Social work and postdoctoral experience.

Author:Mendoza, Natasha S.
Position:RESEARCH NOTE - Essay

Doctoral education has been the primary conduit for social workers to develop research skills and is an important component in achieving a long-term research-based career genson, Briar-Lawson, & Flanzer, 2008). In social work, doctoral training affords students opportunities to identify and study meaningful substantive topics and acquire advanced methodological and analytical skills (Jenson et al., 2008). This preparation alone, however, may not be a sufficient foundation for all social workers to build a successful research career. Postdoctoral research training can help social workers strengthen their research skills and build a collaborative research agenda. Although postdoctoral training for social workers is not a new phenomenon, it is a pathway for social work research training that has not gained the momentum it has in other social science fields (for example, psychology). The limited experience with formal postdoctoral training within the field of social work may create challenges for students interested in postdoctoral research positions and the faculty members who are mentoring such students. Further, unfamiliarity with postdoctoral training presents challenges for graduates who pursue these positions as they may not fully understand their role, the role of postdoctoral mentors, and the opportunities available to them as trainees.

Although career development articles exist for students considering postdoctoral training in a variety of fields (for example, Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy [COSEPUP], 2000; DeMets et al., 2006; Gennaro, Deatrick, Dobal, Jemmott, & Ball, 2007; Khalsa & Pearson, 2007), the linfited number of articles related to postdoctoral training for social workers have focused on individual experiences (for example, Fenster, 2006) and specific funding mechanisms (for example, Matthieu, Bellamy, Pena, & Scott, 2008). To help fill this gap in the social work literature, this article provides an overview of postdoctoral research training opportunities for a variety of substantive areas and describes the potential benefits of postdoctoral training. In addition, this article highlights some potential drawbacks that should be considered when deciding whether to complete a postdoctoral research position. This practical advice may be particularly helpful for students or junior scholars considering postdoctoral research training and doctoral faculty members who supervise students considering such training.


Although postdoctoral training has been a traditional step in the education process for the physical sciences, it has not played a similar role in the career of most social work scholars. As many fields grow more complex, the difficulty of familiarizing one's self with interesting and relevant material has increased, at least within the time limits of traditional graduate programs (COSEPUP, 2000; DeMets et al., 2006). Postdoctoral training is one way to balance the need to train students in new and evolving methodologies and ensure that they receive training in the basic core of theory, methods, and their substantive areas. Irrespective of discipline, the primary purpose of postdoctoral training is to expand research skills and grow intellectually (O'Mara & Bakos, 2003). Postdoctoral positions can help recent graduates expand their collaborative research base and develop independent research programs (COSEPUP, 2000; DeMets et al., 2006). Postdoctoral training also provides opportunities for early career researchers to interact intensively with senior investigators and establish collaborations with other junior researchers. In certain settings, this type of training can help promote interdisciplinary research that brings together different disciplines and combines their respective theoretical and methodological approaches.


Research capacity at the postgraduate level has been a relatively neglected part of the social work research training continuum (Fraser, Jenson, & Lewis, 1993; National Association of Deans and Directors Task Force, 1997). Although precise estimates of the number of social work PhD graduates who pursue postdoctoral training are not readily...

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