What is a DSW exactly? What Else are We Learning?--And My Faculty Advisor

What Is a DSW Exactly? What Else Are We Learning?—And My Faculty Advisor

by Monica A. Ross, LPC

I’ve been assigned an advisor for my thesis. Her name is Dr. Amanda Stylianou. She’s an LCSW practicing out of New York and the Associate Vice President for Quality and Program Development at an organization called Safe Horizon

Safe Horizon is the largest nonprofit victim services agency in the United States. They work with victims of domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assault, and human trafficking. I’m very much looking forward to working with Dr. Stylianou.

Just about one month has gone by in this program. The pace of working full-time and attending 4 hours of virtual class time a week in addition to the outside readings that we have to do has been challenging.

I feel like we’ve covered so much territory already. That would make sense because we’re doing things at a very fast pace. This program is only 24 months long. To those who would say, how can a doctoral program be only 24 months long?

I’d say this: The licensure that I have for my LPC took approximately 6 years to complete from start to finish. So in some sense, I feel as though my dues in terms of gaining an education at the graduate level and in time spent training for my profession have been paid.

These 2 years in the doctoral program will make it about 8 years of education and training post BA total. Most traditional PhD programs require about the same amount of time to complete coming straight from undergraduate school. So, in a way, I look it like I took the complicated route to a doctoral degree, which seems to be more in line with my style. 

Previous to even starting my master’s, I had accumulated over 20 years of work experience in a range of industries which gives me a wide perspective on office structures and organizational policies. Because the focus of this doctoral program is on social innovation and where systems in society overlap with social problems, that experience will help with the work that I’m doing as well. 

Academic programs that are online or remote come under scrutiny for not being as rigorous as brick and mortar academic programs. And there are some online academic programs out there that may not be. 

However, I can say that in this doctoral program, I’m meeting with a small group of up to 15 other students twice each week for a couple of hours each class. This doesn’t include time spent in group meetings that we have outside of class for group projects. We also have readings and assignments to complete consistent with more traditional academic programs.

The virtual environment as an educational tool is not going away and I’m excited to be participating in it with an academic institution that is on the leading edge of that front. Some might ask, what is a DSW anyway? It’s a doctorate, but it’s not the same as a PhD. 

The DSW is to social work as the PsyD is to psychology. A DSW degree is a bit like a PsyD in that it emphasizes professional practice over research. That’s not to say that I can’t conduct research or teach for that matter, but solely conducting research and teaching isn’t my current aim.

What else are we doing in this DSW program? We’re examining different organizational change models, we’re combing through databases from peer-reviewed journals, we’re creating annotated bibliographies for our separate projects, we’re applying the models we’re learning in class to case study examples on various social problems. 

And we’re doing all this from the standpoint that at some point the models we are learning will be applied to the separate projects that we are working on for our capstone thesis. We’re also hearing from thought leaders in a kind of a guest lecturer format who have taken the time to sit for recorded interviews specifically for our class on the topics we are covering—Freddy Mutanguha of the Holocaust Memorial Trust gave a lecture for our class recently, and Karen Freidt who is the Creativity and Innovation Program Manager for NASA’s Langley Research Center gave a lecture.

As I watch these leaders of industries with experience in anything from science and engineering to outreach and education programs in East Africa, I feel truly inspired by the lessons they are imparting from the work they are doing in their various fields. A couple of things stand out for me as lessons learned by these leaders of industry. 

Number one is the importance of not trying to solve a problem for someone else that you don’t yourself understand. I’m playing with the idea of using health disparities as my focus because it’s something that I intimately understand. When I use the term health disparities, I’m talking about group differences in physical health that are influenced by inequalities in society that are socially determined by such things as access to proper nutrition, education, employment, housing, and transportation. 

Both of my parents were chronically ill and social determinants in some sense affected both their access to care and the quality of care they received. But I don’t have to go there. I can stop with the fact that I myself am a member of more than one social grouping that often faces stigma and discrimination in society. I could look to my friends who themselves are in groups that are stigmatized and discriminated against. So, yes, a problem that I intimately understand, check mark.

Number two is that while it’s important to be passionate about your work, it’s also important to set the intensity of that passion so it’s not so high that your field of vision is narrowed. As far as dialing down the intensity goes, that’s hard to do. Because these issues for me are personal, as I mentioned, not just because my family members have been affected by these things, but my friends, myself.

My colleagues and I are doing this work doubtless because it feeds into our sense of purpose in life, but at the same time, a certain measure of detachment is needed in order to continue to learn and think critically and challenge long-held beliefs and presumptions, some of which might be our own. David Perkins from the Graduate School of Education at Harvard is attributed as having said that 90% of errors in thinking are not errors of logic but errors of perception. 

