Social work dissertations in Canada: Preliminary findings

Below I present selected findings from our (Lucy Lach, Anne Blumenthal, Bree Akesson) review of social work dissertation research in Canada.

This work is now a working paper at the Social Science Research Network.


The main objective of this study is to describe the nature of doctoral social work scholarship in Canada over the ten year period from 2001 to 2011. The research is guided by two sets of research questions; the first set uses overall data across the ten year period and provides an overall representation of the output of doctoral dissertations. The second set of sub-questions includes a time component to examine trends. This set of questions offers information about social work knowledge production has fluctuated overt the first decade of the 21st century.

The study is is a scoping review of publicly available dissertations (Arksey & O’Malley, 2005). The dataset was created by Rothwell, Lach and Blumenthal (2013) and is available on the Dataverse Network under the name Social Work Doctoral Scholarship in Canada. The dataset is free and can be accessed by writing to the authors for permission.


Production of PhD dissertations.

The first step of the analysis revealed the production of dissertations across Canadian Schools/Faculties of Social Work. Results are shown in Figure 1. By far, the University of Toronto has produced the most PhD graduates in the country (n=76). Calgary follows with n=44. McGill and Wilfred Laurier University tied for the third most graduates (n=30) . The average number of graduates per school was 24.8. The productivity of schools is related to the age of the program. UT is the oldest program started in 1952. The University of British Columbia has one of the newer programs.



Dissertation topic.

Second, we wanted to understand the diversity of topics studied in social work. We accomplished this by applying the research topics used by the Society for Social Work Research (SSWR)  for abstract submission in their annual conference.

Figure2_PNGConsidering the diverse research topics under study in social work, we next examined research method differences across research topics. Each dissertation was coded as qualitative, quantitative or mixed methods. We selected the five most prevalent topics in our list of SSWR research categories (international social work, health and disability, child welfare, race and ethnicity, and mental health) and reported the proportions of method used. The results revealed considerable diversity (see below). Child welfare and mental health had a much higher than average proportion of studies that used quantitative methods. For dissertations examining race and ethnicity qualitative method dominated. Mixed methods were most common in international studies.


Dissertation by research method over time.

The next part of the analysis examined trends over time. Figure 3 below shows how research method varies across year. Across years, qualitative methods are the most common by far. The ratio of qualitative to quantitative to mixed studies ranged from highest in 2008 with 23:4:5 to lowest in 2005 7:2:2. The average number of graduates per year in Canada who conducted various dissertations was 15 qualitative, 4 quantitative and 4 mixed. The number of graduates who conduct a quantitative thesis in any given year was never more than 6.



A few points stand out.
1. Canada has produced 248 doctorates in social work between 2001 and 2011 (*publicly available dissertations). The University of Toronto is by far the most productive program. It is also the oldest program.
2. Social work dissertations focused on a variety of topics. And there was a strong relationship between research methods and topic studied. Methods employed to study mental health and child welfare are relatively balanced. Race and ethnicity and health and disability are almost exclusively studied using qualitative methods.
3. Across time, qualitative methods dominate over other research methods. There is a very limited supply of quantitative social work researchers being produced in Canada.

Future directions

This work opens several lines of inquiry.

1. Diversity of qualitative methods used

2. Diversity of quantitative methods used

3. Robert Oprisko et al’s work on placement efficiency.

4. Analysis of research methods / institutions by tri-council funding award.

We welcome your feedback. Stay tuned for the final paper.

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