Monday, April 28, 2008

Advice for young social work investigators: Interview with Allen Rubin, Ph.D.

Allen Rubin, Ph.D.[Episode 38] In today's podcast, I continue my conversation with Dr. Allen Rubin about social work research. Allen shared his advice for young social work investigators - that is social work researchers who are just starting out in their career as researchers. Allen talks about the value of getting a postdoc, the importance of getting hooked up with a federally-funded investigator for social workers interested doing federally-funded research, having good relationships with social work agencies, and the challenges of actually doing social work research. Allen shared his thoughts on the problems with so-called hot methodologies and the realities of pursuing federal funding.

Download MP3 [24:29]

Dr. Rubin is the Jean Kantambu Latting College Professorship of Leadership and Social Change  at the University of Houston.

At the time of the interview, Dr. Rubin was the Bert Kruger Smith Centennial Professor in the School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin, where he had been a faculty member since 1979. He served as an editorial reviewer for 14 professional journals, was a founding member of the Society for Social Work and Research and served as its vice president from 1996 to 1998 and then as its president from 1998 to 2000. He is the recipient of many awards, including the co-recipient of the Society for Social Work and Research Award for Outstanding Examples of Published Research, the 1993 recipient of the University of Pittsburgh, School of Social Work's Distinguished Alumnus Award, and the 2007 recipient of the Council On Social Work Education's Significant Lifetime Achievement in Social Work Education Award. A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Dr. Rubin continues to be a big fan the Pittsburgh Steelers football team.

Dr. Rubin can be heard talking about research for social work practitioners [Episode 37] and his current research and publishing projects [Episode 39] at the Social Work Podcast. This series of interviews was recorded using Skype.


Jonathan Singer:  Most social workers don’t go into research.  I forget what the statistics are, the percentage of MSWs that get Ph.D.s, but I think it’s pretty low.  I think it’s like one out of every 100.

Allen Rubin: At best.

Jonathan Singer: What advice would you have for young social work investigators regarding a career in social work research?

Allen Rubin: Okay, I often have to do that with—and I’m actually delighted to do that with some of the doctoral students that I mentor and some of the new faculty members that I mentor.  It’s going to depend on what their career aspirations are.  The advice can’t be generalized to all of them.  Let me say, first off, that in all likelihood, they’re probably going to need to get a faculty position as a basis to earn a living while they pursue their research.  It’s not impossible to get other positions, to be director of program evaluation at a state agency and so forth, but that could be pretty constricting in terms of what you can research and the politics that will influence what you do and what you say.  But if you really have a burning desire to do independent scientific research that’s not going to be burdened with political pressures then probably, in all likelihood, you will need to do that as a faculty member.  And then the next question then becomes, what level or scope of research do you want to pursue?  At one extreme are doctoral students about to graduate who say, “I want to go to a research one university,” that will maybe even get a post-doctoral degree.  A lot of people are doing that now, getting a post-doc because their aspiration is to be able to get federal funding—hundreds of thousands of dollars to do very large scope impressive research.  Large scope, perhaps, is not the right word but it’s got to be extremely rigorous research, very tightly controlled, large samples, stuff that you’re probably going to even need an expert biostatistician on your team to help you do, and so forth.

Jonathan Singer: And by post-doc what you mean is after getting your Ph.D., you go, and you work with somebody, for example, for a year or two, and you focus on the research and learning the methodologies and things like that.

