When thinking about social work, some may consider the field to solely focus on clinical interventions with individuals or groups.
There may be a mistaken impression that research is not a part of the social work profession. This is completely false. Rather, the two have been and will continue to need to be intertwined.
This guide covers why social workers should care about research, how both social work practice and social work research influence and guide each other, how to build research skills both as a student and as a professional working in the field, and the benefits of being a social worker with strong research skills.
A selection of social work research jobs are also discussed.In this guide
- Social workers and research
- Evidence-based practice
- Practice and research
- Research and practice
- Build research skills
- Social worker as researcher
- Benefits of research skills
- Research jobs
Why should social workers care about research?
Sometimes it may seem as though social work practice and social work research are two separate tracks running parallel to each other – they both seek to improve the lives of clients, families and communities, but they don’t interact. This is not the way it is supposed to work.
Research and practice should be intertwined, with each affecting the other and improving processes on both ends, so that it leads to better outcomes for the population we’re serving.
Section 5 of the NASW Social Work Code of Ethics is focused on social workers’ ethical responsibilities to the social work profession. There are two areas in which research is mentioned in upholding our ethical obligations: for the integrity of the profession (section 5.01) and for evaluation and research (section 5.02).
Some of the specific guidance provided around research and social work include:
- 5.01(b): …Social workers should protect, enhance, and improve the integrity of the profession through appropriate study and research, active discussion, and responsible criticism of the profession.
- 5.01(d): Social workers should contribute to the knowledge base of social work and share with colleagues their knowledge related to practice, research, and ethics…
- 5.02(a) Social workers should monitor and evaluate policies, the implementation of programs, and practice interventions.
- 5.02(b) Social workers should promote and facilitate evaluation and research to contribute to the development of knowledge.
- 5.02(c) Social workers should critically examine and keep current with emerging knowledge relevant to social work and fully use evaluation and research evidence in their professional practice.
- 5.02(q) Social workers should educate themselves, their students, and their colleagues about responsible research practices.
Evidence-based practice and evidence-based treatment
In order to strengthen the profession and determine that the interventions we are providing are, in fact, effective, we must conduct research. When research and practice are intertwined, this leads practitioners to develop evidence-based practice (EBP) and evidence-based treatment (EBT).
Evidence-based practice is, according to The National Association of Social Workers (NASW), a process involving creating an answerable question based on a client or organizational need, locating the best available evidence to answer the question, evaluating the quality of the evidence as well as its applicability, applying the evidence, and evaluating the effectiveness and efficiency of the solution.
Evidence-based treatment is any practice that has been established as effective through scientific research according to a set of explicit criteria (Drake et al., 2001). These are interventions that, when applied consistently, routinely produce improved client outcomes.
For example, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) was one of a variety of interventions for those with anxiety disorders. Researchers wondered if CBT was better than other intervention options in producing positive, consistent results for clients.
So research was conducted comparing multiple types of interventions, and the evidence (research results) demonstrated that CBT was the best intervention.
The anecdotal evidence from practice combined with research evidence determined that CBT should become the standard treatment for those diagnosed with anxiety. Now more social workers are getting trained in CBT methods in order to offer this as a treatment option to their clients.
How does social work practice affect research?
Social work practice provides the context and content for research. For example, agency staff was concerned about the lack of nutritional food in their service area, and heard from clients that it was too hard to get to a grocery store with a variety of foods, because they didn’t have transportation, or public transit took too long.
So the agency applied for and received a grant to start a farmer’s market in their community, an urban area that was considered a food desert. This program accepted their state’s version of food stamps as a payment option for the items sold at the farmer’s market.
The agency used their passenger van to provide free transportation to and from the farmer’s market for those living more than four blocks from the market location.
The local university also had a booth each week at the market with nursing and medical students checking blood pressure and providing referrals to community agencies that could assist with medical needs. The agency was excited to improve the health of its clients by offering this program.
But how does the granting foundation know if this was a good use of their money? This is where research and evaluation comes in. Research could gather data to answer a number of questions. Here is but a small sample:
- How many community members visited each week and purchased fruits and vegetables?
- How many took advantage of the transportation provided, and how many walked to the market?
- How many took advantage of the blood pressure checks? Were improvements seen in those numbers for those having repeat blood pressure readings throughout the market season?
- How much did the self-reported fruit and vegetable intake increase for customers?
- What barriers did community members report in visiting and buying food from the market (prices too high? Inconvenient hours?)
- Do community members want the program to continue next year?
- Was the program cost-effective, or did it waste money by paying for a driver and for gasoline to offer free transportation that wasn’t utilized? What are areas where money could be saved without compromising the quality of the program?
- What else needs to be included in this program to help improve the health of community members?
How does research affect social work practice?
