Kermit the Frog drinking a cup of tea. Spiderman pointing at another Spiderman. Grumpy Cat looking, well, grumpy. Some memes are so well-known that you don’t even need to see them to understand the reference.
This clever form of communication brings people together with a bit of sarcasm, humor, and even occasional poignancy. And in a high-stress career like social work, a bit of community-bolstering humor can go a long way on a difficult day.
The pressures of social work—particularly during the pandemic—notoriously cause burnout, leading to high turnover and low staffing rates in the most at-risk areas.Burnout can look different for every type of social worker, stemming from a range of issues.
Salaries in social work are notoriously low and hours are long: sustaining a reasonable work-life balance can be a huge challenge. Human services workers also face exhaustion and discouragement from encountering society’s most dire situations day after day. Combine these with a general misunderstanding about the importance of the field and you have a recipe for burnout.
While memes may seem insignificant, a familiar photo topped with a social work quote can take off on social media—both bringing social workers together and alerting the general public about the challenges of the field. And they can bring some much-needed stress relief.
Let’s look at some of the top social work memes today and what they say about this challenging profession. We’ll discuss:
We’ve all grown accustomed to the widely shared internet memes spread across Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok. Where did this new form of communication come from? According to research from Constance Iloh (UC Irvine), the term meme likely came from evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins back in 1976. Iloh notes: “Dawkins defines a meme as ‘a unit of cultural transmission or unit of imitation.'”
In other words, memes act a bit like genetics, but in a cultural setting. The more ideas spread, the more likely they are to survive and adapt with time. When the internet came along, culture adapted his term for the comical images we know today.
“To be clear, in the most traditional sense, just joining text with a picture does not make an image a meme.” Iloh specifies. The simple image and text file transforms into a meme only when it becomes culturally relevant enough to gain online traction.
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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All memes share the following characteristics. They feature:
While you’ll find plenty of funny memes, memes can also be sarcastic, promote advocacy for a social justice cause, or criticize societal norms.
Memes are simply a new way to communicate and build rapport with another person. In some cases, a meme focused on work humor encourages readers to let their guards down, build stronger connections with colleagues, and create a more open space for dialogue.
Memes can help someone understand their own community or experience, e.g., a challenging career path like social work or healthcare. They can highlight the exhaustion, lack of understanding, or impact of their life in just a few creative combinations of quotes and images.
When someone says that they’re a social worker, it could mean they work in mental health services at a non-profit, in child welfare, in criminal justice, or a wide range of other disciplines. They may be a victim advocate, immigration advocacy worker, or licensed clinical social worker.
In other words, there’s a lot to understand about the complex field. Memes can provide a quick glance into its many facets.
Social workers constantly do a lot with very little. They advocate for more funds, support, and policy changes for today’s most vulnerable populations. Memes are a way to build understanding through humor.
As social worker Holly Arroyo pointed out on the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) website, memes use humor to break the tension. They can alter someone’s perception of social work, highlight the lack of support in the field, and even offer an affirmation for their hard work.
Despite its impact on society, in real life, a career in social work has major challenges and even major flaws. A meme may showcase how little people know about what a social worker truly does in their workday. It may highlight the lack of vacation, sufficient pay, government support, or stability in the field. The memes often comically depict a before-and-after of an early and mid-career social worker.
Anyone familiar with the movie Grease will see where this meme is headed. At the outset of their career, a social worker believes that their vocation helping people will make them as perennially sweet and goody two shoes as Sandra Dee. However, the hard reality and experience of being a social worker transforms one into the tough-loving, no-nonsense Rizzo.
A social worker has to manage the needs of their client, their organization, and government relations simultaneously. They typically manage a large roster of clients. Much like an overloaded hard drive, they must manage thousands of things at once.
Maintaining your overall well-being in social work is no easy feat. But without it, this meme quips that it could make even young people feel far older than they are.
Whether you’re familiar with the hilarious dad from Ten Things I Hate About You or not, this meme’s point hits home. Not only does it reiterate that many people don’t understand the challenges of social work, but they have the audacity to downplay it in conversation.
This meme format had people lol-ing around the internet several years ago, especially when it came to misunderstood careers. Despite the world imagining social workers out in the field protesting and working one-on-one with clients, a large portion of the job is paperwork.
