Since I joined the PhD program in 2014, the GCSW has hosted an annual research conference at the end of each fall semester. The conference allows Master’s of Social Work (MSW) students, doctoral students, and faculty members to present posters and oral presentations on their research to a large audience. Students also have the opportunity to receive valuable feedback on their research methods and results. I have participated every year as an audience member, volunteer, and/or presenter. In 2017, as a Foundation TA, I had the great opportunity to help organize the conference with Dr. Sarah Narendorf—the Conference Chair and Foundation Coordinator. It was an unforgettable and rewarding experience. I worked hard, enjoyed myself, and learned a lot.
Since many people misperceive the conference as an opportunity for only first-year Foundation students to showcase their research, there is usually low participation among doctoral students who have valuable research to share. As a strategy for recruiting more doctoral participants this year, I suggested forming a conference committee to involve and empower students. With support from the PhD and Foundation programs, we successfully formed a committee that included two professors (Dr. Sarah Narendorf and Dr. Chiara Acquati), three PhD students (Kenya Minott, Theresa Chrisman, and myself), and one senior MSW student (Andrea Elizondo) who met once a month to plan the conference. For example, one professor was in charge of abstract reviews while a PhD student was responsible for arranging logistics, judges, and prizes for the student poster contest. Each PhD committee member promoted the conference within their own cohort since they know their cohort students well and meet with them frequently. We found that communication through word-of-mouth worked much more effectively than sending massive, wordy emails from the program or college. The conference committee worked hard and was very helpful to keep the ball rolling.
We had to begin planning at very beginning of summer to hold the conference in December. Planning was not always smooth, and we were frequently frustrated. From ordering food to promoting publicity, from arranging faculty presentations to completing the CEU application, from getting a keynote speaker to collaborating with other universities/programs, we needed to cooperate with many internal and external departments and staff. We faced significant difficulty when we received little or no response to our communications since the success of each step depended so strongly on the completion of other tasks. It felt like we were always chasing people down to get a response, resorting to phone calls, and emails, and even catching people in the hallway!
On December 1st, 2017, the conference was successfully held with the help of the committee members and student volunteers. With our ongoing efforts, we had 7 PhD posters, 3 posters from senior MSW students, 1 alumni poster, and 2 PhD oral presentations in addition to over 100 posters from Foundation students. We also included BSW students from Texas Southern University and Lamar University, who presented 3 and 5 posters, respectively. This year, we also initiated a collaborative community effort proposed by senior MSW student and committee member Andrea Elizondo. Through this new component of the research conference, community agencies partnered with senior MSW students who presented on evidence-based practices conducted at the agencies. This collaboration showed the students how research is used in the field and how to connect practice with research.
Our higher level of student participation was great progress compared to previous years, but many PhD students still did not attend the conference. While first-year PhD students are not have limited research results after just starting the program, senior PhD students often have many other national or international presentation opportunities. Organizers of future conferences will need to develop strategies for effectively engaging these students.
In my opinion, putting your ideas and work together and introducing them to other people in an understandable way is a very important skill for social work researchers and practitioners. Preparing and presenting a poster is one of the best ways to practice such vital skills, even for those who are not interested in being researchers in the future. I hope more students and faculty will support this important endeavor and recognize the value of exchanging ideas in a critical yet friendly professional environment.
By: Shu Zhou