Returning to Manchester to explore my research interests

Josh Devlin is a graduate from the two-year MA Social Work programme which helps students to become social workers through placements and highly effective teaching. For the past three years, Josh has worked as a Social Worker for Trafford Council in a children’s locality team. However, this September he is set to return to the University to pursue a PhD. Find out the driving force behind that decision below and learn all about what area of social work he will be focusing his research on…


My time in children’s social work has been both exciting and challenging – however, I have always been eager to return to Manchester to delve deeper into the research interests that I developed during my master’s. I was therefore very happy to find out in April that my application to the North West Social Sciences Doctoral Training Partnership for a studentship to complete a PhD in social work was successful.

Studying for a PhD was something that I realised I wanted to do whilst completing the dissertation element of the MA Social Work. My dissertation project was a discourse analysis of a policy report presented to Parliament in 2011 known as ‘The Allen Report’. The report is seen to be significant in introducing the notion of the state intervening ‘early’ in the lives of children in order to reduce later adverse outcomes in contemporary UK child protection policy.

This had given me a taste of delving critically into a prominent policy area – something which I have since been eager to expand upon in my career. It has been through spending almost three years in ‘frontline’ child protection practice that I have seen first-hand how embedded agile working practices are whilst remaining relatively under-examined within social work research. Having already developed positive relationships with staff team in the Social Work department through completing the MA, my aim has always been to return to Manchester to complete a PhD.

The application process itself was challenging, particularly on top of full time work, and the research proposal took several months to develop. However, the supervisors for the project – Dr Stephen Hicks (who was my academic advisor during my master’s) and Dr Dharman Jeyasingham -were supportive and provided me with guidance when developing the proposal.


The title of my research project is: ‘Social work on the move: an exploration of physical, imagined and discursive mobilities and sense-making in child protection social work’. The project will use mobile ethnographic methods and an analysis of case recordings to explore the relationship between mobility (or movement) and how social workers make sense of situations (which is central to how practitioners make decisions).

This is an important area of research because agile working practices have increasingly seen social workers expected to spend large parts of their week working away from the office – such as from home or their cars. However, the way in which this is experienced by social workers and families remains under-examined – and therefore the adoption of agile working within the social work context has been rapidly adopted with limited consideration of its impact on some aspects practice.

I am also interested in exploring how mobility in child protection practice is constituted through talk and text – for example the use of the term ‘drift’ when discussing the lack of effective decision-making – and how this relates to sense-making. It is here that I hope my project will extend the scope of existing child protection mobilities research which predominantly focuses on physical mobilities.


With regards to advice to current undergraduate or postgraduate students – I would suggest they ensure they focus on the academic and research based aspects of their courses if research at doctoral level is something they may be interested in further in their career. Secondly, I would suggest they seek to identify routes into doctoral research as early as possible and have these in mind when planning the next steps in their career.

Finally, I would suggest even if doctoral research is the long term goal, they throw themselves into practice for a sustained period of time, build good relationships with their colleagues and maintain links to their practice after leaving as this will be important when developing a project further down the line.

At a time when so much in the world feels uncertain due to COVID-19, it feels strange to know what I will be doing for the next four years – however I am extremely excited to embark on this next stage of my career and look forward to returning to the university in September.


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