Social Work

Thinking About Becoming a Social Worker? 5 Ways to Test-Drive Your Future Career.

Thinking About Becoming a Social Worker? 5 Ways to Test-Drive Your Future Career.
Before you commit to a master's degree in social work, it's best to know for certain that a career in social welfare is right for you Image from Unsplash
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Mairead Kelly November 4, 2019

Your fool-proof guide to knowing that you’re up for every last facet of the social work field—and the degree you’ll need to get started in it.

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If you’re considering becoming a social worker, you’re searching for a career that will let you dedicate your time and effort to helping vulnerable people and, by extension, the communities they work and live in. You’re the type to choose a profession that aligns with a broader sense purpose and, more often than not, that “purpose” is personal—and can’t be summed up by a corporate mission statement. A six-figure salary doesn’t do much for you. Neither does a job title known for power or prestige.

Your gut’s telling you that your motivation is there. The question is, do you have the organizational and communication skills, and the emotional resilience to be effective in the field? Are you comfortable with ambiguity, red tape, and high workloads?

If you want to operate at the clinical level, you’ll also need to know whether you’re cut out for a Master of Social Work (MSW) program. Graduate-level social work training is rigorous and often costly. Schools expect candidates to be accountable and efficient, and able to juggle the demands of their coursework with their field placement and any obligations outside of school.

As it turns out, there are many ways prospective MSW students can gain substantial insight into the day-to-day work of experienced social workers and also a realistic understanding of how a master’s program could significantly impact their life. By following through with any, you’ll be able to identify your professional goals and interests more thoroughly, and maybe even get the sense that your gut was right all along.

1. Hit the books.

As the saying goes, “making career plans isn’t hard when you have a library card.” Countless books shed light on the history of the profession, highlight the most common challenges encountered by social workers, and provide insight into the skills required to excel in the field. They can help guide your plans for a potential specialization by giving an idea of which subfield best fits your skills and interests, and offering a picture of what daily work in it is like.

Many books also emphasize the emotional hardships that social workers are commonly susceptible to—like chronic exhaustion, diminished optimism, and secondary trauma—with suggestions for practicing self-care.

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“I Want to Be A Social Worker!”

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. (source)

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. (source)

- 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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2. Join the online community.

All you need is a decent Wi-Fi connection and username to connect with MSW students and experts in the field on everything from current trends and research in social work to networking opportunities and tips for navigating graduate school. Take GradCafe, a forum where current and prospective MSW students share stories of how and why they decided to pursue grad school, as well as their experience choosing and applying to programs.

The New Social Worker Online is another go-to resource for aspiring social workers, with practical articles on the grad school experience, including field placements and specializations.

Of course, keeping on top of the discussion can be tricky, which is where the hashtag comes in to round up input from an extensive range of professionals into one cohesive, timely conversation. #WhySocialWork is one of the most popular, highlighting input from social workers about their reasons for entering the field. Tagged posts range from personal stories of injustice to broad policy issues and calls for structural change #MSWStudent homes in on the graduate experiences, including many first-hand narratives of triumph and challenge.

3. Look into volunteering.

Volunteering is not only a productive way to learn more about social work from a hands-on perspective but to gain work experience that can help prove your dedication to the field as you apply to graduate programs later on. Plus, you’ll give back in the process, a serious win-win.

If you have an inkling of the population or practice you want to work with, use it to frame your volunteer search. If you’re interested in working directly with individuals, families, or small groups to better their quality of life, consider outreach programs like soup kitchens, shelters, or call centers.

If you have goals to promote cultural or institutional change, look to medium-sized organizations like school-based education programs and local health centers for volunteer opportunities that will allow you to help implement social service initiatives at the community level. Or maybe, you’ll opt to volunteer at government departments, nonprofits, or research firms out of the aspiration to engage in policy advocacy at the state or national level.

4. Commit to an informational interview.

When done correctly, an informational interview can be an extremely valuable source of information as you look deeper into the field. While you may initially feel that the conversation covers similar ground as what you came across during any initial research, as it progresses, you’ll realize that you’ve secured an opportunity to gain a better understanding than research alone can provide.

The social worker you meet with can offer guidance on a range of topics, including your future transition into an MSW program as well as the field itself. They’ll also be able to address any concerns you may have, like a lack of qualifications or a new administration’s potential to signal a dramatic shift in the field.

While many would love a chance to present their most burning questions to someone who’s weathered the storms of social work, actually finding such an inspiring person can be difficult, especially from outside the field. That’s where your network—and your network’s network—can help. Reach out to friends and family to see if they can put you in touch with social workers. Reach out to anyone you connected with online may to meet for up for coffee or schedule a time to talk on the phone or over Skype.

If you know you want to work at a specific type of agency or organization, consider messaging any social workers affiliated with them on LinkedIn. It can feel a bit intimidating at first, but you may be surprised by how accommodating and supportive most people can be.

5. Make time for information sessions.

While you may not have committed wholeheartedly yet, by this point, specific MSW programs may have started to stand out over others. If any within your interest is within a reasonable distance of your home, check if their schools are hosting any upcoming information sessions for prospective MSW students.

Even if you’re only mildly curious, these events are one of the most strategic (and easiest) ways to learn more about what it would mean for you to enroll in a graduate program. You’ll meet faculty, administrators, field placement representatives, and possibly future classmates. Not to mention, a comprehensive program overview encompassing everything from curriculum to field placements, to financial aid opportunities and student support services.

Is an online MSW program more your thing? If so, this step can be just as beneficial, especially if any of the programs you’re considering offer courses taught by the same instructors who teach in the physical classroom. In such cases, visiting campus may provide a chance to meet your online instructors and receive upfront information about courses, such as class format and the instructor’s expectations. Plus, you’ll get a better idea about a potential school’s culture and student community—and maybe some free food while you’re at it.

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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