Social work doctoral students continue on successful path

Story by Tricia Howley

SSW Ph.D. Students
Social work Ph.D. graduates Shannon Harrison, center, and Annie Keeney, right, with their adviser Vicky Buchan, professor emerita, left.

In a stadium full of fellow graduate students wearing mortarboard caps and gowns signifying academic excellence, two doctoral students in the School of Social Work, Annie Keeney and Shannon Harrison, celebrated graduation endings and new beginnings on May 12 in Moby Arena.

Following the successful defenses of their dissertations earlier this spring, both students were hooded by their adviser, Vicky Buchan, professor emerita, and crossed the stage to shake hands with College of Health and Human Sciences Dean Jeff McCubbin and CSU President and Chancellor Tony Frank, knowing their hard work to complete the doctoral program had prepared them for new phases in their lives.

Preparing students for careers in academia and research

The social work Ph.D. program serves to prepare students for a career in academia and research. It’s an undertaking that involves many years of dedicated commitment, and for good reason: These scholars are trained to improve the science of social work by generating and disseminating the knowledge that informs and transforms professional social work practice.

“I sensed, at my M.S.W. graduation ceremony, that I still wasn’t finished,” said Harrison. “I wanted my Ph.D. because I just wanted to be at the top of my field, to go as far as I could go. I also wanted to keep learning new things, and to keep broadening my horizons.”

Keeney added: “As a school social worker right out of graduation, I was encountering electronic media ethical dilemmas at all levels. The gaps I identified, my desire to make direct practice better, and my love for research and social justice propelled me to seek a Ph.D.”

Goal one: Finish

Yet alongside these reasons for entering a Ph.D. program, both students admitted a very real and necessary goal also existed, which proved no less important as they faced the demands of the process: to finish.

“I had only one goal at the start, and that was just to finish. No other goal,” Harrison stated. “I worked full time throughout, and drove across the state for my classes, on a weekly basis, for three years. Truly, I just wanted to finish, and to live to tell about it.”

“The goal I had at the start was to finish and become a mom,” said Keeney, who has had two children since beginning the program. “I had faith in the process that everything would work out.”

For her dissertation, Harrison developed a measure to assess adolescent sense of belonging, incorporating the variables of ethnicity, gender, and age groups. Keeney focused on how school social workers across the United States perceived their practice being affected by electronic media.

In addition to determination and faith, support and encouragement from members of the department helped buoy them through to the end.

Supportive faculty

“One of the most impactful persons was Dr. Rebecca Orsi,” Harrison said. “This is because she helped me so greatly in the area of my greatest deficit: statistics and methodology. She never wavered in being supportive and patient. I will always remember her implicit encouragement to keep going.”

“I must say every faculty member from every course I took impacted me in some way, shape or form,” said Keeney. “Each class challenged me in different ways that ultimately made me a better researcher, writer, student, colleague, and advocate for social justice.”

Both students have already begun the next steps of their post-doctoral lives. Harrison is pursuing director-level positions in hospital settings, as well as professorships at universities. Keeney was recently hired under the San Diego State University Research Foundation to work at the Social Policy Institute within the School of Social Work as a Learning Experience Designer and Evaluation Specialist, and anticipates seeking a faculty position in the future.

The School of Social Work is part of Colorado State University’s College of Health and Human Sciences.