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.

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.


James Herbert Williams, PhD., MSW, MPA

James Herbert Williams, PhD., MSW, MPA

James Herbert Williams, PhD., MSW, MPA
By: Kimberly Hogan, MA, MSW, Doctoral Student, Arizona State University School of Social Work

James Herbert Williams is the current Director of the School of Social Work and Arizona Centennial Professor of Social Welfare Services at Arizona State University and the Immediate Past President of SSWR Board of Directors.

James Herbert's research focuses on sustainable development, K-12 academic performance, youth violence, delinquency prevention, adolescent substance use, race and gender differences, and mental health service needs and utilization patterns in urban schools. His funded research has included grants from the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development; the National Institute of Mental Health; the Danforth Foundation; the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease; and the departments of Justice, Education, and Health and Human Services. James Herbert has also published extensively in the area of delinquency, youth violence, health promotion, disease prevention among African American women and conflict mediation, human security, and sustainable development in Northern Kenya.

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

James Herbert: Nonstop! Academia is never easy, but it is enjoyable and satisfying. I love what I do. When you love what you do, it is not work. I know it may sound cliché.  I get to spend your time with bright and energetic people. I get to pursue my intellectual passion. It is easy to work when I am doing something that brings me a great deal of satisfaction. 

Kimberly: What does a typical workday look like for you?

James Herbert: My day is usually filled with various meetings. When I was a faculty member, I focused on scholarship and teaching.  My day starts very early before my colleagues come to the office. I like to utilize this free time to plan my day, and it allows me to focus on my writing. I will take a break when I get home. However, I work on planning the activities that I want to get accomplished the next day.

Kimberly: How do you keep track of what tasks you need to complete?

James Herbert: I have a wonderful support team. I have been in administration since 2000, and I have been able to continue to publish. I am clear about allocating time for my scholarly writing projects separate from my administrative responsibilities.  You cannot be a successful administrator and have a scholarly career if you do not have good people as part of your leadership team.  

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

James Herbert: I read, hike, go to movies, theater, and opera. I also take weekend trips to refresh and gain perspective.  Being outside and engaging in different activities is when I have my best thinking. Once a year I take a nice vacation.  My last vacation was to Alaska.  

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

James Herbert: It is an ideal time to acquire knowledge to prepare yourself for a career in the academy.  A critical aspect for advancing our profession is training the next generation of scholars. Knowledge development is essential for our profession to address the pressing social issues.  It is important that schools of social work provide doctoral students with all the necessary resources and support that will allow them to be successful scholars and teachers.  It is also crucial for doctoral students to leverage all opportunities to ensure their success. Then it will be a mutually beneficial experience for the student, faculty, and school.  

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

Articles to read: 

Hartman C. A., Hageman, T. O., Williams, J. H., & Ascione, F. R. (2018).   Intimate partner violence and animal abuse in an immigrant-rich sample of mother-child dyads recruited from domestic violence programs. Journal of Interpersonal Violence33, 1030-1047. Advance online publication November 25, 2015. doi.org/10.1177/0886260515614281.

Williams, J. H. (2018). Race and poverty:  Growth areas for the social work research agenda. Social Work Research42, 67-72.

Lein, L., Uehara, E. S., Lightfoot, E., Lawlor, E. F., & Williams, J. H. (2017).  A collaborative framework for envisioning the future of social work research and education. Social Work Research41, 67-71.

Williams, J. H.  (2016). Where’s the evidence: Can we develop stronger research and scientific approaches to understand complex systems and interactions?  Social Work Research40, 131-133.

Kumssa, A., Williams, J. H., Jones, J. F., & Des Marais, E. A.  (2014). Conflict and migration: The case of Somali refugees in Northeastern Kenya. Global Social Welfare:  Research, Policy, and Practice1, 145 – 156.

Williams, J. H.  (2013). Disparities, disproportionalities, differences, and discrepancies.  Social Work Research37, 309-311.

