By: Lucas J. Gogliotti, BASW, Justin J. Pung, BASW, & Suzanne L. Cross, Ph.D., ACSW, LMSW
Undergraduate research can be incredibly beneficial to social work students. Students may feel too busy to take on the burden of another obligation, but a research project is worth the added responsibility. Lucas Gogliotti and Justin Pung, two social work seniors at Michigan State University, have had the experience of working on a research team with Dr. Suzanne Cross, an associate professor at MSU, and Dr. Angelique Day, who was working at the time as a community agency employee.
This quantitative and qualitative research study, entitled, Best Practices for the Recruitment and Retention of American Indian Social Work Students, was conducted from 2008-2011. The two students joined the research team in the fall semester of 2010. Each student received the Provost University Research Initiative (PURI) Award, which provided funding for them while they participated in the research. Justin focused his literature review on the recruitment and Lucas on the retention of American Indian students in social work programs. In addition, both students conducted individual interviews and learned research methods, data analysis, and manuscript development. They participated in poster presentations at the NASW-Michigan Chapter conference, the school of social work research festival, and (for Justin) the Council on Social Work Education Annual Program Meeting (CSWE-APM).
The students’ experience was invaluable, and they want to encourage other students to extend themselves to yield the benefits of undergraduate research. Therefore, Lucas and Justin have developed a list of ten benefits of social work undergraduate research.
1. Relationships With Faculty
Developing relationships with social work faculty provides a great experience to spend time with established professionals. Involvement in a research project allows a student one-on-one time and/or small group interactions with a faculty member. During this relationship, students learn in-depth the actual processes of research, an experience they are likely not to have had in a research course. This relationship also allows the faculty member the opportunity to observe the student’s research skill sets more directly than in a classroom setting. Conducting research can be confusing and difficult to grasp at times. However, with the help and support of my faculty advisor, I (Lucas) was able to gain a firm understanding of the process. I got course credit for my research project, but I didn’t have to share the attention of the professor with 20 other students.
2. Organizational Skills
In professional settings, it is necessary to manage numerous responsibilities while still staying composed. Adding a research project to classes and extracurricular activities is a good chance for a student to practice this essential skill. Granted, the life of a college student is anything but calm and free of stress, especially during senior year. Yet, it is vital students get involved in research projects if they can, as early as the sophomore or junior year. Personally, I (Justin) have already seen the impact that participating in research has had on my time management skills. During the fall semester of my senior year, I enrolled in 15 credits, spent 16 hours a week or more at my field placement, had a part-time job, and was the treasurer/secretary for a student social work organization. I was not stressed out over any of this, because putting extra time into research during my junior year prepared me to handle multiple commitments.
3. Learn the Research Process
Social workers are aware that research, policy, and practice are forever linked. Therefore, it is advantageous to become familiar with research methods before entering the field. The complexities of research can be intimidating at first, but students are not without help in a project. We were fortunate to learn research methodology from a professional social worker, who worked for a community agency and is now a professor at Wayne State University. At first, I (Justin) had a difficult time understanding the statistical concepts we worked with, such as Pearson’s Chi Square. As the project continued, however, I gained a better understanding of them, and my senior year statistics class felt mostly like review after having this first exposure. Thanks to this experience, we both feel confident conducting more research at the graduate and professional levels.
4. Learn Interview Skills
Conducting interviews for a research project is the perfect way to practice interviewing skills. Many undergraduate students have had little or no experience conducting formal interviews prior to their field placements in the senior year. Even new social workers may be nervous when conducting one-on-one interviews as recent hires in a professional setting. As student research assistants, we had a great opportunity to hone skills as interviewers and to develop our own personal interview styles. We were able to conduct phone interviews with American Indian social work students. These interviews were low pressure and highly structured. They gave us a chance to learn about ourselves as interviewers, and we felt prepared to conduct interviews in our field placements because of this experience.
5. Cultural Competence
Social work students learn very quickly that they serve a wide range of clients. It is important, therefore, to step out of one’s comfort zone early and take on a research project with a focus on a diverse population. Although both of us can trace a portion of our heritage to American Indians, we were not intimately familiar with the realities that they currently face. Researching the recruitment and retention of American Indian/Alaskan Native college students has motivated us to develop a deeper connection with this population and our heritage within it. Through this research project, I (Justin) found that I enjoy working with and learning about diverse populations. It was a worthwhile experience. I feel all aspiring social workers should not pass up such an invaluable opportunity to increase their cultural competence.
