Think narrowing down what you want to do for a living is hard? Think again. Once I figured out that social work was my chosen path, I was overwhelmed in a totally new way. Which Masters of Social Work (MSW) program was right for me? Good question.
I joined a variety of online graduate forums to learn more about MSW programs and students' experiences with them, and I quickly learned that there were a large number of social work specializations, all of which had different criteria. It took a long time to comb through all of them, but I was eventually able to short-list a few.
I narrowed my top specializations down to clinical, policy and government, research, and medical social work, then reached out to social workers employed in each of these practice areas. Before we spoke, I came up with a list of questions that would help me make the most of each conversation—and possibly get an insider's take on the career path that best suited my skills and interests.
My questions were:
Every conversation was illuminating. When speaking with a medical social worker, I learned that while hospital jobs touted 9-5 appeal, they often require social workers to work overtime due to the chronic underfunding in the field. A policy social worker expressed rumors of professionals within the specialization making a starting wage of up to $75,000—but since policy jobs are often contracted, benefits, vacation, or paid sick days aren't guaranteed. Of all the specializations I was interested in, clinical social work seemed to be the most stable for employment, earnings, and career advancement.
I knew that I could not afford to travel far for school, pay more than what I had saved for tuition, and rent an apartment on my own. So, I chose a school that offered me a scholarship and was located within 40 miles of my home, which I considered to be a reasonable distance. As a prospective student, it is so important to know what your financial limitations are—and to stick to them.
Always look for the affordable option and welcome financial help. Student debt adds up quickly.
This was a huge factor when choosing which schools to apply for, since every MSW program has different admission requirements. One university wanted prospective students to write a brief for their policy specialty. My top choice required a minimum of 2,000 hours of social work volunteer or work experience with a statement of interest reflecting personal and professional knowledge of the field. These requirements gave me a brief snapshot of each program's potential assignments. I knew that if creating a policy brief didn't inspire joy for me, I probably wouldn't love the core program that came later on.
I looked at the schools on my list with a critical eye since I wanted to be sure to select one with plenty of opportunities for growth and advancement. My top three schools offered additional training in specific therapies, research, and certificate programs such as substance abuse studies.
While an MSW opens doors to a variety of career opportunities, many employers want to get the most bang for their buck, and prefer candidates who have additional training, expertise, and certifications. I spoke to students from my top three MSW programs and learned that the practicum placements at each school offered a variety of fieldwork opportunities. What's more, practicums were paid for by the agencies running the training programs, since they often hired grad students who had pursued and completed them.
I began looking at job posting sites to get an idea of the opportunities that would be available to me upon the completion of my program. It was a good idea to scope out job requirements within my chosen field and see which excited me most and made me want to apply. I also made a point to see which specialization offered the greatest number of available jobs, which was clinical, followed closely by policy.
My top three schools offered both policy and clinical programs, and I applied to all of them. I was accepted to my top choice school, which happened to offer "blended programs." The more I learned about this approach, the more I felt that this approach was right for me.
Blended programs allow you to choose a specialization—like clinical work or policy—while providing you with a built-in back-up plan should there be fewer jobs in your main area of expertise upon graduation. I had a friend who specialized in policy and also took elective courses in clinical social work.
There weren't very many viable policy jobs in our area when we graduated, and she took a job as a clinical social worker while waiting for her dream policy position to come along—and it did! The employer who eventually hired her to a policy social work position loved the fact that she had frontline experience, as it would inform the proposals that she developed for their organization.
Many jobs require that clinical social workers do research or that policymakers provide crisis counselling. This is because social work jobs are dependent on government policies, which, as they change, tend to impact funding to various social work agencies.
As a result, social workers with blended training tend to be more adaptable to these changes since they're able to take on a greater variety of jobs as agencies adjust and restructure in response to the evolving political climate.
Many agencies prefer candidates with a broader knowledge of social work, as they want to promote from within their organization—and subsequently save themselves time and money they'd otherwise spend on hiring and training someone new. Most supervisor and leadership roles require knowledge of policy, research skills, and front-line or clinical work experience. If your education has allowed you to check off these boxes, you'll be well-positioned to advance quickly—and go far.
I was permitted to wait until my second year of grad school to declare a blended specialization. I chose a clinical focus with policy electives as I wanted front-line experience and policy to provide context to my job—or rather, what needs to happen to achieve social justice at all levels of our world.
In the blended program, I took 9 clinical social work courses and 4 policy electives and was always encouraged to link the policies and larger community contexts to the individuals and families that I worked with. In essence, I learned very quickly how to situate my clients in the context of society and how various social and political policies impacted their lives. My program helped me feel more confident in working with clients in my placements—and become the social worker I am today.
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