Allen Rubin: Exactly.  If folks have that aspiration, then they need to go a premier research one university, and whether it’s as a faculty member or as the post-doc, I think the most critical thing they need to do is to get hooked up with somebody that has a track record of getting federal funding because, from my understanding of the way the game is played, it’s extremely difficult, almost virtually impossible to get funding unless you have that track record.  But how do you get the track record, if you don’t have it?  Well, you get it by hooking up with somebody that already has it and then being a co-principal investigator with them.  And then, when you pursue your own line of research, you can make that esteemed person with the track record your co-principal investigator.  So now, NIMH or NIDR, or whatever federal funding body is looking at your proposal, they’re seeing names that they recognize, “Oh, yeah, Jerry Hogarty, Carol Anderson, and so forth.  Yeah, we can rely on them,” because, and this leads me to something I tell my students all the time, the hardest part about social work research is not in the logic, not in the design, the hardest part is in the feasibility, in the being able to carry it out—finding a setting that will let you do a randomized experimental design with a large enough sample to please the feds.  It’s very hard to find an agency setting that will let you do that or that has the capacity to let you do that.  And then, even if you’re in a setting like that, it is only primarily through the school of hard knocks that researchers learn how much could go wrong when they’re trying to implement the best-laid plans.  So many things can go wrong in terms of recruiting participants: having them follow through, avoiding, retaining them in the study, figuring out ways to keep them from dropping out, making sure that the practitioners that you’re relying on are doing what they’re supposed to be doing and not distorting the intervention or maybe even distorting the research procedures.  I could go on and on.  I talk a lot about it in my book, about the many, many ways the best-designed research does not get completed successfully.  And so, it’s not just a question of name recognition, name dropping, and prestige that these feds are interested in when they see these proposals. 

They want to know that if they’re going to give somebody 300, 400, half of a million dollars to implement this nicely sounding research proposal, that it’s somebody that they can rely on, that’s been through the school of hard knocks, and here is a person that’s had a track record of carrying out these well-designed research projects successfully.  And so, there’s a lot of logic in the funder's minds of having someone with a track record.  If a young Ph.D. social work researcher has that aspiration, “I want to get federal funding,” then that’s the most important advice I can give them, either as a post-doc or in a faculty position.  Get hooked up with somebody that has that track record that can bring you on board as the principal investigator, I’m sorry, as the co-PI, or in some capacity that’s going to lead to things in the way I just described.  Now, I want to distinguish between what I’ve just said versus going to a school that is recruiting you and saying, “Oh yeah, we have, you know, Professor Big Shot here.  Come here, I am sure you could get hooked up with her or him, and things will just be hunky dory.”  Well, that’s far from a guarantee, so my advice would be to try to nail that down, meet with that professor, and establish some kind of agreement ahead of time before you go to that school for your faculty position or your post-doc so that you know that that’s what’s going to happen, because when schools recruit people for post-docs or faculty positions, it’s like rushing a fraternity.  You’re not going to hear about pledge week.  You know everybody’s going to be making things sound wonderful.  They’re great.  You’re great.  Everything’s great.  It’s courtship.  So, you can’t just rely on all the good stuff you’re hearing as possibilities.  You want to pin it down and make sure it’s really going to happen.  Now, other people might not have those kinds of aspirations.

They might say, “Look, I don’t want to go fight for federal funding.  I’ve heard horror stories about how hard it is to get federal funding.  I could spend six years while I’m trying to get tenure just trying to get federal funding and not doing anything else and just striking out not getting funding.  That’s not a lot of fun.  I’d rather go to a school that isn’t going to put that much pressure on me to get federal funding, or I could do smaller scale research.  I could go into social work agencies and do research with maybe a smaller pool of clients and so forth, where it’s not going to cost as much money, so I could do research that doesn’t even get funded, where there’s people that will be happy with me if I do some nice little studies that are useful, even though they’re not bringing in hundreds of federal dollars, where they would value me as a good teacher, and so forth.”  And for people that have those kinds of aspirations, I would advise them not to go to one of those schools that is going to put so much pressure on them about federal funding and to go somewhere else.  On the other hand, they might say, “Yeah, but you know I could go to a Columbia or a Berkley, a Michigan, or a University of Texas…” [laughs] “…and even if I don’t get tenure there, people will be so impressed with me, that I spent five or six years there, that’ll be a real springboard to go to another place.”  Now, I’d say, “Okay, fine, if that’s what you want to do then that’s a legitimate strategy.”  I guess the other thing that I would advise them is—I can’t emphasize enough the importance of making links to the community.  If you want to do good, useful social work research, chances are you’ve probably got to have real good relationships with social work agencies and practitioners in the community, because that’s where you’re going to need to do your research, and you can’t just kind of show up as a stranger and say, “Okay, I’ve got this research project, would your agency let me do that?”  So, I would strongly emphasize cultivating those kinds of ties with people in the community.