Speaking of paperwork, social workers can empathize with the Game of Thrones character and their dread of the upcoming winter. But in this case, it’s an onslaught of court documents, consent forms, and financial agreements.
Much like other healthcare workers, social services continue through the holiday, meaning that traditional work schedules tend to fly out the window. On top of this, holidays can be a particularly difficult time for many clients. For those who miss the cultural reference: the meme shows The Hunger Games hero Katniss Everdeen offering a traditional salute of respect in her District 12 home. Seriously, you haven’t seen The Hunger Games?
The social sciences are indeed a science and therefore follow the same stringent peer-reviewed processes of any other field. Try to throw theories at social workers without research; they’ll have none of it.
Teens of the ’90s will remember the dramatic syndicated show reveals, but this one takes a different turn. Social workers may feel that the promises of their organizations rarely line up with their expected workload.
Memes may give us a good laugh from time to time, but the underlying need for better social worker support can’t be ignored. A master’s in social work (MSW) provides these professionals with the skills and cutting-edge research they need to navigate today’s constantly changing field.
Working with at-risk populations requires the most up-to-date research on the topic, so programs like the one at Tulane University use what’s known as culturally relevant social work practice (CRSWP). Returning to grad school is therefore not just about increasing opportunities and earning potential but also gaining the skills and knowledge you need to serve today’s communities in the most inclusive ways possible.
The length of a social work master’s degree depends on several factors. Some students enter the program with a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW), meaning they have completed some foundational courses. In this case, they may qualify for advanced standing, a track that can cut the Tulane program, for example, down to 12 months.
That said, most MSWs take between 16 and 32 months to complete, depending on whether you choose a part- or full-time track.
The advanced standing prerequisites are not necessary for all students. Most programs require only an undergraduate degree in either liberal arts or a related field and proof of strong academic standing, such as a minimum GPA.
The challenges of social work, however, require admissions teams to assess the candidate’s commitment through their essays, letters of recommendation, and resumes. The school often looks at the whole candidate and how the school’s specific MSW will fit into the student’s life plan.
Students without a bachelor’s of social work (BSW) typically begin with foundational courses that explore the history, theories, and ethical pillars of social work. Semesters 2 through 5 will dive more deeply into topics like community advocacy, human behavior, the DSM, and electives related to the student’s field of study.
Field practicum also kicks off around the second semester and slowly supplants traditional coursework. Students work with a partner organization with ties to the university or, in the case of an online program, in their local area.
In addition to building a foundational understanding of social work, students can explore their specialties through fieldwork, electives, or even a dual degree.
Career paths for MSW graduates include mental health counseling, child welfare support, and care for the sick or elderly. Each area requires unique training. The University of Michigan—one of the top programs in the country—offers pathways like policy and political social work, management and leadership, and the welfare of children and families.
The MSW is a popular graduate program. You’ll find options tailored to your needs in universities both large and small. Let’s look at some of the top programs ranked by U.S. News & World Report.
Opt for a full or part-time program either in-person or online at this top-ranked university. As noted above, students can choose from one of eight curricular pathways to build upon foundation information. Candidates have access to the school’s Office of Field Education, which offers links to over 550 sites in Southern Michigan alone.
Students complete extensive fieldwork in the MSW program at WU with one of the 400 organizations and mentor opportunities linked to the universities. They can choose both a specialization and a concentration, combining topics like mental health, social impact, and socioeconomic development with areas like management, policy, or research.
Five programs tie for third place in the U.S. News & World Report list, including the UNC-Chapel Hill. The school ranks both as one of the top research and social work schools in the country, and offers a range of program formats between 12 months to three years. Choose between two primary pathways: direct practice to work one-on-one with clients or community, management, and policy practice to explore administrative and leadership positions.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned from social work memes, it’s that spare time to start a master’s program is slim. Both full and part-time online programs allow MSW candidates to mold their education to their own schedules without moving across the country or traveling to campus every day.
However, fieldwork is crucial in an MSW program. Both Tulane and Virginia Commonwealth University, for example, require online students to complete 900 hours of field education. Both schools encourage students to complete their practicum within their own communities, broadening the reach of their social impact and allowing for maximum flexibility.
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