve always seen myself as independent and I did not always have good experiences with “group work” but I’ve figured out that it can be good! And collaboration is important as a scholar.

Candra: What are your techniques for collaborating with colleagues? 

Dr. Sage: I would recommending that everyone has a professional learning network. I’ve developed so many collaborations on Twitter. Most of my important academic projects have started on twitter. Especially if you do not have colleagues who worked in your institute in your area or research. When I started working with technology and social work…. that’s how I met with Nancy Smyth and Laurel Hitchcock who I just finished writing a book with. Tell people: “I like what you like, can we talk?” people most always say yes. That has led to some great collaborations.

Also—a first-generation student thing—I think there is more imposter syndrome. You feel like you don’t belong with other people who are academics and are afraid to reach out. Most of my success in this work is not because I’m the smartest or most accomplished, but because I am bold. And I think that is common in first-gen students. Persistency.

Practically, things that have been helpful for me are settting up check-in meetings, usually via Zoom because I work with people across distances, and having goals. I am good at using online collaboration tools like Google docs, Dropbox, and Zotero. I love Zotero.

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

Dr. Sage: Google calendar and bullet journaling. I have a good friend, Laurel, who I met on Twitter and she is very task-oriented and I am very dreamy. And she is very good with “OK what are the steps we need to get that done?”. I do work with a local non-profit where the director is an artist and a dreamer and I support their work by writing grants. So in that case, I am the one saying, “What are the steps? What is our mission?” You’ve got to figure out who is going to balance you on your team and what your role needs to be to bring balance to the team.

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

Dr. Sage: Grading papers. I really like teaching and I think teaching is really important. It is just a gift to enter into the lives’ of students and impart what you think about social work—what is important and complicated about our jobs, and about being human. If you do a good job of that, it can make a really big impact. 

Students more and more are dealing with so many stressors. We have so many first-gen students in the classroom with so much going on outside of school. Getting an A is still so important to them. How do you balance all the hard things they bring? With their personal expectations about the grade specific outcomes of their work, but knowing that can’t match the expectations of time and attention? How can you be fair to the realities that everyone brings to an assignment and put a number on it? Some students have had training in academic writing since 6thgrade while it’s the first time for some. How do you grade in a fair way and what does fair mean? I use a lot of rubrics to help with that, but it never feels easy. 

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

Dr. Sage: I try to work in a way where I feel like I don’t need to escape it. For example, my work with Stitch Buffalo combines my love of art and social justice. In terms of collaborations—I don’t work with people who are jerks. I work with people who I actually love, and who recharge me. My friend Laurel is one of those people, I am excited to meet up with her to work on a paper. In graduate school, I had a “battle buddy,” we would work together and workshop our papers and that got me through my dissertation, one long Saturday at a time.

In graduate school, even if you can’t choose all the projects you work on, I would encourage doc students to think about ways to get what they want out of the projects they are doing. It is OK to negotiate with the PI. I always ask students who are on projects with me, “What excites you?” Because I want them to work on things that excite them, it will make the work better. 

I also reupholster old furniture and enjoy thrift store shopping. I like making old things more beautiful. I love a great deal. I love art and traveling to new places. I had never been on a plane or out of my home state until I was 23. I feel so lucky that travel is part of my work now. I always try to get to a museum or see local art, murals, galleries when I go to an academic conference.

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

Dr. Sage: Katherine Cahn is one of my PhD mentors, she saved me when I thought I was going to drop out of graduate school. She has built her whole career around high impact work in child welfare, and has written many technical reports, alongside scholarly papers. Most work her work has been sitting with the community and figuring out how to improve things. And she’s so graceful about dealing with complexity- we tackle really complicated issues in child welfare work.

Sonia Livingstone is a researcher in the UK whose work I follow. The UK is ahead of us in areas of the impact of technology on people, and Dr Livingstone approaches this work from “rights” and “affordances” perspectives when talking about youth online- it’s much more balanced and grounded than our fear-based perspectives of youth who use technology. So- I bring her work and language to some of mine. (It’s a good idea to look at how people in other countries or disciplines are approaching issues in your area of research- it’s an easy way to bring new perspectives to our discipline).

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

Dr. Sage: Our dean, Nancy Smyth told me, “Remember every time you say yes, you are saying no to something else.” That helps me make decisions.

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

Dr. Sage: Be persistent and don’t be afraid to reach out to someone who knows more than you do about something. Another thing- I tell my MSW students is that I like theory a lot and thinking about it, but at the end of the day, if your only core way of working with people is through a lens of honesty and kindness, that will get you really far. Lift up your fellow students. It’s easy to fall into the traps of competition or dark humor, and buy in to negative things people say about social work, which can be discouraging and weigh on us—even if it is a survival strategy. Just think of ways to lift each other up and call out what your colleagues are doing really well. I don’t buy in to the idea that we can just “choose to be happy” or that we should “smile more” but I do think the way we treat each other and ourselves makes a difference.

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

Dr. Sage: I recommend our new book!  I am proud of it, it’s practical and useful- and most every job ad for new social work profs I see lately ask for experience or knowledge about teaching online. Here are a few things that people have told me have had important impacts on their teaching: 

Hitchcock, L., Sage, M., & Smyth, N. (2019). Teaching Social Work with Digital Technology. CSWE: Press: Alexandria, V. A. 

Hitchcock, L., & Sage, M. (2018). Professional learning networks for social workers in the digital age. Social Work Today, 18(2), 22. 

Sage, M., & Sele, P. (2016). Reflective journaling as a Flipped Classroom technique to increase reading and participation with Social Work students. Journal of Social Work Education.

Thanks for the interview! I love being a social work academic and I am excited about what the next generation of academics will bring to our work.