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A few weeks ago, I received the following email for a prospective social work student:

I am considering going to graduate school for social work, but I want to know more about the career in general before I do. Could you tell me what you do on a daily basis, what the downsides of the job are, and what you wished you knew before you became a social worker?

I’m always excited to hear more from people interested in the social work profession.

I’ve written pretty extensively on my blog about my role as a social worker, including how I’ve been able to combine my activism around sexual and reproductive health with social work, and my process for testing for and passing the LMSW exam. My primary focus in social work as been on generalist practice, program design, and program evaluation. I’ve written about that as well.

Social work is one of the most flexible fields one can work in. It’s best to decide what you would like to do with a social work degree (clinical, administrative, policy, generalist practice, community organizing, etc.) and then research social work programs of interest.

I’ve been in the field of over 5 years now, and there are three things I wish I would have known about the field before entering: 1) The very real presence of burnout and how it can cripple the most knowledgeable of social workers, 2) you will be limited in what you can provide to clients, and 3) you don’t have to be confined to your annual social work salary.

Burnout is felt at every level of social work, from working one on one with families or individuals to working with program directors and executive directors. It will be important to find ways to recharge, because there will be lots of challenging days. Which leads into my second point. Oftentimes, social workers are expected to go the extra mile with very limited resources. You will find ways to be creative with what you are given, but you’ll have to advocate for the trainings and resources you will need to be able to work with your clients, especially at the individual/family level. Some agencies and organizations are willing to do this, some may not (for a variety of reasons, including organizational capacity or even funding). Ultimately, even with the resources you have, you will have to accept that you may not be able to solve all the problems your clients will have. I think this is the biggest struggle social workers face because we love to help people, and ties back to my first point. You’ll hear the phrase “Don’t take the work home with you” in school as in your social work career, but you’ll learn that it’s sometimes impossible. You will have clients whose problems will keep you up at night. You may also have clients who you’ll hate working with. When this happens, be sure to reach out to your field instructor or supervisor for guidance.

Social work is one of the most flexible fields you can work in. #socialwork Click To Tweet

Lastly, social workers are notoriously underpaid. My primary goal was to go the clinical route and open a private practice, but I quickly lost interest in doing one-on-one client work and started connecting with social workers who work primarily as program evaluators and program designers.

As a result of this, I began building my consulting business on the side while working full time. Once I saw that I didn’t have to rely solely on my day job for income and that people were paying me to provide this type of expertise, my confidence rose dramatically, allowing to resign from my day job and go into my business full time. Having my blog and a social media presence were the driving factors in building my business. Blogging can position you as a thought leader, and social media allows you to connect with other social workers. Even if you have no desire to start a business, the connections you’ll make with a blog and social media will serve you well in whatever direction social work takes you.

From being a therapist, executive director, community organizer, politician, or a consultant, there are plenty of ways to utilize a social work degree. I hope this answered your questions, and good luck to you!


RAISE YOUR VOICE: What is one thing you wish you had known before becoming a social worker? If you’re considering social work, what questions do you have about graduate programs or the profession?

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