The University of Chicago

School of Social Service Administration Magazine

Mastering Research Some SSA master’s students have the opportunity to delve deep into the scholarly work of social work research

How does one develop an effective research question? And once that question is formulated, what methodologies work best to answer it? At SSA, many master’s students are participating directly with the professors and doctoral students who traditionally consider these kinds of issues, thanks to opportunities to be involved in active research that provides the evidence to influence practice and policy.

All field placements at SSA give students a solid grounding in hands-on experience, but only a select number of master’s students are involved in research projects. This article profiles several: Bria Berger and Max Beshers, who are working with Assistant Professor Alida Bouris on her Project READY; Lauren Feig, part of the team at Professor Deborah Gorman-Smith’s Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention; and Callie Freitag, who has a research assistantship to research about how state-level safety net policies affect the economic stability of low-income households. SSA intends to increase the number of research-based field placements and research assistantships for master’s students through funding from the Excellence in Field Education Endowment.

By Julie Jung

A dynamic exchange of ideas and knowledge across research, class instruction and field placements is an SSA tradition. SSA’s first dean, Edith Abbott, started the School with the intention that social work professionals needed a solid grounding in the social sciences and an understanding of how to conduct research. For the past one hundred years, students have come to the University of Chicago and SSA to be part of an intellectual community that is examining critical questions facing the social work profession.

All SSA students are required to take research classes, and for many, it is their first opportunity to learn about the research process. All field placements at SSA give students a solid grounding in hands-on experience, but only a select number involve research projects. As only a limited number of research assistantships are available, SSA intends to increase the number of research-based field placements and research assistantships for master’s students through funding from the Excellence in Field Education Endowment.

This endowment was initiated by alumni who are deeply committed to ensuring SSA students exceptional field learning experiences that complements a curriculum of rigorous inquiry, critical thinking and the integration of theory and practice.

Additional funding will also help the researchers who mentor these students and gain their help in important research efforts. “If I could,” says Assistant Professor Alida Bouris, “I would hire my students full-time after graduation; their contributions are invaluable.”

Preventing HIV/STIs: Supports for Adolescents

Second-year students Bria Berger and Max Beshers are part of Alida Bouris’ ten-student research team for her study, Project READY (Resisting, Empowering, Advocating for Youth), which is working to answer the research question, “What are the familial and social-contextual factors associated with preventing HIV among African-American and Latino same-gender-loving young men and transgender women ages 13-19?”

To learn more about the factors that promote resilience, Project READY is surveying 150 youth about topics such as parent-adolescent communication, substance use, mental and sexual health, and their experiences with school, discrimination and the criminal justice system. Berger and Beshers and other members of the team set up booths at public events such as Lakeview’s Market Days in Chicago, where they pass out literature, recruit and survey research participants, and conduct rapid HIV testing. The team has also collaborated with the Night Ministry, setting up a booth in parking lots to recruit and survey participants and to disseminate HIV/STI prevention information to teens and others who may be facing homelessness.

“Alida’s research question is a cool idea as the answers will help broaden our conception of what HIV prevention looks like,” Beshers says. “Having access to socio-emotional supports, particularly for young people, is an important element of prevention.”

Both Berger and Beshers agree that there is a great need to reach out to adolescents about HIV prevention because it is not currently on the public’s radar. “Current public perception is that HIV has become a chronic, but manageable disease, so it seems as if the problem is “under control,” Beshers says. “But rates are rising among certain populations, and we have to remain vigilant.” He points out that not only are young African-American and Latina/o gay men and transgender women particularly at risk, but so are other groups—heterosexual African-American women face much higher risk than white women, for example. In Project READY, approximately 14 percent of the sample to date has tested positive for HIV.

A combined Clinical and Administration student, Berger learned about Bouris and her classes before applying to SSA and approached her immediately after orientation to ask if she could work on her research. In addition to facilitating surveys and HIV tests with young people, Berger has completed literature reviews and manages and analyzes survey data for Project READY.