Jonathan Singer: When I contacted you about doing this interview, I had asked you a question about what you thought might be the hot new methodologies.  I’ve certainly seen a lot about, you know, federal funding initiatives really looking for mixed methodology, or there was particular emphasis on advanced statistical methods.  When I contacted you, I said I was interested in knowing what you thought about that, and I thought you had a pretty interesting response.

Allen Rubin: Yeah, but the way you’ve just framed it—I want to modify my response somewhat.

Jonathan Singer: Okay.

Allen Rubin: I’ll start out, but I’ll get back to what my earlier response to you was on that.  Okay, so to begin with, if a doctoral student were to come to me and say, “Okay, I’m getting ready to interview at schools.  I want to go to a research one school where they put a lot of emphasis on getting federal grants.”  Actually, it would be better if they came to me before they were ready to do interviews because maybe their first or three years in doctoral education depends on what my answer would be, so they come to me, and they say, “That’s my aspiration.  What do I need to learn?  What are the hot things,” as you phrased it, “that I need to learn to maximize my prospects to get federal funding?”  I would say some of the things you just said: mixed methods, become very well versed in advanced quantitative statistical procedures, structural equation modeling, hierarchal regression, the survival analysis, event history analysis, and so on.  I would say, take as many elective courses as you can in those areas and get as advanced as you can in those methods.  Having said that, though, I would also point out that, you know what, that might help you get a faculty position at one of those schools that you could show that you know that stuff, but if you want to get federal funding, they’re going to want more than that.  They’re going to want you to have a research team in which one of the members of your research team is somebody with name recognition that is an already established expert in one or more of those very, very advanced statistical procedures.  They’re not going to be satisfied with the fact that you’ve studied them, that you’ve gotten A’s in your courses, or whatever.  Okay, mixed methods as you said—it’s very valuable these days to be able to combine quantitative and qualitative research.  The two forms of research are very different, and yet they’re very compatible, and they go hand in hand because so often we need to do qualitative research first to set the stage for a good quantitative study, and we have to do qualitative research at the same time we’re doing the quantitative.  For example, to discover things that are going on that might be affecting the quantitative aspects of the study that we wouldn’t discover if we weren’t using qualitative procedures, or maybe even to generate deeper insights into the meanings of the quantitative findings that get generated.  So being able to understand both quantitative and qualitative research, the idea of doing mixed methods, would certainly be an advantage in terms of being able to go after those federal funds.  Having said that, I would also say that if you don’t have those aspirations, then maybe those things aren’t as important.  Then one might say, “Okay, well, what’s the hot research method then?”  And then my answer is hot research methods come and go.  I’ve seen over the course of my career one fad after another come into a vogue and then fade.  To ask first, “What’s the hot research method?” is to put the cart before the horse.  That in social work research, we research a question that we have, a problem that we have should be what dictates the research method that we use.  We shouldn’t come up with some in vogue research method, and then let that dictate what problem we study or how we study it.  The priority should be on: What does the field need to know?  What does practice need to know?  What do we need to know to improve the plight of the people, the suffering people, or the oppressed people that we seek to help?  That should be the main priority, and then the research question gets developed around that.  And then, the best research method would be the one that best fits that question. 

Jonathan Singer: It really sounds like the same kind of question that starting clinicians would ask which is, “So what therapy should I learn how to do if I want to be the best clinician?” and really the answer is parallel, “Well, you do what is best for the client.  It’s not that you should learn DBT because that’s going to solve everybody’s problems.”  Was there anything else that you wanted to add?

