by Jerry Finn, Ph.D.
They say that "what goes around, comes around." Happened to me. When I was a first-year MSW student, I took my first Policy class. I wanted to be a therapist. After a week, I (foolishly) asked my professor, "Why do we need any of this?" He looked pained and proceeded to tell me that Policy was "the rules," and that those rules would determine what services I could provide, to whom, and what funding and access there would be for my "therapy." I didn’t "get it" at the time.
Now I teach research. One evening, one of my very bright MSW students looked frustrated. I asked if there was something she didn’t understand. "No," she answered, "I just don’t see why I’ll ever need this." I made the same pained expression my Policy teacher had 30 years earlier. For drama, I also clutched my heart. But she was serious and didn’t mean to induce cardiac arrest. In fact, she wasn’t asking a question; she was honestly stating her feelings. (We teach social work students that it' good to do that.)
And so, I was sure I had failed her-not her grade, but her education. Hadn’t I given the "why you need research" lecture? Hadn’t we discussed fascinating research designs and crucial outcome studies? Hadn’t we discussed research ethics, literature reviews, critical analyses, statistical testing, outcomes evaluation? We had...and yet the question remained.
I came to realize she didn’t doubt the importance of research...she doubted the relevance of research for her. She was sure SHE would never knowingly do research. I was sure I would never (knowingly) do Policy analysis (or teach research)...foolish me, and probably foolish her.
I guess I need to make my case again. How can you be a clinician, a therapist, a rape advocate, a domestic violence shelter worker, a youth counselor, or any direct service worker without research skills? It would be nice to think we taught you everything you needed to know in the social work program. Too bad. We didn’t. When I was a therapist, I was seeing a client for marital counseling. I had learned a lot about family systems. One day my client told me his father had sexually abused him as a child. Funny, my program never taught me about sexual abuse of boys by their fathers. What should I do? I needed the developmental impact of this kind of sexual abuse. What kinds of treatments were likely to be effective? How much was suicide a risk? Should I explore and reflect past feelings or teach avoidance and compartmentalization? I was glad to know how to use a library and the research literature. Other people' research made my work a lot less anxiety provoking.
Good social workers care about what happens to their clients. Yes, using effective treatments and validating results is part of the NASW Code of Ethics, but good social workers don’t want to be effective because of the NASW Code of Ethics. They want to be effective because they CARE. Research (the single subject design you learn in Research Methods) helps you and your clients see what you are accomplishing (or not). And, it' fun to play "connect the dots" and interpret what they mean.
I heard about this exciting new treatment: rapid eyeball movement therapy. It really works. Or so they say. Decisions, decisions, decisions...so many decisions to make as part of providing services to your clients. What exciting new services should you use? Is it better to use individual or group treatment? How many sessions does it take for a men' domestic violence group to effect change? Is a "ropes course" effective in promoting group solidarity with teenagers? Should we encourage the school system to have a DARE program? Sometimes the research literature has some answers. Sometimes it doesn’t. You need to know how to get the evidence you need to make treatment decisions. You can be a "force" for evidence-based practice at your agency. We’ll do things because we can prove they work. OK, sometimes we’ll try something innovative if there is enough theory or evidence to think it' worth a try. And we won’t continue to spend money if it doesn’t work. You have to know how to prove it one way or another.
Money. Money. Money. I hate that so much always come down to money. But it does. You want money to continue your program. You want money to expand services. You want money for new services. You can get it, but you have to know how (and who) to ask. These days, people (funders) don’t give money easily. You have to get it the old fashioned way...prove you need it and will use it wisely. That takes research. Prove that people want, need, and will use your service. Prove that what you want to do is effective. Prove that someone else isn’t already doing it and doing it better. Prove that the money we already gave you was put to good use. You prove it with program evaluation, a.k.a. research.
Sometimes people say strange and hurtful things in the name of "truth." Sometimes people will say them because they want to stop what you are doing or prevent you from continuing what you are doing. Things like, "Most people on welfare cheat the system," or "98% of men pay their child support." Sometimes they come up with research to prove it. You need to know enough about research to show them (or politicians/funders/your community) the error of their way, or their method of obtaining data, or their statistical procedures, or their (false) conclusions. You have to "smell" it, then point it out, then get rid of it (and occasionally throw it back in their face).
OK, if you don’t want to "walk the walk," at least learn to talk the talk. If not you, SOMEONE will do research at your agency. You can explain your program and objectives in language that a researcher understands, and you can understand the language of researchers to be sure that what is being done is appropriate. Bilingual is good.
Maybe you won’t ever (have to) do research (or policy analysis). Maybe you will. Maybe you think you’ll be a therapist for the rest of your life. I did. Funny, though, things change. You may become a supervisor, an advocate, an administrator, a program evaluator, or even a research professor. In the meantime, I have a hammer in my garage. I rarely use it, but when I need one, it' awfully handy. I wish you the best with your research tools.
Jerry Finn, Ph.D., is a Professor in the School of Social Administration, Temple University. He has taught social work for 24 years and has played an active role as a board member of the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and the Association of Baccalaureate Social Work Program Directors (BPD).