How to Survive Social Work Graduate School
March 10, 2021
If you’re enrolled in a Masters of Social Work (MSW) program, you’ve already taken that first step towards fulfilling your goal of becoming a social worker.
Your next step is to make it through your degree program and start having an impact on the lives of those you serve. But this won’t always be easy! MSW study is intense. With two back-to-back fieldwork internships, the training ramps up quickly. And being thrust into a social worker/client relationship before you feel qualified to even play "therapist" might take you out of your comfort zone — or even make you feel like an imposter.
The truth is, not every student will excel, and not every experience will be positive. There may be challenging moments along the way, and difficulties will arise along with successes. Just remember that even negative experiences provide opportunities for learning and skill building.
Are you ready to face the challenge and start your MSW program? Here are some tips on how to survive (and thrive) at social work school:
- Find stress busters.
If you’re like most students, you’ll have to juggle many demands at once. You’ll have schoolwork, fieldwork, your personal life, and maybe even a full or part-time job to integrate into your schedule. With all of these obligations, it’s important to find a way — early on — to let go of your stress.
- Recognize that you don’t have to like your fieldwork assignment.
Your first field placement might seem a bit random — and that’s okay! It need not be perfect, nor great. As long as you are learning and developing skills, the fieldwork placement is doing what it needs to do, and taking you where you need to go. Think of fieldwork as an unpleasantly crowded train: You might need to stand. Fellow riders may invade your space. However, if you can get through the ride, that train will get you to your destination. And remember, your second year placement will likely be a better fit, and more closely aligned with your career interests.
- You may feel like a jack of all trades — and that’s okay too.
By design, MSWs are trained to wear many hats. As such, MSW training covers a diverse range of topics and specialties. This versatility is distinct to the profession, and advantages MSWs by allowing them to perform in a range of duties and jobs. It’s possible you will want to hone in your studies, however. Just know that you probably won’t get the opportunity to do so until after your first year. In your second year and beyond, specific expertise may be developed in your fieldwork assignment, coursework, and post-MSW work experiences. You can also specialize your MSW by choosing a program where there are specific career tracks, or where you will earn a certificate in a particular area.
- Develop a bedside manner and learn to manage your feelings.
You may be personally affected or upset by the work you do. It’s essential that you develop defense mechanisms and an operating style with clear boundaries; this will help keep your emotions in check. In fact, many physicians and nurses do this as well. Like others in the caring professions, you have extreme empathy and compassion; in fact, these traits are what brought you to social work in the first place. But you must toughen up to remain effective. Your fieldwork supervisor will be your go-to person in the pursuit of managing your feelings. He or she will also be your mentor as your transform from a student to a professional.
Whatever you come up against, you will find strength in numbers. Venting and sharing with colleagues and classmates who are going through the same experiences is a tried and true support strategy. Whether you find one new friend in your program or several, make an extra effort to connect.
- Let go of the need to be perfect.
Because social workers perform in positions that have a high personal impact on others, many social workers tend to be perfectionists. These professionals may also have a deep-rooted need to make things right. When this doesn’t happen, they feel that they’ve failed. Social work can be messy, challenging, and unpredictable. Many systems seem dysfunctional or even broken. You will likely be up against entrenched and rigid bureaucracies. You’re going to have to accept that you can’t solve every problem, nor can you anticipate every twist and turn. Go easy on yourself, and know that you are making a difference, however small. Importantly, give yourself some time to mature as a professional and to get better at what you do.
- Think of yourself as being on a journey (or at least a study abroad).
One minute, you’re simply an individual applying to social work school. A few months later, you find yourself sitting in a chair counseling a victim of domestic abuse, or someone who is suffering from cancer. It can feel surreal, foreign, and well — overwhelming. It can also feel like you are unsupported in the work that you’re doing, or that you’re just not a fit for the social work profession. But stay on track, and stay positive. You may be uncomfortable at times, and perhaps a bit disillusioned. But social work is a promising profession with many career options. Your two years in school do not define you, nor do they define your future. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Get the degree, and then go out and take charge of your career.