Tag: research on social work practice

‘Losing my undergraduate consciousness’: Reflections on the transition from undergraduate to postgraduate identity in social work research

Melissa Laing is a PhD candidate in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University. She graduated from the RMIT Bachelor of Social Work (Honours)/Bachelor of Social Science (Psychology) in 2016. Melissa’s blog describes her experience of transitioning from undergraduate study, graduation into practitioner identity, and commencing postgraduate research (almost) simultaneously. Melissa can be contacted at melissa.laing@rmit.edu.au.

Commencing a doctoral degree can be a big transition for any new PhD student, but doing so soon after graduating from an undergraduate degree brings unique challenges to the emerging social work professional identity. As one of the few social work graduates at my university to go directly into a PhD program, there was no clear process to guide me through this unique and at times overwhelming transition. In this blog post, I reflect upon aspects of my own experience of transitioning from undergraduate to postgraduate study, which could be helpful for final year social work students contemplating a similar path.

During my final year Social Work placement, which was in the research centre I am now associated with, I overheard a conversation between an academic and a student he was supervising. The student was asking about how she could really step up into feeling like a PhD candidate. Her supervisor replied, “you need to lose your undergraduate consciousness”. There seemed to be something a bit magical about these words, but I would not recognise what they were foreshadowing until quite a bit later…

Completion of an undergraduate social work degree necessitates a shift in identity from student to the social work practitioner. Is there a discrete social work identity? Miehls and Moffatt (2000, p. 339) describe social work identity as “a sense of ego mastery and control by the acquisition of theory to enhance skill-based practice expertise”, while Barnard (2009) makes the claim that the graduate social worker ‘self’ attains stability on becoming a practitioner. But what if this new identity emerges concurrently with the cultivation of another ‘self’ –that of the PhD student? Kamler and Thomson (2014) suggest that the process of constructing an identity as a PhD scholar is about multiple identities, and this was certainly the case with my identity as both a graduate social worker AND new PhD student.

Beginning a research degree as a new social work graduate was not the plan that I had when commencing as an undergraduate, so this unexpected and divergent ‘PhD identity’ path choice entailed treading overwhelming terrain. I was now a social worker, but I wasn’t ‘doing social work’. Who was I, and what was the point of having invested five years on two degrees (social work and psychology)? Was I a failed social worker? My research wasn’t even related to social work practice.


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A turning point arrived when I witnessed an inspiring lecture on World Social Work Day, where the need for social work researchers was articulated. I had the realisation that this was the integrated identity I could aspire to. Bringing social work more explicitly into my research would enable me to give expression to my identity as a social work graduate within my emerging academic identity. My fully integrated identity would be as a Social Work Researcher collecting stories about how social workers in direct practice are working in ways that the literature has yet to catch up with.

Getting back to the overheard words of wisdom, I pulled the supervisor aside later to share how his words had affected me, and that I wondered how I could lose my undergraduate consciousness (hypothetically speaking). He suggested that it was largely about cultivating authority, and that in the identity work required to become a postgraduate researcher, we by necessity become an expert in the little piece of academia that we are staking out and claiming as our own. In the twin emergent identities, there lies a tension between the aspiration to be an expert in academia, versus the social worker who relinquishes a desire to be an expert as a necessary part of anti-oppressive practice. As a means of sitting with this tension, Kamler and Thomson (2014, p. 16-17) have made propositions about identity construction in the context of completing a doctorate, and the developing social worker can be nested with ease within these ideas. To each proposition (in bold italics), I have added direct questions and an example of my own experience with that proposition.

Identity is plural, not singular – identities

How does my social work identity ‘fit’ with my emerging researcher self? What does the Researcher bring to the Practitioner?

Since beginning my PhD, my social worker self has strengthened as my research has become more explicitly informed by the major driver of my decision to take the divergent path—my animal advocacy. As I have moved through the first year of my doctorate and acquired a range of skills necessary to attain the first milestone, my social worker identity provided the skills required to complete my literature review and problem identification (needs assessment), research proposal (intervention plan), and a confirmation of candidature seminar (case conference).

An identity narrative is informed by the ways in which we are seen and described

Am I ‘putting myself out there’? Am I rehearsing my emerging PhD scholar by seeking out and engaging with peers?

New social workers are guided to build strong, often interdisciplinary networks of relationships. I was able to find a desk in both the research centre I am affiliated with, and the social work office, which has enabled me to embody both identities in a very tangible way. Not only had I become a postgraduate student at the university where I completed my undergraduate social work degree, but my former lecturers were now relating to me as though I was their academic equal. This took some getting used to, but having a constant physical presence in both spaces allowed for many serendipitous hallway conversations and helped me to ‘feel’ like a peer to both those who had helped shape my social work graduate identity, and were shaping that of the emerging scholar.

 Identities are continually being made and remade in and as action

Am I saying ‘yes’ to opportunities to get out of my comfort zone? Am I asking for help when I feel lost?

Social work students are taught from early on that critical social work requires regular reflection and reflexivity. Use of a journal to track emotional, academic and task-specific progress has been central to this process for me, as has using new experiences (such as writing articles and speaking at lectures and symposia) as learning opportunities gave me the chance to ‘perform’ the doctoral identity (Kamler & Thomson, 2014).