I’ll take it a step further. It’s our perception arguably from which we derive our logic. In other words, our perception or beliefs influence not only the way that we view ourselves but the way in which we view other people, and the way in which we view the very world we live in.

How I'm Currently Answering the Question: "What's the Book Going to Be About?"

by Monica Ross

Dorothea Lange-Migrant Mother

by Monica A. Ross, LPC

I’ve run into people lately who know my intent of writing a book and they’ve been asking me, “Well what's it about?” I say that I have a loose sketch. There are several themes that I want to tie in together. The general themes are poverty, stigma, mental health, physical health, behavioral economics, and therapeutic techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy. 

I’ve thought about going back to school to advance my studies even further. And recently, I applied to a couple of doctoral programs. Both of these programs are online and shorter in length than a traditional PhD track program, which would be geared more towards someone who wants to end up conducting research and teaching in academia. The one doctoral program that I am looking at in particular would place the emphasis on clinical practice.

I don’t know whether or not I’ll get into my program of choice or whether or not having gained the acceptance I’ll sign the piece of paper that commits myself to even more student loan debt. But I thought I’d use this post to explain some of my background or reasoning for wanting to pursue the idea of writing a book.

I made some of the following statements in my personal statement submitted to the doctoral program that elucidate my intent a little bit more:

Extreme economic inequality is a public health problem. As a health care provider, I want to advance well-being practices geared towards overcoming the unique psychological barriers that economic inequality perpetuates in order to stimulate behavioral and economic change. The government focuses on prevention and early intervention for “at risk” youth, and this leaves out our adult population, an even larger demographic.

Some of the adults I have treated were not able to get early interventions and therefore find themselves struggling later in life. I am intrigued by the work of Eldar Shafir and Johannes Haushofer, both from Princeton University, who are leading the conversation linking poverty to psychology and tracing this linkage to its economic impact.

In my early years, in Texas, I saw the struggles my parents had with chronic health impairments and economic inequality. This influenced my decision to go into psychology and sociology as an undergraduate student and to focus my studies on resilience and well-being later in life.

I did not see the burden of my parents’ health and financial issues, or my own issues for that matter, as resting solely on our shoulders. Instead, I had some sense there were environmental and societal factors affecting our overall health and well-being. I am an advocate of personal agency and responsibility, while at the same time acknowledging that we, all of us, live in systems.

After graduation I spent many years working in California at corporate, government, nonprofit, and academic institutions. I chose this path of work because I chased after the financial security that these roles provided. In 2010 I made the decision to come back to Texas to be with family and I came up with a plan to pursue my calling—to return to the study of psychology and to become a psychotherapist.

By August of 2011, I was enrolled full-time in a counseling program at St. Edward’s University. By May of 2014, I finished my counseling program and graduated with a 4.0 GPA. With my master’s degree and LPC-intern license in hand, I made the decision to relocate to rural East Texas because of the experience it offered.

I began working at Burke, a Federally Qualified Health Center headquartered in Lufkin. It serves a 12-county region and houses services for people across the life span, from children to adults, with mental health and medical issues. At Burke, I worked initially with the most severely mentally ill in vivo as a caseworker.

In that role as an in vivo caseworker, I came face-to-face with the devastating effects of poverty in America and its relationship to mental health. After a year as a caseworker, I transitioned to the office and provided psychotherapy at the clinic for our clients that included 50- to 90-minute individual counseling, group therapy, and psychoeducational sessions.

I discovered a wellness self-management personal workbook from the New York State Office of Mental Health and used that as a tool to lead a 12-week series of group therapy sessions. I also drove once a week an hour outside of Lufkin to Crockett, a town of less than 7,000, in order to provide therapy to the neediest in that community. Crockett has a 39.1% poverty rate.

In some ways, I had escaped the financial and cultural struggles of my early years for an interlude while in working California only to willingly come back to my home state and face those same struggles again, but from a different perspective. Once I finished the licensure process, I moved back to Austin to embark upon my own private practice.

Throughout my experience as a counselor, I have continued to work with clients of all ages in all levels of socioeconomic status. I have clients who have been in and out of prison, who have had Child Protective Services (CPS) involvement in their lives, and who are struggling to maintain independent housing, access to proper nutrition, and transportation.

I have also worked with top executives of well-known companies who are somewhat more economically privileged, but often face similar mental health challenges and have had to overcome sometimes similar childhood trauma.

By addressing the unique psychological barriers that people coming from a place of extreme economic inequality face, we can more adequately advance long and productive lives. This may come through a process of creating social responses that include therapeutic techniques to adapt to the changing social environment.

The experiences that I have had throughout life, the witnessing of the effects of extreme inequality, which are influenced by both societal factors and internalized psychological barriers, have taken on new meaning for me. These experiences were not random occurrences, but instead have prepared me for the work that I currently do and for the legacy that I hope to one day leave.