As a researcher and social worker, I love hearing others’ stories about what motivates and excites them, what they love, and why they do what they do. At some point along our journeys, even academics have a moment of “oh my goodness, I am FASCINATED by this topic… so much so, that I am willing to devote the rest of my life to studying it, unpacking it, and telling others about it.” Whatever that thing is, I often hear researchers say “I was MADE to study [insert topic].”
That is exactly how I feel when I think about the work I do.
Religion and spirituality have been topics I’ve always been interested in. Balancing respect while questioning my religious beliefs by the age of 9, being in a family with rich diversity in religious beliefs, experiencing a religious culture shock by moving from NY to TX, and having a deep hunger to learn what people believe, why they believe it, and how their beliefs are infused in their daily lives… each of these positioned me to explore religion and spirituality in mental health. One by one, doors began to open up as I moved from being an undergrad psychology research assistant, to offering cognitive-behavioral therapy for older adults with anxiety and depression, to interviewing older adults on their preferences for talking about their faith in mental health treatment, and then being accepted into an MSW program.
And then in spring 2009, it all came into focus when Dr. Ken Pargament, a psychologist from Bowling Green State University and author of Spiritually-Integrated Psychotherapy gave a grand rounds lecture at Baylor College of Medicine. Time stood still as I heard him share that a majority of the general US population was very religious and believed in a God/Higher Power…. but few psychologists held the same beliefs, and most struggled to talk about it with clients.
“What about social work?”
Being months away from my MSW program, I scribbled this question down, circled it about 20 or 30 times, and suddenly felt like every bit of me had to know the answer. Five months later, I was sitting in an auditorium with my MSW colleagues, listening to incredible faculty talk about having a strengths-based perspective, recognizing the person within his/her environment (including social support), and being aware of clients’ culture, while dancing around the role of clients’ religion/spirituality.
So that year, I dove into a year-long independent study literature review, and decided to apply for a dual MSW/PhD at the University of Houston. My fantastic mentors brought to life this idea of working in higher education and gifted me with some of the most uplifting, challenging, transformational years of my life. They provided the structure, setting, and questions I needed to deeply discover the work I was made to do, while unpacking this desire to conduct research on a topic I was so passionate about.
I wholeheartedly love the work I do. Working alongside such incredible colleagues, serving those who serve others through my research, seeking to understand complex topics, empowering others in research, and passing along the mentoring I’ve received is an true joy. Meanwhile, recognizing this deep, intrinsic motivation to do this work has been a gift along this journey, as I’ve also recognized all of the little adjustments, opportunities, and open doors I’ve been offered along the way.
So the next time you hear an academic or researcher talk about the work they do, ask them why they do what they do. Not only might it help you think about and interpret their work, but I guarantee you’ll be surprised by the answer… and by how it inspires you to reflect on your own reasons for why you do what you do.
May 2014: standing beside 3/4 of my dissertation committee at graduation.
From left to right: Dr. Danielle Parrish, myself, Dr. W. Andy Achenbaum, and Dr. Luis Torres. (Not pictured was my external committee member, Dr. Ken Pargament).