Interview with Kevin Shafer, PhD on Social Work Research

About Kevin Shafer, PhD: Kevin Shafer, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Brigham Young University, where he has taught research methods and statistics courses in BYU’s MSW program since June 2011.

Dr. Shafer earned his PhD, MA, and BA from Ohio State University. He received his PhD in 2009 in Sociology, with emphases in family sociology and quantitative methodology. Between 2009 and 2011 he was an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, Arkansas. His research focuses on men’s mental health and help-seeking, father involvement, and stepfamily dynamics. Several of his recent publications include “Men’s Mental Health: A Call to Social Workers,” “Gender Differences in Depression Across Parental Roles,” “Stepfamily Functioning and Closeness: Children’s Views on Second Marriages and Stepfather Relationships,” and “Gender and SES Differences in First and Second Marriage Formation.” Kevin Shafer was compensated to participate in this interview.

[]Your curriculum vitae indicates that you have been involved in a great deal of social work research, and also teach Research Methods at BYU’s School of Social Work. Can you please explain what social work research is—in other words, what is the core mission of social work research as a field, and what kinds of research topics and methods does it involve?

[Kevin Shafer, PhD] I believe that social work research is unique from that of other social sciences or even other helping disciplines, like Psychology or Marriage & Family Therapy because it is inherently value-oriented. It should be rooted in the values of social work, outlined by the NASW and motivated by a desire to improve the lives of others. To me, that means social work research can lend itself to a variety of topics. When I first started trying to get published in social work journals, I thought, “Why on earth would a journal publish something on stepfamilies or father involvement?” But, I quickly realized that if your research is focused on the central issue of individual and community welfare, your research has a home in social work.

I think that social work, unfortunately, is still a little bit behind the curve methodologically. I think it’s wonderful that social work researchers do so much work in communities or in very specific samples—but, I think that a greater emphasis on the methods used, particularly by sociology, would be beneficial. I think our work could be more quantitatively rigorous.

What social workers do well, however, is mixed methods research, where rich qualitative data helps illuminate good quantitative research. I think we need more of this and it’s incredibly important work that uses these methods.

I think that social work research should cover a very diverse set of topics—everything from very macro phenomena to clinical research. I would love to see more social work researchers look at family dynamics, issues of work and family, gender, and the like. I also think that sometimes our research interests don’t align with what social workers in the field see and do everyday. I think that disconnect is something that needs to change.

I think that social work researchers need to listen more to what practitioners are seeing and ask them about what they need more information about. I also think that we actually need to study the person-in-environment model more and look at how both macro and micro factors affect human behavior. Let’s actually bring a social work model of practice to social work research.

[] Your undergraduate and graduate degrees are in sociology, and you were also an Assistant Professor of Sociology prior to becoming a Professor of Social Work. What drew you to researching and teaching social work in particular, as opposed to sociology or other related fields?

[Kevin Shafer, PhD] Well, I wouldn’t exactly endorse my path into social work. My coming to BYU was due to their need for a faculty member to teach research and macro courses. I originally had some reservations about becoming a social work faculty member. I didn’t really know the discipline very well, wasn’t familiar with the research, and I wasn’t really convinced that I could even get published doing the kind of research I do—particularly at BYU, which is has a strong clinical emphasis. Thankfully, I was wrong. What draws me into social work is that I feel it has a very applied piece to it that sociology doesn’t have. I feel that my studies might actually get applied in clinical or macro settings and might help people. I never felt that way in sociology. I do think, however, that my training as a sociologist has been very beneficial to my research as a social worker and allows me to approach questions from different angles. Today, I identify myself as a social work researcher and not as a sociologist because I think social work is the field I more align with in my work.

[] Could you elaborate on some of your most recent social work research projects, their findings, and how these findings may help social workers better assist vulnerable populations?

[Kevin Shafer, PhD] I have three main foci in my work: parenting, gender and mental health, and romantic relationships. I see these three as very much interconnected, which probably explains why I’ve recently put a lot of focus on the connection between parenting and mental health. In a set of papers I wrote with Garrett Pace, a former BYU MSW student and current Princeton University researcher, we focused on the connection between certain kinds of parenting roles (i.e., a stepparent, residential biological parent, etc.) and depression. Those papers will be appearing in the Journal of Family Issues and Social Work very soon. Some of my new work is looking at how depression and other mental health issues influence the ways moms and dads parent. I’m also continuing my work on stepfamilies. I’m interested in how parent-child relationships affect kids’ outcomes in emerging adulthood. That data didn’t really exist before, so we had to collect it.