Leveraging Bio-Cultural Mechanisms to Maximize the Impact of Multi-Level Preventable Disease Interventions with Southwest PopulationsU54 2U54MD002316, Community Engagement & Dissemination Core (PI, James Herbert Williams), Funded by National Institutes of Health/National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, Totals Award for CEDC: $594,938.00; 09/01/2017-08/30/2022.

Children exposed to intimate partner violence:  Mental health correlates of concomitant exposure to animal abuse, 5 R01 HD066503; (PI, James Herbert Williams), Funded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development, Total Award: $1,548,493.00; 09/02/10 – 06/30/16.

Books to read:

Bain, K. (2004). What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Bain, K. (2012). What the Best College Students Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Bowen, W. G.  (2013). Higher Education in the Digital Age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 

Tobin, E. M., & Bowen, W. G. (2015). Locus of Authority: The Evolution of Faculty Roles in the Governance of Higher Education. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 

Tobin, E. M., Kurzweil, M. A. Pichler, S. C., & Bowen, W. G.  (2005). Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press. 

Thyer, B. (1994).Successful Publishing in Scholarly Journals. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publication. 

 

 

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. Shanna K. Kattari
By: 
Jonah DeChants, MSSP, Doctoral Student, University of Denver, Graduate School of Social Work

Dr. Shanna K. Kattari

Dr. Shanna K. Kattari

Shanna K. Kattari, PhD, MEd, CSE, ACS (she|her|hers) is an incoming Assistant Professor of Social Work at the University of Michigan. Her work centers on disability and ableism, and transgender/non-binary (NB) identities and transphobia, using an intersectional lens. Shanna’s dissertation developed/validated the Ableist Microaggression Scale (AMS), and used the AMS-65 to explore the relationships between experiencing ableist microaggressions and the mental health of disabled adults. Recently, Shanna has focused on the health disparities among transgender/NB communities, across physical and behavioral health, as well as working with the community to better understand how the lack of inclusive providers has increased these disparities.

Jonah: One word that best describes how you work? 

Shanna: Connectively

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

Shanna: I was a sex educator and sexologist, and kept running into issues in the field and in my community(ies) where we knew things to be true, but there wasn’t peer review research to back up our community knowledge. I chose to go work on my PhD in order to create a bridge between the academy and communities, to do community based research, and to conduct the research that my/our communities needed.

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

Shanna: It really depends on the day. If I am teaching, there might be some meeting with students, prepping for class, or grading of assignments. I do a lot of meetings, in person and virtual to connect between myself and my community partners, and with others LGBTQIA+ focused researchers around the country. Many of the virtual meetings I take from my home office, so my feline research assistants can help out as well. I also am a core faculty member at the Center for Sexuality and Health Disparities (aka The Sex Lab), and work to mentor students from the Sex Lab, the School of Social Work and across campus on topics regarding sexuality, gender, disability, and sexuality education.

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

Shanna: I try to keep super organized on what projects I have and where they are in the process (conception, IRB, recruitment, data collection, analysis, and where in the stage of writing I am), so that when I have small free blocks of time, I can figure out what project to work on when I am able.

Jonah: What are your techniques for collaborating with colleagues? 

Shanna: We use a lot of technology to organize how we work together. My primary research team has people from Michigan, Colorado, Indiana, Florida, Pennsylvania, and California. We use tools like Zoom to connect, and use shareable/cooperative spreadsheets tor track who is working on what, and what next steps are. As far as working with community partners, I think ensuring everyone’s needs are on the table (need for community reports, certain types of data, peer review papers, etc.) so that there is transparency for everyone, and we can work cooperatively to plan research that meets everyone’s needs.

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

Shanna: I have a color coded GoogleDocs spreadsheet so I can keep track of all of my papers and conference abstracts I have submitted. 

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

Shanna: Revise and resubmits! When I finish and article and edit it, and send it out into the world, it feels almost like I’ve birthed a child. R&Rs, while sometimes they have useful suggestions, often feels like they are asking me to change my child, to alter my vision, or sometimes even change directions or walk back language/implications that are important to/ask for by community. I often feel like responding to R&Rs are like walking a tightrope above shark infested waters.