Research can guide practice to implement proven strategies. It can also ask the ‘what if’ or ‘how about’ questions that can open doors for new, innovative interventions to be developed (and then research the effectiveness of those interventions).
Engel and Schutt (2017) describe four categories of research used in social work:
- Descriptive research is research in which social phenomena are defined and described. A descriptive research question would be ‘How many homeless women with substance use disorder live in the metro area?’
- Exploratory research seeks to find out how people get along in the setting under question, what meanings they give to their actions, and what issues concern them. An example research question would be ‘What are the barriers to homeless women with substance use disorder receiving treatment services?’
- Explanatory research seeks to identify causes and effects of social phenomena. It can be used to rule out other explanations for findings and show how two events are related to each other. An explanatory research question would be ‘Why do women with substance use disorder become homeless?’
- Evaluation research describes or identifies the impact of social programs and policies. This type of research question could be ‘How effective was XYZ treatment-first program that combined housing and required drug/alcohol abstinence in keeping women with substance use disorder in stable housing 2 years after the program ended?’
Each of the above types of research can answer important questions about the population, setting or intervention being provided. This can help practitioners determine which option is most effective or cost-efficient or that clients are most likely to adhere to. In turn, this data allows social workers to make informed choices on what to keep in their practice, and what needs changing.
How to build research skills while in school
There are a number of ways to build research skills while a student. BSW and MSW programs require a research course, but there are other ways to develop these skills beyond a single class:
- Volunteer to help a professor working in an area of interest. Professors are often excited to share their knowledge and receive extra assistance from students with similar interests.
- Participate in student research projects where you’re the subject. These are most often found in psychology departments. You can learn a lot about the informed consent process and how data is collected by volunteering as a research participant. Many of these studies also pay a small amount, so it’s an easy way to earn a bit of extra money while you’re on campus.
- Create an independent study research project as an elective and work with a professor who is an expert in an area you’re interested in. You’d design a research study, collect the data, analyze it, and write a report or possibly even an article you can submit to an academic journal.
- Some practicum programs will have you complete a small evaluation project or assist with a larger research project as part of your field education hours.
- In MSW programs, some professors hire students to conduct interviews or enter data on their funded research projects. This could be a good part time job while in school.
- Research assistant positions are more common in MSW programs, and these pay for some or all your tuition in exchange for working a set number of hours per week on a funded research project.
How to build research skills while working as a social worker
Social service agencies are often understaffed, with more projects to complete than there are people to complete them.
Taking the initiative to volunteer to survey clients about what they want and need, conduct an evaluation on a program, or seeing if there is data that has been previously collected but not analyzed and review that data and write up a report can help you stand out from your peers, be appreciated by management and other staff, and may even lead to a raise, a promotion, or even new job opportunities because of the skills you’ve developed.
Benefits of being a social worker with strong research skills
Social workers with strong research skills can have the opportunity to work on various projects, and at higher levels of responsibility.
Many can be promoted into administration level positions after demonstrating they understand how to conduct, interpret and report research findings and apply those findings to improving the agency and their programs.
There’s also a level of confidence knowing you’re implementing proven strategies with your clients.
Social work research jobs
There are a number of ways in which you can blend interests in social work and research. A quick search on Glassdoor.com and Indeed.com retrieved the following positions related to social work research:
- Research Coordinator on a clinical trial offering psychosocial supportive interventions and non-addictive pain treatments to minimize opioid use for pain.
- Senior Research Associate leading and overseeing research on a suite of projects offered in housing, mental health and corrections.
- Research Fellow in a school of social work
- Project Policy Analyst for large health organization
- Health Educator/Research Specialist to implement and evaluate cancer prevention and screening programs for a health department
- Research Interventionist providing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for insomnia patients participating in a clinical trial
- Research Associate for Child Care and Early Education
- Social Services Data Researcher for an organization serving adults with disabilities.
- Director of Community Health Equity Research Programs evaluating health disparities.
No matter your population or area of interest, you’d likely be able to find a position that integrated research and social work.
Social work practice and research are and should remain intertwined. This is the only way we can know what questions to ask about the programs and services we are providing, and ensure our interventions are effective.
There are many opportunities to develop research skills while in school and while working in the field, and these skills can lead to some interesting positions that can make a real difference to clients, families and communities.
Drake, R. E., Goldman, H., Leff, H. S., Lehman, A. F., Dixon, L., Mueser, K. T., et al. (2001). Implementing evidence-based practices in routine mental health service settings. Psychiatric Services, 52(2), 179-182.
Engel, R.J., & Schutt, R.K. (2017). The Practice of Research in Social Work. Sage.
National Association of Social Workers. (n.d). Evidence Based Practice. Retrieved from: https://www.socialworkers.org/News/Research-Data/Social-Work-Policy-Research/Evidence-Based-Practice