Whenever someone asks how I landed in my dream job, I chuckle. Because there is no simple answer. My path to becoming a social worker—and to becoming a prison social worker—is unusual. For starters, my education background is a little untraditional; I completed degrees in biomedical science, humanities, and social science before taking the plunge into my MSW. At which point, things get even more confusing. My process was full of trial and error, but I managed to find a niche that lets me best use my skills. Instead of setting out on a long and winding process like mine, take a few of the lessons I learned along the way to fast-track your dream social work job.
This boils down to getting in touch your career goals and establishing the specialization, work structure, and any short-term projects that will help you accomplish them.
Maybe you love working with children and want to help vulnerable youth in your community. Perhaps you want to work with patients facing chronic or terminal illness, and support them right to the very end. Or, maybe you see yourself shaping health policy. While all of these specializations are instrumental to social work, you’ll know which brings you the greatest sense of purpose.
When searching for a specialization, prison social work stood out to me once I realized how many prisoners deal with mental illness. I knew that by combining mental health treatment with the right rehabilitation, prisoners would have a better chance at leading successful lives after incarceration. I wanted to be a part of that process to self-discovery and well-being.
There are a couple of significant practical considerations:
- A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in social work
- A license to practice or required social work certification
Credentials vary among careers, states, and territories. Licenses include:
- Certified Social Worker (CSW)
- Clinical Social Work Associate (CSWA)
- Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW)
- Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LASW)
- Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW)
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
- Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW)
- Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
- Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP)
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)
Most of these licenses require a Master’s or Doctorate, along with additional coursework or clinical internships. ( )
A survey of 2017 social work graduates by the National Social Work Workforce Study found that social workers with Master’s degrees and Doctorates made substantially more than those with no advanced degree. ( )
- People with MSW degrees made $13,000-plus more than those with only BSW degrees
- MSWs make more in large cities or urban clusters
- People with doctorates earned $20,000 to $25,000 more than people with only MSW degrees
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So many factors of job dissatisfaction are due to a mismatch between occupation and an employee’s personality and skills. By establishing your work style, you’ll highlight the careers and potential work environments that will help you thrive:
In my case, I learned that I perform best when working in a collaborative place where there are clear policies with room for creative input on clinical approaches. I also favor an environment that allows for independent work and collaboration when cases are difficult. The setting I work in meets all of these criteria.
Social work is a huge field, and it’s so important to tailor your education and fieldwork to the niche you want to pursue. Simply put, it helps to be set on your plan. Setting short-term goals is an easy way to keep your plan in focus, and launch your career without delays. Here’s how I used them to get serious about my specialization:
Short-term goals are less big-picture than their long-term equivalents, but they’re just as important—and the fact that you can attain them in a shorter time will be a huge motivator. Think of them as stepping stones to propel your long-term plan.
I couldn’t have landed my job in prison social work without carefully researching and choosing a program that was tailored to my needs and career goals. I built my search around schools that offered study in policy and clinical social work. Plenty of additional factors were added to my list of “must-haves” along the way, which you can apply to your search.
Your placement should help you learn more about the challenges faced by the community you want to serve. By participating in one that aligns with your specialization, you’ll become more skilled at designing interventions and implementing treatment plans that will be vital throughout your career.
This shows that a school is dedicated to helping its students to develop the skills, experience, and connections to land a job in their chosen area of social work.
Are you someone who requires a higher level of feedback from your instructors or greater opportunity for a group or one-to-one support? Perhaps a smaller college or university is for you. Other students, such as learners who benefit from PowerPoint and other visual aids, may find larger classes preferable to smaller ones.
Many schools allow prospective students to tour the campus, meet students from their intended program, and to sit in on lectures. When talking to students, ask if any professors stand out for being particularly engaging, encouraging, or inspiring. You know, the professors that make you want to learn.
This could include grants, scholarships, work-study, and school-specific loans that lessen the potential financial burden of a program. You should also take into account whether the school you’re considering participates in the Federal Student Aid, particularly its programs for graduate students.
Volunteering is so important to discern which area of social work you want to pursue. During my MSW program, I took an Inside OutTM course in which social work students and incarcerated students met to discuss issues of diversity, marginalization, and oppression. The course fueled my interests and I began volunteering in the prison system to gain additional perspective, which I continue to bring to my field today. A bonus? After I was offered my current job, I was told by a member of the hiring committee that my volunteer experience was what had sealed the deal.
With so many social service organizations available, it’s important to consider which volunteer opportunities align with your career goals. The organizations below touch on just a few specializations. Find what best fits your skills and qualifications or use them as a guide as you browse for opportunities in your area:
The Trevor Project: The world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ youth.
Mental Health America: A community-based nonprofit dedicated to meeting the needs of those living with mental illness. Their work is committed to overall wellness, and includes prevention services, early identification and intervention, and integrated care, with recovery as the goal.
Brain and Behavior Research Foundation: This organization’s mission is to lessen the suffering caused by mental illness, which they do by awarding grants that lead to advancements in scientific research surrounding brain and behavior disorder treatment.
The National Association of Mental Illness: America’s largest grassroots organization, dedicated to raising awareness, and providing support and education on mental health. The organization is looking for contributors, community activists, and organizers to spread its message of resilience.
Your local child protection agency: Child Protection Agencies (CPS) work with families to ensure the safety of children and teach vital parenting skills to ensure children’s needs are met. CPS often has opportunities for foster parents, volunteer drivers, and other roles to support the children in their care.
Your local hospital: Many hospitals often offer a variety of services to sick patients and their families, which include counseling, volunteer drives, respite care, and much more. Check with the hospitals in your area to learn about any volunteer requirements.
No More: This organization is dedicated to ending domestic violence and sexual assault by increasing awareness, inspiring action and fueling cultural change. They host events in cities across the U.S. and also offer resources for getting involved with local organizations that align with their mission.
March for Our Lives: Founded just days after the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, March for our Lives aims to motivate young people to take an interest in politics and advocate for responsible gun legislation. Volunteers are needed, most recently to join the organization’s Road to Change, a campaign to register voters across the country and demand change to save lives.
In grad school, I asked my professors and supervisors how they chose their paths, and how they got started in them. Many of these conversations evolved into advice to pursue certifications or training while I was in school. By my last semester, I was certified in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and several other areas of training, which paved the way for me to be hired to my first social work job. While entry-level, this job gave me the work experience, skill boost, and confidence to later make the jump to prison social work. In a way, those training programs were the foundation of where I’m at today. Of course, I owe much of my career to hard work, but I don’t regret following the initial steps my mentors recommended I take.
Not everyone has a trusted and experienced social worker at hand, which is where networking comes into play. Here are a few tips for seeking counseling from someone who has been there, whether you’re starting in your career or have been in it for years:
These old-school institutions are often backed by professional social work organizations and are an awesome way to meet professionals who are at the forefront of social work research and have extensive experience working with clients. Seeking them out of a conference is the ideal environment for you to ask questions, share insights, and maybe even get a free tote bag while you’re at it.
Many states require that social workers take continuing education courses to stay licensed. Instead of approaching them out of obligation, why not use them as a means to grow your professional circle? These workshops provide another excellent opportunity to learn about the various specializations people choose and what they did to get where they are.
Tapping into your school or program social network is a great tool, one that will continue to be useful as you move into the workforce. My university created a social work group where alumni could share success stories and stay in touch—it even served as an informal job board. Think of social media as a quick and easy way of getting a large number of perspectives on your chosen career path, with minimal effort on your part.
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