In the words of BSc (Hons) Social Work and Applied Social Studies graduate Gabriel Alves: “one of the best things about Bath was the quality of the lecturers. They’re still actively producing research; some are still actively working in social work.”
Because of this, we want to tell you a little more about the background of a few of our current staff members. After all, their experience feeds directly into the BSc (Hons) Social Work and Applied Social Studies course.
We spoke to Dr Alinka Gearon, Dr Jeremy Dixon and Jo Davis about their careers in the sector, what inspired them to become social workers, and how they bring their expertise to the course. They also share their opinions on what makes Bath a great place to study.
What made you want a career in social work?
Jo: I was initially in the medical world, in various guises, but I was always drawn to social work.
I was volunteering for victim support and domestic abuse; and I always worked with people who were bereaved, living with addiction, or had been given horrible diagnoses. No one else seemed to know what to do to help these people or how to speak to them.
I then trained to do counselling and did a psychology course, which led me to think ‘where am I going next?’ It was through a careers advisor that I ended up doing an access course, then my social work degree.
Alinka: I worked with social workers in children and families as an administrator. I was inspired by some really good social workers, and the work they were doing, and got interested in how to further a career in children and families.
The senior practitioner encouraged me to apply for a social work degree, because they could see my interactions with people were sound and I could make a difference.
Jeremy: My first proper job was as a care worker in alcohol detox in Leeds. Working there, I realised I needed to step up and become qualified so I could work more directly with people.
After qualifying as a social worker, I worked in a number of different mental health settings. I worked in a community mental health team in Leeds, then in several other mental health teams in the Yorkshire area, including teams in Pontefract, Leeds and Wakefield.
I then moved to Bristol and worked in several of the mental health teams in the city, and in something called an Assertive Outreach Team. This doesn’t really exist anymore, but they worked with people with mental health problems who were seen as being disengaged with services. I then worked in forensic mental healthcare - a service for people with serious mental health problems who have committed offences and, as a result of those offences, are in hospital care. I worked in a medium secure unit in Bristol both as a senior practitioner and an approved mental health professional, conducting assessments under the Mental Health Act.
Working in forensic mental health services, I found a lot of the research was done by psychologists and psychiatrists. There wasn’t really any research within forensic mental health. So, I became interested in doing research myself and applied to do a professional doctorate.
In the last years of my PhD, I moved into teaching. That’s how I made the transition really. But I continued to do mental health act assessments alongside the academic work for a few years, until it got difficult to juggle it all.
What brought you to Bath?
Alinka: I was a mature student with a young family, so I looked for a social work course in my area that I could commute to. Bath was a good fit for those reasons, but it was the research quality that was the most important deciding factor for me. The interview day was such a positive experience; it made Bath the place I wanted to come to.
It was clear to me that the lecturers were deep into their research areas, and that this informed their teaching. I was advised to look at whether the lecturers had practice experience or were engaged with social work research, so it was the close links to practice that attracted me, too. I didn’t see this at all universities I looked at.
I knew I had made the right choice coming to Bath and my first-class degree opened doors I never expected. With my continued passion for working with children and families, and my new qualification, I went into frontline child protection practice and gained experience working with children and families very closely.
The course also increased my interest in research; I never truly understood what research was about before. The opportunity arose to do both research and social work, so I applied to do a Master’s in Research (MRes) degree, which led to a PhD in social work, and here I am today.
Jeremy: My first job as a social work lecturer was at the University of the West of England.
I applied to Bath after my PhD and was lucky enough to get a job here. Bath has always had a good reputation for research and that's what attracted me.
I'm still actively researching and my interests have been informed by my practice experience. I’ve looked at the experiences of people with mental health problems who offended, then at people’s experiences of mental health act assessments.
Jo: I worked predominantly in adult care and gained a lot of experience, which took me into practice education (assessing students while they're on placement), and then on to specialist palliative care. That’s when I came to Bath to do my master’s degree in Death and Society.
For family reasons, I took up the offer of a job at a local authority and was the organisation development consultant for all things social work. This included social work development; overseeing training of experienced social workers and newly qualified social workers on their assessed and supported year of employment (ASYE) programme; practice education for student placements; and setting up ‘step up to social work’ partnerships with other local authorities across Poole, Dorset, Wiltshire and Bournemouth.
As part of the role, I got to work very closely with my predecessor at the University of Bath, supporting the delivery of the Managing Practice Learning (MPL) course at the University. Then the job came up at Bath and I was asked to apply, so I did and here I am six years on!
How does all your past experience benefit the social work students at Bath?
Jeremy: In doing your research, you often retain good relationships with different local authorities.
I think it helps to identify what is important to practitioners; the problems they have in practice can feed back into the research process.
Doing research in different areas of mental health or mental care also indicates the gap between what laws and policies say social workers ought to do, and the way things are often being delivered on the ground.
This all helps in lectures. It’s important to think through what some of the solutions might be to bridge the gaps between policy and practice, and to identify what steps might be taken to protect the rights of service users more robustly.
All this feeds into the teaching.
Jo: It’s been fantastic to draw on all those contacts I made across the whole of the South West from councils in Bristol, Gloucester, Somerset, South Gloucester, Bath, Swindon, Wiltshire, Dorset, Poole, Bournemouth.
Because I have so many contacts across all those networks, we have many partnerships and a great student practice placement offering. Of course, they are constantly changing, and you have to keep updated, but that’s about knowing the right people to contact for the benefit of Bath students.
I am also still a current practice educator. It’s important to keep up-to-date with what is going on in practice now to know what it’s like for students on placement and the skills they need.
Alinka: The quality of the teaching on my undergraduate degree at Bath meant it was a no-brainer for me to go anywhere else for my postgraduate studies. That gave me the aspiration to eventually work here.
As a lecturer, I can draw on my experiences as a Bath student and as a child protection social worker. I think this is a great benefit for current students.
Are there any more words of advice you would like to offer prospective students?
Jo: Because we are smaller, and because we have such good relationships with all our partner agencies, our students will have practice placements that are well organised and delivered consistently as scheduled.
This is not always the case at other institutions.
Alinka: And you will be supported; you are not going to be left to it and there is no reason to be nervous about your placement.
In your first year, we will teach you the skills you need so you will feel well-prepared. When on placement, you will have your personal tutor supporting you, as well as your practice supervisor and your practice educator.
Jeremy: In my opinion, Bath is a good University to choose for social work. We have relatively small groups of students, so you get to know your cohort very well, and you benefit from more time with your tutors and lecturers.
But, before applying or coming to an interview to do social work, do some reading about what social work is.
That sounds like an obvious statement to make, but social work is more complicated than just helping people. It's about protecting people, and sometimes taking actions that might be unpopular with people to do this.
Websites like Community Care are quite useful to read to get a sense of issues within social work now.
Also, read some introductory books looking at what social workers do. It will help you make a decision about whether social work is for you (and give good answers in the interview!).