6. Letters of Reference
Most MSW programs require applicants for admission to have three letters of recommendation. Professors are a great source to draw upon for reference letters. Nevertheless, most students have had limited, if any, out of classroom conversation with their faculty. Thus, it is difficult to receive a faculty reference that will share the student’s knowledge, commitment, and lessons learned during the research process. Involvement in research projects provides a great opportunity for the students to spend the time with faculty to build a “letter of recommendation worthy relationship.” I (Lucas) was able to receive two letters of recommendation from my research advisors. These letters were thorough and complete, because I had the time to build a relationship with the referees and they were able to highlight my positive qualities as a researcher.
7. Potential To Get Published
Few undergraduates are co-authors of a published journal article. We are on the verge of claiming that title, as the manuscript produced from the research is close to submission to a peer-reviewed journal. If undergraduates become published co-authors, they have the knowledge that they have accomplished something many students do not even attempt until they are in graduate school. It should be noted that not all research projects will result in publication, but the opportunity is there. We feel fortunate that we could be published co-authors so early in our careers. I (Lucas) hope to become a professor one day, so having a journal article on my résumé as an undergraduate is a huge asset. Students interested in this potential benefit should approach professors and ask if they need research assistants for any of their projects.
The idea of attending a professional social work conference may not appeal to some undergraduate students, but it is a great opportunity. Undergraduate researchers may be given the opportunity to co-present their research at professional conferences. This gives the student a chance to stand up in front of professional social workers and faculty to explain research findings. It’s also a good chance to get rid of some of the public speaking “nerves” that students have, because audiences at conferences are usually welcoming to college students. We were given the opportunity to present at three different professional conferences. The experience in presenting will help us immensely in graduate school and as professionals when audiences will have higher expectations.
Students need to engage in activities that will convince graduate schools and employers that it would be a mistake on their part not to choose them. A student’s chances will improve if he or she can proudly put “Research” beside a bullet point. When graduate schools come across an applicant who committed to research, they most likely see someone that is prepared to take on the rigors of graduate-level coursework. Employers will probably note that students took the initiative to apply their academic skills to a real world issue, and expect that they can transition well into the workplace. As I (Justin) spoke to representatives from graduate schools, I found them to be impressed that I had conducted research and presented it a number of times at conferences. Once they knew what I had accomplished, it felt more like they were trying to convince me to come to their program, not me trying to convince them why I should be accepted. There are few rock solid means to prevent a résumé from being passed over, so students should strongly consider involvement in research.
10. Potential To Earn Money
As most undergraduate social work students know, a majority of the jobs that a student can get outside of flipping burgers are volunteer positions. Even though volunteering is a learning experience and makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside, it doesn’t pay for tuition, bills, and textbooks. Undergraduate research can be a great way to earn money doing something that actually relates to social work. Not all research jobs pay money, but when they do, it is a great addition to the previously mentioned benefits. Your earnings may equal that of a part-time job, allow for more independent time management, and come with developing critical thinking, development of research knowledge, skills, and experience. We were able to receive a grant that paid us $1,000 a semester. We would have participated in a research project voluntarily, but the income really helped us. For an undergraduate social work student looking for a job, a paid research position is one of the best available.
Lucas J. Gogliotti, BASW, was a senior at Michigan State University in the School of Social Work at the time this article was written. He is now a student in the MSW program at the University of Michigan. Lucas served as the BSW student representative on the NASW-MI Board of Directors.
Justin J. Pung, BASW, was a senior at Michigan State University in the School of Social Work at the time of this writing. He is now pursuing an MSW degree at Loyola University Chicago. He was Secretary/Treasurer for MSU’s Phi Alpha Chapter.
Suzanne L. Cross, Ph.D., ACSW, LMSW, is an associate professor at Michigan State University School of Social Work. She enjoys working with students on research projects to increase and broaden their learning experiences. Her research interests include historical trauma, grand families, student recruitment and retention, and collaboration with tribal nations. Dr. Cross was selected for the 2012 Mit Joyner Gerontology Award for her work with American Indian elders.
This article appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER. All rights reserved. Copyright 2012 White Hat Communications.