How an MSW can improve your research skills

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Researcher at desk

Research is a critical component of the social work field. Participating in and learning from research projects allows practitioners to contribute to advances in the industry and benefit from the efforts of their peers. Without research, the social work industry can be left without the big-picture awareness of trends and tendencies needed to develop innovative strategies and understand how macro-level issues impact individual cases. As such, developing research skills is often a key component of working in higher-level positions in the industry. Whether that position is in management or clinical practice, research skills can be helpful.

Pursuing a Master of Social Work degree can help you gain the research skills needed to engage with the analysis taking place in the sector, and coursework on research practices is critical as the social work industry presents unique considerations that aren’t present in other disciplines.


Research in the social work sector

There are certain elements of research that will apply across any industry. For example, professionals hoping to perform or interpret research will need a basic understanding of statistics best practices so they can understand how to make sense of the raw data associated with a study. However, most industries will have their own unique components to research. A report from the Social Care Institute for Excellence explains that social work research does incorporate many practices from other disciplines, such as anthropology and psychology, not to mention sociology. Besides borrowing from these fields, social work research is heavily dependent on a deep awareness of the ethical issues underpinning social work. Researchers must also be aware of their place in the research process, such as if they are providing clinical care to research subjects, potentially creating a bias.

Ultimately, the Social Care Institute for Excellence pointed out two key research priorities that are unique to social work: challenging inequality and oppression in the research process and understanding that the perspective of all participants must be properly incorporated into the research process.


Research and social work practice

The process of incorporating research into everyday social work operations is often built around the idea of evidence-based practice. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) explained that the idea of evidence-based practice has been applied in diverse ways across a wide range of industries. However, the social work sector has developed a fairly established definition of evidence-based practice that is supported by a wide consensus in the sector. In simplest terms, the NASW defines evidence-based practice as:

  • Identifying a client or organizational need that can be used to formulate a clear answerable question
  • Evaluating and gathering evidence to answer that question
  • Analyzing evidence for quality and applicability
  • Applying what has been learned in this process to practice
  • Assessing how the adjusted practices based on gathered evidence impacts the effectiveness of your solution

This process of completing research and applying it to practice requires a blend of clinical and research skills. The NASW explained that evidence-based practice also requires a deep understanding of ethics and industry culture.

The importance of evidence-based research creates a situation in which research not only directly informs clinical practice but also occurs in parallel with day-to-day social work operations. Research isn’t exclusively performed in backroom studies, but is often a matter of guided work with clients in which all parties know that the work being done may contribute to a research report. This situation was unpacked in Social Work Practice in Healthcare, from SAGE Publications. Chapter six of the book is centered around practice-based research in health care social work. It discusses how research provides empirical evidence to assess clinical strategies, such as in evidence-based practice, while also allowing for practice evaluation by building research methods into everyday social work tasks.

According to the publication, social workers often face pressure to demonstrate the effectiveness and value of their efforts, especially when financial issues put a strain on resource availability. Performing practice evaluation using industry research best practices can help practitioners assess the work they are doing. This process requires working closely with clients to get them to participate in the research to gather the feedback necessary to inform conclusions.


Developing social work research skills through an MSW

Social work research is an expansive field, impacting everything from assessing big-picture health trends to performing niche analysis on the value of everyday practices. As such, individuals hoping to engage with research need highly specific skills and a deep understanding of the various industry issues that impact analysis. For example, the ethical issue of how to properly manage research that involves clients is a critical situation. How do you protect patient privacy? How do you organize the research project and integrate it into work with clients so that it doesn’t detract from meeting client goals? These types of questions highlight the kinds of discussions that you can expect to engage in as you pursue an MSW.

Most MSW programs, including the online MSW at Regis College, provide specific coursework on research in the social work field. These classes cover best practices, practical skills, industry regulations, and similar issues that professionals need to understand as they perform research studies or engage in peer review processes. For the most part, MSW programs will include a single course on research best practices and provide a foundation that could be built upon through more nuanced study for those particularly interested in the subject.

The dedicated study of research best practice in social work isn’t the only way MSW students can expect to develop skills associated with research in the industry. For example, courses will often discuss topics such as ethics and the overarching operational systems that dictate work in the social work sector. These topics are highly relevant to research and can provide critical context into research. Practical experience working under the supervision of a clinical social worker can also be helpful, as that experience may incorporate seeing a research project in action or discussing past research efforts with the supervisor.

Do you want to learn more about how an MSW can help you gain research skills? We’d love to talk some more about how we can help you develop these skills through our online masters social work degree.

Recommended Readings:

What is an MSW degree?

What you can learn about ethics in social work



Research Mindedness from the Social Care Institute for Excellence

Evidence-Based Practice from the National Association of Social Workers

Social Work Practice in Healthcare from SAGE Publications