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

Shanna: I spending a lot of time with my cats, reading books. Now that it is summer, I’m also super excited to get into gardening, as we’ve just built some accessible raised beds. Recently, I’ve also gotten into some ballroom dancing when my body is up for it, and that is a great time.

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

Shanna: Dr. Alex Wagman at VCU does fantastic work around engaging community and especially young people in her research. Ramona Beltran is one of the most authentic and intentional researchers I have read. Dr. Bernadette Marie Calafell (in Communication Studies) is another incredible researcher who combines a critical social justice lens and engaging analysis of pop culture to connect the two. 

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

Shanna: To figure out how to balance my background as a community activist with moving towards being an academic advocate. This has helped me to work towards figuring out how to show up in an authentic way in the academy, but still in a way that fits within existing systems while challenging them.

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

Shanna: Connect and collaborate as much as possible. It is easy to get lost in doing things on your own (like your dissertation), or working only on your advisor’s project, but connect with other doc students, post docs, junior faculty, senior faculty, you name it, who have similar interests as you. Work together on conference proposals, white papers, letters to the editors, and research projects. The more connections and interactions you foster at this point, the stronger your network will be as you launch your career. My other advice is to turn every (solid) project you have worked on into a paper. Did you collect data for a qualitative class? Analyze it (maybe after getting IRB approval, depending), and publish it. Did you design a project for another class? If it is feasible, conduct it and then publish on it. Don’t wait until you are working on your dissertation to start doing your own projects and getting your work out there.

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

Shanna: I am thrilled to be partnering with Transcend the Binary (and several other trans focused researchers in the state) to launch the first ever Michigan Trans Health Survey, collecting data about the health and provider related experiences of transgender and non-binary individuals throughout the state of Michigan. I’ve love for folks to help replicate similar surveys in other states, so that we can get a better snapshot of trans health in different states around the country. I’m also really excited that my Ableist Microaggressions Scale is in press with the Journal of Social Service Research, and am hoping that this will be useful in a variety of ways for other scholars.

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.

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.    

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. Heather Howard

Dr. Heather Howard

Heather Howard, PhD, MSW, LICSW
By: Kyle T. Ganson, LCSW, LICSW, Doctoral Student at Simmons College School of Social Work

Dr. Howard’s expertise and research focuses on gender-specific and trauma-informed care for women that reduces stigma and encourages health empowerment. Heather has been awarded several external foundation grants for clinical research involving women’s health issues and her publications emphasize the importance of shared decision-making for perinatal women who are opioid dependent. In addition, Heather was assistant professor at Wheelock College for the past five years. She taught advanced clinical practice with children and families, participatory action research, and substance use disorder prevention and treatment in healthcare systems. Also she was the coordinator of the Integrated Healthcare certificate. Heather has over 23 years of clinical experience in social work in healthcare. Her clinical expertise is the treatment of grief and loss, trauma, and prevention and treatment of substance use disorders at a Brown University-based hospital. Her peer-reviewed publications include areas of medicine, social work, and education, focusing primarily on health disparities and public health responses to maternal substance use. At Florida Atlantic University, Dr. Howard is currently an Assistant Professor at the Phyllis & Harvey Sandler School of Social Work.  

Academic Role & Institution: Assistant Professor, Florida Atlantic University, Phyllis & Harvey Sandler School of Social Work
Area(s) of Research Interest: Maternal substance use and opioid relapse and overdose prevention

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

Dr. Howard: I was a social worker in health care for 23 years at Brown University affiliated hospitals. The need for more social workers to participate in research involving the social determinants of health propelled me to return to school after 15 years of practice. The opportunity to influence social work practice, healthcare, and drug policies through social work research is a major motivating factor for me. 

Kyle: What are your techniques for collaborating with colleagues?

