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Prof. Dennis Kao

Interview With Dennis Kao, MSW, PhD

By Rachel L. West
Advocacy Consultant

As part of the Job Search for a Macro Social Worker series I will be featuring interviews with community practice professionals. This week’s interview is will Dennis Kao, a professor at the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work. In the interview Dennis discussed the role GIS mapping can play in social services and well as tips on pursuing a career in academia.

Rachel West: Did you attend a social work program with a macro track? Do you think attending a program with a macro track matters in the long run?

Dennis Kao: As a MSW student at UCLA, I was interested in policy and community work and went through their macro track, which was called the “Community Administration Policy and Planning (CAPP)” concentration at the time. Out of maybe 100 in our cohort, there were only about 15 of us, but what a stellar group of individuals! We spent the entire 2nd year together, taking cool classes such as Community Organizing (with longtime activist, Mary Brent Wehrli), Administration (with Dr. Fernando Torres-Gil, i.e. former Assistant Secretary on Aging, under the Clinton Administration), and Social Welfare Systems (with Dr. Leonard Schneiderman). During our first year, everyone—macro and micro students—took classes taught by some of our greatest social work thinkers, e.g. Dr. Jack Rothman and Dr. Yeheskel Hasenfeld. As a department in the School of Public Affairs, we also interacted with students and faculty in the urban planning and public policy programs and in some cases took their classes.

I may be biased, but of course, every social work program should have a macro track. As a profession, we need to support and promote all aspects of social work. Otherwise, we run the risk of losing sight of our core values of social justice and looking at people in their environments. This is particularly the case in social work education, where we have the tremendous responsibility of developing our future social workers. As a macro student, practitioner, and now, educator, I fully understand the challenges facing macro social work. And I’m always happy to see the efforts of organizations (such as ACOSA) and individuals (such as yourself) who are working to promote macro social work in the profession. Macro social work rules!!!!

RW: Post MSW did you obtain any additional degrees, certificates, or licensing? If so what were they?

DK: As I mentioned before, during my doctoral program, I received a graduate certificate in Geographic Information Science. Interestingly, as a macro social worker in California, I wasn’t even aware of the LMSW before I moved to Texas three years ago.

RW: You taught an interesting sounding course called Mapping Individuals, Organizations, Communities: Applications of Geographic Information Systems for Social Work. This might be a tall order but can you give a brief explanation about the role GIS mapping can play in social work?

DK: In my opinion, the social work profession has been relatively slow to adopt GIS technologies. But to me, there’s a natural fit between social work and GIS/mapping. As social workers, we are trained to look at people in their environments and GIS/mapping are essentially tools that allow us to do just that. In the late 19th century, our very own Ms. Jane Addams and the Hull House residents created a series of maps to better understand the demographic shifts in the local community, so there is some precedent (google “Hull House maps” if interested). Here, at the University of Houston, we’ve been trying to build a GIS Lab to promote the use of GIS in social work research and practice. One of our goals is to train social workers and students on using GIS in their work and thus, you have the course…

In my mind, the potential applications for social work practice and research are limitless. For example, as a researcher, I think GIS technologies can help us to better understand the contextual and environmental factors that affect the health and well-being of the individuals, families, and communities we serve. One of my current project utilizes GIS (mixed with qualitative interviews) to map the activity spaces of aging individuals and how they’ve been able to integrate health care into their daily lives.

GIS can also help to inform social work practice, and as a profession, I think we’re really just starting to scratch the surface… Imagine Google Maps, but being able to access all the relevant data social workers might use every day, e.g. client information, nearby social/health services, affordable housing, food pantries, other community resources and supports, bus schedules/routes, wait times, community demographics, etc. Similar to how businesses use GIS to plan and deliver products more effectively and efficiently to their customers, why can’t GIS do the same for human service agencies? GIS can help to inform every aspect of the service delivery process, including needs assessment, program planning and implementation, and finally, evaluation.

Finally, I believe GIS (and more broadly, mapping) can be used to support social workers engaged in community practice, e.g. community organizing and development. For example, the use of maps is an important part of any city or local planning process. However, most maps are created by governmental agencies or other outside entities and as a consequence, may reflect a different reality from what residents might see or experience in their particular community. Maps could be used as a community empowerment tool to engage residents in identifying their community strengths (assets) and gaps (needs). And these community-driven maps can then be used to advocate for services or other resources.

RW: You currently teach at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. What career advice can you give to social workers who want to become professors?

DK: I think I have the best job in the whole world! I can’t think of another job that would allow me to set my own schedule and agenda. In many ways, you’re your own boss. I do research on issues I’m interested in and passionate about; and I have the opportunity to relay my own experiences to our students. I get summers off (sort of) and I get to pick up our son from school every afternoon.

Yes, the pressures and stresses associated with trying to get tenure are very real. Being a professor isn’t for everyone. But if you enjoy research and/or teaching, here are a few of my lessons learned:

  • Work a few years as a social worker before going back to earn your PhD.

When I got my MSW, I had no intention of going back to school, but after seven years, I was mentally ready to go into a PhD program. To this day, I still draw on my professional social work experience to help frame and inform my research; it’s also been helpful in my teaching (e.g. Advanced Social Policy Analysis). Besides, many social work faculty positions require that someone have at least 2 years of post-MSW experience.

  • Talk to some professors

I think this is fairly obvious. I remember having a number of conversations with my professors from UCLA (and in some cases, I would call up professors from other institutions). It was helpful to learn about their career trajectories and to get their opinions about me as a professor. You will probably need 1 or 2 academic references, so it might be good to keep in touch with your former professors. Also, you may want to meet with some of the faculty at the schools you’re thinking of applying to; you’re going to need a faculty mentor wherever you end up.

  • Be clear on why you want a PhD

Ask yourself: Do you really need a PhD to do what you want to do? The process of earning a PhD is a tremendous commitment in terms of time and resources; it will also test you physically, mentally, and emotionally. Keep in mind that a PhD in social work—while it used to be a degree geared towards providing training in advanced practice—is now primarily a research-oriented degree. You’re trained to be an academic researcher, which of course can open up some doors. But not having a PhD doesn’t preclude you from doing research or program evaluation. You may also get some training in teaching in the classroom. But as a practitioner, you can also teach as an adjunct or clinical faculty.

Dennis’ Professional Profile

Currently Works At:
Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work (will be leaving for California State University Fullerton this fall).

Job Title:
Interestingly, I’m currently in transition. At this very moment, I’m sitting in my office at the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work where I’ve been an Assistant Professor for the past 3½ years. At the end of the summer, my family will be moving back to California and in the fall, I will be joining the social work faculty at the California State University Fullerton.

In what seems like another lifetime, I was a pre-med student majoring in Molecular & Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley. After a few years, I finally found my way to social work, getting my MSW at the University of California, Los Angeles. After about seven years, I decided to go back to school, which led me to the PhD program at the University of Southern California. During that time, I also got a graduate certificate in Geographic Information Science (GIS).

How To Connect With Dennis:
Bio from the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work


Posted by Rachel L. West

In addition to being the founder of The Political Social Worker blog, I am a consultant. My consulting practice offers advocacy and community outreach solutions to nonprofits, social good organizations, and private practitioners. Additionally, I offer career coaching to macro social work students and professionals.


  1. Thanks Rachel!

  2. You’re awesome, Dennis!


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