Twelve months of occupying both the social worker and PhD candidate, I feel I am embodying the social work researcher, and look forward to how these identities will intertwine further in the next 12 months.


Kamler, B., & Thomson, P. (2014). Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervision. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Miehls, D. & Moffatt, K. (2000). Constructing social work identity based on the reflexive self, British Journal of Social Work, 30, 339-348.



Describing substance abuse treatment through actor-network theory

Brad Roberg (BSW) has been a social worker within the field of substance abuse treatment for the past 13 years. He has graduate qualifications in substance abuse studies and philosophy. Brad is currently enrolled in a Social Science Honours program at RMIT. He has a particular interest in research looking at how social workers practice, and the forces that shape these practices. Email Brad at Brad.Roberg@wh.org.au

I have recently commenced an Honours thesis, looking at how actor-network theory can contribute to the description and analysis of practice. Methodologically, I will be conducting an ethnography of practice. In part, this comes about because of the importance to understand and research practice, even though, as Pithouse (1985) states, practice is a largely invisible world. So, in the context of evidence-based practice, it seems to make sense that we would try to open up this world of practice to understand and explore what’s going on.

It would come as no surprise to many in the health and welfare sectors that much of the details of practice are hidden, and practice frequently takes place behind closed doors. This presents a problem for a student-researcher who also happens to be a manager: Who is looking? Why? What happens with the evidence gathered? How can one be an ‘insider’ and retain the sufficient objectivity required for research to be valid? These are not unusual questions, and form much of the reasoning for research ethics scrutiny; deservedly so, too.

Practice may be the object of my research, but what I am interested in is not so much what professionals say and do, as it is how people and objects relate, and how this shapes practices, forming the objects of intervention? This is what I take actor-network theory to offer. Actor-network theory is a view of the world where non-human objects have a kind of agency (Sayes, 2014; Latour, 2005); where the boundary that makes humans the locus of action and objects the passive tools of our intent is revealed as unstable, shifting, permeable. For example, the social lives of professionals in a multidisciplinary team for the treatment of opiate dependence are mediated by many non-human objects: laptops, urine drug screen results, patient identification numbers, files and software, proformas and meeting templates requiring dates and signatures. Without these objects, I hypothesise that the kinds of practices that are enacted and the decisions that are made and the outcomes that are produced can be transformed.

From the methodology of actor-network theory, the research involves writing accounts of practice. This is an insistent message from actor-network theory. Write an account. In doing so, assemble an account that reconstructs the ways in which the social worlds of informants come into being…or fall apart. It is a critical insight of the approach to insist on widening our frame of reference for ‘the social’ (Strum & Latour, 1987).

© Julien Eichinger via Fotolia

Such an approach calls for the researcher to dispense temporarily ‘the social’ as a frame, and to start with the basic building blocks of sociality, which are conceptualised as associations (Latour, 2005). What associations can be mapped that go together to compose something like a social world? This calls for what I’ve been thinking of as a strict or radical empiricism – leave nothing out. Describe everything, the scene of practice and the various elements composing it, and describe what happens within it.My research aim is to map social worlds of practice in their specificity, and as multiplicities. This is something Mol (2002) describes with remarkable limpidity; the multiplicity of an object (in her case, the disease

My research aim is to map social worlds of practice in their specificity, and as multiplicities. This is something Mol (2002) describes with remarkable limpidity; the multiplicity of an object (in her case, the disease artherosclerosis) has many realities, depending on where it is encountered (the outpatient clinic, the pathology lab), under what conditions (acute illness presentations, chronic disease management needs), in the context of which practices (under the surgical knife, or in the occupational therapists assessment). The object ‘artherosclerosis’ is multiple here, the life of interpretivism (multiple perspectives on one object) doesn’t hold; artherosclerosis is done differently and differentially. Bodies (human and non-human) are taken up into multiple practices, brought into multiple relations with other bodies, producing multiple worlds. This approach demands that as a researcher I take on an ontological shift, away from describing a world of being (“What is it?”) to worlds of becoming (“how is it done?”).

Which brings me back to my original point – it’s easy to think of the invisibilities of practice in terms simply of what professionals do ‘in the room’, matters of technique, whether what’s said is ‘evidence-based’ or not. But if we accept that social worlds are constructed as much of non-human objects as human subjects, and if we accept that non-human objects can have a form of agency,  then the things we often fail to see become visible and important to understanding practice. In this sense, The world dissolves into a multiplicity of world-making practices, and the things we assumed were inert and therefore of little account, tools to be used by an intentional subject, suddenly take on a life of their own or, at least, lives in relation to us. And this really is the point – a life is one that takes place in relations. Which is what Social Work has been trying to say all along.


Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network theory. Oxford, GBR: Oxford University Press

Mol, A.  (2002). The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. Durham:  Duke University Press.

Pithouse, A. (1985). Poor visibility: Case talk and collegial assessment in a social work office. Work & Occupations. 12(1), pp. 77-89.

Sayes, E. (2014). Actor-Network theory and methodology: Just what does it means to say that nonhumans have agency? Social Studies of Science. 44(1), pp. 134-149.

Strum, S. & Latour, B. (1987). Redefining the social link: From baboons to humans. Social Science Information, 26(4), 783-802.