She’s also worked with Bouris on South Side Stories (, a project where African-American teens participate in a workshop to create a digital story about their life. Digital stories are brief videos that integrate narrative, music and images to relate important life experiences. The project has collected stories from youth on topics such as family and romantic relationships, coming out, and segregation and violence in Chicago. Berger has conducted focus groups asking youth about their experience in the workshops and what it was like to have a platform to share their stories. The results were positive: Many of the teens said creating their video was a transformative experience.

Berger believes that her experience with Bouris, in addition to her field placement at Chicago House and Social Service Agency—where her work includes program development, group facilitation and community engagement in an employment program for HIV-positive and transgender clients—puts her in good stead for an administrative role in an agency someday.

“I’ve already used many of the research skills I’ve gained with Alida at my placement at Chicago House, and I’m really excited to continue to use and expand on my research experience in social service agencies,” she says. “It’s important to have transferable skills and to have a professional mentor. Working with Alida has helped me both personally and professionally. She has encouraged me to mould my course schedule and placement to my interest and goals, to take risks, and she has helped me shape my vision of who I am in the social work world.”

Bouris also helped Berger present her undergraduate research paper at the Society for Social Work and Research conference in January of 2013. “It’s been incredible to work with Alida for almost two years now because she’s so knowledgeable about clinical practice and research, and she really loves working with students. She has worked with and cares deeply about young people and their families, and she’s incredibly dedicated to this work, including going out in the field at 10 p.m. with her research assistants to facilitate surveys with participants.”

Beshers, a clinical student, also reached out to Bouris before classes started his first year because her research focus matched his clinical and career interests. In addition to recruiting for Project READY, he’s worked on focus groups and qualitative studies for other research Bouris is conducting. In his field placement, Beshers provides clinical counseling to homeless LGTBQ youth at the Broadway Youth Center. “There are huge gaps in the literature about LGBTQ youth and especially on transgender health,” he says. “So it is exciting to have the opportunity to participate and learn first-hand how the field and the research connect.”

Bouris has also invited Beshers to co-author a paper after he graduates, though he plans to continue his clinical work with the adolescent population rather than follow a research career. “I’ve learned that research is a lot of work and it takes a long time to do. From the protocol, to developing instruments, to recruiting participants. This has been a real eye-opener,” Beshers says. “But all of this hard work is gratifying as this research is important. It will help inform those of us who are clinicians. And it’s going to save lives.”

Preventing Violence Before It Starts: A School and Community Effort

Lauren Feig, a Social Administration student, developed an interest in violence prevention as an undergraduate after reading social psychologist Elliot Aronson’s book, Nobody Left to Hate: Teaching Compassion After Columbine, which explores solutions to the dynamics that lead to bullying, exclusion and violence in schools. The book piqued her research interest in school-level interventions and the role schools play as a protective and promotive factor in youth development. As she learned more about social work, Feig wanted to become involved in policy and research, and she applied to SSA.

“The School offers a broad background in practice and systems change. Not many policymakers or researchers have direct connections with the populations that they serve, but social work attempts to bridge this gap,” Feig says. “Through my first- and second-year field placements, I have been able to engage in direct practice work with the populations I hope to support ‘behind the scenes.’ These experiences will better inform my future research in youth violence prevention.”

Feig is in both SSA’s Violence Prevention and Family Support programs of study. Few schools of social work have a violence prevention program, and Feig says she values the mentorship she’s received from Dean Neil Guterman, who is her faculty advisor, and her close relationship with Professor Deborah Gorman-Smith, who is her second-year field instructor. “It is incredible to have the opportunity to work with and learn from ‘pioneers in the field,’” she says.

Feig’s field placement is at Gorman-Smith’s Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention, where she has been trained by CCYVP staff to work with families in Schools and Families Educating Children (SAFE Children) and Guiding Responsibility and Expectations in Adolescents Today and Tomorrow (GREAT Families), evidence-based, family-focused preventive interventions that target high-risk students in 1st and 6th grade, respectively. The interventions are currently being implemented at four different K-8 schools in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. Rigorous evaluations have yielded evidence of effectiveness for both programs, Feig says, “so the challenge now for us [at CCYVP] is to determine how these evidence-based interventions can be implemented at scale in Humboldt Park and translated to widespread practice in other communities.”

