Having worked as a social work practitioner, and then later in a junior university-based research position, I wanted to pursue a PhD to investigate my own research interests, improve my skills and to continue a career in social work and policy research. I chose Monash based on the reputation of my supervisors and their commitment to educating graduate research students, as well as their enthusiasm for my research topic.
My research is a case study of residential care and child protection in a provincial city of the Philippines. Residential care settings, also known as orphanages, are widespread across the Philippines, and form a major part of approaches to children and young people’s welfare and protection. However, the reasons for this type of care are largely unclear, as are their practices, characteristics and models. Utilising a case study methodology, my research incorporates interviews with 52 young people with experiences of living in residential care, and 29 policy and program actors with expertise on residential care and child protection in the Philippines.
My PhD has been a rewarding experience, particularly the challenge of conducting fieldwork overseas and engaging with diverse and interesting people. My advice to someone considering pursuing graduate research would be to focus on finding the most suitable supervisors for you, especially researchers with overlapping research interests and approaches to research.
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) (specialising in Social Work)
As an international social work student, I think culture is the most amazing thing I have experienced. Social work is a human science. All human beings live in cultural environments. To be a good social worker, you need to understand human behaviour in certain cultural environments. The most helpful thing for me when I first started the course was to identify myself first: analysing my experience of being a human being, analysing how family, cultural background and society contexts foster me, and how these things guide my behaviour. Identifying myself helps me lessen the confusion of studying social work in a unfamiliar social context, and helps me understand my strengthens and disadvantages of how I can serve the Australian society or how I can learn from Australian social work to serve the Chinese society.
As social work is an applied/practical science, all the theories and practical methods I learned give me a belief that I can achieve my dream of helping people and making society better step by step. And it is a wonderful exploration to apply the theories and methods into practices. During this exploration, it is amazing to perceive the uniqueness of individuals, and to explore the interacting network among human beings that interweave in different cultures and societies.
My work experience and education has been as a psychologist, however, I was welcomed with open arms into the social work department for my PhD research. I have found the space to be warm, inviting and filled with collegial help and discussion. I began my PhD because I wanted to research my particular topic, which is about stability in residential out of home care and took a qualitative approach with interviewing residential care staff and young care leavers. I chose Monash because of the expertise in the leaving care arena. I am thrilled I did because of the experiences I had along the way. One of the most significant moments in my PhD journey was when I had a young baby and had to come to Melbourne (from Sydney) for an HDR conference. I contacted the person running the conference and asked if there was a policy regarding young children attending, as I was not yet ready or willing to leave her alone for the days I would be interstate. The response I got was “our policy is that we love children and want them around as much as possible”.
This moment was significant to me because I knew that my young daughter would not just be tolerated or accepted, but welcomed and delighted in. That has been the ongoing experience I have had with the Monash Social Work department. The academic rigour has been impressive, the skill and connections held by my supervisory team are second to none, but the most wonderful part has been the human experience. My advice to anyone considering post-grad research with the Monash Social Work department is to get in touch immediately.
Social work involves advocacy to challenge taken for granted assumptions and beliefs that perpetuate oppression and social injustice. Research provides a platform to delve deeper into a particular clinical interest, critically question the evidence supporting social work interventions, and contribute to broader discussion and development of practice approaches. Completing a PhD by publication enabled me to focus on a practice area I felt passionate about examining as well as contributing to the larger scientific field and community. My PhD was focussed on a ‘real-life’ practice issue – end of life care for people with dementia in acute hospitals - with translatable findings that were relevant to clinical care.
Throughout my candidature, my interest and skills were encouraged and fostered under expert supervision and within a supportive and collegial environment. There have been opportunities to participate and network with leading experts in the field, both in Australia and internationally. Furthermore, being part of the Monash University Social Work Higher Degree by Research student body opened my eyes to the diverse fields of research and practice being examined by fellow students and colleagues. Even at the most challenging points of candidature, the Department has been supportive and encouraging. For social workers who want to take advocacy to the next level, consider a research degree as a powerful strategy to promote meaningful change at multiple levels within health and social care.
Having worked in universities in New Zealand and Australia in the field of criminology with no social work experience I was surprised to find myself at home in the social work HDR program at Monash University. I chose the social work department as previous to beginning my PhD on primary carer fathers in prisons in Australia I worked for three years as a research assistant on an ARC project led by some of the research staff in the department (among others) and I knew that I wanted to continue working and learning from these staff. I found the staff to be extremely friendly and encouraging and always enjoyed the HDR conferences, hearing about other candidates research processes, experiences, and challenges.
I couldn’t have asked for better supervisors. My primary supervisor worked closely with me over the course of my PhD and we met every two weeks to discuss milestones, goals, and any anxieties I had (I had many!). Because I did my PhD by publication I was able to publish five articles over the course of my PhD, which is a significant achievement in and of itself and I believe that situated me as an expert within my area. I remember the moment I shifted from feeling like a ‘student’ to feeling like a researcher when at the ANZSOC conference I won best student presentation and suddenly noticed the shift being the one acquiring knowledge to then being able to pass knowledge on in a confident way. My advice to anyone thinking about doing a PhD is to focus on something you are extremely interested in and take the time to find the right supervisor/s who will champion you all the way.
My PhD was titled, The invisible barrier': mental illness as a mediator of mothers' participation in the Victorian criminal justice system.
This study examined the experiences of mothers with a mental illness, as they navigate Victoria’s criminal justice system, to plan the care of their children. It focused on their experiences at the critical care planning decision-making points of pre-prison, arrest, sentencing, and imprisonment. I gathered data from 21 imprisoned mothers with a mental illness at the Dame Phyliss Frost Centre and Tarrengower prison and triangulated their experiences with 19 imprisoned mothers without a mental illness. I used an exploratory embedded mixed methods approach, collecting both quantitative and qualitative data from mothers using a structured interview schedule.
Experience during my PhD
Best and worst thing I have ever done! While it was stressful, particularly in the lead up to submission, it gave me solid research skills. This is because it gave me the space and time to learn how to do a literature review, understand the different research perspectives you can take, learn the ethics process, and learn the different methods to analyse data (as well as the software).
You don’t get this time and space in the workplace. Overall, my PhD taught me so much about myself, as a person, a researcher, and as a social worker.
Work history post PhD
I started my PhD with the goal to be an academic researcher but over time, I realised it was not for me. Therefore, after I finished, I worked as an evaluator for Corrections Victoria, Department of Justice and Community Safety. At the Department, I designed and managed 17 evaluations examining the effectiveness of justice programs and practices.
In August 2021, I joined Urbis as a Senior Consultant where I am managing several evaluation projects. This includes a transitional program for young people leaving out-of-home care in Victoria, a tutor learning initiative, and an evaluation of assessment practices that support children’s transition from kindergarten to primary school. The wider range of evaluation topics feels like I’ve gone back to my social work roots. It’s been an intense learning experience but I’m loving it!