Dr. Howard: I thrive on collaboration. The best outcomes are always achieved through authentic collaboration. Every person, including our research participants, has an area of expertise to contribute to the research project. Currently I am a principal investigator for a primary prevention intervention for pregnant and parenting women with opioid use disorders. Our research team consists of an Associate Professor in Criminal Justice, a professor in College of Business, Health Administration, and a biostatistician in the College of Medicine. Our community partners are the Palm Beach State Attorney’s Office, Palm Beach Health Care District, Southeast Behavioral Health, Department of Substance Use, and Mental Health, and several treatment facilities. Working with such a diverse team requires clear communication and respect for one another’s differences. 

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

Dr. Howard: One area I continue to research is the impact of systemic oppressive work environments and occupational burnout. We know that first responders and health care professionals have high occupational burnout. Often times systemic changes in work environments require extensive training and cultural shifts. However individual change does not. Hence I make it a priority to protect my physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual health. Running, positivity, growth, and faith. 

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

Dr. Howard: This is easy for me. I have been so blessed to have researchers inspire me throughout my education. During my undergraduate studies I was a research assistant for Dr. Gilda Morelli at Boston College in the School of Education. She was a developmental psychologist and also in expert in cultural psychology. I worked with her on a study exploring teacher responsiveness to preschoolers based on gender. During my graduate studies it was Dr. Karen Kayser and we worked on a study exploring marital dissatisfaction with couples that have experienced chronic illnesses. Finally Dr. Peter Maramaldi inspired me to persevere and pursue rigor and excellence in behavioral research and encouraged me to pursue interprofessional research. Without the support and authenticity of these 3 individuals I would not be a researcher today.

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

Dr. Howard: I make it a priority to not “give advice”. I have always preferred in my former clients and current students to have them discover the answers they are searching for by themselves. However I would say maintain a sense of humor through the process and do not be afraid of laughing at yourself too. 

“A keen sense of humor helps us to overlook the unbecoming, understand the unconventional, tolerate the unpleasant, overcome the unexpected, and outlast the unbearable.” – Billy Graham

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

Dr. Howard: I am currently in the data collection phase of a study with the Suffolk House of Corrections evaluating a mutual aid support group for parents and following both fathers and mothers post-incarceration regarding their involvement with their children, recidivism, and communication with other caregivers involved with their children. Importantly, the preliminary data is suggesting the importance of treating opioid use disorder during incarceration to prevent accidental opioid overdoses. 

Kyle: Thanks Dr. Howard for participating in our How I Work series!

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. Tamara Cadet, LICSW, MPH
By: Kyle T. Ganson, LCSW, LICSW, Doctoral Student at Simmons College School of Social Work

Tamara Cadet, PhD, LICSW, MPH is an Assistant Professor where she brings more than 20 years of practice experiences in social work and public health to her research. Dr. Cadet particularly enjoys translating her research to practice for community-based organizations where she serves and preparing social workers for effective evidence-based practice. Dr. Cadet holds a faculty appointment at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine where she works with students in the Advanced Graduate Education Program in Dental Public Health.

Dr. Tamara Cadet

Dr. Tamara Cadet

Academic Role & Institution:
Assistant Professor, Simmons College School of Social Work

Area(s) of Research Interest:
Evidence-based health promotion interventions among vulnerable populations.

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

Dr. Cadet: After receiving my Master’s in Public Health, I worked for many years in underserved communities as a health educator and community organizer. It was during this work I started to notice overall disparities in these communities in many aspects of the residents’ lives. It was my work as a community organizer providing technical assistance to communities across the country working to reduce the effects of substance use/abuse that sparked my initial interest in getting a PhD. However, I chose to get my MSW thinking that would be enough to begin to answer my “why” questions. Then, among other social work practice experiences, I started an adoption agency with a primary focus on placing children of color. This experience combined with my subsequent technical assistance work with Head Start agencies across the country that cemented my decision to get a PhD. As I was recruiting families to consider adoption, I became starkly aware of the lack of knowledge for the potential parents of color and started to ask the “why” question again. Simultaneously, I was participating in conversations about evaluation and recruiting participants as part of the technical assistance activities and again wondered quietly, “why are they not considering this strategy…it might work.” In addition, I was responsible for identifying evidence-based practices for communities and the big why was, “how and why these programs were effective for some populations and not others.” That question was the one. I started my PhD in 2007 and I finished in 2012.