Feig has also done outreach to recruit family members in Humboldt Park to the programs and to recruit research subjects for a study to evaluate CeaseFire Woodlawn and North Lawndale. SAFE/GREAT intervenes at the family level, while CeaseFire is a community-level intervention.

Gorman-Smith is also mentoring Feig on a research project that Feig conceptualized, based on studies done by CCYVP and other research colleagues that have identified a distinct group of at-risk youth who are simultaneously victims and perpetrators of peer aggression. Compared to youth who are perpetrators or victims only, these individuals exhibit poorer psychosocial and behavioral functioning and are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors such as substance use and carrying a weapon.

To explore if school climate acts as a protective factor that buffers the impact of peer victimization on aggression, Feig is using data from the Multisite Violence Prevention Project, a 5-year randomized controlled trial evaluating the impact of school and family-focused prevention strategies that collected information from more than 5,000 students in 37 middle schools in cities across four states. To give her additional exposure to research, Gorman-Smith invited her to be part of her SSA doctoral dissertation group, where Feig presented her research proposal in May.

In addition to her classes and field placement, Feig works part-time at the Coalition for Evidence-based Policy, where Gorman-Smith is a senior research fellow. She evaluates various research studies to assess whether or not they produce valid evidence regarding program effectiveness. “I feel incredibly lucky to be working at CCYVP and for the coalition. Doing so has given me the opportunity to sharpen my research, writing, and communication skills, assets that will be particularly valuable as I move forward in my career,” she says.

Feig says her experiences have taught her how to think differently about prevention of violence and other social problems, appropriate times to intervene, and how different factors impact youth at different developmental stages. She is currently co-authoring a paper with Gorman-Smith for the Children’s Legal Rights Journal that explores a public health approach to youth violence prevention.

“Deb is helping me achieve my goals. Her mentorship has proven to be invaluable and I have learned so much from her,” says Feig, who plans to pursue a doctoral degree in either human development and social policy or social work. “In the meantime, I look forward to continue working with Deb and my CCYVP colleagues after graduation.”

How State-level Policies Impact Families

A first-year Administration student who has a BS in Applied Mathematics from George Washington University, Callie Freitag was inspired as an undergraduate by the work on health care in developing countries by Harvard Professor Paul Farmer and she thought she would study epidemiology. But after attending a biostatistics camp, she decided that she would rather focus on the social determinants of health, rather than medicine and treatment. While at an internship with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Budget Office during her senior year, working alongside Presidential Management Fellows and several SSA graduates, she decided that she wanted a research career studying the impact of social policies on low-income individuals and families.

After graduation, Freitag continued to work in D.C. and researched schools of social work. She found that SSA’s flexible and integrated curriculum was best suited to her interest in mixing theory and practice and in particular, gaining clinical experience and understand political theory in the process of creating policy.

The SSA Admissions office offered Freitag a research assistantship, one of only about a dozen available each year, and connected her with Assistant Professor Heather Hill to work on research about how state-level safety net policies affect the economic stability of low-income households. Freitag has been tasked with collecting data on state policies for the TANF, SNAP, Medicaid/CHIP, and Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) programs. This past fall, she started by coding all relevant state-level policies. She researched published information about policy specifics and tracked down information from federal resources that were not readily available. “My time in Washington, D.C. was a huge asset,” Freitag says.

The theory behind the research project is that instability is potentially worse than a stable low income for families. Hill is interested in whether state-level policy choices, such as the length of waiting periods for particular benefits, influence family economic stability. For example, if a mother loses her job, how long does it take before the safety net programs that she is accessing are taken away, and how soon can she access them again once she regains employment? Each policy is evaluated by looking at: whether it offers transitional benefits to families, hassles to acquire particular safety net benefits, how often do families have to recertify their eligibility, and what state policy choices could lead to more stability.

“I feel lucky working on this project,” Freitag says. The data that she is collecting will be combined with family-level information from the U.S Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) to examine how state-level policy decisions affect household economic stability. Callie will stay on with the project throughout the summer.

After graduation, Freitag is hoping to get an applied policy research job and then apply to a doctoral program. “I love what I’m researching,” she says, “and I’m now absolutely sure that a research career is what I want to do.”

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