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 email@example.com.
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.
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.