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

Dr. Cadet: My days vary based on the work that needs to get done. Typically, I start with coffee – every day starts with coffee. I check my email for 30- 45 minutes or so responding to the emails that do not take more than a few minutes. I read the others so that I can think about my response and what I may need to do to respond. I will then divide up the rest of my day doing what I consider the hardest (analyses, writing). I will often alternate so that I am spending a few hours doing analyses and then take a break and spend a few hours writing. I am pretty consistent about taking an exercise break – I did not used to regularly do this, but I find I am more productive when I do. My days are long so I often end the day responding to the harder emails that I read earlier in the day and any news ones that have come in. I will often spend evenings doing my teaching prep as I find this uses a different part of my brain than analyses and writing. There are of course other tasks that interfere with this plan such as administrative responsibilities associated with a grant that I am on, writing new grants, submitting conference abstracts, or developing new collaborations.

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

Dr. Cadet: I admit I have an 8/5x11 monthly calendar with space to write tasks/appointments each day following the calendar layout. I like it because I can quickly glance at the most important tasks which are literally in the calendar layout. Usually, the Sunday of the week starting, I fill in the task in the daily space which helps me see what I should have done by the end of each week. It makes me less anxious. I do have post-its when I forget something but that post-it goes right into the monthly calendar side until I can find a specific date for it. So for me, as long as everything is written in one place - even if the notes to do it are on my computer or in another notebook - I am able to remember to get most things done.

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

Dr. Cadet: The best piece of advice I received from my mentors was that doctoral education is a process and it is a journey/marathon not a sprint. I would echo those sentiments. I know that it feels like there is so much to do and there is and if you have friendships that you are trying to maintain or family members that you are caring for, it may feel even harder and the need to go fast is clearly appropriate, but try to soak it all in. I developed this mantra at some point – “I needed time to marinate;” I am not a cook but I realized that I needed time to think and it was sort of like marinating in my mind. Looking back, those were the best moments for me. When I took the time to think, my research agenda gained such clarity. I could see past the dissertation and imagine myself as a social work researcher.

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

Dr. Cadet: Currently, I am evaluating a mammography decision aid for women > 75 years of age with low health literacy funded through a NCI Diversity Supplement. In addition, I am working on a HRSA-funded project to train MSW students to integrate behavioral health in primary care settings and work as members of interprofessional teams.

Kyle: Thanks Dr. Cadet for your time, experiences, and advice!

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. Lauren Willner
By: Sara Terrana, MA, MSW, doctoral student at UCLA – Luskin School of Public Affairs, Department of Social Welfare

Dr. Lauren Willner

Dr. Lauren Willner

Dr. Lauren Willner is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at California State University at Northridge (CSUN). Her research focuses on the nonprofit sector, specifically social justice and social change organizations. Currently though, Dr. Willner is collecting data for a rapid response research project on arming teachers in the classroom as a strategy for preventing gun violence in schools. She is conducting a national survey investigating teachers’ opinions on this subject. All current and former preschool through higher education teachers/professors, regardless of one’s perspective on the issue, are eligible to participate in the study.

I interviewed Dr. Willner for our series because she is a recent graduate of UCLA’s doctoral program in Social Welfare (’17), she is balancing teaching, a family, and doing some very relevant research so I thought she would provide a unique perspective to this new series. 

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

Dr. Willner: I have a BA in Feminist Studies and my MSW in macro practice with a focus on nonprofit leadership and administration. I worked in a number of nonprofits prior to pursuing my Ph.D. I became a social work researcher because I had "big" questions about social work practice and organizations that I couldn't answer solely through field-based practice. I was always more of a "big picture" thinker, and it made sense that I pursue a career in research, so I could try to attack some of the more systemic questions I have about the ways Social Justice and Human Service Organizations function in relation to social change. My practice and research has always been heavily informed by Critical Theory and doing research that had practical implications, like social welfare research, felt like a perfect way to use theory to inform practice in meaningful ways.

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

Dr. Willner: Frenetically.

Sara: What does a typical workday look like for you?

Dr. Willner: There is no typical day, which is something I am trying to come to terms with as a new faculty member. Every week looks different, and I am starting to give up on trying to make my job into the "typical" 9-5, it just isn't working! I am becoming more at ease with the variance in my schedule, and simply taking each week as it comes. Some weeks are more teaching focused, others are more research focused, and some weeks I strike a nice balance. I typically spend at least three days/week in my campus office. Two days/week I work from home.

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

Dr. Willner: I am working on designating certain times during the day to email and closing it down when I am writing or doing other tasks. Email seems to be the most distracting for me, and it’s hard to not write someone back as soon as the notification comes in. It can suck up a ton of time though, and it works against my productivity during the day.

Sara: What are your techniques for collaborating with colleagues?

Dr. Willner: I am working on developing tools and strategies for doing this. I am finding it’s really easy to say, “Hey, let’s write that paper together, or submit to that conference together” and then never do it. I am working on following up with colleagues when we have an idea, and getting time scheduled, even if it’s 20 minutes, to talk about our ideas. Making a plan for getting the project done and setting deadlines with each other is proving effective. I also love being able to use google.docs to collaborate and keep things in order, it’s a great tool.

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

Dr. Willner: WUNDERLIST! It’s saving me right now, it’s on all of my devices and computers (of which I probably have too many), and I have finally figured out a way to organize my weekly and longer-term to-do lists in ways that make sense for me. I can’t recommend it enough!

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

Dr. Willner: I really don’t like grading papers. I like reading what my students write, and learning about their ideas, but for some reason it feels like the most tedious task of all. It also takes up so much time that it winds up feeling very overwhelming. I am trying to schedule grading days into my schedule after assignments are turned in, and I am actively working on not saving it for the last minute. When I do, it delays giving the papers back, which isn’t fair to students.

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

Dr. Willner: I don’t do very much these days other than working out when I have time. I spend time with my family, which includes a three-year-old, so I am not sure how much “recharging” actually happens, but we still have fun!

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

Dr. Willner: It's not really advice as much as it was a piece of wisdom that has been really, really helpful. During my first year in my Ph.D. program, a professor assigned Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers for us to read. We didn't understand why we were reading it, but we had a conversation about how it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. I had no idea at that time, or even throughout the time I was getting my degree, how important this idea would become. Every time I felt like I wasn't making progress, or suffered from imposter syndrome, I would remember Gladwell and take a breath. Before I hit the 10,000-ish hours, I didn’t quite believe this whole idea to be true. But, after working so hard for so long, and finally graduating and getting a job, I realized that at some point, a shift had occurred. Somewhere along the line, doing research and being a scholar had started to feel like second nature. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still hard, and I still suffer from imposter syndrome! But, I have much more confidence in my abilities to do good work, in my skills as a qualitative researcher, and in my goals of making a difference through my research. I realized this shift had occurred during my last year as a student, when I was juggling the job market, collecting and analyzing dissertation data, and a toddler. This was also about the time that I had put in my 10,000 or so hours. It was an incredible realization to have, and I would encourage everyone to remember that getting a Ph.D. and being a good researcher is really, really hard! You don't become good at it overnight, it takes an enormous amount of work and perseverance. But there is a threshold between not really knowing what you are doing (or feeling like you don't know what you're doing!) and becoming competent. You may not know at the time when you cross over the dividing line, but eventually, you do. And it's amazing when you realize you are on the other side!

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

Dr. Willner: Try, at all costs, to be confident in who you are and who want to be as a researcher/academic/teacher/practitioner or whatever else you want to be! There are A LOT of naysayers, tune them out as best as possible, and do you. And find the people who support you in being who you want to be. Get rid of the rest.

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

Dr. Willner: I am working on a research project in response to the national debate around gun control. I am currently collecting survey data on arming teachers as a strategy for preventing gun violence in schools.

My goal in collecting this data is to produce findings that will more intentionally infuse the voice of teachers into this debate. All current and former Preschool through Higher Education teachers/professors, regardless of one’s perspective on the issue, are eligible to participate in the study.

Here is a link to the survey: https://csunsbs.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_a9jNbHtDDiAsCb3

TAs are also eligible to participate, so even if you haven’t taught your own classes yet, please feel free to answer the survey if you’ve been a TA. I also encourage you to share the link widely, with your personal and professional networks!

Sara: Wow, that is some very interesting and relevant research. Thank you very much from all of us at the SSWR Doctoral Student Task Force for taking the time to contribute to our new series!

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. Loretta Pyles
By: Catherine Kramer, LMSW, MPA at the University at Albany, SUNY

Dr. Loretta Pyles

Dr. Loretta Pyles

Dr. Loretta Pyles is a Professor at the School of Social Welfare at the University at Albany, SUNY. Her scholarship centers on the ways that individuals, organizations, and communities resist and respond to poverty, violence, and disasters in a policy context of neoliberal economic globalization and social welfare retrenchment. Dr. Pyles is the author of two new books, Healing Justice: Holistic Self-Care for Change Makers and Production of Disaster and Recovery in Post-Earthquake Haiti: Disaster Industrial Complex (with Dr. Juliana Svistova). 

I asked Dr. Pyles to participate in our new series because I learned from her that the process of getting a PhD is not just a professional or scholarly endeavor. It is also involves learning a great deal about yourself, who you are, and how you work.

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

Dr. Pyles: My first entree into social work was working in a domestic violence program back in 1995. I started out as a volunteer and got very engaged and ended up applying for a job, eventually becoming the Director of Fundraising and Community Affairs. I did everything from direct service to grant writing to community education and community building type work. I got burnt out from that eventually and found myself working at a State Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Coalition. It's a nonprofit that was supporting all the domestic violence and sexual assault programs in the state. My work focused on technical assistance to those programs, as well as policy work, specifically focused on welfare reform and family violence.

That was really when I decided to get my PhD.  I started my PhD in 2001 and finished in 2005, and throughout my PhD, I stayed focused on this intersection between violence against women and economic justice. That trajectory changed though after I got my first academic position at Tulane University in New Orleans right around the time Hurricane Katrina hit. I quickly became interested in community-based responses to disasters, and that's been a primary focus of my research, in addition to my work on community organizing and integrative/holistic social work and pedagogy.

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

Dr. Pyles: I would say organically. When sitting down to write an article or a proposal, I just start writing. I do not do it in a linear way, and I think that's okay. I think a lot of people feel like you must prepare an outline, you must work in a very linear way. My mind does work linearly and an outline does emerge in my head, but I like the process of working on ideas as they arise. Working on a section here, and a section there, and just letting it sort of unfold. I learned early on that I do not want to discount my own intuition in the creative process, even though it is scholarly work, so I try to draw from that. I’ve never wanted to be straightjacketed by somebody’s else’s notion of what scholarship is.

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

Dr. Pyles: It depends on if I'm working at home or if I'm coming to campus. I try to work at home one or two days a week. I have a long commute, so it saves me time in terms of getting ready, as well as driving. Generally, for me, I do not jump right into work. I have to do some meditation and yoga and do the things I need to do to take care of myself. Then I will jump in. Usually by 8:00-8:30am I’ll start working when I’m at home, and when I'm on campus, usually by 9:00am. I’m also consistent about ending my work day by 5:00 and getting to bed early every night.

I will answer emails and respond to what needs to be responded to immediately, but I usually have some sort of key tasks for the day that I hope to accomplish. That could just be one bigger thing or three or four medium things.

I always take a decent lunch break. I try to get up and/or get away from my desk throughout the day. I cannot say I have always done that. It's something I've learned to do to help take care of myself and my body.  I set the computer aside and just take time to nourish myself.

Also, early on in my career, I mean even as a student but also as an early pre-tenure professor, I realized that I was going to have to write during the day, and I'm not always going to have big blocks of time for doing that. I learned early on that even if I just have an hour or so, that can be time for writing.

Catherine: How do you maximize those small time blocks?

Dr. Pyles: Some people talk about breaking tasks down, say into 10 component parts or whatever. Sometimes a bigger job will naturally lend itself to breaking it down that way, other times, again, I'm working organically. I'm going to open the document and see where I am that day and see what happens. That's just how I work. Looking for low hanging fruit that is there. For example, I have not caught up with my references lately, let me clean up these references or I need to read a couple of articles on this topic, so that I can flush out this section, let me do that.

I used to feel like whatever I did was not enough. I did not finish it, so I was not productive enough in a given writing session. But, I have learned to take small pleasures in what I did accomplish. It feels good to have cleaned up those references or to have flushed out that section. To just take pleasure in the small gains each day, that’s really powerful.

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

Dr. Pyles: I try to set the work aside and get away from email and that sort of thing. A clear division between my personal life, and professional life. I'm not always perfect with that but I try. Like I was saying, yoga and meditation. I try to get away and do meditation retreats, that really helps me. I'll completely unplug for like seven to ten days where I'm not checking it at all, and I'm not taking in any new data. I think we are such an information, data-driven society and there is so much stimulation. I think the stimulation gets really exhausting, so I try to take a break from it. I live out in the country so when I’m working from home, I have the great pleasure of being able to go walk in my own woods. During the day that can be really helpful, just to take a little 20-minute walk in the woods with the dog. I’ve also just recently gotten into disc golf so when the weather is nice I like to get out and play.

Catherine: What is the best piece of advice you've ever received?

Dr. Pyles: This came from a mentor of mine named Ed Canda, and he is a faculty at the University of Kansas. There was a point during my PhD program where I was unsure if social work was really the path for me in terms of my scholarly endeavors. My whole life I have tended to think that it must be better somewhere else or there must be something else out there.

He said, "You’ve got to land somewhere." When I heard that, it seemed like wise words and it ended up being very helpful to me, something I have come back to when I find myself searching for something else. I can do the work that I'm called to do in social work. Yes, it's not perfect but in some other discipline it's not going to be perfect either, nothing is going to be perfect. That was helpful to me and landing here in this profession, I've been able to build a body of work and make a modest impact by just staying put and doing it.

There is an old saying, if you are trying to dig a well for water, you are not going to find it if you dig only a few inches and then move somewhere else, constantly searching. You have to stay put in one place and dig deep. The rewards, i.e. the water, will come.

Catherine: What projects have you been working on?

Dr. Pyles: Two major publications I have coming out in the next month. One is a book with a former PhD student, Juliana Svistova, it's called, Production of Disaster and Recovery and Post-Earthquake Haiti: Disaster Industrial Complex. It is part of the Routledge Humanitarian Studies Series. We conducted research extensively over several years using critical discourse analysis of media, policy documents and NGO documents related to the recovery of Haiti earthquakes. It's our final coup de grâce with that work, and we are excited about it seeing the light of day. Some of the theorizing that we're doing in that work, we think is innovative, having interdisciplinary impacts in development and humanitarian circles, as well as in social work, geography, planning, Haitian-Caribbean studies, and others.

The other book is called, Healing Justice: Holistic Self-Care for Change Makers, coming out from Oxford University Press. This book frames self-care as a social justice issue and contextualizes self-care in light of oppression, trauma, social welfare retrenchment, digital capitalism, and neoliberalism. I view it as an active resistance to these larger forces. It offers significant analysis in that regard, but also lots of actual practical skill building using the whole self – body, mind, spirit, the natural world, and community – for self-care. I'm also a meditation and yoga teacher, so that piece figures prominently in it. I think it is an exciting offering. I heard from my social work students for many years that faculty tell them that they should do self-care, but no one ever teaches them how to do it or really models it. It is my offering to students and practitioners – social workers, activists, change makers and caregivers. It is intended to be a crossover book bridging scholarship and practice, and hopefully serving as a resource that can be of support, and accessible to everybody.

Catherine: Thank you so much for speaking with me and sharing with the SSWR Doctoral Student Task Force.