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Interning in research as a social worker

A social worker’s story of undertaking an internship to investigate the impact of adversity on child development, and beginning her path in research.

Published: 27 October 2022

Emily is a manager in a local authority within the early help sector. She is completing an internship at the NIHR Oxford and Thames Valley Applied Research Collaboration (ARC).

Emily’s social care experience helped her identify a research question which aims to improve care services.

A key part of Emily’s research has been to gain a fuller understanding of how different services identify children who have experienced adversity. She is investigating how systems could work more cooperatively to support this group of children earlier.

Learn more about adding research to your career with our Your Path in Research campaign.

My path into research

I have worked in social care for more than 15 years. I’ve really enjoyed engaging in research relevant to my field of early identification of children's emotional and mental health needs.

It is a fortunate story of how I ended up doing this research internship. My own curiosity and passion led me to it.

I began to develop an interest in the effects of trauma and adversity, particularly the impact of that on children. When reviewing children applying for education health and care needs assessments, who were not open to children's social care, I saw a pattern indicating that some children had experienced varying degrees of adversity in their early years. This was possible to see when reviewing children’s social care data. I wanted to understand further how adversity impacted them and what services they entered later in their life.

I explained this during a chance conversation with staff working on the Oxford Brain Story - building brains for lifelong health, a research project at the University of Oxford. The project looks at the science of brain development and how this information could be best disseminated to frontline workers. The psychologists at the Brain Story kept me in mind a few weeks later when the ARC advertised an internship. They encouraged me to apply to investigate the issues I had spoken about.

Applying and getting permission

I was fortunate that my managers were interested in the internship and happy for me to pursue it. It was the first time they had received a request to be seconded to complete research. Once they considered the benefits of understanding more about these issues, it was approved.

The funding for my internship has enabled my role to be backfilled by another member of staff.

My research project

As part of my research, I have begun to explore the extent to which early adversity is a factor in children’s presentation across different services.

I have conducted a more extensive data review to understand my initial observations. I've found the trend has continued and currently in 57% of 100 case notes reviewed, children have had exposure to adversity, the majority in their early years. I have captured the range of adversity with a view to thinking about future service needs.

I have created and distributed a questionnaire to a range of different professionals, to understand more about children referred to their services and how their understanding of adversity influences their practice. I will also be conducting qualitative interviews with partner agencies to explore their understanding of the impact of adversity and how our systems could better work together to address this.

The results will be important to inform better service collaboration and integration. I aim to provide recommendations on how an understanding of children’s life experiences could inform decisions on diagnosis and education, health and care plans, as well as consider what interventions might be needed earlier to support families.

Tips for other social care practitioners considering research

  • Be curious and don’t discount yourself from NIHR schemes before finding out more. My application called for a ‘clinical mentor’ and I was fortunate to have one in place through my contact with the Brain Story. The NIHR can put you in touch with mentors and assist with applications. If you are interested, reach out to the funding organisation and find out more.
  • Reach out to your local ARC team. They have offered me lots of support. The world of research was completely new to me, and at times I have felt imposter syndrome seep in, but always less so once I asked for help.
  • Believe in your value. Our role in front-line practice is so useful in research. We have access to systems and an understanding of how our services do or don’t work well together, so our influence and knowledge are really important.

The opportunity to complete this internship has supported my own professional development and increased my skills, knowledge and understanding of how to undertake research. Taking part has reinforced the importance of using my own organisation’s data to review needs, so our systems can work better for children and families.

Emily’s findings will be published by the ARC in January 2023.

Further information

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