Social work is not for the faint of heart. Unlike other similar disciplines – psychology, for example – social work carries with it a broad range of roles and duties that are oriented towards service. In this sense, social work may feel like more of a calling. The mission of this profession is especially focused on helping people who are oppressed and vulnerable.
Social workers engage a diverse group of social, emotional, and policy issues that make the work they do uniquely valuable and impactful. Additionally, because of their broad training, they are versatile practitioners and wear many hats. Within one job function, a social worker may offer counseling, do group work, and write grant proposals. It’s a demanding profession. It requires a great deal of energy, and the work itself can be stressful, affecting the social workers personally.
Fortunately, the two back-to-back fieldwork experiences required of all Masters of Social Work (MSW) students in graduate school help prepare students for the work they will perform as professionals. Field education is the signature differentiator in an MSW. It is considered an essential component in social work training. This practicum allows students to take their classroom learning, and apply that learning to clients directly in a real-world setting. Fieldwork is often considered the most exciting part of social work study. It is also the part of an MSW program that helps students find their footing and establish their professional identity.
Every intern in an accredited MSW program works under a trained supervisor. The supervisor not only guides the development of practice skills, but monitors and helps students with self-reflection. Social work can provoke strong emotions, and fieldwork experiences help MSWs learn to appropriately manage their feelings and the stress of their work.
Accredited MSW programs require students learn core competencies and practice behaviors of the social work profession. For this reason, the skills developed through a fieldwork experience have to be measured in some way. MSW students work with their field instructor on something called a learning agreement or contract. This document is a joint effort between student and supervisor. It outlines the tasks, activities, and challenges of the fieldwork setting, and provides some measure of accountability for the fieldwork experience. In essence, this contract establishes a blueprint for what a student must master.
To learn more about what you can expect in your MSW internship experience, and to learn how to manage some of the challenges, read on.
1. The fieldwork experience requires a big time commitment. The majority of field placements take place in agencies that operate on a 9:00am - 5pm schedule. It is unlikely you will be able to work on weekends, or in the evenings. If this is a necessity due to your employment or childcare arrangements, try and negotiate your hours up front, or explore the possibility of weekend work later on in the program. Students must generally spend 16 – 20 hours per week to meet the graduate requirements of their fieldwork placement. In part-time programs, this number may be reduced to 8-14 hours. Hours and requirements vary by program; be sure to know what is involved before making the commitment to any MSW program.
2. Balancing fieldwork with coursework requires good time management skills. It’s important to head into any MSW program with a plan for balancing the demands of the fieldwork experience with studies and other personal obligations. At times, making everything work will be a juggling act. It is important to consider your support network and to establish a healthy work/life balance early on.
3. The beginning may be bumpy. Any new job takes some getting used to. A field placement can initially be intimidating. It may be particularly hard to step into a professional role as a student, way before you feel any degree of confidence. Remember that you are there to learn and grow. Give yourself time to adjust and to learn what is expected of you. Reach out to your fieldwork supervisor for support. It may take a few weeks before you ease into your new identity and become acclimated to the culture and organizational structure of your placement.
4. Your First Fieldwork Placement May Not Be Your Top Choice. The field placement you receive as a first-year student may not be in the practice area in which you hope to specialize. But by your second year, you should be assigned a placement focused on the population you want to serve most. It’s important to stay open-minded. That first year experience may allow you to discover a practice area you had not considered before. Importantly, you must also do well and receive a passing grade in both fieldwork placements in order to graduate.
5. Use this internship to learn, learn, learn. This is your chance to try out the skills you were taught in the classroom. It’s okay to mess up. Or to feel weird or nervous about getting thrown into a new setting. Everyone in your placement knows you are a student in training — including your clients. If you have been given an assignment in your field placement, then your school and supervisor feel you are ready. Eventually you will develop the skills to be competent in this setting. In the meantime, reach out to others to learn as much as you can. You will likely be working alongside many diverse professionals, not just your supervisor. Encourage them to share their perspectives and expertise.
5. Don’t Compare Your Fieldwork Placement to those of Your Peers. It’s possible some of them got better assignments, but there is not much you can do with that. Maintain a positive attitude, and get what you can out of your own experience. Work closely with your field advisors on your next position to ensure it’s a better fit. Again, it’s typically easier to secure an optimum placement for the second year (assuming your school has an abundant inventory of placements).
6. Make Sure Your Field Supervisor is Playing an Active Role in Your Training and Providing You with Valuable Experiences. If you feel this is not happening, try speaking to your supervisor about how you might take on more meaningful work. If problems arise – including being placed with a supervisor you feel is unprofessional or unavailable - reach out to your school fieldwork liaison.
7. Make sure you feel safe in your fieldwork placement and setting. For many students, the fieldwork placement is the first step into a physical locale or agency that may present with some dangers. For example, in a lockdown drug rehab facility, a newly sober patient may relapse and could return highly agitated or paranoid. Many populations that social workers treat are vulnerable and unstable. It’s important to feel safe in the work you do. If you feel compromised or in danger, let your supervisor or the school know.
8. If your fieldwork assignment is problematic, reach out for support. Advocate strongly for your professional development. Remember that you are a student, not an employee. You are paying for this training. Whether you are struggling in your placement, or the placement is simply not appropriate, it is important to ask someone at your school for help, and possibly a placement switch.
9. Use the fieldwork position to establish your professional identity, and build future recommenders. Your fieldwork experience is more important to your job search than your GPA. With this in mind, use your time in this position to build your expertise and confidence, as well as your networks.
The fieldwork experience enhances learning, deepens understanding, and strengthens clinical skills in a way that classroom study can’t. This essential part of your MSW training will not only satisfy your graduation requirements, it will help launch your career. But, like anything that’s worth doing, it can present some challenges. Go in with a sense of what to expect, and utilize these strategies to get the most out of your fieldwork experience.