Nothing about my career as a social work researcher has been given to me on a plate – but I think that’s what I like about it. I’ve had to fight to find the exciting opportunities, create the interesting collaborations, but in doing that I’ve owned them all in some way, and that’s been very motivating.
My interest in research was there from the beginning – although it was latent at first. After graduating (in history) I went into social work. People, social problems and the potential to create social change drew me in. I worked in a residential care home for people with learning disabilities first, and then did my professional training in social work.
My first job after training was in a community mental health team based in a local authority building though integrated with a mental health trust. The experience of working in a truly joint team where nurses, social workers and psychiatrists came together was a formative experience which taught me a lot about the value of collaborative working across the professions in mental health.
“Mental health professionals from different disciplines need to work together because we’re working with the same people.”
After three years in a community mental health team after my training, I wanted more academic stimulation and I wanted to make a wider impact – beyond my individual case load. I saw an advertisement for a competition for small research grants for practitioner research– which I went for, and I was successful! Seeking academic supervision for this project, I approached a prominent Professor of Social Work in mental health research who alerted me to competitive Department of Health-funded Social Science Fellowships which were soon to be advertised. I was successful in obtaining one of these – which provided me with four years’ funding to complete a research Masters and then my PhD.
I’ve had to be bold and stick my neck out for these opportunities. Few of my social work colleagues were interested in the path that I was beating towards research. We’re working on changing it and there are now many more opportunities available than when I started out. But at the moment I’m afraid there is still no single, clear pathway for social workers to get into research. So if you want to do it, and you’ve got the aptitude for research, you have to have a bit of boldness, ambition and tenacity to seek out and utilise opportunities to create an exciting career in mental health research.
“Get in touch with the R&D department in your Trust. They’ll be aware of the studies that are going on and they’ll be able to put you in touch with the Principal Investigators of those.”