This work has consistently had me focusing on fathers, interestingly enough. That lead to a conceptual paper I wrote with Doug Wendt, an MSW student at BYU, on social work practice with men. When we think about men and fathers, I don’t think we automatically consider them a “vulnerable population,” and in many ways they are not. Certainly, men have privilege—but, we don’t want to ignore their issues, their problems, and the incredible influence they have on children and women. Stepchildren, certainly, can be a marginalized population and we want to make researchers and clinicians aware of the issues they confront throughout their lives. But, thinking about men and fathers, the fact that they don’t often get help for their issues or have problems and are socialized to not express their feelings makes them a marginalized and vulnerable population in their own right. I suppose the guiding principle of my research is that social workers must respect the dignity and worth of all individuals. And that means, to me, that we should be focused on the problems men, women, and children all face.

I just hope that my research helps social workers realize that parents have stressors in their lives and that, because parenthood is a central aspect of someone’s life, it is an important area to explore when working with a client who has children. Furthermore, I think my work shows that social workers should also consider ways to be competent practitioners with men, and that they should see fathers, when appropriate, as a tremendous resource to help, nurture, and raise kids. I’d love to see more social workers see dads as a resource and actively work to get them involved in the lives of children, when the child’s welfare can be improved by fatherly contact. Further, if I can help get that information disseminated so that people think that their problems aren’t unusual or remove some of the stigma around getting help, then I feel I’ve done my job.

[] What types of social work research and macro-level social work roles does an MSW generally prepare students for? What kinds of social work research roles do you feel require a PhD?

[Kevin Shafer, PhD] I think that the number of social work jobs that will require research and practice skills in the coming years will only increase. I think that this obviously includes macro-work, where assessments for interventions are common—particularly in a political environment where the availability of money is becoming more and more limited. I’m confident that research is going to become a larger and larger component of clinical work, too. As a result, I would recommend that students get as much of a research education as they can. It will help them be better informed in their practice and help improve client outcomes, I hope. So, from that perspective, I would encourage all students to get research education. I know that few, if any, people go into social work because they love research methods and statistics—but it is an integral part of being a professional. I think the “I just want to be a clinician” or “I just want to be a community organizer” mentality is problematic, hurts our profession, and can be dangerous to our clients.

While research knowledge is important as research informed and evidence based practice become a more significant part of social work, I don’t think everyone needs a PhD level education in research. If you want to assess, then MSW-level research education is often very good, though I think that we need to be more rigorous in how we educate MSW students in research. If you want to be a producer of original knowledge and help other social workers improve their practice on the whole, I think that PhD level education is required then. I know that a lot of people aren’t interested in that, in part because people aren’t sure if the work they are doing is having an impact—but, I’m positive it does, it’s important work, and we need more people doing it. I would encourage people to follow their talents and their heart on this.

[] As a professor of social work and a mentor to many MSW students, what recommendations do you have for students who are interested in pursuing social work research/macro-level social work as a career?

[Kevin Shafer, PhD] I would recommend that students who want to do research do all they can in their undergraduate to prepare for a graduate degree—take extra research classes, see if you can be a research assistant for a professor, go beyond the requirements for a degree.

Going into an MSW program, I think you need to consider the program and their curriculum. For example, we are a research-oriented clinical program at BYU—if you were interested in a macro career, BYU wouldn’t be a good fit for you. But, if you want to be a clinician, BYU is a good fit. If you are interested in research, BYU is a good fit. If you want to do both, we are a great fit. So, I really recommend you do your homework on programs.

Aside from that, a lot of MSW programs are very large, so you need to be proactive. You can’t expect professors to come find you—you need to find them. You should think about who the professors are in your program that have similar research interests as you and go talk to them, see what they are doing, and ask if they are looking for help. This is absolutely crucial. Try and get to a conference. I am a huge advocate for the Society for Social Work Research (SSWR) and I believe it will really benefit you to get some professional connections, particularly in your area of interest. I know people are always nervous doing these things, but I’m 100% positive that professors and professionals who are approached are always happy to hear of someone’s interest in their work and are willing to help them get started. That’s been my experience. I love including students in my work and find mentoring to really be the most satisfying aspect of my job. I think these sorts of things will lead you into a career where you can do research and advocacy because it gives you great experience and connections.

Thank you Dr. Shafer for your time and insights into social work research.

Last Updated: April 2020