When Psychology Didn't Cut It, I Chose an MSW. Here's What I Learned Along the Way.
March 10, 2021
I hadn't thought of myself as particularly strong or resilient, but I realized that these qualities were what drew me into a "tougher" line of work and thrive in it.
I knew I didn't want to continue to a Ph.D. when I finished my Classics master's degree. Like many of my colleagues, I loved learning about ancient civilizations and their languages and archaeology. But, unlike them, I knew graduate school was the end of the line for me. My thesis supervisor, an earnest man with a long career behind him, advised me that jobs for Classics professors were few and far between and that I would have a hard time finding a job with a Ph.D. in such an esoteric subject. I agreed, deciding to find a job and work until I figured out my next step.
Initially, I ended up in a six-month contract position for an agency that provided transitional housing to women struggling with substance abuse issues. I loved the job but did not have the credentials to stay in it long-term. From there, a friend of mine put in a good word for me at a mortgage insurance company, which offered me a job. My attention to detail did me well there and I stayed on for four years, but something was missing. I loved helping people—and this position had minimal human contact.
I began exploring a bachelor's degree in psychology.
I decided to reach out to my former supervisor at the transitional housing job, as we had stayed in contact over the years. She and I talked, and after some conversation surrounding my career, she suggested that I explore psychology. After a lot of research and conversation with family, I enrolled at a local university for a bachelor's degree in psychology. It was the first step in my plan to become a clinical psychologist.
But as my degree advanced, I felt disillusioned with the material. I loved learning about mental health disorders and how psychologists diagnose them, but my experience working at the transitional living agency showed me that what looks like depression isn't always a disorder of the brain, but the product of oppression, poverty, or other societal issues. Psychology didn't seem to delve into the larger systems that impact our identity and how we move and work in the world, and I wanted it to.
So, I began looking into other degree options.
My research explored programs in criminology, child and youth studies, and adult development, but none had what I was looking for. When I came across a nearby university that offered a social work program, I was intrigued. I saw a social worker for therapy when I struggled with depression in college—and it helped. I dug more into the field, visiting forums for Masters of Social Work (MSW) grad students to learn more about programs and their requirements. In time, I was able to narrow my ideal schools down to three universities. I was going to applyto an MSW program, but I needed a little more information first.
I made plans to attend a talk at my top school to hear more about what their MSW program could offer me. I was also curious about how it differed from psychology and other disciplines. I learned that social work is a broad field centered on how people fit into their society and community, and how their standing impacts their behavior and welfare. I also learned that it's very action-oriented—and while it is a highly researched discipline, research in this field is more of a niche career than other specializations.
I was delighted to hear that social workers don't just work with individual clients, but the people and systems around them too. In a multidisciplinary care team, social workers are the "context people," often tasked to explain how poverty can prevent a person from recovering from a psychological disorder, or how domestic violence may deter healthy childhood development. Leaving the talk, I felt that social work could give me what psychology had lacked. What I had learned cemented my choice of study and career.
I was excited to get my social work career started.
I applied and got accepted to my top school, which brought the introduction of so many amazing, highly experienced professors. My program also allowed me to participate in a field placement with a prison exchange program, which let me see how a more significant societal system impacted people's health and wellbeing. My program carried the philosophy that if you did not know yourself, you could not authentically work with others. It forced me to look inward and acknowledge my own life story and biases, and think about how they influence my ability to work with vulnerable people.
I hadn't thought of myself as particularly strong or resilient, but I realized that these qualities were what drew me into a "tougher" line of work and thrive in it. These days, I continue to take my program's philosophy into my work in child protection, adoption and foster care, and prison advocacy work.
I have friends who used their social work degrees to become policymakers and mental health and substance abuse counselors. Others chose to work in hospitals and for non-profits, child welfare services, and family health teams. Some went on to work for the UN, practicing social work on an international scale. Other colleagues used their degrees in even more unique ways, such as opening social justice theatres and becoming social justice artists and influencers, and corporate consultants for diversity and equity programs.
I know I'm in the right place.
As you choose a social work degree, think about what you will do with it and your specialization—and don't limit yourself. Social work is a field where you can leverage those skills for the betterment of those you serve while learning about yourself too. You'll be challenged to think outside of the box, know who you are, and know how your identity and privilege impact those around you. You will hear stories and interact with people who are horrifically affected by what life throws at them. By through it all, you'll observe acts of strength, resilience, and perseverance that you never thought possible. And every day, you'll walk beside a group of people who, like you, are working to build a better tomorrow.
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