Allen Rubin: Well, one thing is that I am concerned about the degree to which universities are pressuring faculty members these days to get federal money.  So often it pressures them to do things that are not of the immediate relevance to social work practitioners and agencies.  For example, maybe to do epidemiological studies on the prevalence of a particular problem, and they might spend as I said earlier, years and years and years pursuing federal money that they’re never going to get to do this very broad piece of research and then passing up opportunities to do things in agencies that could be of smaller scope but of more direct relevance to social work, and actually getting research done, and providing useful information to guide the practice.  You know, I don’t know how much your listeners understand about the time that gets involved in pursuing the federal grant.  An enormous amount of time goes into getting all of the pieces together just to write the grant for the first time.  You probably spend two years just getting that grant ready to submit, and it’s conventional wisdom that virtually nobody gets funded the first time they submit a grant, that if you get what’s called a score that doesn’t get funded, that’s a cause for celebration because that means that, well, you got a score, that means that you could work on it some more, you resubmit it, and maybe next time you get an even better score, and so forth.  And so, if you attend the various workshops that get provided to doctoral students about pursuing federal funding, one of the things that you hear over and over and over again is don’t get discouraged, you have to submit, resubmit, and resubmit, and keep on doing it before you’ll get funded, and that easily could take up to a whole six years of trying while you’re assistant professor, just trying to get one proposal funded that you just keep on working on over and over and over.

Jonathan Singer: And the six years that you’ve mentioned a couple of times is important because it is the timeframe between getting hired for your position and then making tenure.

Allen Rubin: Exactly, and actually it’s probably a little less than six years because I think it’s in the sixth year that they make the decision.

Jonathan Singer: Right, and usually tenure is based on how productive you are, how many publications you’ve written, for some schools perhaps how many grants you’ve received, and if you have spent all six years working on one grant then it’s not going to look very productive.  Is that what you are saying?

Allen Rubin: I would modify it as follows: If I were a dean at a research one university, God forbid—

Jonathan Singer: [laughs]

Allen Rubin: —and I had a junior faculty member that I had a lot of respect for that was writing proposals that I read and thought were pretty darn good, and he or she wasn’t getting funded but was being persistent in tweaking them, and modifying, and submitting and resubmitting and resubmitting, and doing everything I had urged her or him to do, but never getting funded, I wouldn’t be disinclined to fight for them to get tenure.  I would think that would be okay if it was my priority that they—if I had been the one that said this is what I want you to do.  I want you to put all of your eggs in that federal funding basket, and be persistent, and be resilient, and just keep on going after it.  Then if it’s been six years of not getting funded, I would still want to give them tenure, whether the university central administration would agree with me or not, that’s a whole other story, and I don’t know how that works or how that would go down.  But certainly, as a dean, I would be fighting a hundred percent for that faculty member to get tenure, even if they never get funded.  Now what really happens at these other schools, I don’t know.  I don’t know.  I know that there are some schools I better not mention—I have one in mind in particular where they’re kind of proud of the fact that after going through this process, their junior faculty members virtually never get funded, I mean never get tenure, I shouldn’t say funded, and they just see themselves as a place where people should just be honored to come there and work for five or six years and then be able to say I was there and then go somewhere else.  So, it’s going to vary I would imagine from place to place, and I really don’t know if there’s any place that would operate the way I would operate as I just described, so you know, I guess what I’m saying is I don’t know, there might be some places where you can go through that, never get funded, and still get tenure.  I know if I were the dean that would be the case, but how it works, really works in other places?  I don’t know.

Jonathan Singer: So, this falls in line with what you said earlier, which is basically know what you’re getting into when you take a job.

Allen Rubin: Yeah, and there are going to be a lot of schools that aren’t going to pressure you to do the federal funding route, that if you could publish one or two articles a year, and be a good teacher, and be a nice collegial faculty member that is nice to have around, they’ll be delighted to have you on board and to give you tenure.  At the end of six years, you might have 10-15 publications, and good teaching evaluations, and be somebody that your college recognizes—articulate, a clear thinker, and so forth, and pleasant, and you’ll be fine.


References and Resources
APA (6th ed) citation for this podcast:

Singer, J. B. (Host). (2008, April 28). Advice for young social work investigators: Interview with Allen Rubin, Ph.D. [Episode 38]. Social Work Podcast. Podcast retrieved from

No comments: