When people think about social work, research social work is probably not one of the first fields that comes to mind. Nevertheless, research social work actually plays an important role as its findings can dictate not only governmental policy, but also political reform as well as the allocation of funding.
Research social workers need to be methodical, objective, and thorough in their research. As with any other field of research, the goal is not to confirm what you hope to be true, but rather figure out what is true.
For example, suppose that a city program offers a $1 million grant to a local community led organization. Before that money can be spent, the grant stipulates that a study must be completed to find out what groups in the community need the most support.
In this case, although the research social worker might have pre-existing ideas about how the money should be spent, it is their job to put their personal beliefs aside and complete an objective study of the community to determine where resources are lacking.
The preceding example illustrates a case where a research social worker may be polling hundreds of thousands or people, looking at economic and housing data, and otherwise compiling a macro-view of the community. Research social work can also exist at the micro-level.
Participatory research refers to research whereby a social worker integrates themselves with a person or family in order to understand the problems they face and, more broadly, what community resources are missing or inadequate. There are both advantages and disadvantages to this “micro-view” participatory research.
- It’s possible to gain a very detailed view of a single person’s life and how they interact with the community. Much can be learned that would not otherwise reveal itself through a high level poll or questionnaire.
- Due to the trust that can form between a community member and a research social worker, the “subject” may reveal more than they would with a questionnaire.
- Participatory research is time consuming and resource heavy. For example, if a research social worker spends two days with a family, that’s time that they could have otherwise spent gathering data from hundreds or thousands of community members via more efficient means.
- It can become very difficult to remain objective as participatory research can lead the researcher to believe that one family’s problems are the most pressing, even if data strongly indicates that other groups are in greater need.
- Relationships can form between the social worker and the subject. While these are not necessarily negative, they may lead to biases in data collection which wouldn’t otherwise be prevalent with more impersonal research methods.
Ultimately both macro and micro (participatory) research have a role to play in data gathering. Throughout their careers a research social worker will most likely conduct both kinds of research, and everything in between.
How research social workers need to conduct themselves
In terms of participatory research it is important for a research social worker to take into account multiple voices from the community. So even if a research social believes they know which groups are most at risk they still need to conduct wide ranging interviews and remain objectively open to the answers that they receive. This really touches upon a key facet of research social work: objectivity. Being open to what the data is saying regardless of whether it confirms or denies existing views held by the research social worker.
Also, it’s important to realize that research social workers may not be able to divulge the purpose of their research as they’re carrying it out. If participants knew the reason that the social worker was conducting a study they may be biased in how they present themselves or answer the social worker’s inquiries. This can actually prove frustrating for research social workers as they may not be able to answer even the most basic questions about what they’re doing.
Why social work research is important
We’ve covered why social research is important in regard to determining needs within a community and how that research can help to allocate funding to the proper areas. But research social work is also important in determining the efficacy of programs that have been implemented in the community. For example, research social workers can,
- Administer before and after surveys to determine how the implementation of a new program has benefitted (or not benefitted) the community.
- They may also conduct individual interviews with community members to find out how they feel about new programs. More specifically, these interviews may also be a chance to learn exactly how community members are benefitting from a program and also their thoughts on how it can be improved.
Research social work is very important in that it helps to determine what programs are needed in a community and after the programs are created it is research social workers who measure their efficacy.
While a “regular” social worker may spend their life seeing the trees (dealing with individual cases) it is the research social worker’s goal to see the forest. That is, understand the broader macro environment and the role that community programs play in it.
Educational requirements to become a research social worker
Most candidates should only consider taking a degree from a CSWE (Council on Social Work Education) accredited institution. Educational institutions without this accreditation may lack a rigorous teaching approach and degree holders from non-CSWE universities may find it more difficult to locate a good job.
Research social work typically requires a candidate to have a Ph.D. as they will be expected to have a comprehensive understanding of statistics and how to compile the data that they collect. Thus research social work typically requires a large commitment in terms of schooling.
In some cases, however, a social worker with a masters degree may be able to find work in the research field. Typically this person will handle assignments like distributing questionnaires and doing other data collection tasks in the neighborhood. A Ph.D. social worker will then compile that data and present the findings to local and federal government officials, among others.
Why research social work can be difficult
One of the primary difficulties associated with social work research is that the social research worker’s role isn’t actually to help, but rather to study and gather data. This is not to suggest that the social worker must be robotic and ignore all problems, however, their role isn’t to solve but to observe. A research social worker may suggest that a “regular” social worker get involved but that’s typically the extent of what they can do.
It can also be difficult doing participatory research, getting to know a subject or a family over the course of a day or two and then having to leave that family and move on. A normal social worker may stay with a family for months or even years, and enjoy a greater reward as that family’s situation improves.
Thus social work research is suggested for those who understand their limited intervention role and are truly interested in data and devising the most effective ways to measure the efficacy of programs within the neighborhood. Research social workers can get their satisfaction from seeing community programs succeed, rather than working with individual subjects.
Research social work career outlook
It can be difficult to determine the career outlook specifically in regard to the research social worker. This is a very niche area of social work, all the more so since it typically requires a Ph.D. That being said, we can still gain valuable information by looking at overall trends for the social work field.
The BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics) estimates that from 2018 to 2028 there will be an 11% growth rate in the field of social work. Given that the anticipated job growth rate for all fields is about 5%, the job prospects for social workers are very good. In terms of actual numbers, the BLS states that 81,200 new social work jobs will be created by 2028.
Research social worker salary
Again, when it comes to determining the salary for a research social worker it’s difficult as there is little data available. That being the case we can still make a fairly good estimation of how much research social workers earn.
According to HumanServicesEdu.org, “NASW found that a DSW or PhD can boost your earnings by around $17,000 over the baseline numbers you could expect with a bachelor’s.”
BLS data indicates that the 2019 median annual social worker wage was $50,470. Add $17,000 to that number and we can estimate that a research social worker may earn $67,470. That’s an impressive number, especially if the social worker is living in a relatively inexpensive city. While cities like Los Angeles and New York pay more, the cost of living typically evens out any gains in salary.
Overall we can see that research social workers tend to earn more than other social workers and their job prospects are very good. Students who only begin their degree program in 2020 or 2021 should still expect to have favorable job prospects when they graduate.